FRODO’S UNFINISHED MISSION
“In sleep we dream of only two forms of government - anarchy and monarchy. Primordial root consciousness understands no politics & never plays fair. A democratic dream? A socialist dream? Impossible.” Hakim Bey.
Forget the horrendously sentimental movie made out of it. Like most movies which are ‘inspired’ by books, it hollows out the text it is supposedly based on completely. The Lord of the Rings is a quite extraordinary fable - and I use the word “fable” not in its strict but loose sense here. It is a huge river with many tributaries, and it is not possible to do justice to all its themes in this essay. Above all, it seems to be about power, and how it corrupts those who would wield it, even for the good. Perry De Havilland, writing in the anarchist magazine, Total Freedom, has argued that the Ring itself is an allegory of the modern state. I disagree that The Lord of the Rings is in any way allegorical, since that would presuppose that that was Tolkien’s intention, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was. Nevertheless, stories, like poems, take on a life of their own apart from their author’s intentions, and it does seem to me that De Havilland is on the right track. As I see it, the Ring offers the potential for absolute power. The only thing in ‘the real world’ that bears comparison with it is the modern state, and therefore this makes the Ring more or less synonymous with it. The possession of the Ring by a contemporary incarnation of The Dark Lord, Sauron, would mean his having untrammelled access to all the resources of the modern state to do what he will with. Of course, at the moment, this isn’t possible, since such an incarnation would be restricted by the existing institutional framework of power. In other words, in the mythical terms of The Lord of the Rings, the Ring would not yet be in his possession. But he would be working on it, stealthily eroding - to revert back to a non-mythical vocabulary - the existing institutional safeguards and patiently moving towards his objective. The only way the free peoples of Middle-Earth, in the vocabulary of The Lord of the Rings again, would be free from the threat posed by Sauron’s desire for the Ring is if the Ring itself was destroyed. In other words, if the modern state was destroyed. In that sense, De Havilland is right and The Lord of the Rings, if not allegorical, could certainly be construed in anarchist terms, even if its idealisation of life in the Shire does exude a rather petite-bourgeois odour at times.
But hang on a minute. Isn’t it also about kingship? Certainly it is; but let’s not forget that The Lord of the Rings is a fable and, if the concept of kingship enters, it is primarily on a fabular level - according to form, as it were. We should not be too eager to translate its idea of kingship into political terms. A king, after all, is not just a dude who sits on a throne and bosses others around. A king is also a symbol, a symbol, among other things, of what Freud called His Majesty The Ego. If we look at kingship in this way, it’s obvious that we are dealing with psychological rather than political phenomena. The Lord of the Rings is a fable in which His Majesty The Ego is confronted with choices - either to behave like the Dark Lord Sauron, the Blairite control-freak, obsessed with consolidating his power, or Aragorn, the ranger, the free spirit, and abjure the trappings of powers which do not come from oneself and are not freely acknowledged by others. Like Wanadi, the chief of The Invisible People in John Boorman’s film-fable, The Emerald Forest, Aragorn ‘commands’ the devotion of others because he is completely free of the taint of wanting to control them and have them under his thumb. One can almost hear him saying with Wanadi “If I tell a man to do what he does not want to do, I am no longer chief.” - or King in Aragorn’s case. Aragorn’s strength lies in the fact that he is capable of inspiring others through his own inherent qualities of leadership; his authority is a moral one; it is not based on coercion. Therefore, it seems to me that the concept of kingship in The Lord of the Rings is perfectly compatible with anarchism, at least in the context of this particular fable.
The Lord of the Rings, however, has a mystical aspect as well, which takes it beyond the 19th. century materialist perspective that most forms of anarchism seem to accept. At one point in the story one of the hobbits, Merry, says, “...there are things deeper and higher and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows it or not.” Tolkien’s tale is about the intersection between these “things deeper and higher” and everyday life.
Take Frodo, the Ringbearer, as an example. What special attributes does he possess which qualify him for his onerous role? Well, to begin with he’s small, ordinary and to all appearances, quite insignificant - he’s Everyman in other words, as De Havilland says. Like most people who make a difference in life, his real qualities are not immediately obvious. This fact means that he is unlikely to draw attention to himself. Ironically, the only time he gets himself noticed by the agents of the Dark Lord is when he puts on the Ring to make himself invisible - when he’s seduced by its power in other words. He has no power or position by means of which he might draw attention to himself, and people with power or position always look over the heads of people without power or position and consider them of too little consequence to bother their heads about. That is their Achilles heel, of course, and it proved the undoing of Sauron in the end, one of the “things deeper and higher’’ that he had obviously never considered.
