Tolkien on Modernity, Part I

Recently it was announced that an old reel-to-reel audio recording of a talk by J.R.R. Tolkien will be restored and released after having been kept from the public for many years. In 1958 Tolkien gave a speech at a dinner given in his honor in Rotterdam, which was attended by about two hundred enthusiasts of his mythology. The entire event was recorded and then forgotten about. Subsequently, the recording was found and then hoarded like part of Smaug’s treasure. Now it has been rescued from the clutches of the dragon and all are about to share in the fortune. It is a wonderful find, especially since it promises to reveal a few new insights about The Lord of the Rings.

It has long been known that a recording was made, but it was lost until 1993 when a collector named René van Rossenberg discovered it in a basement. Only now has he agreed to partner with several Tolkien fan sites to restore and release the recording.

What is extraordinary about the tape is that it contains the entire twenty-minute speech and gives an insightful look at the personality and character of the author. In the speech, Tolkien deals with the serious issues that he is passionate about, but in a playful manner. Tolkien speaks to his listeners as though he were Bilbo giving his farewell speech to the Hobbits of the Shire, though he shows much more insight about the evil of the Ring than Bilbo ever possessed. Indeed, Tolkien has much to say about the evils of modernity.

The Meaning at Last?

Legendarium and the Middle Earth Network, who have partnered to restore and release the recording, are looking to raise funds and are luring potential donors with the promise that in “unambiguous terms” Tolkien tells us the real meaning of The Lord of the Rings. We will have to wait and see how truly revelatory this will be, but I suspect it will do more to confirm what we already know than shatter long-held conclusions.

Perhaps the little of the recording already revealed offers some insight into what we will learn when the whole thing is released. Here are the last few minutes of the speech:

Twenty years have flowed away down the long river, but never in my life will return to me from the sea. Ah, years in which looking far away I saw ages long past, when still trees bloomed free in a wide country. Alas, for now all begins to wither in the breath of cold-hearted wizards. To know things they break them. And their stern lordship they establish through the fear of death.

I looked East and West, I looked North and South and I do not see a Sauron but I see many descendants of Saruman! And I think we hobbits now have no magic weapons against them. And yet, dear gentle hobbits, may I conclude by giving you this toast: To the hobbits! And may they outlast all the wizards!

So far here there is nothing terribly surprising. Tolkien rages against the reek and havoc laid upon us by the necromancy of Mordor and the technocracy of two world wars. Tolkien’s hatred of the Machine and the kind of Magic (not Enchantment) that dominates the wills of other men is a major theme of The Lord of the Rings. And although the “meaning,” of the mythology may be something else, this theme of the “evil as Machine” remains dominant.   What is particularly interesting about this passage is that Tolkien does not see in the modern world the work of Sauron, the ultimate sorcerer, but that of Saruman, the pragmatist. I’ll come back to this.

Death by Machine

The above passage may point us in the direction of the “meaning” that is promised to be revealed in the rest of the recording. And it is likely to correspond to what we already know. In one of his letters Tolkien writes that the “real theme” of The Lord of the Rings is “Death and Immortality,” and the paradox of men who are doomed to love and leave the world, while the elves are equally doomed to linger on as their world fades away (Letter 186). In another letter he writes this:

But certainly Death is not an Enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the ‘message’ was the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster. Compare the death of Aragorn with a Ringwraith. The Elves call ‘death’ the Gift of God (to Men). Their temptation is different,: towards a faineant melancholy, burdened with Memory, leading to an attempt to halt time (Letter 208; emphasis mine).

I would suggest that the meaning of “Death and Immortality” is related to the theme of contempt for the Machine in a fundamental way, and I speculate that this will come out more fully in the recording. Men use the Machine to control death, to quicken it upon their enemies and to delay it for themselves. Both temptations are in the Ring: power and lengthened life. Elves use Magic not to lengthen their own lives but to preserve the earth against their quasi-immortality. So men unnaturally attempt to lengthen their lives in order to cling to the world, and elves unnaturally attempt to lengthen the life of the world so they can longer enjoy it. This was Galadriel’s temptation to take the Ring. It would empower her to save Lothlorien and prevent her from having to leave Middle Earth.

