Wednesday, February 02, 2005
First an hors d’oeuvre:
The world is less safe for political correctness as of this week: DOUBLE TOOTHPICKS is now a group blog!
Now on to my own rant about the culture wars…
I was a little too rural and uncultured and dumb to get in on the Tolkien cult of the ‘60s when hobbits and Ents were Borged by the Spoiled College Infants movement that arose in the wake of The Pill and Post-war Prosperity; deficiencies for which I am eternally, forever, and unceasingly thankful. So I have only an academic knowledge of “Frodo Lives” (and some nifty tee-shirts sporting that slogan, courtesy New Line Cinema). The ‘authentic’ experience of despising the bourgeoisie who fed and clothed said ingrates being denied me, I was blessed to discover Middle-Earth later in life with no counterculture associations to unlearn.
What those kids needed was a good switching up one side and down the other with a sturdy length of salix discolor, and then to be put to work hand-feeding ten thousand chickens twice a day – preferably in their bare feet - but the Enemy’s unwitting ‘useful idiots’ had done their work well. Indulged and cosseted, Middle America’s youth took their luxurious existence for granted whilst their imbecile parents and college administrators, eager to be liked by the little monsters they had created, had left their spines somewhere and couldn’t find them. (And unlike Little Bo Peep’s tail-wagging flock, these errant vertebrae have yet to come home.)
Two centuries after Rousseau’s personal adventures with Sex and No Consequences (his mistress’s inconvenient newborns were sent off to a state orphanage to die), his utopia was realized. No longer would this splendid generation of baby boomers contaminate their spiritual purity with the taint of prudish suburbia: ‘Authenticity’ was the cry. Back to the land, Comrades! Become dwellers in Middle-Earth! Free love! Bare toes in organic dirt (is there any other kind?) and heads in liberating clouds of pipe-weed! Join the charge against the money-grubbing robber-barons! At least, as soon as you’ve cashed the allowance check your capitalist parents send you faithfully every month: I mean, how else are we going to buy the gas to get our Volkswagen Peace-mobile to San Francisco?
The current version of all of this self-righteous self-indulgence provides its starry-eyed adherents with opportunities to March for Peace in parades organized by Stalinist front-groups or post internet instructions on how to torch SUVs without getting caught. (Possibly after a quick breakfast of food co-op stone-ground cooked cereal livened up by the occasional discovery of half an accidental grasshopper. I speak from personal experience. Beady-eyed. The grasshopper, I mean. But probably nutritious.)
Now I don’t mean to imply that Tolkien was a great fan of Modernity, because he clearly was not. The love for green growing things and quiet ways was deep-riveted to his soul: the ascendancy of the noise and pollutions and destructiveness of machines, both domestic and military, and the ever-increasing power of the Efficiency-mongers horrified him. (As much as I myself dislike Efficiency, I must say here that I think Tolkien took perhaps too dim a view of some aspects of Modernity: his intense distaste for the Connecticut Yankee mindset stands athwart the clear fact that life for many people has been made more bearable by technological advances – I owe my life to some of them and my varied experiences with no plumbing have inspired additional appreciation - but in any case, the problem is often not so much the machine as the spiritual condition of those who wield it.) Much as Terry Schiavo’s mother and father are helpless against the murderous dictates of their daughter’s adulterous husband, so was Tolkien before the commercial conquest of rural England; the world he loved was just something to be paved over to drive noisy cars on.
(This reminds me of something I saw on the news when I was about eleven or twelve: it had been decided by dictat from on high that the few remaining brick-cobbled streets of old Wilmington (NC) were to be covered in asphalt, but the homeowners were up in arms - literally. The tar-spreaders attacked a street and when they left, the residents attacked the still-soft tar with hoes and such. I don’t recall any follow-up about it, but when I was in Wilmington some years ago, we drove through that area and, there were still some brick streets; so I assume the homeowners won and the Efficiency-mongers lost. Tolkien would approve.)
A pleasure of my childhood was reading poetry out loud from a battered, lone volume from the days when Childcraft book sets were illustrated with lovely watercolors, the sort that instilled joy in beauty in small children without them even knowing it. I especially loved this one by Eleanor Farjeon: it pretty well highlights Tolkien’s sorrow for the Miller-of-the-Dee pre-industrial England that still lurked in the dear places of his earlier days.
The city has streets—
But the country has roads.
In the country one meets
Blue carts with their loads
Of sweet-smelling hay,
And mangolds and grain:
Oh, take me away
To the country again!
In the city one sees
Big trams rattle by,
And the breath of the chimneys
That blot out the sky,
And all down the pavements
Stiff lamp-posts one sees—
But the country has hedgerows,
The country has trees.
As sweet as the sun
In the country is rain:
Oh, take me away
To the country again!
Having said all this, however, we are still left with the plain fact that the picture-book Shire wasn’t an argument for E.L.F. environmentalism. As Gandalf said to Treebeard in The Two Towers (book): “You have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things.” Neither was it an argument for socialist nanny-state busybodies: The Scouring of the Shire ought to dispense with any ideas of that sort.
