By Maria Shteinman
J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous epic “The Lord of the Rings” has hit cinemas in Russia. The book arrived much earlier: “The Fellowship of the Ring” was translated in 1981. Tolkien’s first Russian readers were members of the intelligentsia who exerted what moral resistance they could to communist ideology. For the trilogy’s first translators, V. Muravyov and A. Kistyakovsky, the books were a reflection of their own battle with the “powers of darkness,” i.e., the communist system. But further translations had to wait for 10 years, largely because one translator was charged with storing some of Solzhenitsyn’s forbidden manuscripts.
The state didn’t accept Tolkien because he described a world turned upside down by the weak who find the courage to oppose a power easily recognizable as a form of totalitarianism.
Most Soviet literary critics and scholars didn’t accept Tolkien because his books were short on the requisite ideology. They automatically consigned him to the ranks of lightweight fantasy writers. Soviet dissidents, meanwhile, quietly translated his books, finding in his heroes reflections of themselves.
The party and the people were truly united; they both perceived Tolkien as marginal, totally incompatible with official ideology. But then the “powers of darkness,” as our romantic democrats used to say, were laid low. It’s said that on the barricades in 1991 some defenders of the White House were reading “The Lord of the Rings.”
The second phase of Tolkien’s penetration of Russian culture took the form of role-playing societies. The 1990s saw a Tolkien boom, and not just among the young. Several translations appeared in quick succession, and graduate students wrote dissertations on Tolkien’s work.
And yet “The Lord of the Rings” and its author remained far from the center of attention. For a good 10 years Tolkien’s trilogy remained on the outskirts of Russian culture. And perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing. Then the movie opened, and everything changed.
From the moment it opened in Russia “The Lord of the Rings” became, as they say, a blockbuster film. As a result the trilogy became bestselling books. Next comes the commercialization of a quite decent work of literature and its transformation into a profitable commodity.
But that’s not the worst of it.
All told it’s probably better for people to read Tolkien, the unwitting founder of fantasy fiction, than the lesser practitioners of this genre.
But I’m interested in something else. After monitoring the television coverage of the opening of “The Lord of the Rings,” I came to some disturbing conclusions. The reports normally featured pale teenagers with burning eyes, waving wooden swords and shouting unintelligibly. You got the impression that Tolkien was read only by halfwits. One of the morning shows presented the film — and the books — as some kind of infernal creation.
What is Tolkien the unassuming Catholic supposed to be guilty of?
Most often he is rebuked for propagating some sort of pagan morality. It’s true that the trilogy contains quite vivid descriptions of Viking-like and other rather Nordic heroes. This has very little to do with the eventual outcome of the battle between good and evil, which is won by hobbits, a most peace-loving bunch. The trilogy doesn’t mention God, but it does tell the story of a battle between good and evil that is decided by self-sacrifice.
So how’s the movie? Well, it clearly assumes that viewers have read the books. Otherwise a host of allusions would simply pass unnoticed. But to my mind the chief merit of the screen version is not its remarkable faithfulness to the text or its well-chosen cast. The creators of the movie have managed to convey the main point of Tolkien’s trilogy: That man (or hobbit) must stand up to evil, even when the odds are long, because there are powers other than the powers of darkness.
Romanticism gave us the figure of the rebellious martyr, and readers became accustomed to perceiving villains through the prism of Romantic charm. Strictly speaking, this began back with Milton, who brought such sympathy to his portrayal of the fallen angel in Paradise Lost. Be that as it may, the image of the charming villain is anything but a stranger to the popular consciousness. And modern cinematography has played a large role in bringing this about.
As for Tolkien, the Oxford philologist had no intention of romanticizing his villains. I have in mind primarily the orcs. For this we are indebted most of all to the Russian translation of Lord of the Rings, in which the orcs are depicted as jaunty fellows always ready with a colorful line.
The movie’s greatest merit is that it portrays evil in such a way as to elicit no sympathy. The powers of evil arrayed against the heroes are truly awesome and truly odious. As a result, the viewer’s attention is entirely focused on the bearer of the One Ring and his companions. A word about the tremendous casting. In appearance and gesture Frodo Baggins resembles St. Sebastian (think of Botticelli’s painting). As he sets off for the “land of Mordor where the shadows lie” to rid the world of deadly danger, Frodo fully realizes that his chances of coming back alive are slim at best.
Does rejecting absolute power and saving the world at the cost of one’s own life really contradict Christian doctrine? Some scholars have even found parallels with the Gospels in The Return of the King, where Frodo crosses the Plains of Gorgoroth (so close to Golgotha) Plateau to cast the ring into the fire.
It’s enough to read “The Lord of the Rings” and watch the film thoughtfully to understand that nowhere do they advocate neo-pagan values. This suggests that the evident dislike of the trilogy in certain quarters must derive from something else.
Tolkien’s book is neither a re-telling of nor a substitute for the Gospels. But if the diminutive hobbit Frodo had refused to destroy the One Ring, or if brave knights and sorcerers had used it for their own ends, the world of Middle-earth would have vanished forever.
Tolkien didn’t preach individualism. He merely told us about the responsibility that we all bear for ourselves and the future. And that’s why intelligent readers of “The Lord of the Rings” will never fall into line and march off to some unknown destination. And that, in turn, explains the accusations of sectarianism levelled against Tolkien fans. Escapism is another matter entirely, though Tolkien never condoned that, either.
One thing’s for sure: The ranks of Russia’s Tolkien lovers do not contain skinheads or bigots. In society there are always those who choose the anonymity of the crowd over the dignity of the individual. Such people will never accept Tolkien.
Maria Shteinman, a freelance journalist living in Moscow, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.