Paradise Lost; Tolkien and Modernism

by Varda, with responses

It is quite clear that The Lord of The Rings was written by a man not exactly in love with the modern world. Tolkien's love of the natural world and traditional communities has endeared him to millions of readers, but has also laid him open to the charge of being 'not relevant', and his work something that 'does not matter' in today's world.

In the current issue of Amon Hen there is a review of a book called 'Defending Middle Earth', by Dr Patrick Curry. The good doc vigorously asserts that LOTR and Tolkien do matter, very much, as they uphold myth in a modern, industrial world determined to destroy magic, a 'new economic order' which brings with it the excesses of modernism and out of control technology.

The reviewer, Tony Shell, is very enthusiastic about this book. He feels that in the Shire Tolkien creates a non-political community, a 'yeoman republic'. He shows how love of your place resists the forces of homogenizing modernity, a 'radical nostalgia' which is 'an authentic response to the wretchedness of globalised industrial modernism'

Curry resists this homogenization of globalisation. he says;
'What we need to recognise are the bonds linking nature, identity and place, whereby the heterogeneity of local distinctiveness suggests richness, historical, cultural and ecological..the Power of the Ring can be seen as resembling the propaganda of modernism as it pushes the illusion of inevitable progress, and the overturning of traditional values ond communities in pursuit of creating economic empires that consist of many slaves and a few millionaires, (Morgoths)

The essay goes on to attack post-modernism, but this section interested me the most....

I am not sure I agree with this. The idea that the excesses of modernism can be tackled and everything will be all right, we can enjoy our myths of happy, ecological communities, simply won't do. The excesses of modernity are just the signs that the world, as Galadriel said in the movie, has changed, and we can't put the clock back....

Take the idea of the Shire as an ideal community. When I first read the book, I thought the Shire was the most realistic part, and that Minas Tirith, a sort of cross between Camelot and Rome on its seven hills, was artificial. But the Shire is a complete fantasy; no subsistence farming community (and as the hobbits don't manufacture or trade much, they have to be classed as subsistence) have among their ranks people like Frodo or Bilbo. The Shire is a farming community without farmers. Frodo, Bilbo, Pippin, Merry and even the Sackville-Bagginses are all middle class, and middle classes don't occur in close-knit farming communities. The middle class is a result of trade, surplus, commerce and an administration that needs well-educated people to run it. Middle classes are an urban phenomena.

Even Sam is not a farmer, he is a gardener; there is a big difference, farmers grow crops, gardeners grow flowers.

To cite the Shire, therefore, as a model community to counter the ills of modernism is very unwise. Even in the book, Frodo is regarded by the hobbits are eccentric. In a real Shire, he might be driven out as a witch for knowing Elvish. And without Frodo, would we really want to be like the Daddy Two-foots and Ted Sandymans? A community that is close-knit and anti-authoritarian can also be claustrophic and backward.

The greatest casualty of modernity is the environment, and Tolkien and his writing appeal strongly to people who wish desperately to preserve the natural world. As Tony Shell says, Tolkien can 'provide an extraordinarily sublime feeling of immanence and essential vitality to the natural world..'

But would we all want to do without the trappings of modernity, even to save the natural world? I would do without a car, gladly. Even the washing machine, although beating out clothes on the river bank while exchanging gossip with the other village maidens is not really my thing.

But doing without medicine, basic healthcare, street lighting, accessible education, juries, pcs, cinemas, freedom of speech, that is another. But these, as well as the destruction of the enviroment, are trappings of modernity. My own grandfather was a ploughman in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland. But he died within 24 hours of pneumonia from sleeping in a damp, if picturesque, cottage. People who advocate such a return to traditional communities and ways of life are often city folk who forget that such an existence was described as 'nasty, brutish and short'. because it was.

But the real problem with Tolkien and modernism is not running water and electricity. It is his attitude to the individual. Gandalf's words; 'all you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to you' shows that the emphasis in Tolkien's work is always on the individual's moral struggle. His characters don't ask 'who am I?', the central question of Modernism and modern heroes. They ask, what should I do?

In The Lord of The Rings, the characters find meaning and identity in their contribution to the community. Frodo goes away with the Ring to save the Shire. Aragorn takes on a duty he never wanted, for the sake of his people. And so on. Only Faramir questions his role, or criticises his community. And he ends up taking part in a hopeless attack on the enemy, hating the stupidity of it all but having no choice. He knows that if he does not show he is serving his father, lord and city he will have no place in his world.

