Friday, March 18, 2011

Falling for the allegory trap: Why J.R.R. Tolkien was not a technophobe

It’s a curious but real phenomenon that the very mention of J.R.R. Tolkien causes the Black Gate to open and the critics to issue forth, wielding blunt instruments against a black and white facsimile of The Lord of the Rings that must exist in some alternative universe from the one I inhabit. Scenting a whiff of something they don’t like, these axe-grinders turn the waters of measured Tolkien criticism into a bloody feeding frenzy where the victim, sadly, is nuance.

A few examples of these blunt criticisms include:

  • Aragorn on the throne: Tolkien is a monarchist!
  • Orcs are evil: Tolkien is a racist!

Here’s the latest: Tolkien criticized the factories of Saruman and Sauron? He’s a technophobe, and an enemy of progress!

Tolkien is often accused of having a black and white view of the world in his fiction. The irony is that his critics are quite often screamingly guilty of the real McCoy, taking up the argument that you have to be either “for” unbridled progress or “against” it. This line of reasoning was crystallized by David Brin in his 2002 essay “J.R.R Tolkien: Enemy of Progress” and recently given second life in a poorly-written fan fiction treatment: Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer. Because Tolkien is not 100% behind modernism—that he actually dared to evince an equivocal view of “progress”— in the minds of Brin and Yeskov he’s a full-blown Luddite worthy of dismissal by the adult reader.

There’s a grain of truth here, of course. But like much of the other Tolkien criticism you encounter on the web it’s a grossly allegorized reading and a rather despicable simplification of the truth of the matter. By truth, I mean the facts of Tolkien’s life, and, more apropos to the discussion, the text of Tolkien’s fictions.

Tolkien was not anti-industry. He didn’t particularly like it, he thought industrialization and urbanization wrought as much harm as good, but he did not advocate that the world remain in some quasi-medieval stasis. He recognized progress as inevitable, but he thought it was as much cause for weeping as joy (see pollution, and urban decay, and global warming). He evinced nostalgia for his home and its mill by a steam, swept aside by progress. He expressed a calm, mature, adult dislike of some forms of progress, but not a blanket reactionary dismissal of it. That certainly does not make him an enemy of progress, like Brin famously and wrong-headedly declared.

There are plenty of examples of Tolkien’s nuanced, lukewarm views of technology. For example, he actually welcomed the idea of a movie made out of LOTR (imagine that—he liked moving pictures on a screen as a medium for stories, not just ancient scrolls read by the light of a candle!) He wanted to see his books published and distributed (not locked up in monasteries and preserved by monks for a privileged minority ruling class—wow! I didn’t know that! He saw the value of publishing companies and publishing and distribution technology! Shocking!) He was in many ways an enlightened thinker: a college professor whose prime years were spent as a philologist, seeking out the objective truths of words, their derivations and meanings, in a hard, lonely search for truth and objective meaning that the great figures of the enlightenment (perhaps even Brin) would have appreciated.

This viewpoint is also to be found in the books. The Rings of Power, if you consider them a form of “technology,” had their good and useful purposes--until corrupted by the One Ring, which you might call absolute power/unbridled technology (whose altars right-thinkers like Brin and Yeskov prostrate themselves before). The creations of the Noldor Elves in The Silmarillion were wonderful and beautiful, an elevation of civilization. Tolkien himself believed that sub-creation was an exalted right of mankind. But his beliefs were tempered with the apparently audacious notion that innovation should be coupled with restraint.

At the end of The Lord of the Rings the Third Age draws to an end. A time of magic and wonder passes from the world, and the Fourth Age is heralded in. Middle-earth passes to a time of men, and systematized education, and modern conveniences, and beneficial science. Tolkien, even in his fantasy world of Middle-Earth, knew that life went on, and must go on, for better or worse. But just like life, he also believed that change is not always for the better. In Tolkien’s time mechanized warfare, industrial pollution, and the threat of atomic annihilation offered compelling proof.

