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Tolkien's Clash of Civilizations

Tolkien's Clash of Civilizations

The eerie relevance of The Two Towers.


Courtesy of National Review.

If you think about it, making the connection between the obliterated Twin Towers and The Two Towers is a dime-store synchronicity. The World Trade Center was a morally neutral symbol of commercial dynamism (though Tolkien himself would have taken a darker view of those towers). In contrast, the towers of the film's title are twin projections of unambiguous evil. Still, the comparison is irresistible -- even director Peter Jackson says he gets an "eerie" feeling thinking about it -- because audiences see Jackson's first-rate film versions of the Tolkien books, and immediately grasp the relevance the stories have for our convulsive times.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy explores the nature of individual heroism in the midst of an epic clash of civilizations, one that pits freedom-loving peoples of the West against merciless totalitarians from the East. As the hobbits Frodo and Sam make their way through the bleak and hostile land of Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power, which would bring about the enslavement of the world if it fell into the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron, their companions in the West rally a coalition of tribes to wage war against Sauron's minions living among them.

Some Western peoples of Middle Earth, for reasons of bourgeois comfort, selfishness, or cynical despair, want no part of the coming war, and think mistakenly that they can avoid trouble if they simply lay low. It falls to the good wizard Gandalf, the ascendant king Aragorn, and their followers to convince the West to stand fast and fight for its freedom and way of life. As many of us do when we read stories of the hideous weapons that could be in the hands of terrorists, we know how Frodo feels when he tells Gandalf that he wishes he had not been born into such a time as this.

The old prophet-wizard counsels Frodo to turn away from such futile and self-defeating conjecture, because no man can choose the times in which he lives. Says Gandalf, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

The Lord of the Rings is about how men, including the humblest of men, choose to act in the face of moral urgency and engulfing peril.

The Lord of the Rings is about how men, including the humblest of men, choose to act in the face of moral urgency and engulfing peril. It is about the power of humility, the wisdom of mercy, the glory of self-sacrificial valor, the false glamour of evil, the workings of grace, and above all, the necessity of faith. Put more plainly, LOTR screenwriter Phillippa Boyans says it's about goodness -- an idea that leaves many moderns skeptical and confused.

"We come from a generation that has never had that question put to us," she said in an interview. "It was put to the generation of World War I. It was put to the generation of World War II. 'What are you prepared to do?' 'Are you going to hold on?' 'Are you going to keep going?' 'Do you have to live?' 'Is this a world worth fighting for?' All of this is in there."

In The Two Towers, when a weary Frodo begins to lose faith in his ability to succeed on his mission, and in the prospects for the West's survival, we hear an echo of our own sophisticated cynics and cultural pessimists, who despair of defending our civilization from its enemies because they do not believe we have anything worth defending.

"There are things that people hold onto to keep them going," says his faithful servant Sam Gamgee.

"What are we holding onto?" Frodo asks.

"That there is some good in this world, and that's worth fighting for," Sam replies.

That looks banal on the printed page, but the line has great force in the film. Sam is a simple man, but he knows a few things well, and his chief virtue is loyalty. He doesn't trouble himself with the big picture; all he knows is that his homeland and its people are worth defending against those who would destroy them. That is enough; indeed, it is more than many more intelligent men and women of our day know. It is the wisdom of the common man, the kind of English infantrymen Tolkien knew in the trenches of the Great War. The Hun is still at our borders, which still must be defended.

When Saruman masses his troops in The Two Towers, before the Battle of Helm's Deep, it is tempting to look upon the battalions of Orc-slaves ready to slaughter the men of the West at the command of the Sauron's wizard servant Saruman, and think of the fanatical slaves of Islamism, under the command of mad mullahs. And there would be some truth to that. But as Russell Kirk observed, you cannot pin Tolkien down to any specific historical allegory. "His three volumes are a picture of the perpetual struggle between good and evil; his concern is the corrupting intoxication of power." Tolkien believed in good and evil, but also held that "the line between good and evil runs straight through every human heart."

