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Tolkien’s Legacy

Please enjoy the following long-form piece by a member of the ALCStudies team. Happy holidays. — DA

J.R.R.Tolkien’s Legacy to the Modern World

Courtesy Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net)

The biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien released this past year1 reinforces the relevance of his life and work in our modern (or post-modern world). Tolkien conceived the creation of Middle Earth in The Hobbit, which he initially wrote for his children and published in1937. The final book of The Lord of the Rings followed in 1954. The film focuses less on Tolkien’s writing than his life, but gives insight into the evolution of his ideas.

Tolkien was caught up in the forces of industrialization and global conflict during his childhood and adolescence. In the second decade of the 20th century these culminated in a war devastating and profound. Rather than being a war to end all wars, the First World War, the 100th anniversary of whose end we observed recently, unleashed a conflagration of economic, technological and cultural forces that few understood then and which we fail to understand today at our peril. It raised the curtain on the carnage and brutality of the last century and the one in which we live now.

Tolkien and his boyhood comrades served in the trenches where artillery, high explosives, aerial warfare, gas and machine guns shredded bodies, maimed souls and devastated minds. The trauma the war and its aftermath inflicted on the soldiers and the populations on both sides led Sigmund Freud to question the value and prospects for western civilization.2 It is not too much to say that Tolkien and his companions, along with the populations of most of Europe, never knew what hit them. Their lives were divided forever by their experiences.

The comfort-loving hobbits encounter similar threats to their existence. The Lord of the Rings is set in the fictitious land of Middle Earth inspired by Tolkien’s study of Old English, Norse and Anglo Saxon myth and language. The Catholic-raised Tolkien claimed his story of the one ring was not an allegory, as opposed to his Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis’s Christian-influenced Narnia series. But given The Lord of the Rings’ mix of good, evil, ambition, sacrifice and loss, it’s hard not to see at least allegorical elements.

My two friends and I read the series starting when we were twelve, when it was popular on college campuses and in communes across the country. On the threshold of adolescence and just beginning to confront the complications and realities of the adult world, we were enthralled by the story populated by elves, wizards, dwarves, men, goblins, orcs and hobbits confronting dark forces beyond their understanding and control looming beyond the the Shire. While our other friends were playing cops and robbers and army (somehow still innocently in the Vietnam war era), we created our own fellowship, undertaking quests among the mountains of central Pennsylvania as our stand-in for Middle Earth while quoting passages and dialogue from the books,.3

Tolkien’s legacy resonates today in contemporary games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Peter Jackson’s film interpretation and in television shows such as Game of Thrones.4 Tolkien did not originate the archetypes and mythology these contain of course. From creation stories told around campfires to the Greek’s Odysseus to the Wizard of Oz, books and stories have always allowed us to escape or at least re-frame our experience to make it bearable through narrative. But long before film, television and web technology commodified the process, Tolkien tapped into a visceral desire among his readers to undertake heroic quests and inhabit a secondary world of their imagination.5 In our ostensibly civilized, rational, enlightened and data-driven age, the popularity of television shows such as Game of Thrones, online gaming sites, sword and sorcery graphic novels, films such as the Matrix and Bladerunner and fan fiction sites reflects a persistent yearning to connect to some human part of ourselves and transcend the world that often disappoints. Many of the people involved in developing and promoting the Internet came from the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s and were influenced by The Lord of the Rings.6 As our lives today seem ruled by obscure forces and impersonal algorithms, our souls threatened with being reduced to a series of data points solely for the profit of others, often hidden from us, it is perhaps useful to revisit the tale of the one ring again.

Steeped as he was in Edwardian education ranging from Greek and Roman classics to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it’s easy to think of an orphaned young Tolkien creating scenarios that allowed him to prevail against dark forces and vanquish his grief. The trauma of the trenches, the loss of his friends and a bucolic way of life, preceded by the loss of his parents confronted Tolkien with an almost unbearable reality. After 1914 the trauma was compounded tenfold. The world he had known was gone, along with childhood friends killed. His relationships with his friends and remaining family were immeasurably altered. It is a cliché by now to say that soldiers enduring combat have difficulty relating to others who don’t share their experience. But you don’t need to have an official diagnosis of PTSD (Shell Shock) to be affected by the constant stress of battle and witnessing your companions blown to bits.

