[tolkein’s world]

Topic: Culture

Last night, Jenny and I finished watching the Special Extended DVD Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Which, of course, kicked ass, and with all their added length and exposition, managed to hold my attention more firmly than the theatrical releases.

I haven’t yet gone through much of the documentary material, but I did watch a short piece on J.R.R. Tolkein. I was struck by his insistence that The Lord of the Rings isn’t allegorical, which struck me as nonsense until it was explained that by allegory, Tolkein meant a one-to-one mapping of one narrative to another. The claim he made for The Lord of the Rings was that rather than allegory, it had applicability, by which he meant that you could see real events reflected in it, and that is certainly true.

One could, in fact, go on and on about the myriad ways in which The Lord of the Rings is applicable. I want to focus on a few applicabilities that occurred to me this time through.

First, there is a recurring theme of grossly outnumbered armies surrounded by vast hordes of filthy, half-human enemies. These outnumbered armies nevertheless prevail because of several key factors: 1) they are garrisoned in forts, 2) they’re better than the enemy at forming and maintaining lines, 3) they have noble courage, and 4) there is always the hope of reinforcements. These are the virtues of the British Empire at its height, particularly in terms of Great Game engagements in far-flung outposts.

Indeed, the resonance of the Great Game was the second applicability that I noticed. Frodo and Sam’s journey into Mordor shares a resemblance with the secret missions of disguised pandits into the cold, arid wastes of Tibet, and all the hard riding and secret messages and complicated efforts to win the support of local kings would be familiar to anyone who had read about T.E. Lawrence or Britain’s campaigns in Afghanistan or any of the intrigue of the First World War, as exemplified in John Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels, which were enormously popular in the years between the wars.

The third applicability was Tolkein’s understanding of the devastating effect of air power. You don’t find much in the way of aerial bombardment in ancient epics, even ones with flying creatures. In Tolkein, and especially in Peter Jackson’s imagining of the big battles, the terror of low-flying Nazgul is evident and resembles the strafing and haphazard bombing of World War I more than the coordinated and massively destructive air campaigns of World War II. (It’s the Great War, of course, in which Tolkein actually fought.)

As I said, one could go on like this forever, but those are some of the aspects that stood out to me on this viewing.