December 19, 2002

· News

I’d been hoping that the release of The Two Towers wouldn’t trigger a wave of comparisons between the War of the Ring and the War on Terrorism, but that’s probably too much to wish for. Warbloggers seem likely to emerge from cinemas dazed but excited, ready to recite their favorite stirring bit—- “War is upon you whether you wish it or not!”, “Those who do not take up swords can still die upon them!“—- in defence of the lands of the West. After all, Tolkien is easily applicable to our present situation, right?

I’ll be going along to see the film and I expect to thoroughly enjoy it, having been steeped in Middle Earth myself from the ages of 12 to 16 or so. Yet Tolkien’s genius is an odd and ultimately unsatisfying one. Anthony Burgess’s assessment of him is crabby but, I think, has a good deal of truth in it:

The flavour of the book is feudal rather than democratic: the theme is loyalty and the willingness to combat pagan enemies. Clearly, it is the work of a scholarly and sophisticated writer, but there is something childish about it, and this childishness is best seen in a total eschewal of the erotic… Tolkien is wholly clean, like his fellow Inklings [Charles] Williams and [C.S.] Lewis, and there is something dirty about this cleanliness… a certain personal insufficiency is all too evident in The Lord of the Rings. To indulge in fantasy is probably shameful. But there rests Tolkien’s remarkable scholarship and devotion to Anglo-Saxon. … But the marriage of North Sea and Mediterranean is what gives English its peculiar allure. The allure of Tolkien is one-sided, sexless, and ultimately destructive.

A bit like the ring itself, really.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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