Friday, November 19, 2010

brin and tolkien

Back when the Lord of the Rings movie series was happening, the science fiction and technology opinion writer David Brin wrote this discussion of the series' philosophy for Salon magazine.

He gets so much wrong that I find it hard to think that anyone could find him persuasive, yet several folks I know have over the years, as this essay has gotten famous. So, a while back, I sat down and took it bit by bit. Having just recently seen a recommendation of Brin's essay again, I thought I'd bring it up here and see what you think. Note that I'm basing this rebuttal on his complete essay, which was abridged for Salon, but is now no longer available in its entirety on Brin's website.


> This fits the very plot of "Lord of the Rings," in which
> the good guys strive to preserve and restore as much as
> they can of an older, graceful and "natural" hierarchy,
> against the disturbing, quasi-industrial and vaguely
> technological ambience of Mordor, with its smokestack
> imagery and manufactured power rings that can be used by
> anybody, not just an elite few.

A self-serving synopsis there, eh? First, they're not striving to preserve the old hierarchy. They know that the old hierarchy is passing. An entire stream of the story is that the old is passing away (admittedly the feeling here is elegaic) — but the good guys are the ones making way for the new, the rule of man on earth, while the bad guys are hanging on to the old hierarchy, the subjugative power for wizard Sauron. What they're fighting is Sauron's evil power, not the passing of the old order.

And there's nothing more "technological" about Sauron's Mordor than about the Shire, whose hobbits love gadgetry but who don't use it to destroy everyone. As for the rings, referring to them as "manufactured" certainly fits Brin's technological point here rather than referring to them as "conjured," which is the far more accurate characterization.

Meanwhile, can this ring be used by just anybody? The point is that it destroys everybody, even its wielder. As Simone Weil pointed out, in talking about the Iliad,

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it.... Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.


It's not just anyone who can truly use that ring: it was made by Sauron for Sauron, and anyone else who "uses" it isn't really using it to its fullest potential. It's the ultimate elite symbol, and that a ragtag band of fellows, led by a simple hobbit, could upend this hierarchy is the opposite type of message from what Brin interprets.

Brin, after all, refers to the rings incorrectly as "man-made" (they're made by a sorcerer, not a man, a fact as important to the story as it is important for him to gloss over in this essay). He posits the moral of the Ringwraiths' corruption as, "Don't try putting on the trappings or emblems or powers that rightfully belong to your betters. Above all, don't try to decipher and redistribute mysteries." Wrong again: the Ringwraiths became corrupt not because they were trying to "usurp the rightful powers of their betters — the High Elves." The Elves' power wasn't rightful at all, as both Brin and Tolkien acknowledge, but the one ring's very purpose was to subjugate the Ringwraiths, and the Elves, to Sauron.


> Still, scientific/progressive society has been known to
> listen to its critics, and not just now and then. Name
> one feudal society whose leaders did that.

To name just one, England. What on earth does Brin think of the Magna Carta?


> Were any orcs or "dark men" offered coalition positions
> in King Aragorn's cabinet, at the end of the War of the Ring?
> Was Mordor given a benign Marshall Plan?

Of course not: they weren't humans. Germans, nasty as their plan for domination was, are human, as are Soviets, Chinese, Americans, Mexicans, Brits — we're all humans. We come together in coalitions, even with those who are technically our enemies, just as the men in Tolkien did: men of Gondor, Rohan, and so on. The other creatures don't represent Nazis or the Yellow Peril. They represent Satan and his demons, foes of all men.

The misplaced discussion of the dark creatures in Tolkien as being "racist" is based on the fact that we see these creatures as men rather than as demons. There are no good Orcs, just as there are no good demons. Brin may not like the terms of Tolkien's fantasy, but he can't just twiddle them around however he likes.


> Let me avow upfront that I share the more recent, upstart
> belief in universities, democratic accountability, science
> and human improvability — one that questions the fated
> persistence of "eternal" stupidities. Above all, any
> "golden age" lies in our future. It has to. Or what are we
> striving for?
>
> Anyway, people with my view had better be right. Because
> if humanity is as obstinate as the cynics and Romantics
> believe, we shall surely go extinct quite soon.

