I have tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger. Someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
Love, sacrifice and the primacy of the ordinary life, enjoyed as the fruit of freedom, are the beginning and end of The Lord of the Rings. The story begins with the microcosm of the ordinary, the Shire, among Hobbits who have little knowledge or care for the bigger and darker currents swirling around their little world. The story ends with a bewildered Sam arriving back at his home, just having concluded a long hero’s journey, bearing all the tragedy and loss that it entailed, saying: “Well, I’m back.”
Although the conflict arising from the logic of power, symbolized by the Ring, dominates the story, Tolkien said that LOTR is really about love, sacrifice and the struggle for happiness that arises out of the limitations of our mortality. Frodo is an icon of those limitations. Small in stature, he was made even smaller in the comparison to his quest, the accomplishment of which Gandalf himself claimed was based only on a “fool’s hope.” That the Shire might be saved Frodo has to give up everything, including any rational hope of succeeding. And in the end it is precisely in his failure that he succeeds. In Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, which some argue had a significant influence on Tolkien, Our Lady tells the Frodo-like figure of King Albert, whom She sends on a fools quest:
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
Frodo the Failure
In his parting conversation with at the Grey Havens, Frodo tries to explain to his friend why it is that he cannot enjoy the fruits of the victory. The reason is that for Frodo there is no victory. He has borne the weight of the Ring in a way that no previous Ring bearer had before. Like the others, Bilbo for example, he has felt its seduction and has experienced its corrupting power. But unlike Bilbo, Frodo has known exactly what the Ring was, and what it was capable of doing. Paradoxically, he reluctantly bore the Ring, knowing that once he had accepted the burden he would only reluctantly let it go. Except that, when in Mordor at the Cracks of Doom, he did not let it go.
Some readers complained to Tolkien that Frodo was an undeserving hero. It was only because of the misadventure of Gollum that the Ring was actually destroyed. Frodo had been completely overcome. When the time came and he had the impossibly won opportunity to destroy the Ring he failed to choose what he had always purposed. Tolkien defended Frodo and the workings of providence. Such an impossible quest could never have been achieved simply by executing a strategy. Frodo’s predicament at Mount doom indicates that there was something far greater at work in the Fellowship than could be accounted for in any one member or even in their combined efforts. Early on, Gandalf had told Frodo that Gollum would have some role to play and that it was the mercy of Bilbo toward Gollum that would have a last word.
Frodo, for his part, took a risk that was too big for him, but which in the end was the right thing to do—the only thing he could do and still be true to his heart. It was love and sacrifice that put Frodo at risk. It was his willingness to accept the limitations of his own abilities and his mortality. It was love and sacrifice pitted against power and domination, and even though the former prevailed, in a “turn of the tide” defeat was flipped on its head and transformed into victory.
Afterwards, Frodo knew all this to be true, but was, nevertheless, profoundly wounded by his emersion in the malice of Sauron. Back in the Shire, he was never able to reconcile within himself his own failure to make the right choice in the crucial moment. All of his good choices were deprived of their consummation, when by means of an insane compulsion his journey ended in his personal failure, which objectively had all the characteristics of a betrayal. The Shire, scoured and saved for posterity, could no longer be enjoyed by Frodo as the reward of his labors. In a sense the conflicted mind of the Ring bearer marked him forever.
Magic and the Machine
Tolkien hated machines and at best was suspicious of all technology. He had witnessed first hand the mechanized horror that was World War I, and was certainly inspired by that macabre vision to portray the evils lurking within Middle Earth the way he did. He called World War II the “first War of the Machines,” in which the real victors were the machines themselves, and in which the “servants of the machines” were becoming a “privileged class.” He despised what he called the “infernal combustion engine,” and wished it had never been invented. When friends offered him the opportunity to record his voice as he read passages of his work, he first recited the “Our Father” into the microphone as a kind of exorcism.
