Sunday, November 29, 2020

Lord of the Rings vs. 2020

My wife and I have had a longstanding tradition of watching the Lord of the Rings film trilogy over the Thanksgiving holiday. We’re both serious Tolkien nerds — she more than I originally, but I think we’re on fairly equal footing now. She was the one who’d been playing Dungeons & Dragons since the ’80s, after all — she only got me on board within the past year or so — though we have been playing Magic: The Gathering pretty much ever since we met. So I suppose it was inevitable that we’d get to the point of making a LOTR marathon an annual tradition.

There’s no link between Thanksgiving and the movies for us; it was just that having Thursday and Friday free gave us a rare opportunity to watch the entire trilogy straight through. The tradition went on hiatus for a while when our daughter was younger, but now that she’s 9, she enjoys watching the whole thing with us — and then playing with her Lord of the Rings Funko Pops afterward. She likes being called a nerdling — our little fantasy-roleplaying nerd in training.

Anyway, I was wondering how I’d react to the themes in the story this year, when so much in the real world has changed, both outside our front door and in my own heart and mind. On a personal level, I’ve abandoned my long-held pacifism, my cynicism has gone into overdrive, and I’ve finally let go, once and for all, of the Catholic faith I was raised in, after being in and out of the church and struggling with belief for most of my adult life.

Tolkien himself was a devout Catholic, and I could see the way he incorporated the tenets of his faith into his characters, the storyline, and the entire creation and history of Middle-earth. To most casual fans, Tolkien’s tale is probably nothing more than a great fantasy story of good triumphing over evil. But without using overt Christian symbolism, as Tolkien disliked allegory, his mythological world actually does incorporate ideas of the Fall, redemptive suffering, and the constant push and pull of good and evil that exists in the hearts of all Men. So while his faith informed how the story was told, the story does not set out to make deliberate analogies to Christian theology.

This is how the author himself put it:

“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 the symbolism.

I think that’s another way of saying that the truly faithful person doesn’t separate the sacred from the mundane. You don’t go to church on Sunday and set your faith aside as you go about your daily life the rest of the week. Instead, your faith informs everything you do at all times. That doesn’t mean you have to stand on a street corner with a bullhorn, waving a Bible at passers-by and condemning all the sinners to hell. It simply means that you practice what you preach and set an example for others to follow.

Like Frodo, we dutifully climb up the hill, in hopes of relieving ourselves of our burdens for the sake of ourselves and those dear to us. And if, like Frodo, we’re guided by the values of humility, compassion, and love, we make such great sacrifices without ever counting the cost.

Like Sam, we support our friends on their personal journeys, even to the point of picking them up and carrying them when they’re at their lowest.

Like Gandalf, we dispense the advice, wisdom, and encouragement we’ve accumulated on the many paths we’ve traveled.

Like Aragorn, we bravely press on in support of our friends, even when all hope seems lost.

The problem is just how agonizingly hard it is to put those noble values into practice on a daily basis. Everyday heroism in real life is the exception, not the rule. Most of us succumb in some way to the lesser angels of our nature — fear, doubt, egotism, selfishness, despair.

We may think poorly of Denethor, the steward of Gondor, for giving in to his anguish, deciding it best to die now than to fight on and face the inevitable anyway. We might even see Theoden, king of Rohan, as a weak leader for his pride that manifests in a stubborn refusal to both seek aid or help others in times of need, or for his unfounded arrogance that springs up at the worst times, or for making overly conservative and ultimately fear-based decisions that end up hurting more than helping.

Yet we are all Denethor and Theoden much more frequently than we are Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, or Sam.

In fact, a few scenes stuck with me from this year’s viewing a little more than in years past, and one of them involved Theoden leading his people to the fortress of Helm’s Deep for protection against the enemy. The king thinks they’ll be safe there since it has saved them in the past and its walls have never been breached. But Gandalf protests that Theoden is leading his people into a trap, even as the dwarf Gimli rightly states: “They flee to the mountains when they should stand and fight. Who will defend them if not their king?”