But apparently this nuanced view is not enough for some of his critics. A sad glance over his shoulder at the receding past? Reactionary! His mates and best friends mowed down by machine guns and choking on mustard gas and blown up by high explosive and shrapnel? That’s reality, deal with it! A dislike for mechanized warfare and the minds and factories that think up and churn out infernal weapons? How dare he! A preference for horses instead of the belching smoke and noise and stink of motor cars? Technophobe!

I’d like to ask Brin and Yeskov: Is this viewpoint really so hard to understand? Is nuanced discussion dead? Must we throw wide our arms and unequivocally embrace every aspect of technology and urbanization? Must we kneel before the altar of progress instead of expressing a simple preference for fields instead of parking lots, or trees instead of skyscrapers? Do we have to “pick a side,” or can a middle ground exist, like we find in Tolkien?

Apparently not. History is “written by the victors” (what a tired, galling cliché) says Laura Miller in her fawning "review" of The Last Ringbearer on, and so Tolkien’s mistaken views apparently require “correction” for a modern audience.


Lagomorph Rex said...

Every act of construction requires a greater act of destruction to accomplish. Build a house? Gotta cut down some trees. Build a car? Gonna need to mine some coal and some iron. Cook a steak? You're gonna have to kill a cow.

the difference is how you go about it. You have to have a place to live, but that dosen't mean that you can't re-plant more trees to replace the ones you cut down. you need a way to get around.. but nothing's stopping you from filling your holes back in.

I think the difference is, when you don't use that steel and iron to make a car.. but to make a tank. You don't use that wood to build a house, but to build a spear. when you don't refill the holes, but let them lay their like weeping sores in the landscape spewing toxic runoff into waterways and causing landslides.

Thats what Mordor and Isengard represented. conscience less progress.

Taran said...

Postcript on Yeskov's "The Last Ringbearer": Laura Miller said this--

"But the juxtaposition of the willfully feudal and backward "West," happy with "picking lice in its log 'castles'" while Mordor cultivates learning and embraces change, also recalls the clash between Europe in the early Middle Ages and the more sophisticated and learned Muslim empires to the east and south."

How did she not notice the extremely offensive portrayal of the Islam analogue ("Hakimians") in Yeskov's novel? But I already made clear in my own review that Miller may have missed the entire point of Yeskov's exercise.

Anonymous said...

Tolkien & Orwell idolized the Edwardian england of their childhood, the last period in English history unsullied by the disillusionment of the massacres in Europe, the full fruition of technologies & ideologies fomented during their childhoods. People still believed in the empire and in english primacy.
One must keep in mind that the world was fascinated by socialism by the time Tolkien came out of the war and all the way to his death (thatcher came to power in 1979). He must have been appalled to see the england of his childhood crushed under the wheels of progressivism. The "insurgent" hobbits replaced a perfectly functional mill with one that belched out black smoke and nice hobbit houses with ugly ones in the name of standardization & blind equality: a puritan concept wholly abhorrent to the catholic Tolkien in love with the beauty of this world.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Something I've always wondered, but do we know if Tolkien had read Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West" at any point?

I know that G.K. Chesterton had read it, and while he didn't agree with it entirely, or with the obverse Optimists entirely either.. he used bits of both to form his "3rd way" distributism. It would be interesting to know if Tolkien had read any of Chesterton's work in that regard as well.

Though I don't know if he would have left any record of having read them, since I imagine politics was non starter while he was a don.

Mary said...

Hmm -- well, Tolkien's own stated views on government were absolute monarchy or Kropotkin-style anarchy.

Then, why shouldn't he object to democracy? In view of the murderous riots in Greece and just about everyone's money problems, it seems to have the fatal flaw that voters imagine they can just vote themselves goodies.

Most Popular Books said...

This is just ridiculous, I'm wondering why people have nothing better to do than attacking shining pieces of our literature.

Brian Murphy said...

Thats what Mordor and Isengard represented. conscience less progress.

I agree, Lagomorph. I also think Tolkien has been proven prescient.

