A Timely Reminder for the Left: Beware the Courts

Natter about the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has reached even these distant shores, with much online ink being spilled about what our National Party Opposition intends to do (or not do) on the subject of abortion, and whether a mooted party of far-right social conservatives could hypothetically muster 5% of the party vote. Enough to get it into Parliament, where it would no doubt influence a future National Government towards certain policy stances.

But that is not the subject I wish to address. No, today I am looking beyond New Zealand. Today, I am wading into a veritable firestorm of international commentary on That Court Decision, and asking one simple question of my Leftist colleagues:

Why the hell are you so surprised?

Common Law Courts are not, and save for the odd aberration have never been, any sort of friend to progressive politics. Of course not – judges are drawn from a privileged class, and have views consistent with their background. The modern Left’s expectations of how the court system behaves (together with the associated matter of rights) are utterly at odds with the history of these institutions – specifically their history of defending Establishment interests against the unwashed masses. The unwashed masses who were, more likely than not, to only encounter the inside of a court room because they were on the receiving end of criminal charges. For stealing a loaf of bread, perhaps. Or for trying to organise a trade union.

Leftists from the era when the Left stood first and foremost for economic transformation understood this well enough. For them, judges were the class enemies, wielding unelected (but nevertheless very real) social power. Rather than the modern liberal conception of court decisions protecting a persecuted minority, courts were where the elites went to block (or at least undermine) social causes championed by the Left and democratically-elected officials. And that was only to be expected. Elites have an uncanny instinct for class solidarity that would turn your average Marxist pink with envy.

A purview of the history of the US Supreme Court – the most monstrously powerful set of judges in the Anglophone world – should illustrate this well-enough. Never mind the infamous Dred Scott, this is an institution that in its time has struck down child labour laws, minimum wage legislation, and legitimised the Jim Crow South. This is the institution that turned a civil rights amendment into a weapon to shoot down governmental efforts to regulate work hours (“the right to contract is sacrosanct!”). Go back to the 1930s and ask any political progressive what they thought of the US Supreme Court, and you would not get a positive response. Nor was this a phenomenon limited to the United States. In 1948, Australia’s court system struck down their Federal Government’s effort to nationalise the banks. Britain’s post-war Attlee Government was arguably only able to establish the National Health Service because Britain’s unwritten constitution and traditional emphasis on parliamentary sovereignty shielded it from judicial meddling.

“But that’s all changed!” answers the modern Left. “Modern courts are different! All those bad decisions were overturned.”

And therein lies the problem. The US Supreme Court from the 1940s to the 1970s indeed had a progressive slant. And it did overturn much of the horrendous old material. But the overlooked point is that that was only ever a freak aberration, a product of twenty uninterrupted years of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, followed up by the moderate Republican Eisenhower. And the judges appointed by those gentlemen are long gone. Today’s Court is gleefully slotting into its traditional role as the bastion of reaction… and yet for some reason the modern Left seems to think that the current gaggle is an aberration, rather than the rule. By contrast, a 1930s progressive would recognise the ugly motivations behind Citizens United well-enough.

(In the case of New Zealand, I would also point out that our New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 was a creation of the Fourth Labour Government. The Government that brought the Free-Market Revolution to these shores. It’s almost as though there’s an implicit ideological connection going on, one that everyone seems to overlook…).

I think there are two underlying factors here. The former is that heady folk memories of the 1940s to the 1970s have generated a romantic idea of what progressive lawyers can achieve. Which is fair enough, except that folk memories are a poor substitute for dealing with cold, hard, and highly conservative reality. History, much less Law, is not bent towards progress, however much we tell ourselves otherwise.

The other factor is that the modern Left – at the international level, and honestly New Zealand is no exception – too often thinks of the unwashed masses as something to be feared. Under this view, the People are a bunch of ignorant numpties, choc-full of prejudice, who don’t know what’s best for them. Nor can their elected politicians be trusted – though after forty years of neoliberalism, it’s not as if politicians are relevant to the way a country is realistically governed.

That sort of view inherently lends itself to moving social debates from the messy arena of politics and into the more refined and educated arena of the court room, where legal Philosopher Kings operate at far remove from the scruffy rabble. Small wonder that the modern Left is far more fixated on social liberalism than economics. Those legal Philosopher Kings and their hangers-on might countenance social liberalism. Overturning neoliberal economics is a harder pill to swallow.

