Of all the television networks you would think that the History Channel would be most conscientious in preparing their specials. This is not the case, as demonstrated by last night’s “Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings.” The show falls prey to the commonest of pitfalls: allegory. Not only that, but their analysis is severely reductionist, and omits key points necessary to an understanding of Tolkien or his work. I regret the time I spent watching it, but felt compelled to comment.
The show lists precedent after precedent as the true source for the Ring, Gandalf, the Hobbit and many elements of Tolkien’s writing. While it is true that Tolkien read, taught, and was inspired by these works this by no means implies a one to one relationship. The one saving grace here was an aside, by one of their experts: Tolkien had the unique ability to combine elements of pagan and Christian mythology.
One example of “Clash’s” narrow interpretation is the orcs. They claim the orcs are representative of capitalism. Yes, it fits…but it is too narrow a focus. There are no one to ones in Tolkien. Or if so, it is not quite so specific. Tolkien was suspicious of most technology and industry, seeing how they came to dominate the landscape and destroy natural England. Orcs are the embodiment of those who delight in machines and wanton destruction. They represent the evils of Modernity, no matter the economic or political credo. Yet this is just one interpretation I see (see Evil or Not), one application. The wonder of LotR, and its staying power, lies in its use of applicability in place of allegory. The opinions of “Clash” are valid, but they are mere applications, not the source or the meaning. Herein lies the power. In place of the all-powerful author, controlling meaning and intent, we have the all powerful reader, free to find numerous and unique meanings upon each reading and each time. I understand the desire to interpret and condense, but the lack of any mention of applicability, (but the very noticeable mention of allegory a few times) is troublesome…when the author went to such pains to express his ideology within the pages of the book itself!
Through all the discussion of source materials, they never mention the true impetus of the story and the reason Tolkien actually admits: language. Very little time is spent on Tolkien’s invention of language, which he claimed is the progenitor of all myth. The Silmarillion and his subsequent writings, all stem from Tolkien’s creation of elvish. He not only desired an English mythology, but to discover the world of his languages.
In the end the biggest flaw is one so crucial to an understanding of Tolkien, and his understanding of Christian providence, that I cannot believe it was never mentioned. Not only that, but it was blatantly ignored! This concept is eucatastrophe; the sudden entrance of Grace, which saves all from despair. In the show, they remark on how “contrary to his Christian beliefs” it is that Frodo does not conquer the Ring and destroy it…that he does not succeed. That a “good” character succumbs, and the “evil” (Gollum) succeeds in his place through evil designs. This is blatantly wrong. Tolkien believed in Eucatastrophe, taking his cues from the greatest moment of Eucatastrophe in history: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. This moment in the narrative depicts Man’s reliance on providence. Gollum succeeds in regaining the Ring. He accidentally falls into the Cracks of Doom. The destruction of the Ring is no success on any character’s part, it is apparent chance; miracle. And this is central to both Tolkien’s myth-making and theology.