Sunday, September 26, 2010

Filling In The Corners: The Platypus Reads Part LXXX

W. H. Auden muses in an essay on "The Lord of the Rings" that Saruman and Sauron both posses industrial capabilities but do not wage modern war.  There are no orcs with tanks in the War of the Ring.  Careful examination of the text and some knowledge of actual historical cultures can help us solve this problem.  Ever the niggling detail man, Tolkien's world is coherent.

Saruman's orcs bring gunpowder, the fire of Orthanc, with them to the siege of Helm's Deep.  While gunpowder pre-dates the Industrial Revolution, it foundational to modern warfare.  The corrupt wizard also installs industrial technology in the Shire.  We see this specifically at Ted Sandyman's mill, capable of grinding grain at an accelerated rate in order to feed the soldiers of Isengard.  Saruman's complex logistics, using the Shire and Bree as a relatively unassailable supply network, is another feature of modern war.  After losing the War of the Ring, Saruman comes to the Shire and orders his minions to run the mills simply to foul Hobbiton with their industrial waste.  This waste is probably related to coal-burning as the smokestack by the mill suggests.  Aside from grain, Saruman's machinery in the Shire and at Isengard was probably employed in the mass-production of armor and weapons for his genetic-hybrid army of Uruk-Hai.  Thus, in terms of gunpowder, industrial machinery used for food and weapon production, modern notions of supply, and in the desire to create genetic "super soldiers," Saurman is waging modern war.

In Sauron's case, the industrial motifs are harder to detect, but we can find evidence of Victorian Era steel structures such as the iron ramparts of Barad-Dur and the bridge that spans its lava moat.  Also of note is the peculiar "trench dialect" of the orcs that intentionally resembles the slang of British soldiers in the First World War.

Even acknowledging these points, one might still be tempted to say that Auden's objection stands.  Where are the rifles and canons that the antagonists of Tolkien's world should be able to build with their industrial capabilities?  The answer can be found by looking at actual historical societies.  The leading nations of the Industrial Revolution were Britain and America; both capitalist democracies.  France, Germany, and Russia also industrialized, but were late in coming and in some cases only partially successful until the mid twentieth century.  They also were only capable of becoming industrial states by copying the efforts of Great Britain and America.  The point of all this is that Isengard and Mordor are not dynamic, democratic, capitalist states where innovation is rewarded and necessary for economic flourishing.  Instead, they are slave states, like Ancient Greece or Rome.  Slavery is toxic to industrial progress as it encourages solving problems by simply adding more slaves rather than innovation.  In addition, without profit incentive there is no reason to innovate, and without the rights of free speech and freedom of association innovations that do occur spread slowly if at all.  Both these points could be made about nineteenth century Germany, Russia, and France, nations that eventually industrialized, but it must be remembered that they had the examples of Great Britain and America to follow; Isengard and Mordor have no one to imitate.  Thus, while the union of the two towers does posses industrial capacities in the War of the Ring, it lacks the conditions necessary to fully capitalize upon them and produce the full spectrum of modern military technology.

J.R.R. Tolkien made his sub-created world his life's work in a way rivaled by no other modern author.  It should not surprise us, then, that even in the face of as perceptive a critic as W. H. Auden, Tolkien's Middle Earth holds up when put to the test.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Where All The Trees Are Strange: Strange Paltypus(es) Part XIII

After twelve years of living in the high desert, it's been a breath of fresh air to be back among the woodlands again with mist, and rain, and standing water.  When you've grown up in the forest, surrounded by trees, the leaves and the bark and the shadows sink deep into your soul in a way that can never completely be rooted out.  I remember one patch in La Mirada park where the trees grew close enough together that the formed a canopy.  There were times when I would take a stroll there just to feel the sunlight passing between the leaves.

Like I said, it's good to be back in the forest.  Still, even with all the greenery, there are moments of disconnect; like trying to remember an old tune and knowing that you've gotten part of it but it's not quite right.  I've thought for a bit, and I know what it is: the trees are all strange.  The trees are all strange.

Qui Transtulit Sustinet

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Nietzsche's Ring: The Platypus Reads Part LXXIX

In "The Lord of the Rings," Sauron's body is diffused throughout Middle Earth in a perverse parody of Christ's Church.  It is significant that the object that ties this diverse organism together is a ring; gold and unadorned.  In fact, Sauron's ring resembles nothing so much as a common wedding ring.  To what might Sauron be wed?

Following the idea that Sauron's body is a mockery of the Church, we can look to Christian imagery to guide us.  The Church is not only referred to as the "body of Christ," but also the "bride of Christ."  Sauron's body is also his bride.  In distinction to the Church, however, the members of Sauron's body are merely extensions of his will; mere puppets.  If this is true, then the bride Sauron is marrying is himself.  This idea should sound familiar to readers of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra."  Indeed, Zarathustra, the herald of Anti-Christ, sings:

Oh how should I not lust for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings - the Ring of Recurrence!  Never yet did I find the woman by whom I wanted children, unless it be this woman, whom I love: for I love you, O Eternity!  For I love you, O Eternity!

By bringing the Ring to the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo sets in motion the events that destroy the One and all it offers: power, the exaltation of self, and eternal life.  In "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien rejects not only Sauron's ring, but Nietzsche's ring as well. 

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Problem With Disraeli's Angles:The Platypus Reads Part LXXVIII

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once claimed that he was on the side of the angels to which G.K. Chesterton quipped: "on the side of the fallen angels, and all the imperialisms of the princes of the abyss."  Beyond simply disagreeing with Disraeli's policies, Chesterton was reacting to a common sort of gnosticism popular in the Victorian era that equated anything "spiritual" with the Good.  The problem with such an attitude is that it ignores the possibility of spiritual evil.  It wants angels but ignores demons.

Mike Mignola's occult-saturated world makes no bones about the existence of spiritual evil, but it often raises the very real problem of how to fight it.  Jesus' challenge to the pharisees with the principle that "Satan cannot cast our Satan" isn't a given for many of Mignola's protagonists.  This poses a very real problem in that if means don't matter, is it only the ends that separate Good from Evil?  What is the basis for the moral "up" and "down" in Mignola's universe?

For some time, Mignola has been playing his cards close to his chest.  However, as Hellboy's destiny accelerates with the events of "The Wild Hunt," we seem to be getting a few hints.  These hints have become stronger with the release of "Witchfinder: In the Service of Angles."  "Witchfinder" is a "Hellboy" spin-off with Victorian occult detective Sir Edward Grey as its focal character.  We know Sir Edward's fate from the "Hellboy" series, but now Mignola gives us the opportunity to see how he got there.  Without recapitulating the plot, much of the ethical drama in the work centers around the temptation for Sir Edward to fight evil with its own methods, or at the very least by stepping into gray areas (pun intended).  The warning signs already seem clear; those who use evil to fight evil pay the price in the end, and Sir Edward is danger unless he can learn this lesson.  That this is the central question for Sir Edward as a character can be seen in Hecate's words to him at the end of "Darkness Calls," that he will learn to do evil to do good and so become a traitor.

Though there's still two more novels of "Witchfinder" and an unknown number for "Hellboy" left to go, it seems like Mignola's moral universe is crystallizing; not dualist, but somewhere within the broadly Judeo-Christian tradition; perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of Underhill and Williams. There are still a lot of twists and turns ahead though, so this analysis is merely provisional.  One thing is certain: wherever Mignola is taking us, it's one hell of a ride!