But courtesy of the US Supreme Court, we’ve all had a wake-up call. It turns out those wealthy and well-educated Philosopher Kings can be socially conservative too. Which means maybe – just maybe – the Left ought to rediscover some of its old ‘democratic’ scepticism of the courts and their activities. Rather than its current use as a pejorative, the long-scorned art of ‘populism’ ought to again be the Left’s bread and butter. But I am not holding my breath there.

2022 General Reading: June (+ Old Phuul Update)

Completed reads for June:

  • 4.50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie
  • Narrations, by Conon
  • The Vampire (poem), by Rudyard Kipling
  • Progress and Poverty, by Henry George
  • A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift
  • The Horla, by Guy de Maupassant
  • Supernatural Horror in Literature, by H.P. Lovecraft
  • Towards Zero, by Agatha Christie
  • Hickory Dickory Death, by Agatha Christie
  • The Lady of the Barge (collection), by W.W. Jacobs
  • Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, by St Patrick
  • Confession, by St Patrick
  • The Ruin (poem), by Anonymous
  • The Wanderer (poem), by Anonymous
  • The Seafarer (poem), by Anonymous
  • The Wife’s Lament (poem), by Anonymous
  • The Husband’s Message (poem), by Anonymous
  • Wulf and Eadwacer (poem), by Anonymous
  • The Panther (poem), by Anonymous
  • The Whale (poem), by Anonymous
  • Widsith (poem), by Anonymous
  • Deor (poem), by Anonymous
  • Dream of the Rood (poem), by Anonymous
  • Durham (poem), by Anonymous
  • Exeter Book Riddles
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan

I have now worked my way through a decent amount of the surviving Old English corpus. Alas, most of what remains is overtly religious poems.

(I would also like to report that the Jacobs collection has exactly one good story in it, the immortal Monkey’s Paw. The rest? It’s garbage).

In terms of work on Old Phuul, I have knocked off another chapter this month. The manuscript is now over 60,000 words. I admittedly have a bad habit of polishing existing material at the expense of writing new first draft material, but it has the side-effect of meaning that I hopefully won’t have much editing work to do when I eventually finish the manuscript. I aim to have it completed this year.

A Breadcrumb of Absence: “Nothing is evil in the beginning…”

We have ourselves a new breadcrumb (not a leak!) out of The Rings of Power. It is a fifteen second collection of clips from the original teaser-trailer, together with a shortened version of the famous quote from Elrond. “For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

For those keeping track at home, what we are seeing is the philosophical notion – explored in Plotinus and St Augustine – that Evil is an absence, a negation. Pure Evil cannot, by definition, exist, any more than an absence can exist. So Evil is a corruption, a warping, a marring of what was originally Good – for Creation is, by definition, Good. This is an important Tolkienian theme, of course, and ties-in with his fascination with the concept of the Augustinian Fall.

(Compare Manicheanism, where Good and Evil exist in a dualist sense, and fight it out accordingly).

The nature of Evil is also a very important theme in the case of the Second Age, which canonically features two major moral Falls – that of the Elves, who try to use the Rings to slow the flow of time, and that of Men, who start worshipping Melkor in an effort to achieve immortality. In both cases, we have Sauron on hand to act as tempter, and he is a very successful tempter, but ultimately, it is the internal corruption of the two peoples that brings them down. Literally in the case of Men.

Well and good. The Rings of Power is to be commended for grasping this fundamental notion, and not slipping into a more Manichean framework. But the choice of accompanying clips raises questions. Specifically, the meteor traveller taking the hobbit hand in his… are Amazon implying that we are seeing Sauron’s “beginning”, and his subsequent descent into Evil? I sincerely hope not. Sauron is already thoroughly corrupt at the start of the Second Age, notwithstanding his alleged repentance. Having him fall from the sky via meteor, and fall into Darkness among a group of hairy-footed midgets would be the sort of canon violation that makes even a laid-back Revisionist like Yours Truly into a black-hearted Purist. I much prefer the possibility that this is an invented character or a Second Age Blue Wizard.

We then get our Elves: Arondir, Galadriel, and Gil-galad. Arondir is an invented character, but we know neither Galadriel nor Gil-galad are going to Fall – at least not during the Second Age, since the Revolt of the Noldor is background by this point. Celebrimbor is the one to worry about, of course, but he’s not the one in the teaser-trailer. Though seeing as Adar is Galadriel’s invented brother (and is emphatically not Finrod Felagund), maybe the comment on Evil being corruption (and not an original state) refers to that? Galadriel suffers trauma on realising that Adar is originally her family?