This is why it is a mistake to view The Lord of the Rings films as merely inspirational movies into which we can neatly read self-congratulatory, pro-Western messages in a time of war. Bradley J. Birzer, author of the recently published J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth, asserts that Tolkien's message included "a call to defend all that was best in the long history of Western civilization." But Birzer reminds us that for Tolkien, "Evil does not always come in the form of war or totalitarian terror. Tolkien saw in the impersonal, machine-driven capitalism of the twentieth century, and especially its handmaiden, the democratic bureaucracies of the Western world, a form of soft tyranny almost as oppressive as fascism or communism."

The orthodox Catholic Tolkien saw pride, and the all-consuming craving for power it fosters when unchecked, as the root of human evil. In LOTR, Sauron and his servant Saruman desire to gather all power unto themselves so they can subjugate the natural world and every living creature within it, rather than seek to find their rightful place as reverent stewards of an ordered creation. They were slaves of their desire for raw power, which was symbolized by the Ring. With perfect power comes total enslavement, Tolkien teaches; this is why not even those who think they would use the Ring to do good are lying to themselves.

I want to be careful when I say this, but it seems clear to me that Tolkien would have looked upon the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as symbols of a form of tyranny to which prosperous and free Western man is susceptible. Of course, there can be no doubt that he would have seen the attack upon them as monstrous, and would have backed some kind of military response to combat the Islamic barbarians. Whatever the contemporary West's sins, there is plenty of good in this world we have made for ourselves, and there is no question that it's worth fighting for.

We will be judged by how we use the power we accumulated, by what we have done with the time that was given us.

That said, Tolkien does not let us off the hook easy. We will be judged by how we use the power we accumulated, by what we have done with the time that was given us. Are we an arrogant and materialistic people? Do we restrain ourselves in accordance with principles of justice, mercy, decency, and reverence for life, or do we seek knowledge and riches for the sake of imposing our will on things that ought to be left undefiled? Will we tolerate the intolerable rather than limit our freedom of choice? Is our seemingly unstoppable march to globalization unwisely concentrating power in the hands of the few? Do we see the natural world as merely ours for the taking and selling?

These are the kinds of questions Tolkien's great narrative puts to both the serious reader, and despite the surfeit of action, to the viewer of the films. Both the author and his cinematic interpreter inspire the LOTR audiences to stand firm in defense of our civilization, despite its flaws, without rewarding them with a sense of unearned triumphalism. There is far too much at stake for that: only the souls of individuals, and the soul of Western civilization. Prof. Birzer quotes Tolkien writing that Gandalf was wholly dedicated to "the defence of the West against the Shadow," and the same is true for Tolkien. We are fortunate to have these books, and now these films, in the present moment, to give us hope and a reason to dig in for the long fight ahead.

And yet, even as the shadow cast by Islamofascist minarets is the most immediate source of this present darkness across our civilization, it is by no means the only one.

December 21, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) Diane J, January 13, 2003 12:00 AM

A good book, and a good movie

I appreciated your comments. I am glad that this movie appears at this time to confront this generation with the question of good vs. evil. Is freedom worth fighting for? We all need to face this.

(9) Anonymous, December 28, 2002 12:00 AM

When Evil Goes to The Make-Up Room

One of the things that I liked about the Tolkein books as a child was that as the reader, there was a clear distinction made for me about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, although it has been a long time since Iread them.

What if real life is not like that? What if your parallel stops at the theater door, and in real life, everyone thinks of himself as the good guy? Even Hitler, may his name be erased, must certainly have seen himself as a great champion of a great cause. It is only on the outside that wwwe may view events with clarity. That "the World Trade Center was a morally neutral symbol of commercial dynamism" in my opinion is an oxymoron. Anything morally neutral is by definition inanimate. Once it becomes dynamic, there can no longer be neutrality. The central battle is not between good and evil-it is between something and nothing. Once we have something, then we must direct that something with all of our skill and artistry and resourses. The Torah does not offer us the choice between life, death, and other. The Torah perspective in my understanding is that we, as mixed up humans all, are intended to serve Hashem with both hearts, not by using evil to achieve good ends, or by attempting to destroy it, but by transforming the nature of evil itself. In this, and in Catholic Tolkein's basic misunderstanding of the nature of the world, lies the root of the history of all power struggles.