The battle inevitably comes to Helm’s Deep, and the enemy does indeed breach the walls, eventually reaching the entrance to the caves where the women and children are hidden away. And all Theoden can do as the battering ram hits the door is to proclaim that “It is over.” Aragorn is forced to step in and help arrange for the women and children to escape through a passage into the mountains, while the king can only stand and say, to no one in particular:

“So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?”

Aragorn, somehow keeping his composure, tells the king: “Ride out with me. Ride out and meet them.”

Theoden, still not getting it, replies, “For death and glory?”

“For Rohan,” Aragorn says. “For your people.”

For me, it’s one of the most infuriating scenes of the entire film trilogy. In the darkest of moments, when all appears lost, the leader of his people folds like a cheap lawn chair and doesn’t even understand why he should ride out to face the enemy. He thinks it’s so that history will remember him for one last act of personal valor, going down in a blaze of glory, while the man who isn’t even the king of Rohan has to set him straight.

Aragorn is one of the beloved heroes of the Lord of the Rings saga, and for good reason. We see him undergo a remarkable transformation, from a mysterious ranger who lives in the shadows and resists his claim to the throne of Gondor, into a noble, brave, and selfless warrior and leader of men who fights for the sake of his friends, even if there appears to be no chance of victory.

I like to think of myself as being like Aragorn, fighting tirelessly against the insanity that’s taken over the world — when in reality, I’m not out there engaging in great selfless acts for me or my family. Sure, I often write as an act of protest, but I know I’m probably not doing anything to help. In fact, I usually feel much more like Theoden, wondering how anyone can possibly withstand the constant assault on our liberties and our common sense. It feels like too much to bear most days. I get it. I criticize Theoden for letting his people down, but most of us in real life aren’t much different — myself included.

Another scene that hit me this year was when Frodo and Sam found themselves in the city of Osgiliath, waylaid from their mission. Frodo, feeling exhausted, doubting whether he can complete his task to destroy the ring, asks Sam what it is they’re holding on to when all seems lost. Sam’s answer: “That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it's worth fighting for.”

That exchange isn’t in the books, at least not word for word. But it does touch on one of the things that makes Tolkien’s stories inherently Catholic: the belief that people are basically good. That idea stands in opposition to some of the more fundamentalist strains of Protestantism, which hold that humans are inherently bad.

Both Catholics and Protestants would agree that the fallen nature of mankind leaves them in need of a redeemer, that they can’t fully embrace their goodness on their own. But at least in my experience, Catholics don’t start from quite such a dire place as many Protestants. Consider Martin Luther, who likened God’s saving grace to snow covering a dunghill: You might look nice on the outside, but on the inside you’re still a pile of disgusting filth, through and through. The Calvinist idea of “total depravity” stems from this notion.

Catholic theology, in contrast, sees the process of salvation as one in which we always struggle against the damage caused by Original Sin, yet the struggle is not in vain, as with God’s grace we find the ability to refine and purify ourselves, little by little, over the course of a lifetime. We will stumble along the way, but we always have the chance to get up, dust ourselves off, start again, and do better. The Orthodox arguably take this idea even further, as theosis teaches that through cooperation with God’s will, we are able to purify and mind and body and transform ourselves into a kind of union with God.

I love the inherent optimism of the Catholic and Orthodox views. If we have some good within us, then why would we not fight to cultivate it and share that goodness with our world?

Yet the more I’ve seen of the real world this year, the more I think this view — along with Sam’s hopeful outlook — is nothing more than a happy lie. Is there really anything good worth fighting for? We might fight for the betterment of our immediate friends and family members, but the battles we win will ultimately be fleeting. Even Tolkien understood that evil never rests, and that victory over the darkness is never guaranteed.

In fact, it’s notable that even in Tolkien’s Catholic-informed universe, there is no promised Second Coming that will set things right for all time. Maybe Tolkien was more of a pessimist than we might think at first glance. After all, he left unfinished a dark sequel to Lord of the Rings in which the shadows were beginning to work their way back into Middle-earth.