And finally Númenor. This one is the most straight-forward connection with the quote. Númenor did not start off Evil and mad in its pursuit of immortality, while the statue of Eärendil testifies to its fundamentally Good origins. Hopefully we are given at least some reason to actually care about the place prior to its (literal and figurative) Downfall. On the other hand, the show has established the Númenoreans as Quendiphobic, so who knows.

Noticeably lacking from the revised clip are the Dwarves. So I think we can rule out Dwarves Falling in a moral sense, outside their standard tendency for Greed.

The First Matariki

Today marks Matariki, the first “new” New Zealand public holiday since Waitangi Day was added in 1974. Officially the start of the Maori New Year, this is one of those moveable beasties – much like Easter, the dates will vary from year to year, anywhere from mid-June to mid-July. At the astronomical level, it’s about the rising of the Pleiades star cluster, and I think the Moon is involved somehow, but really it’s one of those mid-winter celebrations that is part of the universal human experience. Better yet, its addition eats away at the black hole in New Zealand’s holiday calendar between Queen’s Birthday (early June) and Labour Day (late October). It’s an addition I fully approve of.

Dunedin has been having a week of non-trivial frosts during the longest nights of the year, so I’ve been marking this new public holiday with hot drinks, a floofy warm dressing-gown and a heater. And not leaving the house. I do, alas, have work tomorrow morning, so the roads should prove interesting…

Of Silmarillion Elves, Pavlova, and Motorcycles: Testing an AI

The internet is a wonderful thing sometimes. Yesterday, I ran across an AI program that generates images via prompt:

https://huggingface.co/spaces/dalle-mini/dalle-mini

So I have been doing the logical thing with it. Getting it to generate Silmarillion characters in bizarre situations. Morgoth playing golf, and so forth.

But one thing I have noticed: if a character is sufficiently obscure (in an internet image context), it won’t actually generate them. The result is rather hit or miss – and the threshold for obscure is pretty damned high, at least so far as The Silmarillion goes.

To illustrate, let us take the example of “Character X eating pavlova.” Why pavlova? Well, the AI actually recognises it, and it is my country’s national dish. Yay for Kiwiana.

Whom from The Silmarillion can we generate eating pavlova?

Morgoth:

Fingolfin:

Glorfindel:

Feanor:

Maedhros:

Celegorm:

Luthien:

Glaurung:

Turin Turambar:

Ancalagon:

And that’s it, so far as I can tell (trying Elrond, Galadriel, or Sauron would distort things, due to their appearances in The Lord of the Rings. By contrast, I think Glorfindel is sufficiently obscure).

Trying “Felagund eating pavlova”, “Manwe eating pavlova”, “Thingol eating pavlova,” Curufin eating pavlova,” or “Maglor eating pavlova” just generates images of actual pavlova… and I am honestly surprised about Felagund. I would have thought Finrod would have had a sufficiently large online footprint for the AI to take a stab at generating him. Ditto Maglor.

Because beneath the obvious silliness, this test actually serves a purpose. It’s really about how ubiquitous the imagery associated with the name actually is. Or I guess so anyway – I’m not the creator of the AI in question.

(This creates the strange irony that “Maedhros playing violin” will yield a better result than “Maglor playing violin”. Poor Maglor).

Let us now turn from pavlova to motorcycles. Here I have discovered something interesting. Typing the prompt “Feanor riding motorcycle” gives us, well, Feanor riding a motorcycle:

We are less fortunate when we type “Feanor motorcycle.” Here, as with the Maglor example, we just get an image of the object. In this case, a motorcycle with no Feanor.

But we do not have this problem with Maedhros.

“Maedhros riding motorcycle”…

“Maedhros motorcycle”…

This suggests an interesting hypothesis.

The online footprint of Maedhros might actually be more prominent than that of Feanor himself.

Possibly. I have no real insight into the inner working of the AI. But assuming it is scouring the internet for image associations, the notion that we have a stronger level of associations for Maedhros than Feanor might say something about The Silmarillion fandom and its creative output.

Addendum:

Speaking of what this says about The Silmarillion fandom, it actually turns out that the AI recognises Mairon, Sauron’s original name – which really does show what the internet can do with an otherwise obscure factoid. So once we add pavlova….

