Who’s Sauron — bin Laden or Bush?
Salon.com – February 28, 2004
In the years following the mid-1950s publication of “The Lord of the Rings,” author J.R.R. Tolkien was often plagued by interpreters who wanted to read his three-volume epic as an allegory of World War II or the Cold War, with the disembodied villain Sauron standing in for Hitler or Stalin, and the fiendishly powerful One Ring representing nuclear weapons or space-age technology or whatever.
Though he detested these interpretations, Tolkien offered a truce by drawing a line between “allegory,” which placed responsibility on the author, and “applicability,” which left readers free to find parallels of their own without pretending to read the author’s mind. However, the worldwide success of Peter Jackson’s film version of “The Lord of the Rings” has produced a whole new generation of mind readers claiming to understand Tolkien’s motives, and opened up another front in the culture war that has long simmered around Middle-earth’s frontiers.
When the book’s original paperback editions became campus bestsellers in the 1960s, conservatives wrote it off as hippie-dippie pablum, an incense-scented ur-text of the New Age movement. Religious conservatives were suspicious of the book’s popularity with rock groups like Led Zeppelin, and its connection to the seminal role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. But what a difference a generation makes! With “The Lord of the Rings” firmly ensconced in popular culture, Catholic theologians and evangelical activists alike are trumpeting the book’s hidden Christian messages. As for the pundits, their successors are happy to claim a story in which good has blue eyes and resides in the West, while evil lives due east and has a really bad complexion. How’s that for moral clarity?
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