Perhaps Tolkien and his surviving comrades felt in the aftermath, as Bilbo tells Frodo, their spirits ‘stretched ‘ like butter scraped over too much bread’. The Lord of the Rings (and before it the Hobbit, along with The Silmarillion) where forged in the smithy of Tolkien’s soul as an anodyne to his pain and confusion as a survivor of the 20th century’s opening apocalypse.

My two friends and I had no clue of this when we read the books in the early 1970s. While the generation ahead of us occupied themselves with the Vietnam War, accelerating changes in technology, the environment, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and opportunities provided by protests, drugs and sex, we found a more youthful and innocent escape from the anxieties of adolescence. We inhabited a world filled with swashbuckling heroes carrying swords such as as Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, and of course Gandalf, along with elvish queens and princesses such as Galadriel and Arwen. We could have found worse inspiration to counter the excesses and incipient narcissism around us. Many since have found solace in the books’ mix of Christian moralism, ancient mythology, and presentations of chivalry. Maybe that accounts for The Lord of the Rings’ persistent popularity as a best-seller.

In creating the tale of the Hobbit’s journey there and back again in the mythic Middle Earth, Tolkien undertook a personal journey to expunge the horrors of the war. This allowed him to live his life in England with a wife and family with a measure of peace and acceptance. Like the hobbits,Tolkien and his comrades were small, seemingly powerless beings caught up in events beyond their understanding that challenged their capacity to endure, let alone survive.

The story resonated with college students, professors and others in the 60s and 70s beset by rumors and realities of war, clashes between East and West, and threats of Armageddon. Tolkien’s tale of life in the Shire is filled with gardens, second breakfasts and parties. Their existence is interrupted by distant events that threaten the occupants’ bucolic way of life: a ring, a wizard, rumors of disquiet and revelation, forces and visions, machines and technology and the passing of an age.

Today in a reality increasingly of our own construction, our individual and collective fantasies provide an alternative to a world that daily challenges our capacity to understand or endure it. We seek refuge in our own private secondary worlds, spending time in social networks and in possession of smartphones and other technology that reflect a narrow slice of reality to suit our desires. These representations are not always benign. Many appeal to our herd instinct and need for reassurance in return for our uncritical allegiance to an organization, group or ideology.

We are caught between those who would unleash dark forces to control the world in their own image and the quest to preserve our humanity7. Perhaps we are more like Saruman, the foolish wizard, than Sauron, the manifestation of evil who seeks to bring all of Middle Earth under his thrall. Saruman possesses the craft and desire to rival his nemesis. But he falls prey to o’erweening ambition similar to the Greek’s hamartia.8 He becomes himself possessed by the will to power, drawn into Sauron’s circle and seduced.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In The Lord of the Rings good ultimately prevails. The ring is cast into the ancient fire of its origin. The old world passes away and a new world emerges through the combined efforts of former enemies — the peoples of Middle Earth. But as with Tolkien’s wartime experience, no one escapes unscathed. The one ring corrupts those who wear it9, testing the will of the most noble and brave. It causes the breaking of the Fellowship and the death of one of its members. Frodo, the protagonist, receives a permanent wound: The portion of a Morgul10 blade pierces his flesh and makes its way toward his heart. The wound would prove fatal to his soul except for the ministrations of Aragorn and the elf-queen Galadriel. The pain flares yearly on the anniversary of its receipt.

Far from being a book for children,The Lord of the Rings presents an adult tale of suffering, hope and redemption. People die and don’t return. Frodo, Bilbo Sam and the others don’t simply move on with the right therapy, medication and a positive attitude. They are permanently altered, even damaged, by their experiences. At the end of The Return of the King, the final book of the series, Frodo and Bilbo leave Middle Earth forever with Gandalf and the elves at the Gray Havens.

