TCS Daily

Ringing in a Liberal or Conservative New Year

By Joshua Livestro - January 4, 2005 12:00 AM

I wouldn't normally dare to waste your precious time, dear reader, with light-hearted discussions of frivolous matters. But just this once I ask your permission for an excursion into a realm that, on the face of it, has little in common with politics, namely that of high art. My excuse is a valid one, however: the launch of the extended DVD edition of last year's Oscar winning film 'The Return of the King, based on JRR Tolkien's epic drama The Lord of the Rings.

The reason for choosing this subject is not an aesthetic one, however. I merely want to add my five cents worth to a recent discussion over at NRO's The Corner. The subject was Tolkien's politics, or rather: the politics of The Lord of the Rings. Inspired by the newly released DVD the Corner dwellers decided to seek a definitive answer to that age-old question: who does Middle Earth really belong to? Mind you, not: who in Middle Earth -- Sauron or Saruman, or even orcs or men -- but: who of us here and now, in the real world. Basically, they wanted to decide once and for all whether LOTR is a liberal or a conservative novel.

According to the man who first raised the question, John Hillen, the answer was obvious: it's conservative, precious, conservative! He was so confident that he even offered a $100 award for any reader who could present him with a convincing argument why liberals might also want to read this most conservative of novels. Within hours, he received enough e-mails from Tolkien geeks to fill another thousand editions of The Corner. They pointed to scores of likely reasons (as well as some unlikely ones[1]) why liberals would want to claim the book and the films as their own.

The main reason why liberals past and present have returned to the novel is of course its techno-sceptic attitude. Tolkien's Middle Earth isn't just an Arcadian fantasy about creatures deeply at one with nature. It is also, or perhaps more importantly, a story about the struggle between the forces of stagnation (good) and material development (bad). Like his Inklings colleague CS Lewis, Tolkien had serious misgivings about the arrival of the age of the machines. He wasn't, as David Brin argued in, an enemy of Enlightenment and democracy. But only a fool could deny that Tolkien was profoundly sceptical of the blessings of modern technology.

In today's political world, that would make him an unlikely bedfellow for conservatism. But there may well have been a perfectly plausible conservative explanation for his techno-scepticism. After all, until the late 1960s, technological development was primarily associated with the march towards a socialist end-state (think, for example, of British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson's famous 1963 speech on "The White Heat of Technology.") Tolkien would merely have been taking seriously George Orwell's remark that "industrialism, once it rises above a fairly low level, must lead to some form of collectivism. Not necessarily socialism, of course; conceivably it might lead to the Slave-State of which Fascism is a kind of prophecy." (The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 175) If Orwell was right, it would have been the moral duty of any freedom-loving citizen of the world to oppose the rise of the machines. Being a deeply moral man and a self-confessed anarchist ("my political beliefs lean more and more to Anarchy -- philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs"), Tolkien probably thought he had no choice but to join this resistance.

Only, Orwell wasn't right. He was, in fact, dead wrong. Over the last fifty years, technology has, if anything, become an anti-socialist force, advancing the cause of liberty through a series of small but significant steps. The revolution in air and road transportation means people now travel further and faster than even a ring-wraith in a hurry. New construction techniques and cleaning equipment give everyone the chance to enjoy the comforts of a house as clean and comfortable as a hobbit hole. Thanks to global free trade, we have pipe-weed from Southern America, wine from the New World, fruit from Africa, cheese from France and fireworks from China, allowing any real-life Bilbo to throw his own party of special magnificence. And what is the Internet but a world wide web of palantiri, making it possible for anyone to see and hear about developments in far away places or indeed to find out what happens behind the previously closed doors of power?

All this technological development has gone hand in hand with a restoration of the fields, forests and rivers Tolkien loved so much. Take the example of the country that I know best, The Netherlands. The old Gaffer would have been happy to note that, whereas in 1892 (the year Tolkien was born) forests and woodlands accounted for only three percent of Holland's surface, in 2000 this had risen to 10 percent, thanks to an active policy of reforestation and the introduction of new species of trees and shrubs. New technologies in water quality management have led to the return to Dutch rivers of many species of fish and bird previously presumed lost. And with concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, led and zinc at historic lows, the free air breathed by Dutch citizens is probably as clean as the free air breathed by Theoden king. In many ways, the world today resembles Tolkien's Middle Earth more closely than it did in the year Tolkien was born.

Maybe none of this would have impressed Tolkien. Maybe all these obvious accomplishments of the industrial revolution could never outweigh for him the loss of a single hand-operated mill. Some men are, after all, incorrigible Romantics. But even if he would reject out of hand the entire project of industrial development, he would at least have to admit that it does offer some small compensation, not least the fact that, thirty years after his death, a man called Peter Jackson was finally able to produce a series of films worthy of his literary masterpiece.

[1] None was as bizarre, btw, as that of the Ecuadorian writer Luis Yerovi. Out of the raw material of Tolkien's epic, he created a whole new storyline, with America as Mordor, the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF as Ring Wraiths, Blair and other western leaders as so many Sarumans, Fox News as Wormtongue, western consumers as orcs, and free trade as the One Ring to Rule Them All. To crown it all, the author observed that he "cannot help but wonder whether Mohammed Atta and the 18 hijackers ... had considered themselves to be analogous to the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. In their eyes, it is possible that Mt. Doom, the heart of Saurons' empire, was synonymous to the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the symbolic heart and muscle of America's imperialistic empire." Both Frodo and Atta, you see, "attacked these centres in their epic struggle between "power" and "freedom"." As they say in California: whatever dude!


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