Perhaps the good professor knew in his heart, then, that all victories for good are ephemeral. Considering he saw the worst of humanity in the trenches of World War I, only to see with the rise of the second war that humanity hadn’t really learned a damned thing, it would be understandable if he ultimately defaulted to pessimism.

With the events of this year, I feel as if I was deluding myself with false ideas of hope for a future that will probably never arrive. For example, my favorite song for many a year has been “The Gates of Delirium” by Yes, as much for its amazing musicianship and the emotional roller coaster it takes the listener on as for its hopeful lyrical message. Based loosely on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the epic track follows a band of fighters setting off to do battle.

At first they speak in noble terms, convincing themselves that they’re fighting for a good and righteous cause. But as the battle nears, the mood darkens as the warriors speak of demons and clashing metal, moans in the air, and a determination to burn the laughter of their enemies’ children all the way to hell. Following a fierce musical depiction of battle, the dust settles, and our narrator sings us a beautiful song of hope for a better future, where the sun will rise again and humans will find better ways to settle their differences.

But like Sam’s speech at Osgiliath, I now find it all to be little more than a hollow, comforting lie. If 2020 has proved anything, it’s that humans seem incapable of improving their lot. We appear to be moving backward, devolving, becoming more violent, more irrational, more fearful, more superstitious. It feels as if the Enlightenment is drawing to a tragic end and the Dark Ages are closing in around us again.

What other conclusion can one draw when violent riots are described by those in power as “peaceful protests,” while armed patriots who defend the peace are depicted as dangerous and violent racists?

Or when social media “fact-checks” you for citing factual data about the virus that goes against their narrative, or for talking about obvious election fraud?

Or when people elevate masks to the level of religious talismans, thinking them some kind of magical protection against a virus, when there’s never been a shred of evidence that they do anything to prevent viral spread?

Or wanting to cancel people who point out that biological sex is real and you can’t just wish yourself to be something you’re not?

Or demonizing independent voices and opinions as “dangerous disinformation” as a pretext for censoring them?

Or when destroying lives and economies is more important than running the risk that people contract a virus with a 99%-plus survival rate?

Or promising eternal tracking of your whereabouts, and demanding proof of vaccination to participate in the economy?

Or deplatforming people for having the wrong views, to the point of denying them access to banking and credit services?

It all feels like the Scouring of the Shire, when the hobbits come back (in the book version) to find their home despoiled and polluted, all joy gone, a shortage of essential goods, and misery all around. Because when you strip the joy out of life, replace it with fear and a litany of arbitrary rules, and forbid anyone from even criticizing it, that’s what you’re left with. It was their world then, and it’s our world in 2020.

One thing Tolkien understood well was the corrupting influence of power. The ring that the dark lord Sauron poured his life force and wrath into, after all, was a Ring of Power. Little wonder, then, that Tolkien had a low opinion of those who would wield power over others:

The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

Just look around you today for examples: Gretchen Whitmer, instituting lockdown and mandate edicts in defiance of her own state Supreme Court. Gavin Newsom, ordering churches closed and telling people to put up their masks between bites of food. Andrew Cuomo, welding park, playground, and cemetery gates closed. Jay Inslee, doubling down on mandates and lockdowns after the first round didn’t work, in the process turning his state into an open-air prison.

They aren’t protecting you from a virus that will leave most people with mild symptoms. They’re power-tripping on you and justifying it with the media’s constant scaremongering. You’ll die of the plague if you don’t mask up and lock down, and we’ll fine and jail you if you don’t comply. Don’t ask questions. Just do what we say.

This is why we should always be wary of central planners who insist they know what’s best for you. They don’t. You only end up sacrificing control over your own life to those who think you’re too stupid to make your own choices. In the end, you can either have their rules or your freedom, but not both.

Lao-tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism, knew that and made his choice accordingly when he hopped on the back of a water buffalo and went off into the mountains, leaving society behind. So did Henry David Thoreau, who knew that “‘that government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

Even Tolkien got it. That much should be obvious through his characterization of the free people of Middle-earth as opposed to the ugliness and darkness that came from the love of power and control. In a letter to his son, he put it this way:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs) — or to “unconstitutional” Monarchy.

