Long-time readers of the Posse know that I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve recently finished Children of Hurin and when I saw that Mark Steyn had linked to an article that evoked comparisons between Middle Earth and our current world situation, well I had to go there.
Unfortunately, James Pinkerton’s article is a disaster – not only because it hugely misreads what Tolkien was trying to say, but because it is essentially incoherent.
If I could distill Pinkerton’s biggest mistake it would be this passage:
But Tolkien once confided, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” That is, Catholic in the sense that reality and history are complicated, that the world is rich in majesty and mystery, that human nature is but a poor vessel. In his world, the Shire is Christendom, and Christendom is the Shire.
No, it isn’t. Pinkerton has this exactly backwards. In fact, Tolkien was quite explicit in warning against what we might call “Shire-ism” – isolationism by another name. Tolkien found the Hobbits praiseworthy because they just wanted to be left alone, it is true. But they also had the wisdom and the inner greatness to step forward and save a larger world when the time came.
Had they simply stayed within their borders, they would certainly have been conquered and enslaved.
The whole point of the Lord of the Rings was that one couldn’t just save the Shire – you had to save everyone and everything – or nothing.
Tolkien didn’t castigate the West for trying to spread freedom and liberty as Pinkerton tries to do, but for failing to spread them enough. That’s why he refers to it as a “Catholic” – that means “universal” - tale.
The character of Gandalf (Tolkien’s voice in much of his works) brings this point up repeatedly.
One of the consistent themes of the book is that the isolation of the Shire cannot be maintained. Sooner or later the wide world will barge in.
Another theme is that inaction in the face of evil only increases danger. In the Last Debate (Book V), Gandalf makes this explicit, saying:
[Sauron] has not built up his power until waiting until his enemies are secure, as we have done.
Gandalf is talking about how the West is always reacting, rather than acting – dare I say it, preemptively - against Sauron’s growing power.
In the years before Lord of the Rings takes place, we learn that the White Council – the body Pinkerton apparently seeks to emulate – patently refused to take action against Sauron until it was almost too late. Of course that was partly because Saruman, the council’s leader, was planning to betray them.
When Tolkien said “Catholic,” he meant it. Gandalf isn’t there just to save the Shire, or the West, but all of Middle Earth. He made this explicit when speaking to Denethor in Book V:
"You think, as is your wont, my lord, of Gondor only," said Gandalf. "Yet there are other men and other lives, and time still to be. And for me, I pity even his slaves."
Far from urging the West to keep to its own affairs, Gandalf was urging universal action – the kind Pinkerton disparages when he describes the war in Iraq as ‘Uncle Sam forcing people to be free.’
At this point, one has to wonder if Pinkerton has even read the books.
Want an even bigger example?
Late in the essay, Pinkerton says this:
“To keep the peace, we must separate our civilizations. We must start with a political principle, that the West shall stay the West, while the East can do as it wishes on its side of the frontier, and only on its side.”
Gosh, this is exactly what Mordor asks for in a parley with Gandalf and Aragorn before the Black Gate at the climax of Lord of the Rings. These are the terms that Sauron’s messenger offers:
"These are the terms," said the Messenger, and smiled as he eyed them one by one. "The rabble of Gondor and its deluded allies shall withdraw at once beyond the Anduin, first taking oaths never again to assail Sauron the Great in arms, open or secret. All lands east of the Anduin shall be Sauron's forever, solely. West of the Anduin as far as the Misty Mountains shall be tributary to Mordor, and men there shall bear no weapons, but shall have leave to govern their own affairs." [...]
Looking at the Messenger's eyes they read his thought. He was to be that lieutenant, and gather all that remained of the West under his sway; he would be their tyrant and they his slaves.
Gandalf rightly rejected this surrender, but - apart from the boundaries - it is little different from what Pinkerton hopes for. Here’s his culiminating passage:
Having agreed that Israel must survive, within the protective ambit of Christendom, the council could engage Muslims—who are, themselves, in the process of restoring the Caliphate—in a grand summit. Only then, when West meets East, in diplomatic twain, might a chance exist for an enduring settlement.
So in Pinkerton’s vision of heroic valor, the “Knights of the West” will draw forth their ancestral blades, polish their armor, and then constitute a second United Nations to negotiate their gradual surrender.
I don’t know Pinkerton well, but this essay is stunningly weak. He talks the good game about war, invokes everyone from Leonidas to Charles Martel, but in the end doesn’t really advocate doing anything other than having a Thomas Friedman-esque Arab-Israeli summit.
Like that’s not been tried before.
That’s why I say he is incoherent. If you are going to issue the call to arms, at least go all the way. If you believe there is an inevitable clash of civilizations and that sooner or later the Cross or the Crescent will fly in triumph over Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome, fine. But don’t give us the St. Crispin’s Day speech (or worse still, Peter Jackson’s bastardized version of it) and then follow it up with the peace conference agenda.
I have to say I’m really surprised by this essay. I’ve seen Tolkien used to argue many things, and Pinkerton isn’t the first to equate militant Islam with the power of Mordor. However he is the first to suggest that the West should reach an accommodation with Sauron rather than strive for his defeat.
Look, I’m not sold on the need for a Holy War between East and West. I think one is possible, but my last hope of averting it is based on events in Iraq.
If there is a Frodo in all of this, it is George W. Bush who is doing what everyone else says cannot be done – creating an Arab democracy and spreading freedom in a part of the world that knows only extremism and hate.
The odds are long, the price is heavy and all the Wise say it will never work, but such is the challenge of our time.
Pinkerton may have missed this, but we aren’t “forcing” freedom on the Iraqis. They are fighting along with our brave troops – they DO want their freedom and are dying for it every day. The Iraqi Army’s losses are well in excess of ours and yet they keep getting stronger.
Look, these people have endured decades of dictatorship, war and starvation. They are now pitted in a brutal war against a merciless enemy that will stop at nothing to destroy them. It defies logic to argue that they’d have conquered Al Qaeda, defanged Iran and blockaded Syria, and put Saudi Arabia in its place, if they only wanted it badly enough – and they’d do it in FOUR YEARS.
Could the “realists” get less realistic?
I don’t know if we will ultimately succeed in Iraq.
What I do know is that you can’t make a change unless you try, and the message I took away from Lord of the Rings is that hope – even a fool’s hope – can succeed.
If a hobbit and his servant can enter into the stronghold of Mordor and destroy the One Ring under Sauron’s very Eye, maybe we can help Iraq become a better place.
There are times when the little people shake the counsels of the Wise and Great. It is entirely possible that common Iraqis and America’s best will unite and create what everyone said was impossible – and that the shock waves of that success will topple thrones from Tripoli to Riyadh.
Maybe that is what is meant to be – and it is a far more encouraging thought.