One can argue with Tolkien about the relative value of technology. But I think it is fair to say that in essence Tolkien’s problem had to do with a kind of pride and impatience that worships control and power, especially when such power “bulldozes” over the freedom of others. In fact, technology does not only attempt to make the realization of any given goal easier and quicker, it tends to make the holder of this power master over others. Of course, this need not be true, but it is an inherent temptation attached to all technology.
Some forms of technology cross the line. In the Secondary World the One Ring crosses the line because it purpose is to make slaves of men and elves. In the Primary World, godless technology, such as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning usurp the rights of God and turn the master of the “machine” into a kind of God who wields life and death over others.
For Tolkien Magic and the Machine are practically synonymous. This is perfectly evident from the culture of Mordor, which pairs the work of the Necromancer with the raping of the land through wanton industrialization. It is all about control, the subjugation of everyone and everything to Sauron’s plan, thereby quickening and making inevitable the outcome. It is not just that the ends justify the means. The means guarantee only one outcome, that is, that the driver of the machine gets his way.
The relationship of Magic and the Machine is linguistically complex, because of the several different meanings attached to the word “magic.” Both the elves and the servants of the Enemy have magic. In the hands of the elves that magic tends to make their innate abilities keener and quicker, so likewise with the magic of Sauron and his servants. Both forms of magic are related to the spiritual world and dependent on a correspondence with unseen powers. One could argue that the difference is that of “white” and “black” magic. But Galadriel indicates otherwise, when she tells Sam that her mirror is a bit of “elf magic,” using Sam’s own designation, but qualifying the term by saying that she is not quite sure what such “magic” is, since the workings of the elves hold nothing in common with the “deceits” of the enemy.
All Primary World Magic is evil, “white” or “black,” because it attempts subjugate to human control that which belongs to God alone. Only God has a right to that kind of control over spiritual powers. According to Tolkien, in the Secondary World “elf magic” is better termed “enchantment” because the elves do not seek control, but art and the endurance of the good. Through enchantment, which is proper to their nature, the elves participate in creation and its conservation, drawing out the meaning and working out the finality of things by loving them and bringing them to their fulfilment. For Tolkien, this “enchantment” is symbolic of the right and dignity of man who is created in the image and likeness of a Creator, and therefore, has a mandate from God to be creative, that is, to be a “sub-creator.”
But for Sauron Magic is manipulation and control, and thus essentially operates on the same basis as the Machine. Historically magic and technology have overlapped. Sir Isaac Newton, for example, was a secret but highly committed alchemist. Prior to the discovery and accurate description of material properties, natural processes were ascribed to magical transformations. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also describes the meeting of magic and the machine in Victor Frankenstein, who though scientist is interested in the intersection of natural law and the forbidden arts. But whether in the Primary or Secondary World, Magic and the Machine go hand and hand.
The War of the Machine
The Rings of Power, bound by the One to rule them all, bring into focus the fact that both the temptation to dominate over others and creative intuition have at the same time a commonality and a radical difference. The power to sub-create is both art and technology. In fact, art and technology have many of the same characteristics. But art tends to adorn and bring to perfection what is already good and beautiful, with the artifact not having to serve any other purpose. Technology, on the other hand, tends to subjugate and control in order to quicken some end other than its own existence. Both art and technology are good in themselves, and both can be abused. But because in particular the creation and use of technology involves specialized knowledge that facilitates control, manipulation and quickening, technology is particular useful in the hands of tyrants.
The technology or magic of the Rings of Power was of Sauron’s design, and he managed to deceive the elven smiths of Eregion, who worked with him to forge them, into believing that the rings could be put to good purpose. Sauron presented himself to the elves under the beautiful form of the “Lord of Gifts,” Annatar, and allowed them to think that the ring craft was simply a means of accomplishing what the elves always intended by enchantment, namely, the preservation of Middle Earth. So while the elven smiths simply intended by their “art” to use the rings for the preservation of good and beautiful things in Middle Earth, the craft itself contained inherently elements of control and domination.
