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 Salon.com
, and so Tolkien’s mistaken views apparently require “correction” for a modern audience.