That the Ring is destined to drive Frodo mad is not to the point. There are other actors in this story with almost as crucial a role in its outcome. There is the tragic figure of Gollum, for example, without whose intervention Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring would have foundered. Even the devoted Sam was powerless to influence the course of events at the end when it looked as though the Ring had finally taken Frodo. It took the evil intentions of Gollum to bring about the final success of the quest. He alone is destined to destroy the Ring and fulfil Gandalf’s prophecy. “...he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end...” Gollum’s part in the success of the quest symbolises the tragic necessity of evil in the economy of an evolving universe. In this sense, he is like Goethe’s Mephistopheles in Faust, who says: “I am part of those forces who ceaselessly plot evil and eternally create good.” Another of those “things deeper and higher” which Merry refers to, though perhaps only the shamanic figure of Gandalf is really in touch with.
Gandalf, of course, is a wizard, and the word “wizard” has the same root as the word “wise”. Gandalf’s wisdom manifests itself in a number of ways. For instance, when Frodo says about Gollum, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance.” Gandalf replies, “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand...” And when Frodo a little later says. “Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds. Now at any rate he’s as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.” Gandalf counters: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.” Gandalf’s willingness to give even Gollum - and, by extension, all human nature - the benefit of the doubt is part and parcel of his wisdom and insight.
No picture of Gandalf would be complete, of course, without contrasting him with his ‘Shadow’, Saruman; for Saruman is, undoubtedly what Gandalf would become were he to possess the Ring. It is an aspect of Gandalf’s superior wisdom, however, that he fears the Ring and will have nothing to do with it, as he tells Frodo. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.”... “Do no tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.” Saruman has no such scruples because he desires power above all else. Gandalf is, in many ways, a sort of Merlin-figure, though not at first as potent a wizard as Saruman. Merlin himself is heir to the Celtic shamanic tradition, which, like all shamanic traditions, had both its light side and dark side. Shamans have often been accused of being charlatans, willing to exploit the gullibility of others for their own ends. But there is a dark side to everything and because shamanism has had its dark side, that should not blind us to the fact that shamans have also been engaged in a sincere quest for spiritual vision. Like all institutions, shamanism is not superhuman, and shamans themselves are nothing if not human. Gandalf is human, no less than Saruman, though this fact expresses itself differently. And, being human, he knows how fallible he is; that’s why he has a sufficiently healthy respect for the Ring to fear taking possession of it. He is circumspect in regard to it, whereas Saruman is not, because, for Saruman, the Ring is the answer to his dreams of power. Gandalf is therefore wiser than Saruman, who is the kind of shaman who has given shamanism a bad reputation. But is this an accurate picture of shamanism as such, or simply a reflection of the fact that as an institution it is human, and therefore corruptible under certain circumstances.
The Lord of the Rings abounds in such archetypal contrasts. Other examples are the relationships between Sam & Frodo and Pippin & Merry. But to deal with these two relationships properly would take us too far out of our way. One example it is possible to deal with here, however, is the relationship which develops between Legolas, the Elf, & Gimli, the Dwarf. I see Legolas and Gimli as two contrasting aspects of Aragorn, aspects which he must unite if he is to function successfully as an integrated human being - or ‘King’. They are representatives, if you like, of two different archetypes - the Apollonian and the chthonic - the light and the dark. Legolas is of the Woodland Realm, and Gimli is of the caves and mines under the mountains. Dwarves are concerned only with the making of wealth and building great cities underground which display their wealth; these activities seem to be their two primary purposes in life. The fact that their growth is stunted and they live underground is indicative of their lack of wider horizons and concern for what goes on in the larger world. Nevertheless, although there is no love lost between Dwarves and Elves, Legolas and Gimli very quickly become inseparable friends. Gimli’s relationship with Legolas, the Apollonian figure in the fellowship, will perhaps help transform his horizons and no doubt also teach Legolas that there is more to life than the realm of Apollonian light.
Why call Legolas Apollonian? First, there is his perpetual youth, then the speed and accuracy with which he handles a bow. Apollo is the “Far-Shooter” as well. The realm of the Elves, from which Legolas has sprung, moreover, is that of song, music, poetry, art and healing - all of which are associated with Apollo. It doesn’t matter that Apollo is a Greek god, his functions are universal. In the Celtic tradition, they are divided between Oenghus, Mac Oc, Dian Cécht and Lug. In the Indian, many are assumed by Vishnu - or Krsna. The Nigerian poet, Wole Soyinka, said many African myths have their equivalents of Apollo and Dionysus. There does not seem to be a Dionysian counterpart in The Lord of the Rings. But this is hardly surprising since Dionysus was an androgynous god, and also the only Greek god who enjoyed passive sex, while The Fellowship of the Ring is a fellowship based on male-bonding, which requires a big dollop of repressed homosexuality, especially of the passive variety. Dionysian abandon would have been a very disruptive influence on the Fellowship, which was conceived along strictly male lines. To counter this imbalance, Aragorn, once he was ‘King’, would have to assimilate Dionysus to his own ego-ideal to become fully integrated. In other words, the ‘King’ would also have to be ‘Queen’. Maybe that’s the meaning of Arwen - another elven aspect of Aragorn? (True to Hollywood form as ever, in the movie the elven Arwen ceased to possess any archetypal meaning at all, and became little more than Aragorn’s romantic interest. Tolkien, meanwhile, was probably turning in his grave.)