When worn the Rings of Power bestowed on the bearers enhancements to their own native power and tended toward the corruption that is fostered by the power of the Machine. The Nine given to fallen men brought into existence the Nazgûl, the Ring Wraiths, neither living nor dead, but completely corrupted by the power rings. The Seven given to the dwarf lords fanned the greed of the dwarves and nurtured their isolation from the rest of the peoples of Middle Earth, especially the elves. Only The Three forged by Celebrimbor, the greatest of the elven smiths, remained free of the influence of Sauron. When he forged The One to bind all the others and gain mastery over all their power and over their bearers, the elves immediately knew how they had been deceived and kept The Three hidden from him by not using them.
The War of the Ring ensued because Sauron crowned his plan with the One Ring to rule them all and put into action a long-term plan to subjugate all the peoples of Middle Earth to himself. He poured most of his power into the forging of The One, and so all of his intentions were tied to his continued possession of it and its use as a machine to quicken and make inevitable his quest for absolute dominion. Having had the Ring cut from his finger by Isildur, Sauron directed all his energy to its repossession.
Tolkien’s World War I inspired hatred of machines helps to bring into focus the fact that man, created in the image and likeness of a Creator, can either accept that he is only a sub-creator, or he may choose to usurp the rights of the one and only Creator of all things. There is a fine line between creative intuition and the attempt to act like God, but no matter how thin the sword cut it is the definitive separation of light and dark. And between the two sides only mortal conflict can ensue.
Frodo the Machine
Frodo’s “failure” was actually the consequence of the risk he took out of love and sacrifice, and while his ring madness at the Cracks of Doom was the manifestation of lust for power and the will to dominate, it was though the One Ring itself subjugated and dominated Frodo. Frodo became a machine “in the hands” of the Ring animated by the foul and soulless spirit of Sauron. This is the malice of the machine taken to its extreme. In this, The Lord of the Rings is not unlike the more contemporary machine myths where the machines turn on their creators and take over the world. It is the peril of transhumanism and the false conviction that one can control other persons like machines without being sucked into such a diabolical mechanism.
Sauron was the grand engineer and organizer. As corrupt and hideous as the culture of Mordor was, it was never merely chaos. Even if its machines were crude in both purpose and execution, Mordor was the result of meticulous calculation. Later in life Tolkien distinguished this characteristic of Sauron from that of his master Morgoth, who figures largely into the earlier mythology, but is hardly mentioned in The Lord of the Rings. Morgoth, on the contrary, was not an organizer, but was so far ahead of Sauron in malice that his will to dominate had become inherently nihilistic. Morgoth dominated simply and purely in order to destroy. He had no interest in organization.
These are two aspects of the diabolical. On the one hand full diabolical possession is more or less an extraordinary occurrence, not permitted by God as an ordinary flow of life. The usual way in which the demon directs its malice toward us is through temptation, the cajoling of our will to choose evil. For this Satan is the great organizer, manipulator and dominator. Those, who through their own consent become his puppets, he uses as instruments (machines) of his will. But his ultimate purpose is destruction. God does not allow Satan to turn us into nothing, but hell is a perpetual termination, a ongoing destruction that will last forever. It is a fire that does not consume, but neither will it ever be extinguished.
Tolkien’s machine myth tells us a great deal about what it takes to get back to the Shire and enjoy the hoped for victory. Above all, it will mean that some will have to be martyrs for the cause, so that the many may have life. But it also means that while justice requires law and organization, the preservation of the Shire can never be about control. In the working out of divine providence, salvation is not about coercion and control but about surrender and giving up the control. This is the folly of the God that is wiser than the wisdom of men (cf. 1 Cor 1:25). The paradox of Frodo the Failure, and Gollum the instrument of providence, reminds me of a phrase used by Galadriel and taken up by Tolkien in one of his letters:
I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.
I may expand on these ideas in subsequent posts. If I do, I will provide links between the various installments.
Excellent, Father. It helps to remind ourselves that we are fighting a losing battle, that can only be won by Christ, and we are the sacrificial pawns that have only one ultimate purpose, to fight for the King and the Queen.
It’s an honor to have the actual Fred Flintstone commenting on my blog.
Thank you for the kind words.
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