Mairon:

Addendum II:

I would like to take this opportunity to note “Maedhros swimming in blood” is seriously powerful:

A Tale As Old As Time: Musings on the ‘Corporatisation’ of Tolkien

I have seen some natter around about how The Rings of Power represents the undue and unholy corporatisation of J.R.R. Tolkien. I won’t point out examples, but anyone who has seen YouTube commentary has a pretty good grasp of what I am talking about – the sentiment that the Dark Lord Bezos is using Tolkien in much the same way as Annatar used poor Celebrimbor, taking the latter’s creative work and turning it into something evil. A prison for the soul, as it were, something as commercialised, formulaic, and bland as fast food.

It’s an argument that’s been around a while, of course. But with the recent release of a new Rings of Power promotional video – the one with the lad seeing the Ent outside his school window – the subject has actually been on my mind. After all, the promotional video is actually an Amazon advertisement. The heartwarming notion of seeing someone find escapist joy in The Lord of the Rings is undermined by the emphasis on the heartless Amazon. Rather than the child making his own costume, for example, it’s a purchased one. As though “finding one’s people” requires only the shared experience of spending money.

As someone with an innate distaste for the corporate machine, it’s definitely an argument I can understand. But the fundamental problem with it is that it assumes that this commercialisation of culture is in any way new, or somehow the singular fault of Jeff Bezos. No. Far from it.

Peter Jackson’s much-lauded movies might have been a labour of love for many involved, but they were bankrolled and overseen by the money-hungry corporate executives at New Line, who in turn benefited enormously from the Helen Clark Government’s generous tax-breaks. Anyone thinking that Jackson’s product was not a corporate creation is absolutely naïve. The Hobbit movies literally saw the John Key Government re-write New Zealand’s employment laws to deny film-workers the right to unionise. New Zealand’s somewhat sad self-image of being a Tolkienian Disneyland ultimately proved to be both hollow and delusional – and, frankly, Amazon did New Zealand a favour by shattering those delusions by revealing the real fuckery that has always underpinned corporatism.

But the corporatism of Tolkien goes beyond even Peter Jackson. Let us take even the books themselves. No, I am not talking about the Estate – though their current view of copyright has raised questions – but rather the nature of book publishing.

You see, book publishing in the Anglophone World is the sort of classic oligopoly commonly associated with the oil industry. There are actually only four major English-language publishers on the planet. The publisher with the rights to Tolkien’s work? HarperCollins. One of the Big Four, and also the one that happens to be owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. So while buying Tolkien’s book does funnel funds towards his Estate, it also lines the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, a chap older and (IMHO) more evil than even Bezos himself. Murdoch’s Morgoth to Bezos’ Annatar? It’s a thoroughly unhappy situation all-round.

And while the sheer concentration of market power in book publishing is a comparatively new thing (market regulators have been rather lax these past forty years), the fundamentally commercialised nature of culture is not. Victorian England was dealing with this question, arguably at a more sophisticated level than modern people complaining on internet videos. The matter provoked William Morris to combat what he thought of as soulless modern production with a revival of traditional arts and crafts (which he mixed with his idiosyncratic take on socialism). And Karl Marx found the unprecedented power of capitalism to dissolve older cultural forms a subject worthy of analysis – his conclusion basically being that we are dealing with a feature of the system and not a bug.

Nor was Tolkien himself naïve about any of this. Tolkien might have his share of literary Morris influences, but he was not simply an amiable old duffer pottering along with his linguistic side-project for sixty years. J.R.R. Tolkien was also someone with more materialist concerns – his famous “Art or Cash” line on selling the film-rights to his work is testament to that, whereby he demanded either an authorial veto over aspects of a future production or else very generous financial payment. In short, one ought to differentiate between John Ronald and his son Christopher. His son might have guarded his father’s legacy as Feanor guarded the Silmarils, but Tolkien Senior was perfectly willing to do business with corporates over his work – if the price was right.

(In negotiating terms, he was also a better businessman than many people realise. Hence the Estate successfully suing New Line for a share of the profits from the Jackson movies. That was down to something in the 1968 sale).

So Jeff Bezos’ highly commercialised product is but the latest iteration of something much older, a function one might say of the wider system that makes Jeff Bezos possible. Depressing, isn’t it?

Well, yes. But I do think there are a couple of things to latch onto, so far as The Rings of Power go. First off, being the product of the corporate machine does not necessarily make something Bad Art. I have noted what was going on behind Peter Jackson, but people in 2022 seem to like those movies well-enough (including Amazon’s staunchest critics). One can still enjoy this upcoming television series as a source of pure entertainment, even without purchasing inane merchandise.

