Monday, March 15, 2010

The Conservative Worldview of "The Lord of the Rings"

J. R. R. Tolkien was a conservative in almost every way: theologically, politically, culturally, ethically etc. His great work, The Lord of the Rings, embodies an Augustinian conservative worldview. The mythology created by Tolkien over the course of his lifetime depicts the world from a this perspective.

What arguments would I make to substantiate this thesis?

1. Hierarchy: Tolkien's world is a hierarchical one and the fact of hierarchy is not evil, but good. Of course, like all good things, hierarchy can be corrupted by evil and the rule of Sauron is a tyranny. Yet, hierarchy is also part of the solution to the evils spread by the tyranny of the enemy; part III is fittingly named "The Return of the King." The book ends with the overthrow of the expansionist, statist empire of evil and the installation of "the days of the king," an echo of motifs in English history which lament the absence of good king Richard and long for his return.

2. Evil: Tolkien believes in and takes great pains to try to explain and describe genuine moral evil. In his invented world, as in the real world, evil is a force, a reality and a power that actively opposes itself to good. This is not inconsistent with the Augustinian teaching that evil is merely a privation of the good. That is true on the metaphysical level. As St. Thomas would later put is "being equals good." Yet, good beings can be corrupted and can become warped and evil. There clearly has been both an angelic fall and also a human fall in the world of Middle Earth. The orcs, one notes, may have originated from experiments done on captured elves. One shudders to think of how this may prefigure future genetic engineering experiments.

There is no moral relativism in this book. Sometimes people mistake one for the other, but when they do they exhibit a moral fault; good and evil are clearly opposites.

3. Friendship: I do not have time to argue extensively here for the case that friendship is a conservative virtue, but let us say it is. Much of Tolkien's great story is about friendship as a means of growth toward the good, friendship as a motivation for heroic deeds and friendship as one of the chiefs goods in itself. One has only to mention the relationship between Frodo and Sam, the relationship between Merry and Pippin and the relationship between Gimli and Legolas to illustrate how central the theme of friendship is to the work. The quest to destroy the ring would never have succeeded without the fellowship of the ring and, particularly, the stubborn loyalty of Sam.

4. The Supernatural: The Lord of the Rings integrates the supernatural into the world in a way that makes the divide between the natural and the supernatural to be less sharp than it usually is seen as being. God is remote in this pre-incarnation and pre-Abrahamic period, but not so remote as to be irrelevant. Gandalf was sent to Middle Earth and after his battle with the Balrog he was sent back. He describes heaven to Pippen in a moving scene just before the assault on Gondor. The demonic powers in Middle Earth are real, but not grotesquely overdone and the overall effect is to make the reality of the supernatural more believable and, oddly, "natural."

5. Honor: Much of the cultural setting of the story is medieval in flavor. The culture of Rohan reminds one of pre-Christian Scandinavia in some ways, especially during the scene dealing with the death of the son of Theodon, but also of Medieval Europe, especially with regard to the chivalry of both Rohan and Gondor. Keeping one's word, oaths and bonds of loyalty are of central importance to the culture and come to the fore at key moments in the story, such as the prelude to the climactic battle at the Black Gate.

If you believe in equality, feminism, socialism, materialism, rationalism and modernity, then The Lord of the Rings can only be fantasy to you at best, and oppressive at worst. In a very real sense, for the conservative it is more than fantasy; it is reality. If that makes no sense to you, then perhaps you are reading too literally and are missing what Tolkien meant to convey in his art.

1 comment:

feathertail said...

I was a lot more excited about the Lord of the Rings before I realized that it was a story about why people like me shouldn't be allowed to exist.

I've devoted my life to writing stories that counteract those teachings, and reminding people that there's a place in this world for them, too.