J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress?
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 17 06:54:52 MST 2002
J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress
"The Lord of the Rings" is lovingly crafted, seductive -- and profoundly
backward-looking. Why not look at things through the Dark Lord's eye for
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By David Brin
Dec. 17, 2002 | Want to forget about terrorism and all those
distracting rumors of war? Need to ignore the economy for a while? Got
the holiday blues? Our culture has a sure-fire cure -- the traditional
spate of post-Thanksgiving movies.
This year, despite a clamor over the latest Harry Potter film, much of
the attention is going to another fantasy called "The Two Towers" --
Part 2 in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Will it succeed in
distracting us for a while, conveying audiences to a world more
beautiful and stirring than humdrum modern life?
Just look at how people felt about Princess Diana. No democratically
elected public servant was ever so adored. Democracy doesn't have the
pomp, the majesty, the sense of being above accountability. One of the
paramount promoters of the fantasy-mythic tradition, George Lucas,
expressed it this way:
"There's a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore
rubies all over. There's a whole social need for that, not to oppress
the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them
to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so
that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them,
so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled."
This yearning makes sense if you remember that arbitrary lords and
chiefs did rule us for 99.44 percent of human existence. It's only been
200 years or so -- an eye blink -- that "scientific enlightenment" began
waging its rebellion against the nearly universal pattern called
feudalism, a hierarchic system that ruled our ancestors in every culture
that developed both metallurgy and agriculture. Wherever human beings
acquired both plows and swords, gangs of large men picked up the latter
and took other men's women and wheat. (Sexist language is meaningfully
accurate here; those cultures had no word for "sexism," it was simply
They then proceeded to announce rules and "traditions" ensuring that
their sons would inherit everything.
Putting aside cultural superficialities, on every continent society
quickly shaped itself into a pyramid with a few well-armed bullies at
the top -- accompanied by some fast-talking guys with painted faces or
spangled cloaks, who curried favor by weaving stories to explain why the
bullies should remain on top.
Only something exceptional started happening. Bit by bit, the elements
began taking shape for a new social and intellectual movement, one
finally capable of challenging the alliance of warrior lords, priests,
bards and secretive magicians.
Timidly at first, guilds and townsfolk rallied together and lent their
support to kings, thereby easing oppression by local lords. Long before
Aristotle became a tool of the establishment, his rediscovery during the
High Middle Ages offered some relief from dour anti-intellectualism.
Then Renaissance humanism offered a philosophical basis for valuing the
individual human being as worthy in its own right. The Reformation freed
sanctity and morality from control by a narrow, self-chosen club; it
also legitimized self-betterment through hard work in this world, not
the next. Then Galileo and Newton showed that creation's clockwork can
be understood, even appreciated in its elegance, not just endured.
Still, the entire notion of progress remained nebulous and ill-formed.
Society's essential pyramidal shape remained intact till a full suite of
elements and tools were finally in place for a true revolution -- one so
fundamental, coming with such heady, empowering suddenness, that
participants gave it a name filled with hubristic portent: Enlightenment.
The word wasn't ill-chosen, for it bespoke illuminating a path ahead --
which, in turn, implied the unprecedented notion that "forward" is a
direction worth taking, instead of lamenting over a preferred past.
Progress -- and boy, did we take to it. In two or three centuries our
levels of education, health, liberation, tolerance and confident
diversity have been momentously, utterly transformed.
The very shape of society changed from the once-universal pyramid toward
a diamond configuration, wherein a comfortable and well-educated middle
class actually outnumbers the poor. For the very first time. Anywhere.
We can argue endlessly about the accuracy and implications of this
"diamond" analogy -- and its vast remaining imperfections -- but not
over the fact that a profound shift has occurred, driven by a genuine
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