Modernism centres itself on the individual. The old idea that the individual gained highest importance in self-sacrifice for the community died on the Western Front, and has never been unquestioningly believed since. Tolkien's contemporary in the trenches, Wilfred Owen, went so far as to call Horace's famous line;
'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'
the 'old lie'.

But is not the barometer of a society's health the happiness and wellbing of the individual who lives in it? What dark comment then does Tolkien pass on the Shire after the war, when the most sensitive and intelligent individual in it, Frodo, is tormented to such an extent that he has to leave it and sail we are not shown where? Is it enough to know that Frodo simply could not recover from the mental scars he suffered in the war?

The hobbits seem only too content to marginalise Frodo. Even Sam is angry at how his contribution is so quickly forgotten. Frodo, the individual we most identify with in the book, is destroyed and the community that he gave everything to save seems empty without him. It is a situation worthy of Camus.

Maybe Tolkien was a modernist after all...

Thanks for listening, and check out Tony Shell's review in Amon Hen, it is well worth reading....

Response by Ladyhawk:


Perhaps Tolkien, in truth, opens the door to examining one's own motives and beliefs more closely and if those values do not include friendship and doing something for the betterment of one's surroundings then one is no better than the likes of Saruman and Sauron, who are both self-serving. I would have died as a child without the wonders of antibiotics. Over and over, Tolkien shows how we cannot control others, and those who try fail miserably. The salvation, if you will, of the world is in each individual taking responsibility for themself and deciding how best they may use the time given to them and laying waste to the lives of others does not fit into the equation. I like to conserve, but I would not try to bring the past back but rather to take what was good and incoorporate it more fully into the present. There is a sticky wicket in all this: there are too many who simply do not care (I watch them throw their cigarettes out the window, or drop trash when they walk, or unabashedly focus on earning more money no matter the cost to others). Now I could point a finger and declare them the problem, but you see some of them are earnestly involved in ways I do not know, so we come back to it: I decide, for myself, if I will make a difference in the world around me. I choose which causes I give my time and energy. A path opens before me (mayhap not unlike one akin to Frodo's) and I decide if I will brave it or not. It is terribly easy to declare "THEY" are the problem, but sometimes they are us. I remember one of the missionaries I worked with drove me nuts, regularly. To survive, I stopped noticing all the rudeness and egocentricity of the person and instead would ask myself what I needed to change in my own life (not as a comparison to that person but simply a comparison to myself). I could always find something I wanted to change. It helped me maintain my sanity, and I came out a much better person and much more tolerant.


Reply by Varda:


Yes, it is a feature of a great work of literature that is sends us back again and again looking to solve 'questions that need answering'. A great book is perennial, always relevant no matter when it was written.

Many thanks, LadyHawk, for your searching reply, which made me think even more deeply on the subject. And many of us would not even be discussing the evils of modernity if we had not had modern medicine Shocked

You are absolutely right to say that the salvation of the world lies in people taking charge of their lives and attempting to make them matter, make some good difference. But often times our efforts do not bring good, for all our intentions. Often, indeed, we achieve the opposite. So I would be dismayed to be judged only on what I did, not on what went on in my innermost heart, what I really was.

Some people make terrible mistakes in life, and cause suffering and damage even though they were not evil and meant no harm. I am thinking of Boromir. Is he, or anyone, just to be judged on that one mistake?

The opposite is also true. Virtuous people can be unbearable, their lofty ideals wafting them away from insects like us. Is paradise worth it if it has only prigs in it?

You are so right, Lady H, sometimes when we have problems with people we need to look inside ourselves to solve the problem. But if we endlessly tune ourselves to the music of the world outside us, how will we hear the song in our own heart? In The Lord of The Rings, it is clear that Frodo, although he gives up his chance of survival for others, always has some inner music, a secret inner life, hidden even from us the readers, which is the real reason he smiles at the end. He has kept something back, from the Shire folk, from the Elves, even from Sam himself, to bring him out of torment into a new existence.

Reply from Ladyhawk:

Thank you for putting into words something I am working on right now. I'm not very good at listening to my inner music and have spent most of my life being judged by what I do, so you were quite correct in your assessments. It is interesting to see someone I've never met so accurately describe some of the things I hardly realize I struggle with.