[Marxism] Lord of the Rings political fallout

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 28 08:29:36 MST 2004

Who's Sauron -- bin Laden or Bush?
The success of "The Lord of the Rings" has launched a war over Tolkien's 
politics, pitting pundit against pundit, and Viggo Mortensen against John 

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Steven Hart

Feb. 28, 2004  |  In the years following the mid-1950s publication of "The 
Lord of the Rings," author J.R.R. Tolkien was often plagued by interpreters 
who wanted to read his three-volume epic as an allegory of World War II or 
the Cold War, with the disembodied villain Sauron standing in for Hitler or 
Stalin, and the fiendishly powerful One Ring representing nuclear weapons 
or space-age technology or whatever.

Though he detested these interpretations, Tolkien offered a truce by 
drawing a line between "allegory," which placed responsibility on the 
author, and "applicability," which left readers free to find parallels of 
their own without pretending to read the author's mind. However, the 
worldwide success of Peter Jackson's film version of "The Lord of the 
Rings" has produced a whole new generation of mind readers claiming to 
understand Tolkien's motives, and opened up another front in the culture 
war that has long simmered around Middle-earth's frontiers.

When the book's original paperback editions became campus bestsellers in 
the 1960s, conservatives wrote it off as hippie-dippie pablum, an 
incense-scented ur-text of the New Age movement. Religious conservatives 
were suspicious of the book's popularity with rock groups like Led 
Zeppelin, and its connection to the seminal role-playing game Dungeons and 
Dragons. But what a difference a generation makes! With "The Lord of the 
Rings" firmly ensconced in popular culture, Catholic theologians and 
evangelical activists alike are trumpeting the book's hidden Christian 
messages. As for the pundits, their successors are happy to claim a story 
in which good has blue eyes and resides in the West, while evil lives due 
east and has a really bad complexion. How's that for moral clarity?

It's true that Tolkien's personal politics placed him closer to the 
conservative line than anything else. The counterculture's early embrace of 
Tolkien was always comically inapt, though the sight of Bilbo Baggins and 
Gandalf the Gray enjoying "the finest weed in the valley" can still draw 
sniggers in the theater. But right-wingers may want to undergo a 
long-overdue round of soul searching before they lay claim to Middle-earth. 
In fact, they might be better off giving Tolkien back to the hippies. 
Unlike, say, "Atlas Shrugged," "The Lord of the Rings" makes for a 
double-edged weapon in today's culture wars.

The first skirmish in the newest battle flared last year when Jonah 
Goldberg of National Review Online defended "The Two Towers" against some 
leftist writers who charged the film with racism because the chief monsters 
-- burly orcs called Uruk-hai, bred by the turncoat wizard Saruman -- have 
dreadlocks, dark skin and flat noses. The dispute was a nonstarter because, 
like their counterparts in the book, the film's orcs also speak with broad 
Cockney accents and trade insults right out of "Tom Brown's Schooldays." 
(Fortunately, Jackson didn't follow Tolkien's own description of the orcs: 
"Swarthy ... like the less attractive type of Mongolian.") But that's 
nothing compared to the most recent clash, given an acid political edge by 
the ongoing fiasco in Iraq, and involving members of Jackson's cast: Viggo 
Mortensen, who plays king-in-waiting Aragorn, and John Rhys-Davies, who 
plays the stouthearted dwarf Gimli.

When the first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," opened only two 
months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, pundits and feature writers 
were quick to make the War of the Ring an adjunct to the war on terror. 
During press appearances for the second installment, "The Two Towers," an 
exasperated Mortensen wore a T-shirt bearing the message "No more blood for 
oil" and let interviewers know he considered George W. Bush a good buddy of 
Sauron. Last fall, as the hype machine went into overdrive for "The Return 
of the King," Mortensen spoke at an antiwar rally in Washington sponsored 
by International ANSWER, an odious Stalinoid fringe group. Like most of the 
people who attended the rally, Mortensen seems to have gone in spite of 
rather than because of the group's involvement -- it's not as though 
antiwar comment has had so many platforms. Nevertheless, Mortensen has 
become the piñata of choice for pundits like gay conservative Andrew 
Sullivan who remain determined to ignore the accretion of lies that fueled 
the Iraq invasion. (Sullivan, saucy thing, even called Mortensen "cute, but 
dumb as a post" in his blog.)

Rhys-Davies emerged as a hero to the pro-war faction during a recent press 
junket, when he offered remarks apparently aimed at Mortensen: "I think 
that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged, and if they do 
not rise to meet that challenge, they will lose their civilization. That 
does have a real resonance with me ... What is unconscionable is that too 
many of your fellow journalists do not understand how precarious Western 
civilization is, and what a jewel it is." Rhys-Davies linked all of it to 
the rise of militant Islam, and conservative pundits swooned.

Since the interview, Rhys-Davies has been making the rounds of right-wing 
bottom feeders. On Feb. 19 he spent what looked like the longest hour of 
his life trapped in Dennis Miller's no-laugh zone on CNBC, doing his best 
to stay awake while the host and Gloria Allred debated Michael Jackson's 
fitness as a parent. When his moment came, Rhys-Davies warned that Western 
Europe was on the verge of being overrun by unassimilated Muslims 
representing homophobia and other forms of religious intolerance. Since 
then, of course, George W. Bush -- putative defender of the tolerant values 
of the West -- has announced he will fight for a constitutional amendment 
barring same-sex marriages. Sorry, Gimli -- the barbarians are already 
inside the gates, and they don't pray to Allah. Before we can preach 
Western values to the Muslims, we have to get the word out to Pat Robertson 
and his ilk.

But is that really news to Rhys-Davies? A month before his Dennis Miller 
ordeal, on Jan. 17, the actor consented to share a podium with Michael 
Medved, the bush-league Bill Bennett who counts up cuss words in movies and 
types out screeds like his book "Hollywood vs. America." The venue was the 
Discovery Institute, the Seattle home base of "intelligent design," the 
slicked-up version of creationism heavily underwritten by conservative 
moneybags Howard Ahmanson Jr. If the mere presence of some cranks at a 
political rally disqualifies Viggo Mortensen from serious consideration, 
then why would John Rhys-Davies -- by all appearances a worldly and 
cultivated man -- let his name be linked with a group dedicated to 
injecting theology into science curricula across the country?

full: http://www.salon.com/ent/feature/2004/02/28/lord/

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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