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Friday, February 25, 2011

Good and Evil and the Lord of the Rings

Earlier this week ran a review of a Russian novel, The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov, that purports to re-tell the story of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings from Mordor's perspective (there is no official English translation yet). In general, I think reimaginings can be interesting, but this one does not appeal to me. For one thing, I love the source material too much to enjoy a book that completely subverts everything that was good and beautiful in the original. For another, it sounds awfully similar to Noam Chomsky's and Howard Zinn's unused commentary for the DVD release of The Fellowship of the Ring, which was a big old satire of certain trends in scholarship that are worthy but can be taken too far, especially if used for their own sake and not to discover something true.

Two things that surprised me, however (although it should not have), were the way this re-telling has been praised for subverting LOTR's "overly simplistic morality," and the assumption that it is a story for kids, specifically teenage boys (something Yeskov himself thinks). Others go farther and praise The Last Ringbearer for correcting the unrealistic, fantastical, "unscientific" LOTR.

There's a lot going on here, and I am not sure I can address it all coherently. For one thing, to suggest that LOTR is juvenile fiction, on par with the Narnia books or The Wizard of Oz or the Harry Potter books (all of which I love), is bizarre. LOTR is a very dense book with a lot going on, not just a sword and sorcery story. Tolkien incorporated a great deal of scholarship and philosophy into the books, and while people can certainly read it on just the top level, a magical adventure story, that does not prevent it from being read on deeper levels. I first read the series in sixth grade, and I have re-read it countless times over the years, always getting something from it. There is stuff in here about good and evil, love, self-sacrifice, restraint, power, corruption, environmentalism, progress . . . I could go on and on.

For similar reasons, the charge that LOTR's morality is "overly simplistic" is flat out wrong. It may not be apparent to everyone, but the books were intentionally suffused by Tolkien with Catholic theology, particularly on the nature of good and evil. I think part of the reason this accusation exists is because of a modern tendency, in this country at least, to reject the idea of Evil-with-a-capital-E, of Satan, in favor of a focus on the evil deeds that men do. To a certain modern sensibility, the idea that there is an inhuman, magical creature like Sauron who is pure evil seems childish. It's not, of course; even if you don't believe in anything super- or preter-natural, go read Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas and then tell me that the Catholic theology of good and evil is simplistic.

But even if Sauron is cartoonish in the way that Voldemort is, he is hardly the only representation of evil in the book (just as Voldemort is not in those books, something people tend to overlook when criticizing Rowling). Evil isn't just the actions of demonic powers, it is in the actions of ordinary men and women who commit evil because of human weakness. Nor is it simply just a matter of good versus evil. Frodo, the hero of the books, and an undeniably good person, fails his task -- at the last minute he succumbs to temptation. Gandalf, the "white wizard," has to keep on constant guard that he does not abuse his considerable power and allow it to corrupt him as it corrupted Saruman (who had a chance at redemption despite the tremendous evil he committed, but allows his pettiness and bitterness to rule the end of his days). Boromir, a noble, strong, smart, well-intentioned man, has a weakness that leads him to do a very bad thing; nonetheless he is given a moving act of redemption. Denethor commits great evil despite his desire to keep his kingdom safe and good, because of his pride and despair. Even sniveling, disgusting, corrupt Gollum is shown to have a true humanity and flashes of the innate goodness buried deep within him. This is not the stuff of simplistic fairy tales.

The impression that some critics, including Yeskov, don't fully understand or appreciate LOTR is strengthened by Yeskov's very long, very rambling follow-up article in Salon about why he wrote his book. After a section on the nature and ethical considerations of derivative works (and for the record, unlike some other fans of LOTR, I have no problem with The Last Ringbearer as a concept), Yetsov writes that a fantasy novel in general and LOTR in particular has a medieval black-and-white ethos that forbids moral relativism, and is more appealing to adolescents than adults. There is a lot wrong with this claim. First of all, this is a false dichotomy he has set up. As the examples I listed above show, it is in fact possible to have a notion of absolute good and absolute evil and yet have characters and situations that are "gray" -- after all, humans are flawed creatures. An acknowledgment of the contradictions in human nature, and the ability of a person to commit good, bad, and neutral acts, sometimes all in the same day, is not at all the same thing as moral relativism, which holds that the the terms "good" and "evil" have no universal meaning. Second, there are a number of fantasy books that do, in fact, incorporate moral relativism, or at least a much more elastic view of good and evil. Third, the claim that this fantasy ethos appeals only to adolescents is insulting to both adolescents and adults who are capable of a nuanced understanding of morality and for whom the concept of absolute good and absolute evil is a thoughtful, reasoned part of their faith or beliefs.

There are other, nitpicky misunderstandings of LOTR floating around. In the same article, for example, Yeskov (a scientist) discusses the scientific errors in LOTR, mentioning in particular another critic's focus on the geologically impossible nature of Middle Earth because there is only one continent. My first thought, like a true fangirl, was "No, there are two continents, and maybe more, given that Tolkien deliberately left vague the peoples and lands to the east and south of Middle Earth." Similarly, Yeskov likes to stump Tolkien afficionados by asking what currency was used, his point being that Tolkien's failure to mention any is a significant flaw in the realism of the book. Only, Tolkien does mention it -- the hobbits in one scene pay for beer with silver pennies. That kind of sloppy fact-checking does not incline me to take seriously the critic. Moreover, while I totally understand the impulse of a specialist to correct errors in a work (I could rant for days on the laughably wrong understanding of the legal system most Hollywood writers have), I don't think it is fair to let such errors obscure literary merits (especially since Tolkien was not an earth scientist and plate tectonics were not well-understood then).

My not-at-all-expert opinion is that what is really going on is simply that some people don't like the fantasy genre in general, and LOTR in particular, and therefore get hung up on "realism" issues like money and plate-tectonics and demonic evil. But while there is nothing wrong with not liking a genre, it is a (very common) mistake to assume that what you do not like is no good. Complaining about the realism of a demonic evil presence in a book whose genre is predicated on the existence of such supernatural and preternatural forces is silly. Expecting a professor of linguistics to have a deep understanding of plate tectonics (ahead of his time, no less) is unfair. While a sloppily-researched or poorly-thought-out book should be criticized for that reason, we should not get carried away with realism. Not the least because there is more than one kind of realism: Tolkien may have created an impossible geography and he may have ignored certain realities like money, but he depicted the realities of loss and sacrifice, temptation and free will, quite well.

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