A bizarre and occasionally insightful essay on ISIS (which mentions Tolkien!)

It is not often that I can describe the content and argument of a literary essay published on a ‘high culture’ website like AEON as both ‘bizarre’ and ‘occasionally insightful’, but this essay manages to be both simultaneously. It argues that the appeal of ISIS, the latest band of mass murders currently pillaging ancient sites like Palmyra and distributing beheadings at an ever alarming rate, might be analogous to the appeal of the “Sleeping Hero” mythotype found in Europe, which prophesies the Return of a King at some unspecified time, who will transcend politics, unite the realm and banish evildoers. The analogy to Aragorn is perfectly obvious of course, and I will admit that I’ve always found his story in Tolkien’s novel to be the hardest pill to swallow. The promise of an ultimate political authority, sanctioned by blood and healing power, not to mention 3000 years of ancestry, is indeed profoundly non-modern. It may be hyperbole but I would agree with the author of the piece insofar as following any leader claiming such rights and privileges for himself in this world would indeed be absurd and dangerous.

But naturally, the article demeans Tolkien without actually grasping much else about what makes the Lord of the Rings powerful to readers, and not a power-fantasy dressed up in pretty language. I say ‘naturally’ because almost all allegorical or analogical analyses of these types seem to collapse complexity and nuance to make some sort of overtly political point. In this case I agree with that point, but then, you would have to be a moral monster not to. Where does that leave Tolkien then?

The author makes his ignorance obvious when he writes that “…it is sometimes claimed that that the patently adolescent politics of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (sic) represent a true and valid model for real-world humans.” I’m not sure which version of the “real-world” this author resides in but I have never seen anyone make such a claim. Apart from the fact that Aragorn’s ‘journey’ is not as central to the narrative as the author seems to think it is, there is simply no conceivable reason to think that readers of the book would be drawn in to its ‘adolescent’ politics with such gusto that they should desire something like it be implemented in the Real World, which is of course full of Sophisticated Readers who enjoy the very non-fascist politics of the Modernist Writers, the only True Heirs of English Literature. Ughhhh.

I’ve already made my own reservations about Aragorn above: I think his character is the weakest in the novel (in the sense that we are given insufficient reason to empathize with Aragorn, and he does come across as a power hungry prig at times). Within the cultural space of the novel, his ascent to the throne is ‘legitimized’ by the history of his people and their connection to the Elves, who in turn have carry a spark of the divine. However, I would agree with the writer that such a vision of legitimate power, even in a literary work, can come across as not only uncomfortable but also scary. Aragorn is saved by the fact that his quest is, in essence, a noble one. If there is any analogy to al-Baghdadi in Middle-earth, it is Sauron, who like the former commands a death cult made up of legions of ideologically brainwashed servants (think Mouth of Sauron) who in turn command legions of slaves (the orcs and Haradrim/Easterlings).

This article could have redeemed itself by offering a new and engaging vision of Tolkien in the modern world. I’ve mentioned areas of agreement, but once again it is bedeviled, like so many other articles written about Tolkien, by its insistence that its readers must think, feel or act certain ways (otherwise why would they read it?). Words like ‘adolescent’ conjure images of fetid undergraduate bedrooms and ‘cosplay’ (which the author repeatedly mentions, not by accident). Unserious, against high culture, stunted. These are the readers of Tolkien, apparently. But ask yourselves this. Is the politics of Beowulf “adolescent”? From a certain point of view, of course. Beowulf is not a work that suggests any kind of a social contract is central to the politic functioning of human societies. Beowulf is a here and he becomes the king of his people. He is a kind of Aragorn figure. A hero. Does this mean it is a deranged work of art, dangerous and without merit? If so, all works of art before the modern era are thusly deranged. Indeed, the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves partake in elements of human psychology which are both reprehensible and magnanimous. Are the readers of these works thereby tempted to don bronze armor, neglect the oversight of the State, set up petty kingdoms and declare wars for the love of women? Of course not.

