Friday, April 23, 2010

“What Can Men Do Against Such Reckless Hate?”

-King Theoden, (from J.R.R Tolkkien’s The Two Towers)

It should be no surprise to me that the works of Tolkien, an author relegated to the plastic bin of adolescent fantasy genres continues to rise above all others in my daytime mind as I look at the shaping of the 21st century. I’m surprised and even a little embarrassed at myself. -It feels like a nerdy impulse. As if nothing profound could exist among the chapters and books of a body of work so widely read, obsessed over and loved, his three most notable books are often ignored and abjured as simple adventures. For all my self-professed independence, maybe, -just maybe- I buy into all of that; my convictions dwarfed, as everyone’s attitudes are, by the opinions and tastes of the masses.

Tolkien himself aggressively dismissed any analyses or critiques that cited possible allegories, however salient and obvious. This may have been the manifest fear Tolkien had and shared with all authors: That their work become dated by too close an association with a specific history or time.

Yet Tolkien’s works, the legendarium he built meticulously across several years, with its invented languages, histories, cultures, plague me when I read headlines today. Beyond his symbolism of bound rings ruling all, as the actual symbol of the nuclear model of the atom haunted the minds of children from Hawaii to Sibera after the bombings of Japan in 1945; beyond his imagining of an undying embodiment of fascism in the caricature named Sauron (The fictionalized Hitler and made-up Stalin of his Middle Earth), beyond his proto Orwellian warning of totalitarian rule in the image of Sauron’s all seeing eye; it is Tolkien’s ideas and conjectured suppositions about race that are the most haunting today.

Yes, race.

As a child, I was aware from the time I was able to speak, that I was an American, but that I was different from “Americans.” This is something that was told to me by the television I saw, the books I read and the world I walked in. It is something that in my darkest personal moments, I even told myself.

I didn’t think of someone who looked like me when I thought of the word American. I thought of African-Americans; the various hyphenated Caucasians: Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, but not brown, tan skinned, or Asian people or anyone who spoke with any accent or had an “ethnic” name. I knew I was born here, but my mother’s coming to the United States of her own will, in a determined against-all-odds struggle for her American dream and her citizenship somehow made me illegitimate in my own mind. I have always felt intrinsically foreign, despite the fact that I think in English, despite the fact I cannot think of any other place as home. My mother’s origin in immigration placed an asterisk next to my skull that I could not outrun. Because of this mediation of my nationality, I have always been sensitive to portrayals of race in fiction and “news.” As long as I can remember, I have always been “looking for the Indians.” In every story about mass struggle, war, national upheaval in any time there is a group of people central to the narrative who are portrayed less as persons and more as a identity-less force to be overcome and destroyed: an inhuman force like a storm or tidal wave. This is the role of the Indian in orthodox American “Western” fiction: Indians “oppose” the movement of “Americans” westward and must be outlasted, defeated, massacred. To me, in Tolkien’s world, “the Indians” are the Orc hordes and the “men of the East.” They only exist to oppose and threaten the peoples of West, and for that reason only. Therefore they can conversely only be defeated and destroyed. This is the essence of racism: the casting of others into a group deemed disposable by virtue of a supposed non-humanity.

How I can think of a book such as Return of the King at times like these, with two wars going on, with fundamentalists claiming that cartoon writers are fair game for murderers, with entire swathes of human beings being convicted by the flimsiest of associations, or by assumptions made of the many based upon the criminal actions of the few? It seems silly. But Tolkien’s work, with all its grandeur, profundity, and sinister contraindications is of utmost relevance at times like these. His trilogy is an attempt at recreating a lost world in compensation for the loss of the Saxon culture and its foundation myths under the Norman conquests. In creating a world, Tolkien intentionally or incidentally shed unflattering light on our own.

The turmoil, massacres, internecine exhaustion of natural resources and corruption threatening to destroy Middle Earth look like every century on our own Earth for which there is reliable history to read and contemplate. And now Middle Earth’s holocaust is again frighteningly applicable to our time. Specifically, what is happening in America -again, this time?

Racial profiling has been made into law in Arizona.
What is next? -Concentration camps to hold “illegals?” (read Mexicans, the Indians of our current narrative/reality) What is happening is this: The measure of our worth as citizens of the world, as human beings will be determined by the extent to which we allow fear, hatred to inform our actions toward one another. Today’s Orcs will not be conveniently swallowed up by a sudden earthquake at the end of the story after the screaming and fighting is done. History is anything but convenient.

We would do well to improve on Tolkien’s story, by recognizing the personhood of the masses of people coming to America to work at the jobs no one wants to do. We would do well to recognize and concede our common humanity.

