Hobbits Can Teach America
by Jerald Cumbus
With the impending release of the new film The Fellowship
of the Ring, I thought it would be important to explore how
this material is relevant to us in America today. There is
little doubt that the film will be hugely successful. The
large built-in fan base and Hollywood marketing will assure
that. But, as good or bad as this film may be I want to launch
a strike before America's film critics get hold of it. I have
little doubt that our myopic critics in this country will
reduce the story to one of Good vs. Evil. Also, there is little
doubt that they will use that simplistic explanation to explain
the probable success of the film. However, I believe Hobbits
have much they can teach America and it goes far beyond such
The years Tolkien was writing his trilogy roughly covers
the years of World War II and just after. So, it should come
as little surprise that the traumatic events of that period
had a profound affect on his work. I won't go so far as to
suggest it is an outright allegory as some critics have. Instead,
I suggest that Tolkien's work is colored by the times in which
he lived and represents an intentional critique of totalitarianism.
The evil system that Tolkien describes is a world that seeks
absolute control over individual thoughts and actions. All
that is needed for the perfection of the system is finding
the "One Ring:"
One Ring to Rule them All
One Ring to Find Them
One Ring to take them all
And in the Darkness Bind them
That rune is written on the inside of the ring of power -
hidden, it only appears when great heat is applied. The ring
itself hides a person when exercising its power.
Power hides itself and Sauron himself never physically appears
in the book. The most popular reference is to the "lidless
eye" which exerts its force from the Dark Tower. Like Bentham's
Panopticon, Sauron's power and authority is placed in the
discipline of surveillance a la Foucault. Constant and unbending
- Sauron is always watching his minions.
The power of totalitarianism is also seductive. The Black
Riders (Nazgul) were humans seduced by the drive for power.
Even those seemingly good characters Elrond and Galadriel,
seduced by the power in the Elven rings, have used the power
to carve out their own havens from the outside world. This
cannot help but remind me of the traditional liberal position
of working within a system for positive change. Can this work
if the system itself is evil? Tolkien's answer seems to be
no. The elves pass away at the end of the Third Age. They
cease to be a force.
Force alone is not the answer. Warfare in the book, merely
served as defense, or a cover for Frodo's quest. The system
had to be destroyed from the inside. Through those faults
(greed, disloyalty, apathy, incompetence) Frodo is able to
make his way into Mordor and to Mount Doom. On the brink of
the crack, Frodo finds himself unable to give up the Ring.
Seduced by the power, he imagines himself ruler of the world.
It is at that moment that Gollum (the former ring owner) bites
his finger off and falls into the heart of the volcano. The
irony is, of course, that Frodo's act of pity and kindness
for not killing Gollum is rewarded in the end. True heroism
also has its shades of gray.
The War Against Totalitarianism did not end with the Third
Age of Middle-Earth. It did not end with the war against Hitler
and Hirohito. It didn't end with the collapse of Stalin and
his disciples. It exists in a System that coerces people to
conform to its power and directives: that is the magic of
the Ring. In one of the more telling scenes in the trilogy,
Frodo offers to give Galadriel the One Ring. She resists the
temptation and points out that instead of a Dark Lord, she
would have become a Dark Queen - as beautiful as she was terrible.
America, Lady Liberty herself, has much to learn from hobbits.