Lord of the Rings, 2014

I have been re-reading The Lord of the Rings this month. Looks like it has been about four years since the last read-through; this always feels like a bit of an event, probably not least because it’s 1,000 pages. I seem to appreciate new elements on each reading, though.

This time, I was struck most of all by how much LotR is, arguably, a post-apocalyptic novel. My thinking along these lines was inspired by comments, (discovered by me) earlier this year, from Max Gladstone:

Magic in Tolkien’s works is big and vast and ancient. His characters relate to that magic with awe, with fear, and occasionally with love. No one tries to hack the One Ring. Certainly no one tries to build a new one!

In the sense of magic as simply “any technology sufficiently advanced,” a similar dynamic is often present in the post-apocalyptic genre. Leftover machinery no longer understood, certainly not well enough to make more, essentially becomes magic objects.

Middle Earth resembles post-apocalyptic worlds in other ways, too. This is something that is really only evident in the novel, as Jackson’s films condense a lot of the story, particularly movement through the landscape. Even with three-hour extended editions, the movies mostly whiz through Middle Earth at something like the speed of modern travel, with most of the realms between the major capitals blurred like scenery outside a bullet train. The novel, though, repeatedly notes this ruin, or that extinct kingdom. Just the relatively thin population of Middle Earth, by itself, feels post-apocalyptic. The sheer amount of uninhabited but fertile land seems to point unavoidably to a great plague or war, even when a now-vanished settlement is not mentioned explicitly.

Technically, it would be more accurate to describe the Third Age of Middle Earth as a post-decline world, as there is no one concentrated collapse in its background. Reflecting on it, I concluded that in a sense one might for that matter apply the same term to its real-world analogue, Dark Age Europe. Much of Europe, in the centuries after the western Roman Empire fell, is arguably the greatest post-decline scenario in human history: populations reduced by plague and war, scraping out a living in the wreckage of trade and information networks and other infrastructure that sometimes still functioned (roads, aqueducts) but was no longer being maintained, let alone extended. Rome itself, reduced almost to a ghost town for a time, calls to mind any number of locations in Middle Earth.

All of this feels rather post-apocalyptic, and I’m not sure there’s any firm division. What is an apocalypse but a very, very sudden decline, after all?

Meanwhile, Gladstone’s remarks prompted one other related set of observations, about the one character in LotR who conceivably would attempt to hack the One Ring, and to make a new one: Saruman. He is a hacker, a tinkerer, an experimenter in mysterious magic/technology undaunted by any fear or awe. If Middle Earth is a post-apocalyptic world, then Saruman is a mad scientist eagerly seeking to recover every bit of technology remaining, and to unlock its secrets. Not just ring-lore, either. Saruman’s dabbling in explosives, orc genetics, and even proto-industrialization. The movies make more of this last item than do the novels, I’ll confess, but they didn’t invent it and on the whole Saruman is a veritable Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Obviously, yes, he’s also evil; what I believe is more significant is that he’s ultimately drawn as an incredibly petty, vulgar kind of evil. Saruman is probably the most (almost the only) developed villain Tolkein produces in LotR, and as the novel progresses, more and more of that effort seems directed to developing an utterly wretched character, in no way respectable or even great in the sense of being a villain.

Not only is Saruman reduced in the end (of the novel, especially) to some of the meanest, most spiteful villainy. Having created this one anomaly of a curious, probing intellect in the thoroughly nostalgic and conservative Middle Earth, Tolkein then labors to disparage these qualities, and finally even revoke them just in case anyone is still tempted to find a trace of something admirable in innovation.

I believe at one point there’s a line overtly condemning Saruman for folly in “breaking things apart to see how they work.” Ye gods, if that is not a pre-Enlightenment worldview. What really suggests Tolkein’s determined loathing of his creation, though, is I think his attempt to walk back any credit that less conservative minds than his own might assign Saruman for his experimenting and invention. All of it, Tolkein simply declares late in the novel, is just delusion anyway. Saruman never invented anything. Nope. Every time he was just imitating Mordor, even if deceived into thinking that the ideas were his own; tsk tsk how childish and sad. I presume we’re all agreed now that there’s nothing clever or otherwise worthwhile in Saruman, okay good, let’s go reminisce about the elder days a bit more.

Acknowledging the hazard of arguing with Tolkein about Middle Earth, I found this deeply unpersuasive and suspect, on this latest reading. Extreme nerd though he was, there are slips in Tolkein’s work, and I think this may be considered one, at least conceptually. It just comes awfully late in the day, as does most of the evidence I could find to support it. There’s some fudging of whether cross-bred orcs are unique to Saruman’s forces, or also present in Sauron’s, but nothing definitive. Very late in the novel, Sauron is also given one iron bridge in Mordor, and explosives. This last item is made quite clear, but in addition to appearing so late as to feel like a retcon, what evidence have we that Saruman was aping Sauron rather than the other way around?

