For Ukrainians, Russia is now Tolkien’s Mordor

Many Ukrainians call the Russian troops “Orcs”, after the brutal monsters who serve the antagonist Sauron in Tolkien’s JRR Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Russia in this case is Mordor, the kingdom of Sauron. You can see where inspiration comes from: orcs enjoy violence and cruelty and are devoted to their master, who cares little for them. In March, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov vowed in a public speech that his country would “withstand the attack of Mordor”.

Few would call Tolkien one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. What the author of The Hobbit (1937) has attained the status of a collective psychoanalyst, a supreme myth-maker. His works express powerful fables that make sense of even the most disturbing events around us.

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Its unsurpassed popularity is shown again with the Amazon series The Rings of Power, the most expensive television series of all time, with a budget of $1 billion. The series is based on notes and appendices to Tolkien’s major works. The fragmentary nature of the material appears to have given the producers and writers greater freedom to explore symbols and myths in a visual medium without being constrained by a coherent plot line. New episodes – eight in the first season – will be released weekly on Amazon Prime Video, with the series finale hitting the streaming site on October 14.

Tolkien’s worldwide popularity would be difficult to explain if, as some have argued, his works paid homage to rural England with its hedgerows, elms and dry stone walls. In reality, Tolkien does not present the Hobbits of the Shire as a model of existence. in the The Rings of Powerthe Harfoots, a wandering race of hobbits, are portrayed as a version of life at the end of the story, but marked by willful neglect of the historical forces being unleashed around them. “No one strays from the path” is the Harfoot philosophy, satirizing those who reject alternatives to the political and social consensus today.

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But with Tolkien it’s not the hedges that matter, it’s the magic. In one episode, a character named The Stranger bends Fireflies to his will while whispering to them in a foreign language. In another, a royal elf named Galadriel and the regent Míriel gaze into a seeing stone known as a palantir to watch the future. Future episodes will take us into the heart of these secret powers. What is most fascinating about Tolkien is how he plays with reality and fantasy: magic in his stories is a product of the author’s imagination, but in the stories it becomes real. In this sense, his stories can be seen as announcing a time when magic will become more than just fantasy and part of the world of everyday experience. Interestingly, that may be why his books are such a powerful guide to our troubled times.

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In his theoretical essays, Tolkien explains that his work is an exploration of fairyland, a realm beyond the known world that humans can enter and inhabit. He calls it a land of magic, but he didn’t like the word. If he were writing today he would probably call it virtual reality or maybe even the metaverse. Fairy tales must be experienced as true; As with immersive technologies, the creator of fairy tales creates a secondary world for your mind to enter. And Fairyland expresses the deepest human drives: for example, the desire to visit the outermost limits of space and time, or to converse with animals and other creatures. As is well known, between these drives Tolkien has no place for sex.

British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke suggested, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Tolkien also points this out, but he adds a somber note: In a technological society where we are ours Pursuing fantasies unhindered by the physical world, the human soul is suddenly in charge of our actions. Generous and noble motives are amplified, but so are our darkest fantasies of power and cruelty. Fantasies remove all limits of will, coming close to defining evil. What happens when we gain the power to actualize them? Human limits turn fantasy into art. Advanced technology turns it into… what?

Dangerous geopolitics for starters. The Rings of Powereven more than Lord of the Rings, is a geopolitical story, a grand struggle to control and shape the known world. As Galadriel reiterates that once the Southlands fall to the orcs, the whole world may follow, we hear echoes of our own time. The world order is being designed and redesigned. Vladimir Putin speaks in these terms of overturning the existing arrangement of international relations, and his adviser Sergey Karaganov goes even further: in a recent essay he suggested that the role of the geopolitical writer is to be a “kind of art expert”. be. As for China, what better way to describe the Belt and Road Initiative than as an exercise in building a world?

[See also: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory”: Sergey Karaganov on what Putin wants]

And yet we are not hobbits. We cannot escape from the imagination. “Imagination remains a human right,” Tolkien once wrote. We have neglected this right. We have allowed our imaginations to shrink. When the audience enjoys the fantastic cities portrayed in The Rings of Power their delight comes from the contrast with our own cities: vulgarly utilitarian and increasingly indistinguishable. In Saudi Arabia and “The Line” – a proposed linear city 170 km long – Tolkien found a receptive audience for his views on the fantastic.

Is there a final lesson in The Rings of Power? There is truth that evil exists and that no form of progress will ever eliminate it. Evil is in all of us, but the distinction between good and evil is no less real. JRR Tolkien, who fought on the Western Front, would have us believe that the fate of the world rests on this distinction.

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This article appears in the 10/05/2022 issue of The New Statesman, Crashed!

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