Taran: Yours is an excellent commentary on The Last Ringbearer. I'll point anyone who visits these comments toward it, here:

Also, it's been thoroughly debunked that the Medieval Age was a time of lice-picking backwardness.

Frankly, I thought Miller absolutely embarrassed herself in her "review" of Ringbearer on Salon. "Well-written," seriously Laura? Here's the acid test: scroll through the PDF of Ringbearer at random, eyes closed, and highlight a paragraph. It reads like an eighth graders attempt at a bodice-ripping romance. Here's my random sample:

At dawn a vivino was singing in the garden. The bird perched on a chestnut branch right
outside their open bedroom window; at first, his sad melodic trills seemed to Tangorn to be
threads plucked out of the fabric of his dreams. He slipped out of bed (carefully so as not to
disturb Alviss) and stole up to the window. The tiny singer put up his head so high that the
yellow throat feathers formed a frothy collar around his neck, and finished with an excellent
resounding note; then he turned his head in mock modesty and expectantly glanced at the
baron: did you like it? Thank you, little friend! I know that vivinos are forest dwellers that
hate the city. Did you fly here to say good bye?

Anonymous: It's hard to blame them for feeling that way, no? Even given their nostalgia for that period (Tolkien scholar Michael Drout identified it as the Belle Epoque) that hardly makes Tolkien an "enemy of progress," merely someone who wishes that our lessons from the past could be applied to the present.

Lagomorph: I don't recall anywhere in his letters that Tolkien had read Spengler. I could be wrong though.

Hmm -- well, Tolkien's own stated views on government were absolute monarchy or Kropotkin-style anarchy.

Tolkien had a very dim view of the capacity of man to rule man, which is why he sided with a form of anarchy. Look at how he portrays Aragorn in LOTR: Very distant, idealized, and "hands off," leaving places like the Shire largely alone to rule themselves. Which makes Brin's point that Tolkien was advocating for some form of feudal monarchy rather silly.

This is just ridiculous, I'm wondering why people have nothing better to do than attacking shining pieces of our literature.

I have no problems with honest critcism of Tolkien, but for whatever reason these typically take the forms of shrill attacks, calling into question the very existence of LOTR. I've said it before: When you see criticisms of War and Peace or Moby Dick, rarely do they take the form of undermining their value. Tolkien criticism hasn't reached that point yet, and so we have people like Brin who continue to try and marginalize LOTR. I think he's afraid of seeing it accepted as part of the established literary canon.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Yeah I couldn't remember him mentioning it in the letters.. I just wasn't sure if there had ever been any mention of it in any of the more scholarly things.

Andy said...

My honest criticism of Tolkien: As much as I love it, parts of LOTR are genuinely dull, and I would have preferred to read Boromir's last stand as it happened instead of reading how the others stumbled across its aftermath. And while I love the barrow-downs segment, I still think Tom Bombadil is kind of stupid.

Brian Murphy said...

Andy: Pistols at dawn!

But seriously, those are fine criticisms, and no issues here. I do find it strange that for every critic who calls Tolkien a "war-monger," I've heard a matching complaint that he de-emphasizes the battles too much.

Tom Bombadil does feel a lot like an unnecessary side-trek; he's one of Tolkien's oldest creations and his appearance in LOTR feels like Tolkien was simply showing us a part of his world not integral to the plot (now I've probably stirred the wrath of the Bombadil fans).

Graham said...

Funny, I took Yeskov's idea less as a technological progressive's attack on Tolkien's rural sentimentalism than as an attempt to recast the LOTR story into Gnostic/Luciferian terms in an attempt to undermine the element of Catholic allegory of the work.

In essence, to recast Sauron as an agent of absolute moral autonomy as a teacher to mankind, the way Milton's Satan might have presented himself, the way Gnostics and others including some modern Satanists did so present him, and to undermine the ideas about justice and the purpose of creation that are part of Tolkien's work and his belief system.

That is not inconsistent with the focus on technology, of course.. Just a wider field in which it is a part.

