Tolkien Picks Up A Few More Bits Of Cultural Baggage
By Chris Mooney
The Washington Post – December 29, 2002
Early in the new film of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” the heroes happen upon a pile of burning carcasses, the smoldering remains of a party of orcs bred by the evil wizard Saruman. These orcs were ambushed and slaughtered by horsemen from the kingdom of Rohan, the heroes’ allies in the great war enveloping Tolkien’s fantasy world. Despite their military advantage, the riders took no prisoners; in fact, they slew so recklessly that they didn’t even notice that the orcs had prisoners of their own. As a memento of their victory, the horsemen left behind an orc head gruesomely spitted on a spear.
In the real world, the horsemen’s wanton slaughter of the enemy — no matter how evil — would probably qualify as a war crime. In its gorily violent film incarnation, however, it is just one episode in a rousing tale of good versus evil. The heroes’ sense of mission remains unclouded.
Orcs… faces of evilFor supporters of the war on terrorism and war with Iraq, the relative moral clarity of its narrative is one of the chief attractions of “The Lord of the Rings.” After all, in the conflict with al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein, we Americans may indeed be pitted against people who can justly be described as evil. It’s a topical connection that Peter Jackson, the director of the cinematic version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic, seems to be inviting. In “The Two Towers,” Jackson improvises upon Tolkien’s text by introducing an orc suicide bomber at the battle of Helm’s Deep.
Yet an invitation to view the film in that context is an invitation to criticism. As a commentary on contemporary conflicts, Jackson’s film has serious limitations. The massacre of the orcs glosses over, rather than explores, questions about the limits of behavior in warfare. The orcs in Jackson’s films are too evil, too irredeemable. That makes killing them too easy. The elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli even have a contest to see how many orcs they can slaughter. The brutality of war becomes mere backdrop to an inspirational adventure tale.
In real life, we simply aren’t going to encounter baddies who would literally devour women and children or cannibalize their own kind the way orcs do. And in real life, it would be deeply troubling if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. troops to show the enemy “no mercy, for you will receive none,” as the human hero Aragorn tells his forces before battle in “The Two Towers.”
The analogy with the war on terrorism is hardly what Tolkien had in mind when he wrote his novel more than half a century ago. A veteran of World War I, Tolkien once wrote that “by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” For all the moral purpose of his vision, there is also this constant drumbeat: “War is hell.” His shocking description of an enemy catapult volley that rains severed heads in “The Return of the King” arouses disgust toward all military forays — even if, at times, war may ultimately turn out to be the more humane alternative.
Readers have adapted Tolkien’s trilogy to their own present circumstances ever since it was first published in the 1950s. The novel was written in part during World War II, and many readers instantly saw it as a commentary on that struggle. Its author, however, was quick to point out that his own psyche had been more deeply scarred by the battle against the Kaiser than the battle against Hitler. Had he been trying to allude to World War II, Tolkien wrote wryly, “The Ring would have been seized and used against [the Dark Lord] Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr [Sauron’s fortress] would not have been destroyed but occupied.”
Later generations sought their own meanings in “The Lord of the Rings.” It was embraced as an anti-nuclear, anti-industrialization or pro-environment tract. According to the radical Tolkien interpreter Patrick Curry, when Greenpeace leader David McTaggart sailed his boat into a French nuclear testing area in 1972, he wrote, “I have been reading ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ I could not avoid thinking about the parallels between our own little fellowship and the long journey of the hobbits into the volcano-haunted land of Mordor . . . . “
In recent years, however, Tolkien has been as influential with the right as with the left. When “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” hit movie theaters just months after the World Trade Center attacks, conservatives saw it as an allegory of America’s new struggle against terrorism. According to former Boston Herald columnist Don Feder, Tolkien’s newfound popularity signified nothing less than a “ringing affirmation of a moral universe” — one in which hobbits are like New York City firefighters and Osama bin Laden bears more than a passing resemblance to Tolkien’s villainous Sauron.
This interpretation has triggered its own backlash. Recently Viggo Mortensen, the actor who plays Aragorn in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, said on “The Charlie Rose Show” that “I don’t think that ‘The Two Towers’ or Tolkien’s writing or Peter’s work or our work has anything to do with the United States’s foreign ventures at this time.” Mortensen was backed up by Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo, and who added, “People say it’s a pro-war movie, too, which I also have a problem with.”
Perhaps we should look more closely at Tolkien’s own text. For starters, consider the orcs, the foot soldiers of evil. They’re depicted in Jackson’s film as hopelessly savage beasts, but a passage from the novel at least makes them more complex, multidimensional characters.
Near the end of “The Two Towers,” Tolkien lets us listen in on a lengthy conversation between two orcs named Shagrat and Gorbag. The two will later have a murderous falling out, but for a moment they’re probably as close as orcs come to being friends. The passage is revealing. For one thing, the orcs complain about their fear of the undead Ringwraiths in terms very similar to the hobbits’ own. (“Grrr! Those Nazgul give me the creeps.”) They also gripe about having to work for the Dark Lord and his ilk; Gorbag notes that “I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ’em. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier.”
Most surprisingly of all, the orcs frown upon the hobbit Sam’s abandonment of his master Frodo, whom he takes to be dead (actually Frodo is merely paralyzed). “Just left him lying,” says Gorbag. “Regular elvish trick.” In contrast, Gorbag suggests to Shagrat, “What d’you say? — if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.” One can easily imagine a similar conversation among lower-level al Qaeda henchmen or Iraqi troops. If anything, the take-home message here would seem to be that even one’s most bitter and murderous enemies can nevertheless act like ordinary Joes sometimes.
If we’re going to insist on interpreting Tolkien, we should also consider what the curmudgeonly Oxford don would have thought of today’s United States. Tolkien probably wouldn’t have had much trouble with the labeling of our al Qaeda enemies as “evildoers.” They are indeed totalitarian fanatics who have destroyed the peace of the world and forced its “free peoples” to respond. The analogy between bin Laden and Sauron is not an empty one.
But at the same time, Tolkien would have been leery of the immense power currently wielded by the United States in international affairs. If he were alive and scouring the Earth for the bearer of the Ring of Power, he would need to look no further than George W. Bush. That isn’t meant as a criticism of Bush. Rather, Tolkien simply believed that those possessing the most power are the most vulnerable to corruption — sometimes through deceptive appeals to their best intentions. As the powerful wizard Gandalf explains to Frodo, “The way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!” Tolkien would have been concerned by such a vast and technologically advanced superpower as the United States.
When it comes to the current discussion over Iraq, there’s something in Tolkien for the pro-war side and the anti-war side. There’s also a case to be made for simply rejecting Tolkien’s suspicion of power and fully embracing the United States’s unique capacity to do good on the world stage. But if we’re going to use “The Lord of the Rings” as a heuristic device to debate the gravest matters of international politics, we should remember: The enemy across the field from us is definitely not a monstrous orc. And even orcs are living creatures — just not ones possessing rights under the Geneva Conventions.
Chris Mooney is a freelance writer. He has read “The Lord of the Rings” more times than he can count.