This is our truth, tell us yours
The aim of this post is to discuss the lessons we can learn about resistance to fascism from the Lord of the Rings. Even before I start I know there will be a number of objections, so lets get them out of the way.
There is a strand of thought which de-legitimises some forms of learning. It’s those who claim that references to Harry Potter somehow make a person inferior to references to Das Kapital. This is nothing more than the gatekeeping which has been used to oppress certain classes, ages, races, and groups within western society. To insist that one form of cultural knowledge is superior to anther form of cultural knowledge ignores all the barriers which often prevent people accessing the more acceptable cultural spaces. So what if someones frame is reference is young adult fiction, rather than an Oxford debating society? The value we give to certain cultural references is not about some platonic purity but about defending created hierarchies designed to oppress. Those who mock certain cultural references are the descendants of the 19th century misogynists who dismissed novels because women read them.
It is impossible to talk about LTOR without addressing the issue of race. Tolkien was a product of his time, class, sex and background. Whilst I do not know if he was particularly racist given all of these factors, there is certainly a stereotyping which persists throughout the book. The men of Harad are crude caricatures, described as “cruel” with thick lips and gold earrings. Whiteness is prized, and colorism pervades the book. One objection however is false, the black riders are not black. By which I mean, they are not people of colour. No doubt there is a huge amount to unpack in the use of black as a pejorative and negative term in western thought and literature. But, as is made clear by the description of the leader of the riders in the siege of Gondor, they are not black skinned. Does this absolve Tolkien of his prejudices which come out at other times in the book? That perhaps is not for me to decide, however, criticism should be based I believe on an assessment of what is in the book, not what people claim is in the book.
Another objection levelled at LOTR is the lack of female characters. People get this wrong largely because there are a lack of characters full stop. Don’t get me wrong, I love the books, even the Silmarillion, but LOTR especially has about 6 identifiable characters out of a much longer named list. Pippen and Merry are interchangeable, Thoeden and Fangorn, Gimli and every other Dwarf ever, and the same for Leoglas and every other elf. Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Gandalf and Aragorn are fully fleshed characters, the rest fir into various, common, archetypes. That’s not surprising when someone was trying to write an English language version of the Sagas. Oral tradition is based on archetypes, explores how the hero, the fool, the trickster, the wise man and the hero meet their tests. In doing so generation upon generation learns how they might cope with the tests and trials life throws at them. There are four major female characters in LOTR. Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel and Eowyn. It is true we do not have three page sex scenes, and the compulsory rape of a leading character in place of actual character development. Guess what, that’s a good thing. The entire fantasy genre has made the mistake of thinking adding sex means it is more gender diverse. Instead, with few exceptions women have been inserted to provide wank fodder for teenage boys, often via rape scenes as titillation. Thomas Covenant is of course the worst example of this, but most books fail massively. Give me the power of Galadriel, who even Gandalf defers to, or the courage, and gender defiance, of Ewoyn, rather than the supposed equality of modern fantasy creations.
That is one hell of a disclaimer, so, onto the meat of the piece, what can we learn about fighting fascism from the Lord of the Rings?
We first encounter the Nazagul in the heartland of the Shire, a dark shadow in a world of country pubs and gentle hills. They do not arrive with swords, but with words, and attempts to win what they want by persuasion. The same tactic is used in Dale and under the mountain, it is why Gloin and Gimli are in Rivendell. Indeed, GLoin himself speaks of distrust of fair words coming from Mordor.
Saruman of course is the Master of persuasian, his words even convince Thoeden for a moment that Gandalf will betray them, and even as they stand before Sarumans tower, those listening feel less like victors than petitioners.
It is Gloin himself who teaches the most important lession here, words can never be divorced from previous actions. When it comes to resistance the benefit of the doubt is a luxury we do not have. This does not mean we cannot hope for change, for new actions (Gandalf’s entire attitude to gollum is based on the idea anyone can be redeemed) however there must be a change of behaviour first.
There is a lot of discussion about platforms, and the right to be heard, ignoring that words can be dangerous, as dangerous as swords, as the Scouring of the Shire shows us. No one has the right to be heard, but perhaps more importantly we need to be aware of the danger of words. Listening unwarily, be it at the tower of Orthanc or spreading fake news on Facebook is a danger to us all. Being aware, questioning why someone wants us to hear their words, and ignore their actions, must be a vital process for all of us.
Lesson 1: Beware of those who would use their words to mould us, and of the power words can have over the unwary. Resist the idea everyone deserves to be listened too, regardless of their previous actions.
On the grounds a little bit of backstory hurts no one, if you have only seen the films you may not be aware of who Gandalf is. He is a Maiar, the closest equivalent might be angel, formed, as the Valar were, by the creator before middle earth itself existed. We always need to remember that whilst the books are not allegorical, they are infused with the beliefs and values of Tolkien, a strong Christian. Just as angels existed with God before man, so the Maia and Valar existed with Eru.
OK, there is a reason for this major geek out, bear with me.
Gandalf is a spirit of healing, patience, empathy and hope. Who happens to wield a big ass sword when needed.
We have a false split between passive and active, that a person can only be one or another. Depending on your personal opinion people decide on anothers suitability, as that strange entity we call activist. Instead of attacking people for being who they are, and using the skills they have, we need to recognise different responses are needed at different times, and individuals are capable of being more than one thing. Sometimes healing is needed, at other times the defiance of “you shall not pass”. The same person can do both.
This might sound obvious, but pretty much the TLDR plot summary of Lord of the Rings is that little people matter. Amid the wizards, heroes, knights and assorted other, powerful people, it is Frodo, Sam and Gollum who make victory possible. It can be easy to feel that our individual actions are too small to matter, however as a number of people have pointed out recently, when snowflakes come together, it creates an avalanche.
Abusers, of all sizes (and fascists use classic abuser tactics) dis-empower their victims. They tell them we are too small, too weak, too insignificant to matter. They have to because there are always more of us than there are of them. The only reason to say someone is too small to matter is to make them believe it. We might need to band together, we might need at times to be carried across the burning plain, but, we matter, and if we believe, we can achieve greatness.
I know, its the ending no one wished for, the chapter we could have done without, the difficult second album. Tolkien himself said it was an integral part of the book, planned from the beginning, and so despite the desire for neatness we have to accept its existence. Perhaps that is one of the most important lessons of all, that the fight never ends, that we may rest, but not retire. We have, by which I mean that amorphous, unnamed, unknowable we of those I think think like me, been lulled into a false sense of security. Yes, many of us said love did not win, equal marriage was not an end point, white supremacy and privilege needed to be challenged. However, a lot of us believed certain things were accepted, and others permanently unacceptable. The scouring of the shire reminds us the fight is never over, and that it is the moment when we climb the last hill, heading to the green dragon that we need to be most cautious. There is little to celebrate politically, but at least we can take away the knowledge that all our rights have to be constantly fought for, and that attack can happen even in the midst of seeming safety.
There is so much more I could write, of the power of queer love shown by Frodo and Sam, the understanding that nothing is created evil, the importance of resisting the temptation of power. However perhaps the most important thing we can learn from Lord of the Rings is that we take our lessons from where we can, and should never be ashamed of what we find.