Tag Archives: Magic

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.

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