And secondly, as the cited advertisement itself alludes to, this series will actually prove a gateway into the wider fandom for many people. As was the case twenty years ago with Jackson, people who might otherwise never get around to reading The Lord of the Rings will encounter it for the first time, and respond to it in their own way. There will be much heat and light and curiously dated fanfiction out of that… but there will also be much lifelong love too. And as someone who loves the work of J.R.R. Tolkien fiercely, I think that is no bad thing.

Gil-galad is an Elven Chad: An Ode to the Leaks

Gil-galad is an Elven Chad

Gil-galad is an Elven Chad
But Celebrimbor makes them mad
Digesting leaks from Amazon
Of Isildur and Pharazôn.

The hair is short? The knives are keen.
The beardless face of Dwarven Queen?
With meteor and man-not-named
The fandom temper is inflamed.

Of Annatar we have not heard
Or Teleporno (name absurd)
Galadriel is on the poster
(Still the gleeful critics roast her)

But for September must we wait
To learn of Rings of Power's fate
An awful flop it might well be
But can we please just wait and see?

Misusing Tolkien and History: Loconte and Bellicosity

Joseph Loconte has clearly never met a War he didn’t like. A couple of years ago, he was using Tolkien to beat the drum at a time when war with Iran seemed imminent:

https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/dracones-et-bellum-tolkien-and-the-serpents-a-reply-to-joseph-loconte/

Now? He’s doing it again. This time, via wheeling out Tolkien analogies in the context of the Ukrainian War:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/j-r-r-tolkiens-lesson-about-evil-for-our-time-russia-soviets-hobbit-lord-of-the-rings-finland-world-war-i-11654891528

Now, don’t get me wrong. Putin is a war-criminal, and a corrupt and brutal arse (a reactionary one at that, for any Leftists foolish enough to think that any non-Western power is by definition sympathetic). The Ukrainian War itself is a tragedy – one that will also have uncomfortable consequences on the Middle-Eastern grain supply these coming months. But I cannot help but feel that Loconte belongs to that school of foreign policy thought that gave us Iraq – the notion that the enlightened West are, by definition, the good guys, and as such have a moral licence (even a moral obligation) to intervene in international affairs as we see fit. Any tendency towards isolationism or negotiation is tantamount to Appeasing Evil – and the existence of undoubtedly Evil Bastards like Putin is treated as a generic all-purpose justification for action. As though War is monstrous when Putin does it, but perfectly fine when the West does it – it’s always 1939 and never 1914 in Loconte’s world. He did seem suspiciously keen on war with Iran in January 2020…

(Albeit it is unclear what Loconte is actually calling for here. Perhaps he’s just flattering the West’s self-image from the safety of his keyboard, even while it’s the Ukrainians who are doing the dying?).

For myself, I am undecided about what irritates me most about Loconte’s article. Is it his misuse of Tolkien or his misuse of history?

Allegorising Tolkien has been a political pastime for nigh on seventy years, to the point Tolkien himself had to weigh-in to set the record straight. And, to be fair, the War of the Ring does offer that neat sort of Black/White paradigm in which to view any conflict of your choice. The problem is that everyone likes to think of themselves as Gondor or The Shire. No-one likes to think that we are dealing with one of Tolkien’s messier conflicts. The Revolt of the Noldor, for example. The Feanorians versus Doriath. Or even the giant geopolitical pissing contest of Imperialists that was Ar-Pharazôn versus Sauron. That sort of thing invites a degree of self-awareness in readers, a call for thought before donning the khaki, and that sort of nuance runs entirely against Loconte’s agenda.

That is not to dismiss the undoubted moral dimension of the Ukrainian War, of course. That is obviously present. No, my point is that Tolkien should not be used in this sort of manner. The War of the Ring is a fictional conflict, and shoehorning it into real-world pro-war sentiment (in much the same way as every Dictator of the Week winds up as the New Adolf) is a tiresome exercise. Not least because the actual War of the Ring does not hinge on the battles. It hinges on the moral choices of two very ordinary people to reject power. Rejection of Power – and not the Jacksonian ethos of Stand and Fight – is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, and insofar as the viewpoint of isolationist neutrality is considered at all, it is not so much a matter of hobbits (whose isolation is arguably a function of geography and their protection from the Rangers of the North), but rather of Tom Bombadil (whose isolation is a matter of personal policy).