Graham said...

On another note- your intro left me confused? Are there people who cite Tolkien's monarchism as though it were a bad thing? I am a Canadian and am considered odd in my country now for endorsing the existing and historic form of Canadian government. Imagine an American considered strange for supporting a republic organized according to the 1787 constitution.

Tolkien's monarchist symbolism might well be considered of a piece with the degree to which he did idealize elements of medieval society. But I don't think we should carry that too far. Medieval monarchy was not entirely lacking in principles of consent of the governed and consultation, or of the rule of law, even if it did grant the King greater legitimacy through religion, greater automomy from consultative partners, and greater authority as the source of law than he would have now.

Even Henry VIII, often regarded as England's most tyrannical monarch [I once saw his regime characterized as an "Italianate princely despotism", suggesting he was following the modern statecraft thinking of his day]executed much of his will through legal institutions and strengthened the courts and especially parliament by doing so. His will was the first serious use of parliament to manipulate the succession to the throne. And it held over the will of his son Edward because it had been embodied in an act of parliament. Elizabeth I very much embodied a similar approach. Their regimes might be considered to have modernized government to increase the king's ability to wield power and to some extent the government's ability to wield power over society, but it faced limits.

The early Stuarts tried to impose a "French-style absolutism" [same source drawing a comparison]. Absolute monarchy was the progressive ideology of the day, attempting to yoke the idealism of kingship and its religious legitimacy to very modernizing ideas of statehood and power. Whether justified by a religious ideology [James I and many scholarly sympathizers] or a secular one [Hobbes], it advocated a vision of powerful government organizing society to directed ends that was not a medieval vision of society or government.

TO whatever extent Tolkien idealized medieval kingship, it was certainly not an idealization of unbridled tyranny.

I don't know that the governing structures of the Numenorean realms are really deconstructible in worldly terms. The absence of the countervailing role of institutional religion, which both justified and supported the traditional European royal state but also provided two important counterbalances, makes drawing these analogies in Tolkien's world difficult. The Church in medieval England filled the role of embryonic civil society [it claimed legal rights distinct from state power], private economic power [it held wealth and lands far vaster than any commercial entity into the Reformation], and international community [it had a foreign HQ and claimed certain diplomatic rights and acted as a moral authority on matters of war and peace]. Tolkien's world doesn't have much of that, except perhaps certain roles for selected Elves.

Still it seems to me that the government of Gondor was one in which mechanisms of consent must exist and laws are made in a non-arbitrary fashion and followed. Just a gut feeling.

All that and Tolkien was an Englishman and not a traitor, so of course he was a monarchist.

What has always left me curious is there is no role for disease in Tolkien's world. Idealization of the medieval world mainly bugs me on that score. I would not want to live in a world with medieval medicine and dentistry. In just the last 100-150 years mankind has left all human history in the benighted dust in those areas. That's progress!

Andy said...

"Imagine an American considered strange for supporting a republic organized according to the 1787 constitution."

There are numerous Americans who feel that way and they are considered odd :)

"What has always left me curious is there is no role for disease in Tolkien's world. Idealization of the medieval world mainly bugs me on that score."

I don't think it's quite accurate that LOTR is supposed to represent a medieval society. As I understand him, Tolkien envisioned a world in which traces of a higher plane still existed and if there's a lack of disease it's because in Middle earth humans lived longer and healthier because they were in a spiritual sense purer than modern man, they hadn't fallen quite as far. I don't think Tolkien believed that actual medieval people could live for hundreds and hundreds of years, as Aragorn did, for instance ;)

Lagomorph Rex said...

I seem to remember that several plagues were partly responsible for denuding Gondor of part of its population at one point..

Maybe I am mis remembering though.

Dwelling on stuff like that though is just missing the point. It's not important to the story the author was trying to tell, so he didn't include it. Bilbo is very clearly mentioned as having a head cold in the Hobbit though.

Brian Murphy said...

Graham: You're far more of a student of history than I, and sorry for the confusion, but by a monarchist I mean someone who advocates that kings rule by divine right and have unquestioned supreme authority.