The last pair I want to consider here are Boromir and Faramir, the two contrasting sons of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. Boromir is a warrior, with a warrior’s outlook. Not for him the complexities of “things deeper and higher”. Faramir, on the other hand, is associated with Gandalf. He has insight and wisdom, and, although he is a warrior as well, he does not regard war as a glorious end in itself, only as a means to the end of defending Gondor. Furthermore he will have nothing to do with the Ring, and would not use it even if by doing so he could save Gondor from destruction at the hands of Sauron’s armies. Unlike Boromir, he does not believe that the end justifies the means if the means are incompatible with the end, and for that reason he freely let’s Frodo and Sam go on their way without attempting to seize the Ring. Boromir thinks he can use the power of the Ring to do good, to keep Middle-Earth safe from the legions of Sauron; Faramir knows that that is a delusion. Boromir, in other words, is like those who wish to use the power of the state to set people free. Not that he is insincere; but he lacks insight; and that is his ultimate weakness.
I have been told that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory of the 2nd. World War. I could not disagree more. (Nor for that matter could Tolkien!) Of course, the events of that war fed into the work in certain ways, but on the whole what symbolism there is in The Lord of the Rings rises above the particular and embraces the universal. It works, in other words, on a deeper level than historical allegory. Let’s take Sauron as an example. Sir Ian McKellan—never trust anyone with a “Sir” in front of their name!—who played Gandalf in the film of Tolkien’s epic, has said there are no Saurons around today. This overlooks one very important fact and that is that, in the context of the action which takes place in both the book and the film, Sauron is not an embodied person at all, but a spirit, the spirit at the centre of the Great Eye of Mordor. “The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you; to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.” McKellan overlooks, in other words, the symbolic dimension of The Lord of the Rings. I see Sauron as the spirit of rule itself, not any particular ruler, and the spirit of rule invariably seeks to make itself secure - especially in insecure circumstances - by maximising its sphere of control. That is why Sauron is always on the lookout for the Ring. And the Ring, of course, wants to return to Sauron. States look to governments to keep them in business. The police, just to take an example, are always calling on governments to give them more resources and powers. Governments want to be secure themselves and thereby look for pretexts to give the police what they want. States and governments are natural allies against the people they rule, and look for any opportunities whereby they might strengthen themselves against a potential adversary. Governments and states, both of which have always had as their raison d’etre the need to conquer and hold down subject populations, are not the friends but the enemies of the people they rule. Mostly, the potential enmity lies dormant. But often circumstances emerge which bring that enmity to life. The outcome is a reawakening of the spirit of Sauron, along with a reactivation of The Great Eye of Mordor. In present circumstances, we might attribute Sauron’s reawakening to economic circumstances - i.e. the prospect of increased competition for limited global markets from the burgeoning economies of countries like India and China, with a consequent falling rate of profit - a classic scenario, in fact - and the need to take measures - war abroad, repression at home - to ward off the repercussions in the West itself.*
I realise that there are many other possible interpretations of The Lord of the Rings. There is a Christian one, for example, in which Aragorn would appear as some kind of Christ-figure. What we are dealing with here is not any set of predetermined ideas, as you might find in allegory, but a much more nebulous universe of possible meanings, of which none is the meaning as such. Symbolism, as opposed to allegory, works on an affective rather than intellectual level, an unconscious rather than conscious one. Allegory, as Tolkien rightly says, seeks to impose meanings onto a reader; symbolism does not. Symbols may suggest meanings, but these are ultimately all in the mind of the reader; for the work itself is no more than a story, as Tolkien himself was at pains to point out. Furthermore, symbols mutate and evolve in the way allegorical figures do not; and they do this because they leave us free to let them suggest what they will. Think, for example of Blake’s The Sick Rose.
The Lord of the Rings is not just another escapist fantasy-yarn. It is full of prescience and dark foreboding, much more so than 1984, for example. And also much more hopeful, which makes it far more dangerous to the powers that be. We need hope; we need to overcome the ‘post-historical’ fatalism which has gripped us since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Frodo’s mission, of course, is far from complete and whether it will ever become complete depends on factors which, as things presently stand, are beyond our control. As the fable shows, so much is down to chance and happenstance that it is impossible to make predictions. Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings is an inspiring fable with a subtext that has even more relevance today than it had when it was originally written.
_________________________________________________________________* If a historical parallel is required, we need look no further than the burgeoning economic power of Germany and America at the end of the 19th. Century and the threat it posed to the interests of countries like Britain and France. Hence the scramble for colonies and the emergence of imperial rivalries which were to lead to the 1st. World War.