And now to the history:

It was the 19th-century Finnish epic, “The Kalevala,” that so impressed Tolkien as a young man and helped to inspire his own story. A collection of ancient songs and myths, “The Kalevala” gave the Finnish people a history and a cultural tradition—a national identity—of their own. And it is credited with helping the Finns to break away from Russian rule during World War I.

Speaking as something of a Finnophile, I can state one thing with certainty: Finnish History is an extremely complicated beast, and generally something to be approached with caution and caveats. Loconte does neither, of course. The fact that Imperial Russia deliberately encouraged a separate Finnish identity in order to more effectively separate it from Sweden is overlooked, as is the February Manifesto of 1899 (a sudden and nasty reversal of previous Russian policy towards Finland). To focus on Kalevala in this sort of manner is to grossly simplify things – I would point out that one of the other great classics of Finnish literature, Väinö Linna’s Under the North Star trilogy (1959-1962) pokes fun at the fundamentally middle-class nature of nineteenth century Finnish nationalism. The sort of nationalism where comfortably well-off Swedish-speakers name their children after Kalevala characters and pretend their ancestors were Finnish-speaking peasants.

Tolkien was teaching at Oxford in 1933 when students at the Oxford Union Society approved the motion: “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country.” It was a shock to the political establishment. And it was a bad omen: Adolf Hitler had just become chancellor of Germany and was drawing up secret plans for remilitarization.

Oh, those silly students. It wasn’t as if fighting for King and Country hadn’t led to its own unique horror less than two decades prior. Or that Adolf himself was fundamentally a political failure, seeded at Versailles and fertilised by the Great Depression.

1939 was not the fault of pacificism in the face of Evil. 1939 was the fault of 1919 and 1931 – a momentous failure on the part of the political class, yes, but one a long time coming, and without Versailles or the Depression, I daresay no-one would have heard of Hitler.

Tolkien began writing “The Lord of the Rings” in 1936, the same year Germany occupied the Rhineland and intervened on behalf of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. In his introduction to the Shire and its inhabitants, Tolkien might well have been describing isolationist England under Neville Chamberlain: “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 sensible folk.”

This is probably Loconte’s most historically ludicrous paragraph. For a start, Tolkien started The Lord of the Rings in late 1937, not 1936. For another, Loconte cheerfully ignores Tolkien’s own views on the Spanish conflict (views that have, alas, not aged well: Letter 83, for reference). And most importantly of all, Loconte straight-out defames Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was not the isolationist appeaser of pop-history, but rather someone who knew full-well war was coming, and who thought Britain was not in an adequate state to fight in 1938. Chamberlain no sooner returned from Munich than he got those armament factories going round-the-clock.

If you want to blame someone here, blame Stanley Baldwin.

A combat veteran of World War I, Tolkien watched with dread the rise of ideologies unleashed in the war’s aftermath: communism, fascism, Nazism and eugenics. 

Communism (albeit not in the form of Leninism) long predates the First World War, of course. Citing eugenics is a curious one, considering that it only acquired its sinister connotations as a result of 1939-1945. Certainly, some objected (famously G.K. Chesterton), but it was uncomfortably mainstream for longer than many people realise.

In Tolkien’s world, indifference to the evil of Mordor is portrayed as an evasion that can only result in catastrophe. Ending a decades-long policy of nonalignment, the Finnish parliament recently approved a plan to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—a turnabout that brings to mind Gandalf’s warning to the Shire: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”

Another glorious misrepresentation of Finland. Finnish post-war neutrality was a product of its experience during the Second World War (which was actually three separate wars in Finland’s case. It was complicated). It was also, emphatically, not about fencing itself in. Rather, Finland throughout the Cold War era sought to be a mediator between Moscow and Washington, acting whenever possible to cool international tensions. It is no accident that the high-point of US-Soviet Détente was the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Comparing post-war Finland – a nation whose survival rested on its negotiation skill – with lazy Shire hobbits is ludicrous.

(Meanwhile, the fact that Finland is taking this step now is more a comment on Putin’s bungling foreign policy than anything else).

When Britain was thrust into the most destructive conflict in human history, Tolkien reached for an older literary tradition to find strength and resilience. He sought to give the English people what “The Kalevala” had given the Finns. The result was a war story, wrapped in myth, that teaches fundamentals about the human condition: harsh realities about the will to power and the virtues needed to stand against it.

