Of Hobbits, War & Bush

Last January George W. Bush assumed the presidency under the cloud of a disputed election thanks to the transparently partisan actions of the U.S. Supreme Court. At that time, we were a divided and contentious nation. On September 11 the United States was attacked by Islamic terrorists, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. In January 2002, President Bush leads a nation united by war and enjoys historically unprecedented public-approval ratings. His most dedicated political opponents concede that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and the orchestration of the international political alliances necessary to fight the "war against terrorism," have met with remarkable success. Even those who still harbor doubts about Bush’s competence and political views should be grateful that he has risen to this daunting challenge. Still, the way in which Bush speaks of fighting "evil" and destroying "evildoers" gives many people pause. The administration’s flirtation with military tribunals, press censorship, and the prolonged detention of illegal immigrants compounds such worries.

Success brings with it almost as many dangers as failure. As Osama bin Laden’s forces are routed in Afghanistan, the intensity of the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians and between Pakistan and India has only intensified. Both situations could easily spiral out of control, threatening wider war and even the use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the scourge of extremist Muslim terrorism remains. What looks like victory today may only set in motion the forces of disaster tomorrow. In a time of extraordinary economic, technological, and scientific advancement, the world is nevertheless poised on the brink of chaos and carnage.

In this context, it is worth noting that Christmas holiday moviegoers flocked to see the first installment of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic multivolume fantasy novel. Tolkien’s "Hobbit" chronicle has sold nearly 200 million copies, and is arguably the most widely read and influential fiction of our time. Although Tolkien’s story of battling Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, and other fantastical creatures was adopted as a kind of countercultural talisman by many in the 1960s, The Lord of the Rings has its more sober advocates. W.H. Auden, for one, praised Tolkien’s literary sophistication and power and judged his moral preoccupations a "warning and an inspiration."

The Lord of the Rings is essentially a meditation on the origins and nature of evil. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, was a combat veteran of World War I, and acutely sensitive to the murderous nihilism of modern warfare. He called his novel "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," and it seems most Catholic in the way it depicts the corruption inherent in great power and especially the way those with virtuous goals are corrupted when given the coercive power to do good. The magical "ring" of the title, which must be kept away from demonic forces and eventually destroyed, cannot be used against the "evildoers" lest it destroy those who wield it. Small compromises with evil inevitably lead to willful participation in it.

That of course is a plot from a fairy-tale, and Tolkien was not ashamed of the association. Legends and fairy-tales, he argued, reveal the true nature of reality and humankind. Technology, scientific progress, and military or political triumph cannot change that reality—we forget that truth at our peril.

Published in the 2002-01-11 issue: 
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