Evil is, in fact, more persistent than smart, though it can be cunning, baffling and powerful, if we don't recognize it.

Evidence of persistent evil in our own scenaryo would be the suicide bombers and the slaves of Islamism, that you mentioned. I would argue, that they have been hoodwinked themselves, by a far mor e insidious "evil", the drama of good versus evil. They are more like the blind Horsemen, sent out in rage and unfortunately, they are encouraged to see Israel as a representative of either the 'doctorine of moral neutrality and the Evil Capitalism'-ie secularism, or the great directator. They are agents.

What if Hollywood were financing Osama and Co., but they (the Freedom Fighters turned Terrorists) didn't actually know it? What if every time a bomb exploded, more people watched TV...more newspapers were sold? More weapons systems were financed. (Gd Forbid) Not even George Orwell would have thought up a scenario like that.

Preposterous, you say. Preposterous, even those radicals would say. That would be just plain mercenary. We are fighting for what we believe in-values, homeland, security. The bad guys are really ugly, power hungry, control freaks. They want to take over our freedom, destroy our sacred way of life-not to mention control of our pocketbooks. Or maybe they want everyone to be poor, like those communists. We must not allow that. They worship strange gods, in weird ways. Perhaps we could tolerate that -you know free speech and all, but the bad guys are obvious-they use violence, and wild rhetoric. They even dictate women's hemlines!

Don't touch that dial!

Granted, balming those in the theater (directors, production companies, media)who reap the rewards of the bad actors as if they were actual accomplices themselves is a matter for more enlightened people to figure out. But maybe we would have a little less violence in the international and domestic theaters if we just changed the show.

Don't take the bait, whoever you are. Don't give any excuses for rotten egg throwing or back-stage visits.

The cues are all part of an old script, and the crusaders and the infidels are still at it. Will the real Israel please stand up? Before it gets worse?

I'm not knocking the media empire, per se, just the concept of the supposed moral-neutrality of a dynamic system.

Just a what-if, for fans of fantasy.

You know the movie I am waiting for? The one where the bad guy melts, and the great men come out from behind the curtain, and admit that they are not very good wizards, and the heroine goes homeand everyone gets up, and takes a bow, and we recognize everyone from our dream, and their true gifts of character, and we all live happily ever after. And there's a little dog, too. And something about a rainbow, and lots of little people. Somebody should write a movie like that. : )

Keep it simple, Purim is coming, and so is Mosiach. We have the real-life Torah, and no one can take that away.

When you are dealing with a circular system, moving all the way to the left only brings you back to the right. Or we could attempt to run around the outside. Or, we could actually step into the center. With the torah. With God's help.

(8) David, December 26, 2002 12:00 AM

will the good prevail?

The good side prevails but only for the fluky misfortune that befell the evil side. This is a description of the theme found in most of all stories portraying an intense struggle between two sides. LOTR is no exception.
The idea behind this theme is that in our world evil is the natural state, advancing constantly to fill any vacuum left unattended by the good. To end a story with a natural victory, brought about only by a natural decision by a natural good man, would seem too unreal.
In my opinion there is a healthier approach to the ongoing battle between good and evil. Good pushes forward slowly but surely. Changes in the direction of good may seem few, but seldom is there a retreat back to evil or less good. Evil strikes often, but only as a means to make the good – better. Good is the natural course of our world. Good will win slowly but for good.

(7) Anonymous, December 26, 2002 12:00 AM

Twin towers representation is neutral

What today's late Twin Towers represented was capitalism. This is agreed. However, capitalism is neither good nor evil. It is that "line" of good and evil in our hearts that makes capitalism good or evil. We should not condemn a system, that when used properly, supports freedom. If it is used improperly it enslaves. It is the same concept as atomic power.

(6) eran, December 25, 2002 12:00 AM

one fight for truth and peace

Yes, this fight is on all the levels.

The warriors (as we see in's piece on Alan Leventon) are indeed assembling and standing up for the ultimate battle against the darkness which the Light will win.

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