We must remember, with an appropriate measure of horror that King Theoden’s question in the title of this post was never answered, -not with words in any case.

My thanks to Oso, Holte Ender, Lazer's Edge and Mad Mike for inspiring this train of thought.
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MadMike said...

If you get a chance why don't you cross post this Sandy. It is great!

Beach Bum said...

What can we do against such reckless hate?

I have absolutely no freaking idea. If you have a chance read Pat Buchannan's recent column called "New Tribe rising" whining about the establishment of a white people in America. Here is how he closed that column:

"Black America seems united. White America is the house divided, for it is in the womb of white America that this new people is gestating and fighting to be born."

Forty years ago the guy would have been run out on a rail and laughed at by republicans for writing such racist shit. Now such ideas are welcomed by his fan base.

My only comfort is the idea that he is part of the baby boomer generation that is about to die off with younger more tolerant generations taking over.

SJ said...

it's pretty disturbing, but predictable.
When times are hard, people start to act crazy... or are convinced to act against their best interests and turn on each other.
--And times are doubly hard right now.
The elites in our country have to do something to deflect attention away from the fact that they aren't paying their share to keep the government, the system and the society going: -Scapegoat the poor and if that doesn't work, blame the "immigrants."

Holte Ender said...

SJ - This is wonderful and me being a big fan of Tolkien fan I get it.

I always thought his tale was an allegorical one, although I believe he always denied it.

It was written from the late 30s through the 40s, most of it during WWII and I always remember the line:

The battle of Helms Deep is over, the battle for Middle Earth is about to begin

Winston Churchill in 1940, when referring to the Nazi occupation of Paris, said:

The battle of France is over, the battle of Britain is about to begin

So I saw it as good versus evil no matter what your tribe. The good and kindly Elves had to leave their homelands forever, they knew they were finished, but eventually stood alongside the men of the west which allowed the age of men to be born.

Perhaps through all the foggy turmoil you speak of that's going on here and in the world, we might be approaching another age of enlightenment. The alternative is the Big All Seeing Eye winning.

P.S. I grew up about 10 miles from Tolkien's boyhood home. I tell you this because I love reflected glory.

SJ said...

thanks for the kind words, I agree, I always thought it was an allegory, despite Tolkien's vigorous denials. It's hard to not create a series of allegories if you're creating a fictional history. The resonance/reference to Winston Churchill's speaking of the the Nazi occupation of Paris never occured to me. -It's pretty good evidence on our side, with all due respect to the late Mr. Tolkien. It still think it's nothing short of a series of masterpieces.
I also see it as a story of good versus evil, ultimately, with all the potential for disaster that implies. -After all, the Nazi machine was an unprecedented evil government due to its scale, its degree of organization and foreplanning, but at the heart of it all are people were always people who resisted from within, and their stories must be told (-in the case of Tolkien's legendarium, invented) as well, if only so that we all can realize that the "us versus them", has very little to do with what lanuguage we speak, and what places we call home, and more to do with what we want out of the world and what we are willing to do to each other to get there.
It's the only way to assert our inescapably common humanity, for better or worse. WWII for Americans (due to the way history is taught here) always looks pretty black and white, but then there's always the inconvenient wrinkles of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki to consider.
I'm always left with the nagging questions about the Orcs: where did they go after the defeat of Sauron, and how do they fit into the dwindling world of Middle Earth? Did they become farmers?
Our Orcs: The Japanese, the Germans went on to dominate the automotive and electronics industries...
The Orcs, the Goblins, "the men of the East" all wanted something that Sauron was promising them in Tolkien's story... what was it beyond money and land? What Fascist paradise did Sauron entice the hordes with? -What did the hordes do with their time in the thereafter?

tnlib said...

"We would do well to improve on Tolkien’s story, by recognizing the personhood of the masses of people coming to America to work at the jobs no one wants to do."

I don't want to over-simplify this, but the people who supported this law are the very people who hire illegals to do their yard and house work, take care of their kids, harvest their farms, work in their sweat shops, take care of the livestock, etc.

Darn good piece, even though I never read Tolkkein! : )

Jolly Roger said...

We already have the concentration camps, in the form of Chimpy's ICE gulag. We also have Soviet border controls on our own citizens.

This country has lost its meaning, and as such, it is doomed to fail. Frankly, given what we've morphed into, that might not be such a bad thing; let the Klanservatives go to Arizona and rot for all I care, and let decent people form a more just society elsewhere.

SJ said...

thanks for the kind word. And I don't think you oversimplify, you got to the essense of a core hypocrisy in our society that goes back to our founding.

@Jolly Roger,
I'm not giving up on the republic yet. We just have to push the ratio of smart/decent people to stupid/ignorant people, but that's still a long ways away.