Most people today think of anarchism as unrestrained terror, like Antifa goons flinging Molotov cocktails in the streets of Portland. But Tolkien’s view of anarchism was basically hobbit society, where people lived simply, in communal harmony with one another, connected to the natural world, freely cooperating with their neighbors, without anyone telling them how to live their lives. The only elected office was a largely ceremonial one — that of a mayor whose most important job was to preside over banquets. In a society where people ruled themselves, no more was needed. That is what anarchism — self-rule — would really look like.

But for such a world to exist, people would have to be willing to take responsibility for their own lives, rather than hand them over to the power-tripping Gretchen Whitmers of the world. Granted, many feel they have no choice but to cede control to these little tyrants, either because of social pressure or their own fears — fear of a virus, fear of punishment, fear of death.

Most of the mindless compliance we see comes from fear, of course, because fear is a powerful motivator. Like Gollum with the One Ring, these are the people who seek security in something outside themselves. The ring, in our world, is the false comfort of bureaucrats and politicians who promise to keep you safe from whatever imaginary hobgoblin (in the words of H.L. Mencken) they’ve cooked up. They’ll even protect you from yourself. The trade-off, of course, is a loss of personal autonomy, as your love of the ring becomes an addiction, a dependence, until you feel you can no longer live without it. Life is too scary to make it on your own, without the ring to protect you.

And because the world is filled with billions of Gollums, we will most likely never be free from the grip of authoritarian do-gooders who always lead us to hell on earth in the name of the common good.

I understand that it’s not easy to stand up and say I will take the ring to Mordor when everyone around you is either telling you it’s a hopeless task or they want the ring for themselves. But it’s those who listen to their own inner voice, rather than to the masses that would have them comply, who change the world… even if only for a little while.

And of course, that’s why we fight — in the naive hope that we can fix the world. It will never be fixed permanently, but maybe we can make it better long enough so that our children might have a chance at a more decent world.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that, but it’s also important to understand that evil will always rise up again. Tolkien was right that evil is never totally vanquished in this world, because the conditions for its rise come together so easily. Maintaining the good is hard work. Slipping into the bad is comparatively simple. All it takes is for ignorance and fear to take hold, and for opportunistic, selfish, power-hungry autocrats to take advantage of the situation.

Lao-tzu probably had the best idea when he decided to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Fed up with society, he simply left it behind. His parting gift was the Tao Te Ching, a guidebook for living a simple, hobbit-like life in harmony with nature.

Notably, his book also described how the best leaders are invisible, like water seeking its lowest point: They do what needs to be done, in service to the people, and no more — and they do in such a way that the people think they’ve done it all on their own. No egomaniacs drawing attention to themselves. No petty tyrants enacting outrageous edicts and demanding you sacrifice your way of life to them. That’s not guiding the people. That’s controlling them. And control almost always leads to ruin, in the same way that trying to tame nature inevitably leads to catastrophe.

Ask Saruman how that worked out, when the Ents arrived and saw that he’d torn down the forest to fuel the fires of his weapon and breeding factories. The great shepherds of the forest broke the dam, released the river, and let nature wash away the filth of Isengard.

We don’t have a magical race of tree-people to fix things for us. In fact, one of the saddest things about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that the end of the Third Age largely marked the end of magic in the world, as the elves and the great wizard Gandalf sailed off to the Undying Lands, leaving Middle-earth forever. Left behind was the race of Men, with all our hatred, selfishness, insecurity, violence, greed, and small-minded tribalism.

Maybe what we need is a return of some extrahuman magic to fix our world. But since that’s not going to happen, all we can do is try to patch things up the best we can, for as long as we can. As Gandalf said to Frodo when he wished he hadn’t lived to see such dreadful times, “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”

We can do something, or we can do nothing. In the end, maybe it doesn’t really matter all that much. And maybe Gandalf knew that, too.

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