Whatever Tolkien’s original intent, The Lord of the Rings contains elements of allegory still relevant to our own age. The ring itself is being re-forged by those who would obey only the power of technology. Saruman has incorporated as a consultant, headquartered at his tower of Orthanc – offering his dark satanic mills and workforce of orcs, half-men and goblins for offshore manufacturing. The dark riders are abroad, sowing fear and distrust on social media. Each of us carries our own personal palantir which draws our gaze and through which we are gazed at by the unblinking eye of consumerism.11 Anyone who attempts to assert their agency and think critically about the world we are creating risks being labeled of subversive or malcontent.

The Lord of the Rings reminds us there are consequences to dedicating our efforts solely toward the unchecked machine of progress. We surrender our peril those small gardens of humanity where love and laughter flourish and are shared, where we are free to enjoy elevenses and birthday parties. It was a world Tolkien grew up in and enjoyed before war destroyed it. But of course that was just a fable. — CDL

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1Tolkien, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019

2Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930

3Including naming specific geographic features of the terrain after those in the LOR, such as the Carrock.

4Often unacknowledged

5Tolkien wrote about the appeal of such secondary worlds and standards for their success or failure in his essay On Fairy Stories.

6Tim Berners-Lee, a co-developer of the ArpaNet and Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog and current promoter of trans-humanism, to name two.

7See David Noble’s, The Religion of Technology; The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, 1997

8Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartán, a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.

9Even, significantly, those who would use its power for good.

10Signifying the black arts, sorcery or necromancy. (Tolkien Gateway).

11See Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism ( “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 1 (March 2015)

A Memorial Day Remembrance from ‘Occupy Pittsburgh’ 2011-2012

From Occupy Pittsburgh 2012

Standing Bear’s home.

Shouldn’t we honor those who serve any time of year? Even if they’re ‘heathens’? Even if they dissent? Even if they’ve been in jail?  Following is a blast from the past from all of six months ago.

CDL

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I bicycled downtown to USX Plaza before Christmas. After photographing the plastic baby Jesus with Joseph, Mary and the Shepherds in the giant crèche, I wheeled my bike across the street to the Occupy Pittsburgh site at BNY /Mellon Park. It was filled with tents but seemed mostly deserted. I walked up the path into the park and approached the chain link fence surrounding the silent fountain. I parked my bike and sat reading the signs people had hung there. One was a quote by Andy Warhol praising the durability and design of U.S. currency, which he had thrown in the East River in New York City (which I daresay Campbell’s tomato soup cans had allowed him to do unlike most of us).

A woman bundled up against the 30-degree temperature walked by without saying anything. A guy with a thick beard walked by wearing what looked like red and black checked pajamas. Pieces of cardboard were laid on the dirt between the tents. Someone had hung an American flag with thirteen stars.

As I stood up to walk further up the path three men approached. One of them who appeared to be in his late fifties had a beard and wore a flannel shirt. I introduced myself to him as he passed and said I was doing research on dissent.

He shook my hand and introduced himself as Rick. “What kind of dissent?”

You tell me,” I replied. “What are you dissenting?”

Rick called to his companions. “This guy wants to know what we’re dissenting” He pointed up at one of the office buildings looming above us. “Those guys there have all the money. We want some of it. If they don’t give it to us, we’ll take it.”

The other two came over. One, a tall, dark-haired man, began talking about Marcellus shale drilling.

I’m a native-American. We believe the earth is our mother. Would you drill a hole in your own mother?”

I started to make a lame joke, then stopped. “No, I wouldn’t,” I answered. I asked if he were from Pittsburgh.

No. Montana. One of my ancestors helped kill Custer. What an asshole.”

I said I had taken a road trip with my son and camped in the Bitter-roots. “Beautiful place,” I said. “I’d like to go back.”

He said his name was Standing Bear.

Ah. Is that what you go by.”

That’s my given name.”

I asked what brought him to Southwest Pennsylvania.

Change of scenery.”

Next to him Rick laughed. “After being in California.”

I was in prison there,” Standing Bear explained.