Art transcends political meanings. I truly believe this. Tolkien, therefore, and his various works, while they contain some political sentiments, transcend these. To understand why, I think the work of scholars like Mike Drout is instructive. At the heart of all Tolkien’s fiction is the question of mortality and nostalgia, or more generally, the reality of loss. Even with regard to Aragorn, we see that his ascension to the throne is a temporary reprieve in the passage of time, and political time too. The glory of Aragorn’s reign does not last. To understand this point, one must really read to the very end of the Lord of the Rings, including its Appendices. More and more I’ve come to see these as central to the book, and not mere errata. There, one comes across the ‘Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ which ends not in hope, but in bitterness and sadness. Mortality claims Aragorn at the end. He himself retains the hope of his youth, but Arwen, who has chosen mortality, sees through his hope to the unendurable loss that inheres in the mortal world. At that point, the kingship, the quest, and all the joys that flow from them, are in a sense lost forever. Without this contest one is reduced to arguing that Aragorn’s story is a power fantasy which is analogous to the inspiration that causes someone to behead innocents. I’m not sure whether this is absurd of frightening.

The Children of Hurin – heimweh and suffering encapsulated.

In his often moving essay ‘The tower and the ruin: the past in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works’ scholar Michael Drout (185) writes that ‘”Sadness that is yet blessed and without bitterness’ is, I believe, the feeling Tolkien was striving to create in much of his work; ‘joy, joy beyond the circles of the world’, from ‘On Fairy-stories’ has been a bit of a red herring.” I share Drout’s reading, and consider my own responses to reading Tolkien’s fiction much in line with his own: the overwhelming sense of sadness, of people, places and cultures passing on, only to be remembered in the permanence of their ruins. “A ruin…because of its permanence in the landscape…is a tangible marker, an absolute insistence on the pastness of the past, the permanence of the separation from the present experience of the person who views it (Drout, 186; italics original). It is this feeling of ‘nostalgia’, or heimweh – ‘home longing’ which is for Drout, as for this reader, at the bedrock of Tolkien’s creation.

In seeking to explain my own approach to The Children of Hurin in particular, a work on which I have written a few posts of late – I can do no better than to argue that it is perhaps the single most ‘concentrated’ dramatic exploration of loss and heimweh that Tolkien produced. The Lord of the Rings is a work of greater scope and imagination, and perhaps, in places, more poignant, but The Children of Hurin more directly links Tolkien’s overarching theme – the loss that time itself renders – to personal loss and mortal tragedy.

As a singular work of literature it leaves the reader with a distinctive sense of catharsis – the tragic undoing of Turin and Nienor as the culmination of a variety of other tragedies almost as overwhelming in scope. This loss is not tempered by any kind of eucatastrophe (indeed, Drout argues that this concept has been overused in Tolkien studies, and I agree with him) but is instead allowed to remain – ‘a pregnant moment of poise’ as Tolkien might have put it. This is why attempts to explain that loss away – to make it something joyful, in the end, or something that accords with god’s plan – fail. They do not take into account this theme as it is developed in The Lord of the Rings itself, where, despite victory and eucastrophe, heimweh – the loss of home, is by the end of the novel the dominant emotion. It is not ‘alienation’, or some other psychologised malady, but a sense of sadness, captured by Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens and later, Arwen’s (actually somewhat bitter) reaction to Aragorn’s death.

In The Children of Hurin the theme is most narrowly and forcefully explored. The reality of human mortality against Elvish mortality is contrasted, while the sufferings of Men admit of no answer within the story (or indeed, without, but that is another post). While intimations or providence are apparent in The Lord of the Rings, they are here almost entirely absent, a point which John Garth found important enough to speak to in his review of the work in 2007. However, the reality of loss and sadness as it is encapsulated within The Children of Hurin shares this with the way the theme is dealt with in Tolkien’s more famous magnum opus: it is without bitterness. It is awful, frightening even, to be born a mortal in this world, but it is almost as if the acknowledgement of suffering, the standing up to it, is beautiful in itself, and bedevils the urge toward despair. In The Children of Hurin, heimweh is transformed by tragedy into a more immediate sense of desperation, but it does not thereby become bitter and resentful. Where, say, Martin’s works show how the reality of mortal life can drive individuals and characters to evil and suicide, Tolkien, even at his most tragic, maintains not so much a sense of hope or joy, but a sense that the ‘ruin’ itself is a thing of beauty and that sadness is not an emotion or a response to be scorned but, actually, one to be cultivated. As Drout (190) writes, the sadness of being human “…in the inexorable flow of time…” is “…preserved, encapsulated and triggered by the physical ruin, the picture, the image, the memory, which itself could not exist without the achievement , fleeting as it may have been, of the tower, wonderful in itself…”


Drout, M. 2013 ‘The tower and the ruin: the past in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work’ in H. Conrad-O’Briain & G. Hynes. Tolkien: The Forest and the City, Four Courts Press.