The Lord of the Rings

On Fantasy
In defence of Reality

Somewhere, some time, extremely long ago the evil prince Sauron forged a golden ring. The ring enabled its bearer to rule, and made him evil, if by chance he was not evil from the beginning. One Human being, Isildür, cut Sauron´s hand in a battle and took his ring. Isildür, who originally was a noble king, of course became intoxicated by his desire for power – so he lost the ring, his gold and his life.

In the course of numerous vicissitudes the ring fell into the hands of a troglodyte, Gollum, who became so possessed by his possession that he withered into a tiny monster, sitting in his cave, patting his ring all day long. One day, several thousand years later, he lost his ring. By accident it fell into the tiny hands of Bilbo the hobbit, a peaceful homunculus with hairy feet and dirty nails. Frodo, Bilbo´s even smaller nephew, of all impossible personalities, finally got the sacred mission of bringing the ring in security. It had became necessary to do so, because by then (i.e. about the end of the 14th Century A.D?) the Sauronic ring had begun to activate itself, attracting the attention of the evil prince (still going strong on his dim mountain) who had begun to mobilize his black, mounted ring-ghosts to track it in order to carry it back to its maker. If they had succeeded in doing so the ring would have enabled him eternally to rule over Middle Earth, the homeland of elves, hobbits, humans, and of all decent creatures.

Frodo is given due briefing by Gandolf, the all-knowing sorcerer. Around the tiny hobbit a brotherhood of eight is formed: a couple of exiled human kings, a fierce dwarf, an elf archer and a couple of fellow hobbits. They take off on a long quest in order to throw the ring back into the Crack of Doom from which it was originally forged, because that is the only way to destroy its evil power for good.

However, Sauron´s new proselyte, Sarumon the sorcerer by now is breeding a new race of evil, dark warriors – the orchs – out of the infernal swamp. With their assistance and by means of Balrog, a giant monster, some huge trolls, and innumerable ugly monsters he tries to frustrate the quest of our small peace corps.

What kind of gibberish is this?

Well, you have shared a piece of Fantasy – one of the most widely read genres of modern literature, especially by young people, or by those who were young in the fifties-sixties, preserving or reviving their childishness by playing games on their computers during the nineties. To be more exact; it is a very short summary of the first part of The Lord of the Rings by professor JRR Tolkien (dead in 1973). At the same time it resumes the contents of the first part of the 400-million-dollar film trilogy, recently released by Hollywood under the skilful direction of the New Zealander Peter Jackson.

What, then, is Fantasy? Allow me to make a small excursion into philosophy and literature!

Sooner or later most of us learn that of all possible things all are not equally possible. Some things are probable but other things are simply impossible. That is, we learn that all things, reality as a whole, our own bodies and minds inclusive, are dependent on laws and rules. We learn that reality differs from fantasy by its insisting on not behaving just as we would wish it to behave.

Thus, in reality, in contrast to dreams, we cannot fly, whatever efforts me make to flutter our arms energetically. We will not become one-thousand-year old like the sorcerers in old saga books or Methusa in the Bible – even if we jog seven times a week chewing carrots until we become orange in our faces. We will never be able to lift ourselves by the hair, regardless of how much we practice body-building reading magic formulas aloud. We’ll never meet our beloved dead again, except in our dreams. And we’ll never make things happen by our sheer wish only.

This may still be bad news for some people. There have been cases of killing the messenger. On the other hand, taking a somewhat wider perspective, these limitations of reality are in fact but an expression of its being ruled by certain laws. To the extent that we have recognized, explored, submitted to, and exploited these laws of reality we have been capable of achieving most of the things people previously only were dreaming to achieve – and still more:

To fly by jet around the world – even going to the Moon. To prolong our average duration of life for decades. To cure tuberculosis and leprosy. To eradicate smallpox. To talk to people on the other side of the globe in real time. Provided we’ve got the money and the will.

Most people learn, in due time, to appreciate these lawful limitations of reality. They realize that it is our knowledge of these things that make it possible to master reality, to develop society, the world and us. There are no limits to what Man can achieve once he gets a grasp of the limitations of reality, including his own.

Small children do not grasp these facts – if they did they would not be children. Small children are prone to magic – blaming the stone on which they just hit their knee, believing the sun rises and sets just to please them. People of older times were as bright as we are. However, they did not possess our present knowledge of the lawful limitations of reality.

Thus, old Greek Homer probably believed in those one-eyed giants and smashing sea-maids, of which he wrote. The authors of the gospels of the Bible may have believed that it was hard, but still possible, to walk on water or to resuscitate dead people although they had begun to rot – especially if you were the Son of God. As for the original creators of the old Scandinavian myths about Odin, Thor, Balder, giants, trolls, and recyclable delicious pork they certainly believed these things to exist some way or other. Innumerable sagas were compiled and transmitted exploiting these myths. These were put in writing later, in the Middle Ages, as fiction or even as part of the written history, which were hard to abolish and helped to confuse later generations for centuries. In this manner the myths managed to survive the hard purges of Christianity as well as, later on, the cool and rational skepticism of Enlightenment.

During Romanticism, and especially during the second half of the 19th Century, many intellectuals in the Western world revolted against the new, scientific world view, against its purported deification of technology and weak sense of history – concisely, although somewhat extremely, formulated by Mr. Henry Ford [sr] in the beginning of the 20th Century: “History is bullshit”.