Nothing, really, besides the fact that Tolkein says so. Again, I believe that his fiat declaration is less persuasive than contradictory evidence elsewhere in the story. Considering Saruman and Sauron as a whole, the latter looks far more credible as a copyist than the former, at least by the War of the Ring era. In the great backstory of the appendix and The Silmarillion, yes, we do see a crafty, inventive Sauron, spilling over with wicked teachings and devices. He made the One Ring, after all, and his magic/technology was at the back of all the others. There’s no denying that here, even at his most ambitious Saruman is just reproducing Sauron’s work…

…but by late in the Third Age, that alone seems to be more than Sauron’s aspirations. Yeah, you can evoke magic and argue that it’s simply impossible for him to make another One Ring, but whatever its excuses the resultant failing seems of a pattern with Sauron’s late-career character. What there is of it, at any rate, which I think most people would agree is not a whole lot. By the War of the Ring, Sauron the great shadow seems himself but a shadow of what he was before; he seems himself little more than a Ringwraith, a malicious ghost doomed to go on haunting the world long after any individual personality has died.

What’s left of Sauron after his defeats and deaths seems not a source of devices but a device*, himself, a machine or a computer program that functions as programmed, but has no will or spark of creativity of its own. As a villain Sauron does have his strengths, in addition to his weaknesses, but he is not any longer an innovator. Tolkein can insist that Saruman has no ideas that Sauron had not come up with before, but I would submit that by the War of the Ring Sauron has no ideas that Sauron had not come up with before. Sauron seems as conservative and backward-looking as anyone in Middle Earth—and this seems to spare him any direct character-assassination like that inflicted on Saruman. Sure, Sauron is irredeemably evil, but (in his cardboard cutout fashion) he’s allowed to be a grand, magnificent villain; Saruman, on the other hand, Tolkein practically breaks down the fourth wall in his determination to belittle.

I don’t see anything mysterious here, either, for what it’s worth. I have not read much of his writing besides the finished Middle Earth stories (plus The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin), but what I have read depicts a man unabashedly revolted by industrial society. I won’t try to debate anyone about whether or not Tolkein was a true Luddite, but he was overtly critical of technology from the steam engine on. I have a hunch that he was the kind of person who refers to a “High Middle Ages,” a term in my experience used exclusively by those who reverence such a pre-modern world as the pinnacle of civilization.

As Tolkein lived through two world wars whose carnage would not have been possible without industrial methods, and a postwar era when nuclear arsenals with no utility except to destroy civilization just grew larger and larger… I guess I can’t entirely condemn him.

That said, I don’t really agree with him; I may approach his pessimism in an overall sense, but (from my obviously different perspective) I look at technology as the feature, not the bug. For various reasons I just can’t really romanticize the slow, simple agrarian past or really believe in any kind of “off the grid” escape. I’ve concluded in the last few years that for good or ill I’ve cast my lot with urban civilization, and will go down with it if it comes to that.

And, if it did and I somehow survived, would find things to admire in a Saruman, even if there were also much to condemn.

* Yes, also a plot device.

2 Thoughts on “Lord of the Rings, 2014

  1. This was a very interesting post. Thanks for writing it. BTW, I found it by searching for Max Gladstone’s original quote, which was very thought-provoking. I’m glad to see that other people were influenced by it as well!

    I originally found Gladstone’s post from Charlie Stross’s reaction (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2014/10/not-a-manifesto.html).

    > As Tolkein lived through two world wars whose carnage would not have been possible without industrial methods, and a postwar era when nuclear arsenals with no utility except to destroy civilization just grew larger and larger… I guess I can’t entirely condemn him.

    Definitely. I cannot say whether Tolkien’s idealized historical period is in the Middle Ages (after all High Middle Ages covers the birth of universities http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Middle_Ages#Science) or the pre-WWI period before Europe was obliterated.

    I get what you’re saying about Saruman’s experiments being the only experiments in town, and thereby deserving some acknowledgement, but I think the experiments themselves echo a lot of the pessimistic/doomsday fear/revulsion that many people felt during Tolkien’s period. For example, orc breeding programs are more evocative of Nazi superman programs than the more benign genetics research of today. And Saruman’s industrialization is primarily (?) a military armament program. So I too cut Tolkien a lot of slack.

  2. Thank you for commenting — I appreciate your additional notes!

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