Many Ukrainians have taken to calling the Russian troops “orcs”, after the brutish monsters serving the antagonist Sauron in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Russia in this instance is Mordor, the realm of Sauron. You can see where the inspiration comes from: orcs relish violence and cruelty and are devoted to their master, who cares little for them. In March, Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, vowed in a public speech that his country would “withstand the onslaught of Mordor”.
Few would consider Tolkien among the greatest writers of the 20th century. What the author of The Hobbit (1937) has attained is the status of collective psychoanalyst, a supreme myth-maker. His works express powerful fables which make sense of even the most disturbing events around us.
His unmatched popular appeal is exhibited anew with the Amazon series The Rings of Power, the most expensive television series ever made, with a budget of $1bn. The series is based on notes and appendices to Tolkien’s main works. The fragmentary nature of the material seems to have granted the producers and writers greater licence to explore symbols and myths in a visual medium, unconstrained by a coherent plot line. New episodes – there are eight in the first season – are being released weekly on Amazon Prime Video, with the series finale appearing on the streaming site on 14 October.
Tolkien’s global popularity would be hard to explain if – as some have argued – his works were a tribute to rural England, with its hedgerows, elms and dry stone walls. In reality, Tolkien does not present the hobbits of the Shire as a model of existence. In The Rings of Power, the Harfoots, a migrating breed of hobbit, are presented as a version of life at the end of history, but one characterised by the wilful neglect of the historical forces that are being unleashed around them. “Nobody goes off trail” is the Harfoot philosophy, satirising those who today refuse alternatives to the political and social consensus.
But in Tolkien it is not the hedgerows that matter but the magic. In one episode, a character called the Stranger bends fireflies to his will as he whispers to them in a strange tongue. In another, a royal Elf named Galadriel and the queen regent Míriel gaze into a seeing stone known as a palantír to observe the future. Future episodes will take us to the heart of these secret powers. What is most fascinating about Tolkien is how he plays with reality and fantasy: magic in his stories is a product of the writer’s imagination, but inside the stories it becomes real. In this sense, his tales can be thought of as announcing a time when magic becomes more than fantasy, and part of the world of everyday experience. That, intriguingly, might be why his books are such a powerful guide to our troubled age.
In his theoretical essays, Tolkien explains that his work is an exploration of fairyland, a realm beyond the known world that human beings can enter and inhabit. He calls it a land of magic, but the word did not please him. Were he writing today, he would probably call it virtual reality, or maybe even the metaverse. Fairy stories must be experienced as true; as with immersive technologies, the creator of fairy stories makes a secondary world which your mind must enter. And fairyland gives expression to the deepest human urges: the desire to visit the outer limits of space and time, for example, or to talk with animals and other creatures. Famously, Tolkien has no room for sex among these urges.
The British science-fiction author Arthur C Clarke proposed that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Tolkien makes this point too, but he adds a sombre note: in a technological society, as we pursue our fantasies unimpeded by the physical world, the human soul is suddenly in charge of our actions. Generous and noble motives are magnified, but so too are our darkest fantasies of power and cruelty. Fantasies remove every limit on the will and so come close to the definition of evil. What happens when we acquire the power to realise them? Human limitations turn fantasy into art. Advanced technology turns it into… what?
Dangerous geopolitics for a start. The Rings of Power, to an even greater extent than The Lord of the Rings, is a geopolitical story, a great battle to control and shape the known world. When Galadriel repeats that once the Southlands fall to the orcs, the whole world might follow, we hear echoes of our own time. The world order is being designed and redesigned. Vladimir Putin speaks in these terms, of overturning the existing arrangement of international relations, and his adviser Sergey Karaganov goes even further: in a recent essay he suggested that the role of the geopolitical writer is to be a “type of art expert”. As for China, how better to describe the Belt and Road Initiative than as an exercise in world-building?
[See also: How much territory does Ukraine control?]
And yet, hobbits we are not. We cannot flee from fantasy. “Fantasy remains a human right,” Tolkien once wrote. We have neglected this right. We have allowed our imagination to shrink. When audiences delight in the fantastic cities depicted in The Rings of Power their pleasure comes from the contrast with our own cities: vulgarly utilitarian and increasingly indistinguishable from each other. It is in Saudi Arabia and “The Line” – a proposed linear city 170km long – that Tolkien has found a receptive audience to his views on the fantastic.
Is there a final lesson in The Rings of Power? There is the truth that evil exists and that no form of progress will ever do away with it. Evil is present in all of us, but the distinction between good and evil is no less real. JRR Tolkien, who fought on the Western Front, wants us to believe that the fate of the world rests on that distinction.
This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!