Where do you live? Do you have a job?” I asked.

A place in town just a few blocks from here. I work in the kitchen. They give me a place to stay.”

What do you do? Do you cook?”

I’m a cashier.”

I said I guessed they’d be taking down the tents. BNY/Mellon had said they had to be out of the park by Sunday.

No, man! We’re not leaving,” exclaimed, Rick. He told me he was “born and bred in Pittsburgh”.

I asked Standing Bear the reaction of people to the Occupy Pittsburgh site.

Some are supportive. Others throw eggs at us and yell ‘Get a job!’ One woman shot at us with a pellet gun.”

From her car. Can you believe it?” Rick said. He shook his head.

Standing Bear continued. “Some folks like yourself come and talk to us. They want to know what it’s all about. One young man came over. He was staying at the Omni for a wedding. He spent the night with us.”

You mean in a tents with you?”

Standing Bear nodded. “He said ‘I’m one of the one percent. But I’ll be graduating soon and out there on my own.’”

A young woman stood behind Standing Bear interviewing Rick with a video camera and microphone. The sun had starting going behind the buildings. It felt colder than thirty degrees.

I served my country. I’m a first Gulf War vet,” Standing Bear said.

Tell him you were in prison,” Rick said. He laughed.

Standing Bear ignored him. “The Veteran’s Administration denies us our benefits. Like for that PTSD. They claim it’s a pre-existing condition.”

I told Standing Bear I’d been involved with an employment networking group. I had proposed a resume-writing and job skills workshop to Veterans Leadership Pittsburgh to help vets translate their experience to civilian jobs.

I was a long-range sniper. I killed people from a distance. I took an AK47 round in the center of my back.” I again noticed Standing Bear’s cane. “How do I put that on my resume — that I was a sniper?”

Good question.” I answered “Focuses on tasks? Works independently. Good problem-solver? It’s all how you spin it.”

Standing Bear smiled slightly. “It’s all bullshit to sell yourself.”

I shrugged. “Doesn’t the military help you with these kinds of things? Like job searches?” I asked.

I wasn’t entitled to benefits because I had a dishonorable discharge. I hit my commanding officer because he called me a heathen. So I spent time in prison in California.”

I observed that might be a compliment given the behavior of some people who called themselves Christian. I asked Standing Bear if I could see his tent. I followed him outside the Occupy site and down the sidewalk. Across the street music played from the creche in USX Plaza. Something about peace and goodwill toward all men. The structure looked big enough to hold everyone in the camp– providing a roof and shelter from the wind to flesh-and-blood occupy residents in place of inanimate plastic religions icons. I read in the newspaper that the Pittsburgh Catholic diocese spent $50,000 each year putting the creche up and taking it down again. Celebrating the glory of God and Jesus’ birth cost a decent yearly salary for a bus driver, say, or a teacher.

We stopped at Standing Bear’s tent at the perimeter of the Occupy site.

I’m right on the outside, so I get all the comments,” he said. “A man came by with his son on his shoulders. The little boy asked who the people were. The man said ‘They’re all homeless.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, Sir. I have a job and a place to live.”

I looked inside Standing Bear’s tent. It had a raised platform for sleeping and a board set on two milk cartons for a shelf. I knew from my own camping that the ground would drain the heat from your body. It looked almost cozy – if you had to spend the winter in a tent.

“I winterized it. I’ve got two sleeping bags – one inside the other.,” he said.

I like the platform,” I commented.

That’s just a wooden shipping pallet.”

You’ve got a little vestibule here.” I pointed to the tarp rigged above the tent opening. I looked across at the other tents huddled in the park. We could have been two campers comparing notes about equipment instead talking about a Quixotic endeavor whose end was only a matter of time.

Standing Bear and I walked back to the fountain and the chainlink fence. My bike leaned where I had left it against the bench. The signs waved in the breeze. Standing Bear and I talked a little longer. I thanked him for sharing his story. Then I said I had to go. The sun had dropped further behind the buildings that looked down on us. The temperature had fallen. My hands were freezing.

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