Allegory as Machine

For Tolkien, this is the temptation of modernity. It is the temptation of the Machine and, one might say, also of allegory.

But the first thing that should jump out at us from Tolkien’s parody of Bilbo as well as his soapbox rant against the modern world is the fact that the whole speech is allegorical, and unabashedly so. Tolkien has always seemed somewhat contradictory concerning his views on allegory. Throughout his life he adamantly denied that his mythology was intentional allegory and was quick to indicate is dislike for literature that was. But here he is clearly allegorical, and he was on other occasions as well, such as when he wrote this:

You can make of the Ring an allegory of our own time if you like, an allegory of the inevitable fate that awaits all attempts to defeat evil, power by power. But that is only because all magical power, or mechanical does always so work.

This is the perfect passage to illustrate what I think is the solution to this conundrum of Tolkien’s dislike of allegory. He hated machines. His son Christopher commented in a documentary how his father expanded the meaning of “Machine” to represent the modern world and its attempt to provide “alternative solutions” to those that organic to the “development of the inherent and innate powers and talents of human beings.” This is why in Tolkien’s secondary world there is so little space provided for the “man-made.” Tolkien once said to his son: “You know, it isn’t the not-man, like the weather, nor man, even at a bad level—it is the man-made that is so ultimately daunting and unsupportable.”

This is why in Middle Earth there needs to be both elves and men. Magic and the Machine go hand in hand. Men can produce either tools that allow them to function on a truly human level by “making” as they were made, or they can build Machines for the purpose of power and domination. The elves and the higher powers can either use their natural power to enchant the world around them and raise it up in an artful way, or they can resort to Magic in order to coerce and dominate. The human intuition is toward functionality and more easily leads to the choice of power and domination. The elves are less disposed to this error, but when they fall, they fall badly, as when they were deceived by Sauron to make the rings of power and to teach him the ring-craft so that he could forge the One. Magic is the ultimate Machine.

Middle Earth is an archaic society, and only those who are bent on the coercion and domination of other wills wish to make it otherwise. Mordor was the fruit of modernity. Tolkien called World War I, “the first War of the Machines,” in which only they were triumphant. And he wrote: “the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class” (Letter 96), just like the servants of the Dark Lord in Middle Earth.

What does this have to do with his dislike for allegory? I think in Tolkien’s mind intentional allegory was a form of the Machine. C.S. Lewis once called myth “lies breathed through silver,” and Tolkien rebutted this in his in poem Mythopoeia, in which he placed in opposition the “legend-makers” and those who shunned such craft in favor of “organized delight,/in lotus-isles of economic bliss.” He called the latter’s sin a selling out for a “Circe-kiss,“ which was “machine produced” and the “bogus seduction of the twice seduced.” The legend-makers were not lying, but making “by the law” in which they were made. On the contrary, it was the organizers and controllers who lied, and the stories they told were like machines that seduced. If I understand him correctly, the first seduction is the failure to see that the machine is a substitution for the real, and the second seduction is to place one’s hope in what the machine produces.

A lie breathed through silver is like a machine. It is artificial and manipulative. In heaven there will be no such lies or seduction. Tolkien writes:

In paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.

In his forward to the trilogy, Tolkien distinguished “applicability” from allegory, saying that “the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and in the other in the purposed domination of the author.” So it would seem for Tolkien, allegory was an attempt to coerce and dominate the reader. This is analogous to the operation of a machine.