And now back to misrepresenting Tolkien. The notion of a “mythology for England” (a term used only by biographer Humphrey Carpenter, and not by Tolkien himself) refers to The Book of Lost Tales – the stories that would eventually evolve into The Silmarillion. There are no isolationist hobbits in those stories, of course – but Loconte ignores that.

The Lord of the Rings was never intended as an English Kalevala, even if it does utilise some Kalevala tropes. Rings was intended as a sequel to The Hobbit, plain and simple.

**

That concludes my somewhat irritated response to Joseph Loconte. The irritation, I think, might lie in the fact that the current anti-Putin Zeitgeist allows articles such as this to go unquestioned or unanalysed. It is popular now to hate Putin (albeit with copious justification), and The Lord of the Rings is always popular – what could possibly go wrong with using one as a paradigm through which to see the other? Quite a lot can go wrong, I think, which is why you have to be damned careful in terms of comparing Tolkien’s world with our own. And that goes double when the person doing the comparing has an agenda.

Musing on Celebrimbor Images

It never rains but it pours. A day after we get the mysterious landscape of TirHarad, we finally get Empire Magazine’s image of the Amazon Celebrimbor, as played by Charles Edwards:

Now, I would be lying if I said that this Celebrimbor looks in any way like the Celebrimbor of my imagination. We shall get to that. But it is clear that Amazon is going for a character with gravitas (perhaps too much gravitas), who carries more than a whiff of a Shakespearean nobleman. A nobleman who is either quasi-villain or doomed tragic protagonist – which I suppose fits Celebrimbor well-enough either way, but arguably goes places the standard narrative does not. This Celebrimbor looks like someone used to getting his own way, to a degree where you can actually imagine an awkward political relationship – or even rivalry – with High-King Gil-galad. By the same token, it eliminates any possibility of romantic aspirations relating to Galadriel.

It is a… brave… adaptational choice. But we do know that an earlier casting of Celebrimbor had a much younger actor, and for whatever reason, that did not fit the story Amazon was trying to tell. Fair enough. I suppose we must wait to see that story play out on screen.

For myself, if you had presented this image to me at the start, and asked me which character this was, I would have guessed older Ar-Pharazôn, prior to noticing the ears and getting thoroughly confused. But the Amazon story is, I think, managing to run up against the (actually pretty limited) information we have on Celebrimbor. He is, after all, from a younger generation than Galadriel herself, she being his second cousin once removed, and while one can play around with his unknown birthdate (he might conceivably be older than Galadriel if you push Curufin back in time and Finarfin forward), it is a stretch to make him substantially older. If you want anyone to play senior Elven statesman in the Second Age, Cirdan is a much safer pick. No-one’s going to complain about older Cirdan, so long as you give him a beard.

Moreover, while one can throw out the one-sided romantic feelings for Galadriel, Celebrimbor really has some non-negotiables, so far as his character goes. He must be sufficiently naïve to be tricked by Sauron, and he must be a superb blacksmith, jeweller, and craftsman, curious about developing new and dangerous ideas. I look at the Amazon image, and I do not see naivety and dangerous curiosity. I see caution and conservatism and stern realpolitik. Maybe, after the manner of Macbeth, I could see tragic ambition (with Annatar as Lady Macbeth) – so perhaps that is what they are going for, with a dash of the Mad Scientist? It’s just I cannot see this fellow as a blacksmith by any stretch of the imagination. A bookworm and laboratory technician, yes, but not someone who swings hammers all day.

Beyond that, we are in murkier territory. Celebrimbor is subject to so much fanon, that even if you ignore what the Yaoi fangirls have done with him and Annatar,* you always have to be careful in terms of disentangling imagination from the source-material. For instance, we do not know Celebrimbor’s canonical hair-colour – it is commonly considered dark on account of his father and grandfather, or the fact he’s a sodding Noldo, but the red of his uncles would not be a foolish guess. Short medium-brown? Canon notwithstanding, I actually have an easier time accepting that with Elrond (on account of his fair-haired father’s line) than Celebrimbor, whom I personally visualise as approaching the Platonic Ideal of a Feanorian. But that’s what I mean – this is one of those characters for whom fanon can creep up on you when you least expect it.

*Why, yes. Silverfisting/silvergifting is a thing. You’re welcome.

