[Marxism] Lord of the Rings political fallout
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
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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?
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