Nor did it condone spaced-out permissiveness. Societies in The Lord of the Rings are all tightly fitted to traditional sexual mores and traditional families - and the aforementioned pipe-weed was plain old ‘Nicotiana’ just like the stuff we grow here in North Carolina, despite any insinuations to the contrary by a mischievous Peter Jackson.
For one thing, an idyllic society such as the Shire is depicted as being would be possible only under conditions of strict Victorian morality (if then); otherwise, paradise would be spoiled by disease, disorder, poverty and hunger in short order. If you don’t have modern medicine, transportation and plumbing, and modern farming methods and reliable lines of supply, you have to rely on everybody doing the right thing at the right time and respecting custom, from sexual morality and social structure right on down to blackberry-gathering rights and where the cows drop their high-nitrogen pats. And that requires either self-control encouraged by the ever-present possibility of disapproval being expressed by the Farmer Maggots of the community - or tyranny.
“The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs…There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king…they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.” -–Prologue, The Fellowship of the Ring.This is a far cry from the 1960s dictum “I can do anything I want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.” It smacks far more of the Amish – and they are not renowned for their hedonism.
Ignoring this, the all-wise baby boomers and their enablers charged out upon the tightrope of Tolkien’s romantic pastoralism, gleefully leaving his balance pole of chivalric morality behind (alongside their elders’ spines, maybe) and American culture has never been the same. The unleashing of sexual self-indulgence has seeded a vast commercial empire; if everyone became Calvinists tomorrow, the economy would collapse almost instantly. In a twist ironic enough to give Saruman the giggles, the would-be Middle-Earthers have surrendered all to commerce and industry. (Not to mention the fact that the chances of the Shirefolk having used either contraceptives or abortion as means of birth control are precisely nil; Tolkien was a very devout Catholic.)
It’s easy to preach about the superior virtues of organic gardening and free-range chickens when you know there’s a warehouse-sized grocery store available for back-up – just in case the bugs and varmints take over the corn crib. It’s also easy to bed-hop when you can pop a pill or get an abortion to take care of any unintended consequences, or when you can scream at the government en masse to demand cures for diseases that could be well-nigh eliminated by keeping your zipper shut. (But that would be dreadfully Incorrect, Politically-speaking, so we mustn’t say such things lest we offend.)
A niche-descendent of Free Love and Back to the Land is rampant on the internet in the form of appalling LotR fan-fiction writ in viscous purple ink and angst, plots largely woven around episodic sexual intercourse of various persuasions and written largely by extremely silly teenaged girls. (Where are their mothers, for Pete’s sake?) Fortunately, Professor Tolkien is safely in his grave and thus beyond being distressed by such rubbish; death truly is a merciful gift from Illuvatar.
Of course, the Shire was able to indulge itself in the luxury of being idyllic because other people - living a much less comfortable existence - protected it from being pillaged by savages and others of a criminal ilk. Tolkien recognized this, and it adds a certain tension of contradiction to his writings: the Shire can only be the Shire because Men with swords are willing to kill marauders. Thus the anti-war activism of a certain segment of the louder Peace-and-Love‘60s generation and their heirs is rendered both naïve and hypocritical.
(I must interject here that there is a considerable difference between personal ‘conscientious objection’ and Ultra-Left pacifism. Refusing to take up arms as an individual has a long and respectable tradition in Christianity - such as monastic communities or the clergy - and the story of the building of the Temple by Solomon rather than his father David lends considerable honor to such a stance: it must be respected by those who would follow the same slaughtered Lamb. The difference comes in being willing to accept the consequences as opposed to thinking rainbows and woolly baa-lambs will repel human evil. The error of the pacifists lies in their self-righteous – and selective - determination to prevent the American government from exercising its divinely-ordained responsibility to defend its citizenry.)
“The Hobbits named it the Shire, as the region of the authority of their Thain, and a district of well-ordered business and there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living, and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved, until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk. They forgot or ignored what little they had ever known of the Guardians, and of the labours of those that made possible the long peace of the Shire. They were, in fact, sheltered, but they had ceased to remember It.“ --Ibid~~~
From Brad Birzer’s Sanctifying Myth:
"Hippies and the political Left embraced the trilogy in the mid-to-late-2960s. It was, purportedly, one of drug guru Timothy Leary’s favorite books, and headshops throughout the United States sold all manner of Tolkien paraphernalia. As Beatles biographer Philip Norman has reported, The Lord of the Rings became a vital part of hippie culture, finding devotees among the devotees of ‘Indian religion, cannabis and free love.’ Said the Berkeley campus bookstore manager in 1966, 'This is more than a campus craze; it’s like a drug dream…' His iconic status overwhelmed the elderly Tolkien…The conservative author especially despised the hippies. Neither his lifestyle nor his worldview fit theirs.”It’s also the ultimate absurdity: a straitlaced Victorian professor writes a straitlaced Victorian novel only to see it selectively filleted to prettify the same old lechery and folly and self-righteous contempt for virtue that mankind has ever been eager to justify.