Democratic Underground

What Hobbits Can Teach America
November 26, 2001
by Jerald Cumbus

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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 myopic reductions.

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.