We experienced a renaissance of the folk sagas – e.g. through the Grimm brothers in Germany, by HC Andersen in Denmark etc. The versatile British socialist William Morris – like the once revolutionary opera composer Richard Wagner in Germany – among other things revived the old Germanic myths in novels like Sigurd the Volsung and The Fall of the Niblung. By the 1890s you may consider born the modern literary genre of Fantasy.

And so was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in Bloemfontein in the British colony of South Africa. He was a man whose literary work was to depend heavily on William Morris. More than anybody else’s, Tolkiens name has been associated with the genre of Fantasy. During the electronic-middle age and neo-romanticist reaction we have experienced in the West at the end of the last millennium this genre of course experienced a second bloom.

So, what is Fantasy then?

Like Science Fiction, Fantasy differs from realistic prose, e.g. the historical novel, in depicting events in constructed worlds of fantasy. It differs from SF-literature to the extent that these worlds are located back into a distant history, not into the future. They lack modern values, modern science, and advanced technology. Instead they often practice magic and sorcery. Finally, it differs from the folk sagas and genuine myths in that it has been created by modern men, (hopefully) not believing themselves in the myths they have made up for readers who (hopefully) do not believe what they are reading. Fantasy has preserved the form of the saga, throwing away that which the old sagas and myths originally were supposed to provide – i.e. a believable worldview and a useful morality. To that extent Fantasy is an unusually “pure” literature.

Well, perhaps not quite pure after all. Even using his pen as a lever, it is as hard for a writer to lift himself up above the age, society and class to which he belongs, as it is to lift himself up by the hair. In one way or other these things will come through, with or without his wish.

This applies even to Tolkien´s main work, The Lord of the Rings. This 1000-page novel he began to sketch already as a young student at the time of WW I. Its first edition came in the middle of the fifties. It was revised at several subsequent editions during the fifties-sixties.

So – as such things cannot be avoided even in Fantasy – what is the message of the Lord or the Rings?

Evidently that is not an easy question, as various, conflicting interpretations have been made.

In Sweden, a learned, bright, but not very meticulous, extremely rightist scholar, Mr. Ohlmarks, translated Tolkien’s novel back in 1959. His prefaced interpretation, which was by no ways unique in our part of the world, paradoxically enough, has been very influential even among progressive people here: The Lord of the Rings is said to be an allegory of the struggle between the West and the East, between good capitalism and evil communism. Anyone could interpret the name of the evil prince Sau-ron as Sta-lin. Ohlmarks later even implied that Tolkien was a Nazi – maybe a very refined way of embellishing an ideology not completely foreign to the preface-writer himself. Tolkien took care to order the editorial house to remove Mr. Ohlmarks preface in subsequent editions. Probably rightly so.

Surely Tolkien was a rightist and a son of the white racist ruling masters of South Africa. Surely he got his education in Oxford, England during the post-Victorian prime of the British Empire, i.e. at a time when it was considered immoral for ladies to straddle a bicycle or to engage in politics – and a moral duty to hang petty thieves and to whip or mutilate natives in the colonies. Surely good characters in his book have a bright complexion whereas the evil ones generally are darkish. In the movie we can even watch the good people drinking afternoon tea, vintage wine or jugs of ale.

Still a simple “cold war” interpretation of Tolkien´s work may not hold. Just like many upper-class rightists in Germany never reconciled to the vulgar ex-proletarian Hitler, Tolkien probably was too aristocratic, too catholic, and too historically conscious to become an active agitator for the cause of vulgar capitalism. Above all, the main part of the novel was in fact written long before the initiation of the cold war at the end of the forties. To the extent that his novel had a conscious political aim, when it was written, it may rather have been to mobilize people in England and its colonies in the struggle against Nazi Germany and its allies. However, that issue was not on the order of the day for our preface-writer back in 1959 – it had probably never been.

Why not, instead, listen to the interpretation given by the author himself? Although the impact of a literary work is not always identical to that intended by the author, at least Tolkien´s authority may be good as anybody’s in this matter:

“’The Lord of the Rings’ is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.”

(From a letter to Robert Murray 1953)

A united Divine Reign for all races and nations on Earth – seated in Rome rather than London/Washington – that is the Christian catholic vision. Secular power (the Ring) always corrupts; in the end it always becomes the rule of the Devil. The earthly powers have to yield to the divine one – they cannot, as claimed by protestant Christians (cf. Luther: “All authority is God-given”) exist as a vicarious divine rule.

Thus, behind Tolkien´s Fantasy myths there are religious aims, as weakly rooted in reality as the former ones. Still, it is not very probable that any great number of those 50 million people who have so far bought the book have converted to Catholicism after having read it. Each generation of people will read and interpret Tolkien according to their own conditions – for most people knowledge of Catholic theology does not belong to these conditions any more.

And what about the movie, somebody may ask?

Well, to people, especially to those between 10 and 15 years of age, who like things like these, this movie surely is a thing to be liked. You do not have to use your own imagination, as you would probably have to in reading the book. For three hours you may just sit down chewing popcorn, leaving all imagination to the skill of clever computer animators, editors, and actors.

There may be others who prefer realities, real history, and heroes who use their heads for things other than butting each other around. People who may like to fantasize on their own but are too old or too dull to become enthralled by groovy movie sorcerers, by elves, monsters or hobbits. People who are not impressed by moralities in black and white, even if these are beautifully colored. To such people watching the movie version of The Lord of the Rings (part I) may be a real purgatory. Especially, as they are aware of the fact that there are another six hours of that shit to be marketed.

– Hans Isaksson