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Alone among 20th century novelists, J. R. R. Tolkien concerned himself with the mortality not of individuals but of peoples. The young soldier-scholar of World War I viewed the uncertain fate of European nations through the mirror of the Dark Ages, when the life of small peoples hung by a thread. In the midst of today’s Great Extinction of cultures, and at the onset of civilizational war, Tolkien evokes an uncanny resonance among today’s readers. He did not write a fantasy, but rather a roman-a-clef.
I spoke too soon when I wrote a year ago that a “reasonably faithful cinematic version” of Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was the “cultural event of the decade” (The Ring and the remnants of the West, Jan 11, ’03). With the third installment in cinemas, it appears that director Peter Jackson has buried Tolkien’s mythic tragedy under an avalanche of tricks. One wants to hiss along with Gollum: “Stupid hobbit! It ruins it!” We are left with a crackling good adventure, but have lost something precious.
Despite his huge readership, Tolkien during his lifetime never published The Silmarillion, the tragedy of immortals that underlies The Lord of the Rings. Instead he hit upon the genial device of leading the reader to the elements of his story through the eyes of the Little People who are entangled in it. It is as if Shakespeare had published something like Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead rather than Hamlet.
The mortality of the peoples
Tolkien took by the horns the great ideological beast of his time. After the Great War, the newly hatched Existentialist philosophers were shocked to discover that human beings fear for their mortality. In fact, it is quite a commonplace thing to die for one’s country, provided that one believes that one’s country still will be there. The pull of cultural identity is so strong that men will fling themselves into the jaws of death if they believe such actions will preserve their culture. But what if culture itself – the individual’s connection to past as well as future – is in danger? Now, that is really being alone in the universe. Death to preserve one’s people is quite a tolerable proposition. The prospective death of the entire people along with its culture is what creates a particularly nasty type of existential angst, the sort that produces a Hitler or an Osama bin Laden.
Small peoples of the Dark Ages, such as Beowulf’s Geats, had to think about such things because extinction was the normal outcome. As it turned out, Tolkien’s early medieval sources (he had translated Beowulf) mirrored the existentially-challenged world after the Great War, precisely because the subject of national extinction had forced its way back to the surface. The theme of national extinction permeates the entire work. “It is not your own shire,” the High-Elf Gildor reproaches Frodo at the outset of his journey in the forests of the shire . “Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.”
A people vanishes from the earth when its language no longer is spoken. Tolkien did not simply invent languages, but recreated the linguistic maelstrom of the early Middle Ages, when the high speech of great civilizations faded from memory while the dialects of small peoples dissolved into larger language groups. Tolkien’s great philological skills created a unique means of portraying the temporality of the nations.
As a foil to human mortality, Tolkien invented a deathless and noble race. His Elves suffer from saiety with immortal life. They no longer reproduce. We meet no Elf younger than a millennium. Tolkien’s Fair Folk, endowed with marvelous powers of mind and body, possessors of a radiant high culture, merely mark the time before they must leave Middle Earth. Mercifully we are spared their private thoughts. Imagine what dinner-table dialogue would be like between Elrond and daughter Arwen, who will renounce immortality to marry the mortal Aragorn. “Why do you have to date Aragorn? What happend to that nice Elf boy you were going out with in Lothlorien?” “Daddy, I’m three thousand years old and I’ve dated all the Elf boys. They are so boring!” Minas Tirith, for that matter, houses only half the population it could comfortably hold, as its ancient race of men fails to bring children into the world. Gondor’s military weakness stems from its declining population; the army Aragorn leads to the Black Gate in the last battle numbers fewer than the vanguard of the army of Gondor in its prime. Mordor encroaches because Gondor cannot man its borders.
Declining population and crumbling empire is a theme as old as Rome, of course. Nor is it only Latin. In Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon sources, the extinction of the nation lurks behind every setback. The old woman’s lament at Beowulf’s funeral pyre, for example, foresees the destruction of his Geats after the death of its hero and protector. From the vantage-point of the trenches of the Great War, though, this echo of the Dark Ages took on a new and terrible meaning. The peoples of Europe came out to fight for their predominance and nearly annihilated each other.
Today’s Europeans are willing themselves out of existence (see Why Europe chooses extinction, Apr 8, ’03). The two world wars of the 20th century destroyed the national illusions of the European peoples, their pretension to strut and swagger upon the world stage. France was the first nation to misidentify its national interests with the fate of Christendom (The sacred heart of darkness, Feb 11, ’03), emulated in far more horrible form first by Russia (“the God-bearing nation” in Dostoyevsky’s words) and then by Germany. Why is it that radical Islam yet may defeat the West? Migrants from North Africa and the Middle East may overwhelm the shrinking population of Western Europe, without ever assimilating into Western European culture. Collapsing birth rates in formerly Catholic strongholds (including Quebec) coincide with negligible church attendance, and demoralization within the Church itself.
When immortality is not enough
Here is a summary of the mythic tragedy behind The Lord of the Rings: Immortality was not enough for Tolkien’s “Light-Elves” (Licht-Alben, precisely what Wagner calls his gods). Possessive love for their own works led them to tragic errors, first among which is Feanor’s ill-advised quest for his stolen jewels, the Silmarils. That motivates the Elves’ exile in Middle-Earth. Later, the Elvish Smiths of Middle-Earth accept the assistance of the evil Sauron in forging the Three Elven Rings of air, fire and water. In some way or other, the vague association with Sauron contaminates the Three Rings, such that when Sauron’s One Ring is destroyed, the power of the three rings must fade as well. That means the end of the magical wood of Lothlorien, which Galadriel has preserved in a sort of perpetual spring, and the demise of Rivendell, which Elrond maintains as the last bastion of lore and art. Presumably Gandalf, who bears the ring of fire, will lose some of his power as well. Sauron furthermore corrupted the Numenoreans, a noble race of Men, by convincing them they could wrest immortality from the Valar (the gods) by invading their Blessed Realm, Valinor.