A perfect example of the bankruptcy of a secular worldview. Everything he says is a shadow, faithful to the shape but a shadow nonetheless, of what a Christian would call truth. The striving for a better future — is it any coincidence that it comes from Christian Europe? The Christian message, of a better day yet to arrive, and its vow to remake the fallen world to closer resemble that day — from "on earth as it is in heaven" to "we shall build Jerusalem in England's green and tender land" — is the very source of progressivism, as its faith in an ordered creation is the source of empirical science. But we're striving for that better day as a means of preparing the way for it, not building it. Human nature is obstinate, no matter what cynics and Romantics believe. But, in secularist language, the Christian worldview says that we will all go extinct, and that we will never go extinct. The end of the world, as it is envisioned by a secular mind, is a beast with two horns that the Christian mind escapes right between. No, we won't just weave on forever, and, no, we won't just go up in smoke.


> But things were different in kingdoms of old, where one
> official party line was promulgated and alternative
> sources of information got routinely squelched. And that's
> in every kingdom, mind you. Go ahead, name one where it
> didn't happen.

OK, to name just one: Israel. Israel! Has this guy ever even casually flipped through Chronicles? Honestly, this is kind of fun, but if you're going to be so chip-on-the-shoulder, ya better be sure of what you're saying.


> Next time you reread LOTR, count the number of powerful
> beings who are vastly uglier than anybody with that kind
> of power would allow themselves to be. Why? How does being
> grotesquely ugly help you govern an empire?

But the real question is, once you've gotten enough power, why on earth would you bother posing as an angel of light? Tolkien's point here is obvious. No one in his right mind would envy Sauron's bling-bling lifestyle as a bodiless eye surrounded by fuming waste, but Sauron isn't in his right mind. That is yet another way in which power corrupts. Does Donald Trump know how ugly he is? No face-lift or hair job or tailor could ever give him what he's missing. Right?


> Enlightenment, science, democracy and equal opportunity
> are still the true rebels, reigning for just a few
> generations (and still imperfectly) in one or two corners
> of the Earth, after elite chiefs, romantic bards and
> magicians dominated our ancestors for maybe half a million
> years.
>
> Don't you think a little pride in that rebellion — a
> radical revolution-in-progress, still fresh and incomplete
> — might be called for?
>
> A rebellion that, among many other things, taught serfs
> like you to read so you can enjoy epic books and picture
> things differently than they are.... One that, for all its
> imperfections, gave you a better chance than in some
> peasant village of old.... this culture may not be as
> romantic as those old kingdoms. But isn't it better?
>
> You are heirs of the world's first true civilization,
> arising out of the first true revolution. Take some pride
> in it.

Finally, he sounds persuasive! But the flipside of that question is, where is the poetry? Why does the only nondystopic future, Star Trek, end up so saccharine, to use Brin's example? Maybe it's because these stories really aren't going anywhere. That is to say that an endless progress is no progress at all. The sword-and-sorcery tales, to the suprise of their myopic fundamentalist critics, are essentially Christian in that the progress eventually ends. That's why it is true progress in the first place. These tales are not so much a longing for lost hierarchy — who really wants to be a slave, even under King Solomon? — as a symbol of the ultimate hierarchy.

As is not often enough pointed out, America's experiments in democracy were not inspired by Greek "democracy" or Roman republicanism, but rather by the example, in Deuteronomy chapter 1, of a people who freely chose their own leaders to lead them and whom they could hold accountable, precisely because they did have a king, who they saw as the real king, God himself. The later arguments about the divine right of kings stemming from the kingship of God were self-serving and wrongheaded. Samuel's conversation with God encapsulates the Biblical Christian view, if not the traditional Euro-Christian view: that God is the only king, period, and that human monarchy leads to dissolution — which in fact it did, as that flip through Chronicles shows us.

So our love for princes rescuing princesses from dragons and living happily ever after answers a Christological longing, not a hierarchical one. And it's right at the heart of Tolkien's tale; without acknowledging that, Brin, for all his excellent analysis of human history (purged though it is of its theological source), won't make any progress at all.

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