Regardless of how consistent Tolkien was in his views and practice (or even how right he was about the issue), it is clear that what put him off about allegory was exactly what he hated about machines. This is why I suspect he equally disliked Lewis’ later view of myth (a softened view based on Tolkien’s influence), that myth is a way of “smuggling the gospel.” Like the Ring, allegory would then be an attempt to defeat evil, “power by power.” Tolkien’s very trilogy would become a manipulative Machine. But as Tolkien says of the Ring “that is only because all magical power, or mechanical does always so work.” Tolkien was not “the Lord of the Rings.”

Not Sauron but Saruman

The second thing that jumps out from the first release of the lost and found recording is Tolkien’s comment on Sauron and Saruman:

I looked East and West, I looked North and South and I do not see a Sauron but I see many descendants of Saruman!

This seems to correspond to something noted by Christopher Tolkien in the documentary already mentioned. He said that one of his father’s greatest fears was “coercion for good ends.” Gandalf and Galadriel, who both had opportunities to seize the Ring for themselves were much worse threats to Middle Earth than Sauron, because, to quote Christopher Tolkien, they would be “righteous and self-righteous.” In other words, they would come more fully under the domination of the Ring because they would accept the lie of the Machine, thinking that they were doing good, whereas Sauron fully knew and desired the malice that poured into the Ring. But, of course, both Gandalf and Galadriel “passed the test,” and overcame the temptation to use the Ring for a good end.

Saruman, on the other hand, did not. He was too pragmatic. He tallied up the resources on both sides of the conflict and chose the winning side in the foolish hope that some good could be done in spite of an alliance with Sauron. Of course, this was a thinly veiled attempt to obtain the Ring for himself and become the new Dark Lord.

At the Council of Elrond, Gandalf recounted his conversation with Saruman on the matter:

‘“For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

‘“I liked white better,” I said.

‘“White!’ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

‘“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”’

Saruman now counts himself wise because of his pragmatism. In fact, he even misappropriates to himself the making of the Ring. He wants to be lord of the Machines. Tolkien said in his recorded speech:

Alas, for now all begins to wither in the breath of cold-hearted wizards. To know things they break them. And their stern lordship they establish through the fear of death.

He is obviously referring to the words of Gandalf and Saruman above. In their effort to control and dominate, the cold-hearted wizards, that is, the technocrats of the world, have chosen science over wisdom. Even religious men have lost wisdom and have failed to see that some things are greater than the sum of their parts, such as sacred scripture, the deposit of faith, the sacraments and even the liturgy. To know these things, they break them. Theirs is not the path of wisdom because the fruit of their knowledge is not freedom but control, which brings death, destruction and damnation. Tolkien called those who produced the atomic bomb “babel builders,” who hoped in vain that their creation would bring peace (Letter 102). So too, the architects of the “Church as Machine,” constructed in the service of Revolution or Counter-revolution, break the very thing they wish to reform or restore. For Tolkien the real danger was not open malice, but the self-deception of overcoming power by power. The real danger even today is the mirage of the benevolent Machine.

Saruman summarizes the argument for Gandalf thus:

“As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order, all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak and idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”

This seems to be an accurate description of modernity, as well as the revolution against modernity, which by definition is “modern.” It is the spirit of the activist, the community organizer, the social engineer, the technocrat and the theocrat. All is permitted in the service of the good. This is not wisdom, but the logic of power.

Modernity Defined

It may just be that Tolkien offers us one of simplest and yet farthest-reaching and most accurate definitions of modernity or the “modern world,” which the Church has attempted to critique without every quite defining exactly what it means. Modernity unfettered is the Machine and the subjugation of the human person, and even the attempt to subjugate God, to the logic of power. I will reflect on this further in the next post. Meanwhile, let me take this opportunity to register this essay as my prediction about what might be revealed when the recording is released in full.

Filed under: Catholicism, Heroes, Religion, Tolkien Tagged: Galadriel, Gandalf, Lengendarium, Machine, Middle Earth Network, Modernity, Mordor, Saruman, Sauron, The Lord of the Rings

Author Fr Angelo

I am Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, and a priest for more than twenty years. I am now studying in Rome for my licentiate in Theology.

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