In The Silmarillion the Kings of Numenor fell from grace because they disobeyed the will of Eru and sought out the undying lands, proving that even the greatest of the line of kings may fall, and is not above reproach. Said Tolkien in a letter, "The proper study of Man is anything but Man; and 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 to it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity."

Also, here is how Aragorn was crowned:

Then to the wonder of many Aragorn did not put the crown upon his head, but gave it back to Faramir, and said: 'By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will; for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.'

To me this sounds very unlike a medieval king who demands fealty and supplication from his vassals. The Lord of the Rings is very much about relinquishing power, which defies Brin’s central thesis that Tolkien advocated a return to feudalism and a consolidation of power by an elite ruling class.

Graham said...

Interesting points for me to think about, thanks.

Andy- Yes, I didn't really want to allude too directly to US politics, but that thought did occur to me. Still, I think monarchism in Canada is considered even more esoteric. It's hard to get rid of though, it is the legal basis for everything and our constitution is almost totally impossible to amend thanks to the complexity of the amending formula and the finely honed regional rivalries that both divide and hold us together. The Crown will likely be with us for an indefinite time. Unless the Brits get rid of it, of course. We haven't laid the legal groundwork for that situation.

Andy and Lagomorph Rex-

I appreciate your comments on the medical situation in particular, both the practical reminder of references in the texts and the notion of looking at the world of Tolkien in less materialist terms than I had done. As you mention it, I had seen writing on that before but I am not enough of a Tolkien student for that way of looking at it to have stuck. The comparison to the antediluvian world in the Bible is the one that comes through most clearly for me on that aspect.

Graham said...

I am going to think more about how to understand the coronation of Aragorn. Your criticism of Brin gets it right, I think. He is too much in thrall to Low Church Marxist terminology with his assessment. Never a very good sign.

There isn't enough information to determine the class structure of Gondor. It is possible to have strong monarchy and quite weak nobility, to the occasional advantage of other classes. We do not know that Gondor is ruled by an especially strong nobility, or the role of landed or other kinds of wealth. Just as well.

The comparison of what Aragorn does and how he is crowned to medieval kingship is interesting. Perhaps because we know so little about social structure, it is pretty hard to relate that coronation to issues of fealty or vassalage. Gondor in some ways stands in for the Byzantine empire's role in history. It was certainly hierarchical but its nobility was far more fluid and did not have a Western style feudal relationship with the ruler.

I actually tend to the view that the feudal contract was an overall benefit to societal checks and balances, insofar as the king could demand fealty but the lords had rights in return, the model for the granting of reciprocal rights and obligations to others in society later.

Aragorn's coronation contains none of that real-world limitation on his power. But you are right, the text itself is all about him assuming a duty that may be sanctioned by higher authority and justified by his lineage, but is only made legitimate by his approaching it as a duty and a form of self-denial. And he has learned through long experience and through the war of the ring in particular of the importance of looking at his life in those terms.

An idealized version of kingship,to be sure, but one that has never lost its cultural resonance.

There are of course no real world analogues to it, that all could agree on. The element of sacred sanction and putting the capstone on a great victory is somewhat akin to what the Crusaders thought they were doing creating a Kingdom of Jerusalem [we need not agree with them, of course]. Godfrey did Aragorn one better by taking a lesser title than King and refusing a crown, though his successors took the title soon enough. The sense of profound restoration would have been most closely matched by the coronation of Charlemagne. Any restoration would do, but few others have taken place after centuries as Aragorn's did. And Charlemagne was in no way a dynastic heir to Rome, so his coronation was missing that element. I'd be hard pressed to come up with a real world event that could even theoretically match the coronation of Aragorn for combining the senses of sacredness, restoration of ancient order, and sanctity of bloodline, and sheer amount of time passed. The coronation of a descendant of Augustus on the throne of a new Roman Empire? The coronation of a proven descendant of the House of David as King of Israel?