The Nine Rings granted to mortal Men produce a vampire-like caricature of immortality, as the bearers fade into wraiths. The One Ring bestows a perverse sort of immortality upon its owner, whose body ceases to age while his soul decays, like Dorian Gray’s portrait. It is a warped version of the Elves’ immortality within the mortal world of Middle-Earth. Once touched, it cannot easily be relinquished; Isildur, heir of the Numenorean “faithful”, cannot bear to destroy it. The Hobbits’ great virtue is the inner strength to part with the Ring. But all of the three Hobbits who have borne it, Bilbo, Frodo, and Samwise, ultimately must abandon Middle-Earth. Immortality, once tasted, poisons the joy of Middle-Earth even for Hobbits. Galadriel redeems herself by renouncing her works, although in consequence she and her people must leave the mortal realm, that is, Middle-Earth. She refuses the offer of the One Ring (“I will diminish, and remain Galadriel”). The “faithful” survivors of the ruin of Numenor, of whom Aragorn is the heir, accept mortality and thus are redeemed.
Tolkien clearly stated his intentions in his correspondence: “Anyway, all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire … It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic).”
The Faustian bargain and its resort to Magic were themes long elaborated in Western literature, but Tolkien added a terrible new dimension. In Middle-Earth, as in Europe during the Great War, it was not the mortality of the individual, as in Goethe, but instead the mortality of nations. No serious critic will give Tolkien a place in the literary canon, because his characters generally are stick-figures speaking in stilted declamation. But that is beside the point. He has little time to waste on the petty concerns of the sort of character that populates modern fiction. His concern is the doom of peoples, or, to coin a phrase, the decline of the West.
Immortality was not enough for the Europeans. That is, Christianity in the confessional, and universal Christian empire in politics, offered the Europeans a form of immortality beyond the existence of the nation. Europe fell from grace when its great constituent nations decided that this sort of immortality was not enough for them, and that they should instead fight for temporal dominance upon the earth. Exhausted from their wars, the peoples of Europe sank into a torpor that is destroying them slowly but with terrible certainty.
Jackson’s portrayal of Denethor, the feckless Steward of Gondor, doubtless reminded Americans of European defeatism with respect to Iraq and other venues in the Middle East. Out of context, the character has little motivation. Perhaps Jackson will provide the missing background of Gondor’s decline in a future extended version.
It is tricky, of course, to draw analogies between the pride and folly of Feanor or the Numenorians in Tolkien’s fantasy, and the pride and folly of the European nations in World War I. But it was a commonplace observation after 1918 that the great European tragedy began with a misguided attempt to cheat mortality through the assertion of national supremacy. One cannot make sense of Hitler’s rise to power without observing that many Germans believed with all their heart that the existence of the Volk was in jeopordy. Martin Heidegger gave (and never retracted) his wholehearted support to Hitler, believing that immersion in the Volk was a legitimate answer to the Existential crisis.
A tragic flaw was set in Europe’s foundations, in the form of its Faustian bargain with paganism (Why Europe chooses extinction). Christianity offered salvation in another world; the Europeans wanted a taste of immortality in this one. By allowing the pagans to syncretically adopt their old gods into the new religion, Christianity left the Europeans forever torn between Jesus and Siegfried. Richard Wagner returned to the old pagan sources and found in them a foretaste of the Nihilism that would ravage Europe during its Second Thirty Years’ War of 1914-1944. Repudiating Wagner, Tolkien hoped to link an ennobling pagan past and the Christian present. In this respect he failed utterly. He is reduced to elegaic yearning for a lost agrarian past. He is a reactionary looking backwards, for his vision is too clear to allow false hopes for the European future.
Tolkien kept faith with the original Christian message. Man must accept not only his own mortality, but the mortality of his nation, the extinction of his culture, the silencing of his mother-tongue, and look instead toward salvation beyond all mortal hope. That is what Christianity offered the pagans during the Great Extinction of Peoples after the collapse of Rome. Frodo knows that the entire race of Hobbits will become extinct. He begins his journey with Gildor’s warning that one day others will dwell in the shire when hobbits are no more. Gildor is the first among the High-Elves he meets as he rides toward the Havens, in the company of Elrond and Galadriel, who, along with Gandalf, finally are revealed in their true capacity as the bearers of the Three Elven Rings.
But the European nations threw off the bonds of universal Christian empire and, through Wagnerian nationalism, sought immortality within the mortal realm – the tragic flaw of Feanor, Galadriel and the rebel Eldar. The Great Wars and the fall of Europe were the consequence. Except in the imagination, there was no going back.
The sea-passage to the West, in Peter Jackson’s interpretation, represents death. It might just as well represent immigration to America. Unlike all other peoples, Americans need not fear the extinction of their cultural identity, because they have none to begin with. That is America’s great weakness but also its abiding strength. It is the reason that America well may endure for all time while the Kulturnationen dissolve into the dust of the libraries. Americans bridle when told that they have no culture. But what can they name whose loss would destroy their sense of national identity? Erase the memory of Homer, and what becomes of the Greeks? Forget Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and even The Simpsons, and Americans still are Americans. If German or French no longer were spoken, the concept of “Germany” or “France” would become meaningless. At the time of their revolution, Americans considered German as a national language. A century from now they might adopt Spanish. America can withstand the loss of the English language itself. As long as America’s political covenant remains intact, Americans can change their “culture” as often as convenient. America may fulfill the Christian project, as an assembly of individuals called out of the nations, cut loose from their heathen heritage – an outcome Tolkien could not have imagined.