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JRR Tolkien

Can we find Tolkien's Ring in the real world?

Stratford Caldecott

The writer JRR Tolkien has been called an "environmentalist" ahead of his time, and it was partly the love of nature shining through his writing that helped to make him a cult figure in the 1960s. The hippies recognised in the obscure Oxford don who had written
The Lord of the Rings a prophet after their own heart. He had created a myth, not just for England (as he had originally intended) but for the whole modern world, as it seeks to recover something that had almost been lost to our civilisation: a sense of respect for the living whole to which we belong.

In his letters, Tolkien refers to the "tragedy and despair" of modern reliance on technology. In the novel, this tragedy is vividly illustrated in many ways, not least by the corrupted wizard Saruman, with his "mind of metal and wheels". In the modern world, with its ecological disasters and its factory farms, we have seen the devastating and dehumanising effects of Saruman's purely pragmatic approach to nature. The English Romantic movement, from Blake and Coleridge to the Inklings, believed there must be an alternative. At the end of his wonderful essay The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis writes of a "regenerate science" of the future that "would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole".

For modern science, as for black magic, the goal is power over the forces of nature. But the "magician's bargain" tells us the price of such power: our own souls. For, says Lewis, the conquest of nature turns out to be our conquest by nature, that is to say by our own desires or those of others; and the Master becomes, in the end, a puppet.

Tolkien explores two different types of technology, two different understandings of science, through the contrast in his story between the Elves and the Enemy: the goal of the former is Art, whereas the aim of the latter is "domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation". The science (or "magic") of the Elves has not been separated from art as it is in our day; indeed, it is a form of art. The devices of the Elves are benign. They work with the grain of nature, not against it.

The science of the Enemy, in Tolkien's world, is very different. It issues from a mentality of control. The desire for power, he writes, "leads to the Machine": by which he means the use of our talents or devices to bulldoze other wills. The Ring of Power, the "One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them", is a symbol or example of this kind of technology: the ultimate Machine.

And so the Ring - which in The Return of the King is cast back into the Fire - is still with us. The task of unmaking it remains as a quest for us to undertake, if we have the courage for it. We must form a new Fellowship, and take the path that the Evil One will least expect: the path of foolishness and humility.

Tolkien always insisted that his fantasy was not an allegory. Mordor was not Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia (or Saddam's Iraq). "To ask if the orcs 'are' communists is to me as sensible as asking if communists are orcs," he once wrote. But at the same time he did not deny that the story was "applicable" to contemporary affairs, indeed he affirmed this. It is applicable not merely in providing a parable to illustrate the danger of the machine, but in showing the reasons for that danger: sloth and stupidity, pride, greed, folly and lust for power, all exemplified in the various races of Middle-earth.

Against these vices he set courage and courtesy, kindness and humility, generosity and wisdom, in those same hearts. There is a universal moral law, but it is not the law of a tyrant. It is the law that makes it possible for us to be free. These are lessons and instincts that Tolkien learned from his Catholic upbringing. He attended daily Mass, and the worldview of Christianity underlies everything he wrote.

What he could see so clearly, but which the mentality of our age so often fails to recognise, is that in making devices like the Ring to increase our domination of our enemies and of nature, we inevitably make ourselves weaker by becoming dependent on the devices themselves. They magnify our power but also externalise it, so that we ourselves wither by their use. When they are destroyed, that weakness is exposed. Thus Sauron, when the Ring is destroyed, literally blows away on the wind.

The search for worldly control - power over nature and over others, which is to say "technological" and "psychological" power - is in the end self-defeating. The only true power is spiritual, and is exercised primarily over oneself. Aragorn, who becomes King Elessar, illustrates Tolkien's understanding of true authority. The ruler who first rules himself is also able genuinely to represent his people. He is not a man isolated and alone, but a man loved and supported by others. If he does not impose his own will upon others, thereby dissipating it, the will of his subordinates will flourish and support him. In the long run, a society built on respect and mutual support is always going to be stronger than a pseudo-society built on fear and self-interest.

Tolkien was always conscious of the temptation that besets the righteous: to employ an evil means in a good cause. This was how the great had fallen, how Denethor and his son Boromir were deceived, how Gandalf and Galadriel might easily have fallen, and how we ourselves can still fall. Aragorn triumphs over this temptation. Evil must not be done for the sake of the good. This has many important implications, in
Middle England and the Middle East as much as in Middle-earth. Even the orcs, who appear utterly evil and "must be fought with the utmost severity", Tolkien writes in one of his notebooks, "must not be dealt with in their own terms of cruelty and treachery. Captives must not be tormented, not even to discover information for the defence of the homes of Elves and Men. If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost".

The world Tolkien describes is our own, though he does so in the mode of fantasy, and the story he tells us is one that continues in our own day. The world of nature and the soul of man are still under attack. We too need the King to take his throne, in his "great stone castle away down south". For then we can go back to our own polluted landscape, with its mean brick houses and its small-minded officials, its devastated orchards and missing avenues of trees. We can return there endowed with the authority of servants and friends of the King, to commence our own task, the task which awaits us at home: the scouring of the Shire.

The above article were orignally published in the 26th December 2003 issue of The Catholic Herald. and is based on a section from the author's book, Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, published by Darton, Longman and Todd, priced £9.95 Book Information It can be ordered from Family Publications.

Copyright ©;
The Catholic Herald 2003

Version: 14th April 2006

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