Let us hope we see neither. They would not be met with universal cheer as Aragorn rightly was.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Good points, Brian. Attack criticism usually tells us far more about the writer than what is criticized.

And of course positive criticism does, too! Those who championed Tolkien as anti-progress first were anti-progress themselves!

It really means you've arrived as a writer when people want to claim your writing for their own causes and pet peeves. I can't wait until someone does that with my work someday...


Tom Simon said...

by a monarchist I mean someone who advocates that kings rule by divine right and have unquestioned supreme authority.

I should like to point out that this position scarcely existed in mediaeval Europe. There was, at least in intention and in principle, a clear separation of powers between the religious and secular spheres, and where these came into conflict, the religious was considered the superior of the two. The Church could absolve a king’s subjects of their oaths of loyalty and order the king deposed for ecclesiastical offences. Furthermore, there were well-defined grounds in secular law for a king’s feudatories to renounce their allegiance and make themselves effectively independent of the crown. And every king, as part of his coronation oath, was expected to ratify and swear to uphold all the scores or hundreds of charters by which his predecessors had granted permanent rights to various groups of his subjects. The Magna Carta is now the most famous, but was never even in England the most important, of these charters.

The theory of absolute monarchy first appeared in the political decadence and moral chaos of the fifteenth century, and only attained full rank flower in the era of the Reformation, with the establishment of the pernicious principle of cuius regio, eius religio.

Tolkien, as a mediaevalist by profession and a Catholic royalist by principle, would have hated and denounced the usurpations of Henry VIII or Charles I as bitterly as the tyranny of any modern dictator. If you want an index of how he regarded such things, re-read the Akallabêth. The sin of Ar-Adûnakhor and his heirs, in renouncing the friendship of the Elves and arrogating to the kings the worship due to Eru, is perfectly homologous with the actions of Henry VIII in proclaiming himself the sole head of the Church in England.

Graham said...

Tom Simon,

Agreed. And much better put than a note I struggled with the other day.

Two last thoughts on that:

1. I would still argue there were important differences in theory and practice between what Henry VIII was doing and what the Stuarts were doing. From one point of view, Henry's claims were more sweeping in terms of claiming supreme religious authority for the first time. There are some origins of totalitarianism in that. For my own biases I tend to give him more of a pass because he worked through parliament, strengthened national government and created both the theory and practice of a more complete English sovereignty. The Stuarts made comparable ideological and more expansive institutional claims in imitation of French models. Tolkien would have cared for neither of them in about equal proportion.

2. There are some important differences between the Christian idea of divine sanction to kings, in its medieval form or even in its decadent [good choice of terms] absolutist form, and the ancient notions of a "god-king". Hard to articulate in this format, but the distinction has always seemed strong enough to me. Ar-Pharazon I think was approaching the latter level of hubris.

I have always liked the early Roman soldier-emperor Vespasian (pretty sure it was him) for the account that on his deathbed, he wryly remarked, "I think I am becoming a god". Nice to know power doesn't quite go to everyone's head.

Brian Murphy said...

Tolkien, as a mediaevalist by profession and a Catholic royalist by principle, would have hated and denounced the usurpations of Henry VIII or Charles I as bitterly as the tyranny of any modern dictator.

Tom: Excellent stuff, thanks for adding to the discussion. Your quote above is what I was trying to state in a more general fashion.

You've done some great work over on Bondwine, by the way.

Tom Simon said...

Brian: Thank you! Most of my stuff is written for the salutary purpose of figuring out what it is that I actually think. It’s nice to know that some other people find value in it as well.

Long Haired Spider said...

Thanks for posting this! Though I don't believe I'll ever actually read The Last Ringbearer, it's nice to see someone call out the kind of review it got in Salon. The championing of this book reminds me of the denigrating of my religion in the city in which I live. Basically, it's cool to mock it because it's for backwoods losers who don't understand the modern world.

If you don't like Tolkien, or his works, fine! But you don't need to say that because you don't agree with what you think his politics are, his work is without value.