01 March 2006

Review: The Battle for Middle Earth
Tolkien's Divine Design in the Lord of the Rings
Fleming Rutledge
No counsel have I to give those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in the shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings. Gandalf to Theoden in The Two Towers
Thus spake the editors of The Nation (a weekly magazine of the American political Left) on their cover of November 28, 2005:
There can no longer be any doubt: The American war in Iraq — an unprovoked, unnecessary, unlawful invasion that has turned into a colonial style occupation — is a moral and political catastrophe. It has also become the single greatest threat to America's national security.... The Nation will not support any candidate for national office who does not make a speedy end to the American war in Iraq a major issue of his or her campaign.
Not long afterward, the The Weekly Standard (a magazine of the American political Right) carried as its December 19, 2005 cover story, "Fighting to Win — With the proper strategy victory in Iraq is far more likely than many think," by Frederick W. Kagan. Both magazines are published in English from Washington, D. C. Other than that, they have nothing in common.

Well, almost nothing. They both get the same news. They just draw opposing conclusions from it. If they were in the world of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, they would each be staring into a palantir, one of the seven seeing stones wrought by the High Elves in the Elder Days, and brought to Middle Earth by the men of Numenor.

The palantiri were "crystal balls" that enabled those looking into them to "converse in thought with one another." They could also show one scenes from across both space and time, if one's will were strong enough to direct them. To us, they are a metaphor for the technical means by which we gather and communicate both news and intelligence. The difference between them being that intelligence agencies try to get the truth and keep it private, while news agencies try to get a story and sell it to the public.

In the Lord of the Rings (henceforth LOTR), palantiri were used by Saruman the Wizard and Denethor the Steward of Gondor. But a third palantir was controlled by Sauron, the Lord of Barad-dur, the personification of Evil, who used the palantiri to drive Saruman to evil and Denethor to suicide, as Gandalf described:
'The Stones of Seeing do not lie, and not even the Lord of Barad-dur can make them do so. He can, maybe, by his will choose what things shall be seen by weaker minds, or cause them to mistake the meaning of what they see.' (The Return of the King: The Last Debate)
And so it is with the news. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter. This means that all the news from Iraq is going to be bad, because nobody in their right mind is going to risk their neck to report the re-opening of a school or the recomissioning of a water treatment plant. That stuff doesn't sell papers, doesn't bring eyeballs to advertisements, so it ends up in the editorial waste bin. But a roadside bomb attack, now that's news. It becomes part of never-ending drip of bad news, and no end in sight. We begin to feel that we can never accomplish anything good there. Thus, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (aka Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI) uses terror in theater to create despair on the home front.

Now terror and despair are the weapons of Sauron (a stand-in for Satan), which Fleming Rutledge notes in her book, The Battle for Middle Earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in the Lord of the Rings. An Episcopal priest, Rutledge is more concerned to caution her fellow Americans against self-righteous bigotry than she is with the workings of the Enemy. She mentions Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in the context of warning that we cannot allow ourselves the illusion that "they" are all bad and "we" are all good. For our own military and economic power seduces us, in the same way the One Ring — the Ring of Power — seduces its bearers.

How men should conduct themselves in war, and why they should fight are great concerns for both Rutledge and Tolkien, who despite his devout Christianity, never explicitly mentions God in this pre-Christian, yet profoundly Christian epic. Rutledge devotes considerable space to explaining what amounts to Tolkien's action-portrayals of the Catholic tradition of Just War (both in deciding whether one must go to war — ius ad bellum, and how to conduct it — ius in bello).

But her main concern, and indeed her greatest achievement, is to walk the reader through Tolkien's narrative demonstration of how Free Will and Predestination are not opposites. In Christian Doctrine and in LOTR, they are the same thing. Consider that if God has chosen you for His Service, you can refuse. But if you refuse, you turn away from realizing your true self, your rightful destiny. If you accept, you achieve the fulfillment of becoming who you were always meant to be.

Such a short sketch of Predestination (or Election) does little justice to Fleming's exegesis of it in LOTR, and to Tolkien's brilliance. To best enjoy them, I suggest reading a chapter of LOTR first, and then reading Fleming's exegesis of it afterword. This is made easier by Fleming's approach of analyzing LOTR one chapter at a time in sequence as they are printed.

Things that are missing from Fleming's treatment are an interpretation of the palantiri as symbolic of both intelligence and news (as above), and an exegesis of Tolkien's theological interpretation of depression. In LOTR, depression is evoked by Sauron in order to sap his opponents' will to resist him. Sauron induces depression in Theoden through the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue (propaganda), and in Denethor through the palantir. The first is cured only by the intervention of Gandalf (quoted under the title of this essay), while the second is too far gone. Not only does Denethor neglect the defense of his City, his attempted murder of his own son during a successful suicide attempt prevent Gandalf from reaching the battlefield in time to prevent the death of Theoden. For Tolkien, depression is one of the chief tools of the Enemy.

And indeed, in the form of demoralization, depression is one of the chief tools of the terrorist insurgency we have been actively fighting since 9/11. All so-called "fourth generation" warriors use "asymmetrical" means such as terrorism to attack not only the their opponents populace, but more importantly their opponents will to continue the struggle. Their strategy is not to defeat a militarily superior foe outright, but simply to outlast their foe, all the while creating doubt in their foe's mind about the legitimacy and winnability of the conflict. It is even better to create division and conflict within the foe's body politic, as Denethor's subjects fought each other — some trying to carry out Denethor's suicidal orders, and others trying to prevent that suicide.

Then there is the Ring itself. It was made by a craft that none but Sauron possesses, and as such is symbolic of a kind of destructive technological power. Frodo's mission is to take it back into Sauron's own territory and cast it into the lava from which it was forged in the heart of Mount Doom. Rutledge explores the dimensions of this quest as a journey enabled by the Cardinal Virtues and aided by what some might call chance, but is really Divine Providence. But to me (and I think to Tolkien who was a veteran of WW I) it is a covert Special Operation, with the entire War of the Ring as a diversion to keep the op's cover from being blown. As such, it has inspired many re-readings of LOTR by a retired SEAL Commander I know.

On the other hand, imagine an al-Qaeda terrorist reading his story into LOTR. He could see himself as Frodo, bearing the One Ring — an Improvised Nuclear Device — into the heart of our, his Enemy's, territory — to bring to ruin the forces of evil, us. With ever more powerful technologies becoming ever more accessible, the most dangerous weapon is imagination. Although Rutledge neglects some of the more mundane and practical aspects of intelligence and conflict, she is right to draw our attention to how we conduct our side of the conflict. We must make it increasingly difficult for our enemies to portray us as evil and themselves as good.

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