For comparison, consider the Celebrimbor from the Shadow of Mordor game:

Whatever one thinks of the liberties the game takes with the source material, I think this depiction of Celebrimbor corresponds much more closely to how most readers imagine him. Long dark hair, passably youthful appearance, copious silver in evidence (as befits his name). Still quite different from Jackson’s ethereal blonds, which is always a plus… I think this sort of depiction might have earned a warmer fandom reception. While Amazon already has a male Elf with that sort of look (in the form of Gil-galad), I would suggest that clothing can work as an easy identifier for the casual viewer – give Celebrimbor the paraphernalia of a smith, and Gil-galad the paraphernalia of a military general and a King. I don’t think one needs to go overboard in differentiating the two.

(Mind you, as noted earlier, Amazon did try a younger actor in the role, and it seemingly did not work out as well. We need to see the Edwards version on screen to properly judge).

In rounding out this little discussion of Celebrimbor representation, I thought I would reference the various pieces of art-work on the character. The gruesome manner of Celebrimbor’s death naturally attracts a fair amount of attention, resulting in him turning into a sort of St Sebastian figure – and since that lends itself to a certain subtext, you wind up with a naked (or near-naked) arrow-ridden corpse on a pole. One imagines that will be a subtext Amazon will be playing down when the time comes.

But sometimes artists prefer the forging, and for a Celebrimbor that is quite distinctive, there is Angus McBride’s piece, which is currently doing the rounds as a contrast with Amazon’s:

Leaving aside matters of questionable forge safety (no shirt? loose hair?), and the sense that the character moonlights as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan, this is one of those rare Celebrimbors whom one really could imagine swinging hammers in a blacksmith’s forge. For all the implicit humour associated with Swole Celebrimbor, it might be one of the more realistic depictions out there.

More Empire Magazine Stills

As per Fellowship of Fans, we now have a couple more images from The Rings of Power, this time what appears to be some items from the upcoming Empire Magazine article.

This first image is the one that has garnered a fair amount of attention. As per Fellowship of Fans, it depicts Arondir (a show-invented Elf) looking out from TirHarad (a show-invented location). TirHarad appears to mean ‘southern guard/watchtower’, and, well, the tower affords a decent view.

A closer look at the tower confirms that we are dealing with an Elvish construction. It has the eight-pointed star-shape that the show has been associating with the Elves, while the wood-carvings on the upper part of the structure feature a forest theme. We saw Arondir in a forest setting in the teaser trailer. So that’s all pretty straight-forward.

It’s the actual landscape that is the major headscratcher – what part of Middle-earth is this supposed to be depicting?

I think there are two realistic options. One is the scenario that has somewhat captured the online narrative in the past twenty-four hours, namely that this is Mordor prior to Sauron’s arrival – or as the fandom have affectionately named it, ‘Befordor.’ That would explain the mountains, and the river flowing into what might be the Sea of Núrnen. It could also possibly hint at a storyline of Mordor’s creation – Sauron’s destruction and enslavement of the area. Albeit southern Mordor remained fertile and cultivated throughout Sauron’s rule.

The second possibility is the one that I myself favour, namely that this is somewhere in western or central Gondor (or, rather, what will become western or central Gondor). Taking a look at a map of the area points to many small rivers (the depicted river is too small to be Anduin), and mountains overlooking cultivated areas. I think this is the more likely possibility for several reasons:

(i) Mordor is isolated, being cut-off by its giant mountain barrier on three sides. Local goings-on would garner less attention from the rest of Middle-earth than if this were proto-Gondor. Recall that we have Galadriel asking for assistance against the looming threat of Adar… which makes more sense if she were having direct contact with those on the receiving end of Adar’s attacks, and we know via Fellowship of Fans that Adar is associated with the TirHarad storyline.

(ii) The initial map-clues (remember those?) listed Ras Morthil. Which is on the cape of Andrast in south-western Gondor. I continue to think that Ras Morthil has some sort of relevance to the show, which again points to a Gondorian TirHarad (the other show locations seem more or less taken). There is no similar Mordorian location of interest.

(iii) Canonically, we actually know Elves did hang around in that part of the world, whereas Mordor prior to Sauron’s arrival is a blank slate.

(iv) It is satisfactorily southern to count as the location of a southern watchtower, while contrasting with Gil-galad and company up in the North.

So yeah, I think this is western proto-Gondor.

This one has Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry) with two of his fellow Harfoots, neither of whom are Poppy or Elanor. Nothing much to really note here, other than to suggest that the Elder Harfoots are confronting something unexpected and mysterious – enough to send them out into the night with a lantern. One commentator on Fellowship of Fans has also suggested that it arguably evokes the hobbit-with-the-lantern scene in Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring. But presumably Lenny Henry is not about to get his head cut off.