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Politics and The Lord of the Rings

Of all the reviews of The Lord of the Rings that I've had the pleasure of reading, none seem so shallow as those which presume to appropriate Tolkien as a spokesman for the reviewer's preferred political ideology. Or, conversely, as an exemplar of the reviewer's most despised ideology:

Can one judge a film with the morals of politics? Is Lord of the Rings seen differently in the United States than it is in Europe where the majority of people were against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq? A fable is “a narration intended to enforce a useful truth.” When I look at the Lord of the Rings as the fable its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, intended it to be, I see a world clearly divided into races and regions of leader and followers, I see Calvinist pre-determinism and I see the vindication and veneration of empire unfolding in frame after frame. And I feel the quick burn of shame that I always feel when realising that as a child I was taken in by a “useful truth” that now seems odious.

I've read enough of these futile efforts by now that the method is numbingly predictable.

If the reviewer is a fan of Tolkien, she will scan the story and pick out a few elements that she claims are decisive endorsements of her own conservative view of evil (or of her liberal critique of power, or of her Catholic view of immortality, or of her environmentalist love of nature). If, however, she happens not to like Tolkien, the story will inevitably be found to endorse racism, feudalism, empire, class oppression, or heretical paganism.

Perhaps the best evidence that The Lord of the Rings is too great a work for these shallow partisan appropriations is that all of these reviews can sound entirely plausible when read in isolation. The leftist counterculturalists of the 60's who decorated subway station walls with "Frodo Lives" had reason to fall in love with this story, as do today's conservative supporters of the Bush Administration's war in Iraq. If you happen not to like the story, you can plausibly claim with some sad leftists that it "stinks like an orc" or with some pitiable Christian fundamentalists that it tempts young people with witchcraft.

My criticism of these narrow political interpretations of Tolkien is not that they're all wrong. Rather, it is that they predictably fail to consider that they're all, in some sense, right. The mistake they all seem to make is the same. They claim that this is a great story because of (fill in the preferred political interpretation here), or that it's a failure because of (fill in the despised political interpretation here). None of them acknowledge the persuasiveness of the competing interpretations, or even their obvious popularity.

And is precisely why The Lord of the Rings is great literature. This is why it is one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, and this explains why people will still be reading this book in another hundred (or more) years. Whether or not the story appeals to your aesthetic tastes, it is by now undeniable that it has the power to engage, provoke, and inspire virtually everyone. People who love it, love it deeply. People who don't like it often strongly despise it. The only reviewers who are clearly wrong are those who continue to dismiss it as insubstantial, as merely a tale for adolescents, or as a passing fad which will soon be forgotten.


We likess it, we do, and they are continuing to post on our blog about Sauron. We have disscovered the sseecret to successs is to post about Middle Earth, precious.