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His noblest fantasy had little to do with elves and wizards

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted January 7, 2002

I'm hardly the first to note that Professor J.R.R. Tolkien's modern classic "Lord of the Rings" -- or the new and successful film now born thereof -- have a strong and unusual political subtext.

"'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,' which opens tomorrow, is a terrific movie about politics," wrote James Pinkerton of Long Island's Newsday on Dec. 18.

"Why?" the columnist continued. "Because it's about power. And that's what politics is all about: power -- and the temptations that confront the powerful. Always. And there's no real solution, at least not in this world."

Mr. Pinkerton's premise is correct, though whether he is equally correct in his cynical conclusion has (I would argue) yet to be determined. Prof. Tolkien -- the author taught ancient Anglo-Saxon language and literature at Oxford for half a century -- certainly gave his mythical hero another option.

Pinkerton appears to be no fan. He objects that to get to the political point of Tolkien's work -- crafted after the author saw his beloved and bucolic England twice wracked, and probably changed forever, by the paroxysms of world war -- "The movie watcher must wade through three hours of mostly mumbo jumbo about hobbits and halflings, elves and orcs, and listen to dialogue such as, 'I will bind myself to you, Aragorn of the Dunedain. For you I will forsake the immortal life of my people."

I believe that in the film version the elf princess actually settles for the considerably less tongue-twisting, "I would rather spend one mortal life with you ..." But one could just as well complain that to get to the point of the average detective movie one must wade through hours of sleazy people waving guns at one another and uttering unlikely dialogue about "homeboys," "smack," and "blow."

Tyler as Arwen
Tyler as Arwen

For the beautiful Arwen (Liv Tyler, charmingly enough) to give up her immortality out of love for the very mortal future king is indeed a notable sacrifice. Since the breakneck pace of Peter Jackson's film takes out as little time for romance as did the original novel -- Prof. Tolkien did not lean toward bodice-rippers -- and with the current production already running to three hours, Mr. Pinkerton would surely agree we can spare little additional time for hand-holding in the orchard.

But what lingua franca would he have preferred to hear from such essentially medieval characters: "Hey, hot stuff, spare me a little tongue time?"

Tolkien's surefootedness in the cadences of the genre stemmed from his ability to recite "Beowulf" and the Icelandic sagas from which his mythic creations flowed ... in the original language. (It's reliably reported he would actually hold conversations in Anglo-Saxon, a language otherwise thoroughly dead, at table with his students of an evening in the college dining hall. And when his editors complained that he had used the wrong plural for "dwarf" -- the 1938 Oxford English Dictionary preferring "dwarfs" -- who but Tolkien could have replied, "Yes, I have changed my mind since I wrote the dictionary"?) But the true greatness of this trilogy (yes, there are two more movies to come) arises from the deft way the author managed to bind in a theme otherwise alien to those great precursors, as surely as Sauron bound his subjects with the "gift" of the Rings of Power.

For most great English literature has been about restoring proper government power (always favoring the legitimacy of the ancestors of whatever patrons were footing the bill) -- read the thanes of Shakespeare's "MacBeth" arguing that any foible can be forgiven in a king so long as he can rule with a strong hand, preserving the land from anarchy.

But "The Lord of the Rings" is not about restoring the metaphoric Ring of Power to the rightful king. Rather, we see Frodo the ringbearer -- an open-faced hobbit in homespun making the most seemingly unlikely champion, except for the fact that hobbits are the creatures in all Middle Earth least likely to be seduced by the promise of power -- offer the ring to each of the good wizards and elf queens and royal heirs of his world, in turn.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Elijah Wood as Frodo
Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Elijah Wood as Frodo

Those who succumb to temptation come to bad ends. The test of goodness and worth -- in this film as in the book -- is the ability to say "No" to the offer of unlimited power, to declare, as does Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen), "Oh, I would use this ring in an attempt to do good. But through me, it would wield a terrible power. ..."

Frodo's quest is not to deliver the One Ring to the right king, but rather to haul it back to the mountain of fire where it was forged in darkness, and destroy it.

What's that? Not merely to reassign government power to its rightful heirs, but to reduce and limit it for all time? To declare that the solution is not merely to make sure "the right party" manipulates the existing levers of power, but rather that such unrestricted power is to be banished from the globe for good, setting men free to seek their own mortal (albeit often misguided) destinies?

This is the conclusion Prof. Tolkien drew after watching Europe wracked by 30 years of (briefly interrupted) total war between the struggling factions of fascism and collectivism.

It's also -- coincidentally enough -- what America's founders attempted 215 years ago, when they set about constructing a government "of limited powers, sharply defined."

Do most of our present-day rulers still share that vision? Is it a common thing to walk into a federal court these days and find a judge scratching his head and declaring, "You know, the defendant has a point -- I can't seem to find any specifically delegated power in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution for the Congress to enact laws or create agencies to meddle in this field of human endeavor, at all. I thereby rule this entire section of the federal code to be unconstitutional and null and void, and order the agency whose agents have brought these charges to be dissolved forthwith.

Issue yourselves severance checks, turn out the lights and lock the doors; case dismissed"?

Of course not. Because the Libertarians and Constitutionalists who argue in America today that the goal and raison d'etre of this government from its founding was to limit central power in order to maximize individual freedom, get about as much respect and attention from today's swordbearers -- anxious to centralize everything from bank account reporting procedures to airport security -- as did Tolkien's little hobbits from the dark lord Sauron.

Our eventual success today -- against such a fearful array of forces, once supposed to stand as "checks and balances" one against another -- looks about as likely as that of little Frodo's lonely pilgrimage to Mordor.

Time will tell. Till then, we can always go see the movie.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $96 to Privacy Alert, 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 684, Reno, NV 89503 -- or dialing 775-348-8591. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at 1-800-244-2224, or via web site

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