Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part V
Recall this from McGarry and Ravipinto:
Fantasy fiction is based on an assumption that the old ways are inherently good, and that the power structures that are to be protected or restored are ultimately best for all people. Many seminal works of fantasy are suffused with a romantic vision of earlier ages, a melancholy longing for better days, and the certain knowledge that the current generation is but a pale shadow of greater forefathers. Those that came before simply knew better, and the restoration of their ways is something to be celebrated. The future will be at its best when it is most like the past. As Stross notes, such works are indeed frequently consolatory—they encourage the comforting embrace of tradition and the preservation of the known.
Last time round we took a look at The Hobbit (and Dwarves in general). This time round we’re taking a look at The Lord of the Rings (and Elves in general).
The end of the First Age, aka the Elder Days, represented the end of an era in multiple ways: with Morgoth (Tolkien’s Satan figure) forcibly removed from the world, and the matter of the Silmarils sorted, there was no particular reason for most of the Noldorin Exiles to hang around in Middle-earth. And, in the event, most of them went back to Aman, as per instructions from the Valar. But not all went: as Tolkien makes clear, after fighting Morgoth for some six hundred years, some Elves got quite attached to mortal lands and decided to stay in Middle-earth: High-King Gil-galad being chief among them, with Celebrimbor, son of Curufin, son of Fëanor, being another. Depending on which account of Galadriel’s story you’re dealing with, she refused the post-War of Wrath pardon, and as such was uniquely stuck (if you don’t like that version, don’t worry – Tolkien had others).
But immortal creatures hanging around in mortal lands created a discrepancy: the Elves found themselves having to deal with change, and lots of it. Things were no longer quite as good as they once were – Elrond notes that the forces of the Last Alliance weren’t as glorious as the forces that broke Thangorodrim – but lest you think I am conceding the point, the views McGarry and Ravipinto ascribe to the author and the genre really belong to in-universe characters, or more accurately to in-universe species (the other surviving characters from the old days – the Wizards and Tom Bombadil – are notably less obsessed with glorious pasts than the Elves and the Ents). The ultimate conclusion that Tolkien comes to is however glorious or beautiful the Elves might be, however sympathetic their plight, the Elves were still, ultimately, in the wrong. Not about the old days being better (that’s a subjective question), but rather about their failure to realise that this wasn’t their world any more.
Eventually they did realise this, but it was a process of millennia rather than centuries. By the middle of the Second Age (when their misguided conservatism was at its peak), the Elves could no longer tell these young folk to get off their lawn, so to speak, especially since the Men of Númenor were now the dominant power. So they had to come up with another solution to keep their treasured status quo intact. Enter Celebrimbor of Eregion, the Great Smith from a line of Great Smiths.
Celebrimbor forged Narya, Nenya, and Vilya – the Three Rings. The Three, like all the Rings of Power, had the property of slowing or stopping decay – Men and Hobbits may see their mortal lives extended, but the Elves were much more interested in bringing stasis to the world around them. Thus you ended up with artificially-preserved realms like Rivendell and Lothlórien (it is no accident that the Fellowship’s stay in Lothlórien played merry hell with the expected phases of the Moon). The Elves thereby got what they wanted – an unchanging world to suit their unchanging sensibilities, which allowed them to sit around and talk about the good old days. By McGarry and Ravipinto’s reasoning, this ought to be treated as a cause for in-universe celebration: conservatism’s dearest desire had been achieved.
But while Tolkien may have been sympathetic to Elvish desires (the fading of the Elves, and the eventual loss of Lothlórien is indeed treated as a source of sadness), he is not shy about showing us the negative consequences of preserving something beyond its time. For Celebrimbor’s Ring project was really initiated by a mysterious bloke called Annatar.
You might know him as Sauron.
Sauron (far smarter and cannier than his old master, Morgoth) sought to control others by giving them what they wanted. Men wanted immortal life – thus the Nine were enslaved. Dwarves wanted wealth – but the Dwarves were stubborn little critters, so the Seven didn’t quite work as intended. The Three weren’t forged by Sauron directly, but the knowledge of their making ultimately came from him, so the Three (designed to ward off time) were still subject to the power of the One Ring. Elvish conservatism accordingly led to their downfall (and in Celebrimbor’s case, led to him being tortured to death and Sauron putting his body on a pole as a battle standard. How’s that for Adult Themes?).
Worse, the conservatism represented by the Rings of Power messed up Middle-earth for the next five millennia. Since the Three Rings remained tied to the One, and since Sauron could not be eliminated as a threat while the One still existed, defeating Sauron meant the Three losing their power… which meant the likes of Lothlórien existed only because Sauron continued to exist. The beauty of the hidden Elvish realms came at a price, and all of Middle-earth had to pay that price. Ultimately, the healing that came with the victory in the War of the Ring could only take place once the Elves realised something they should have realised many centuries earlier: mourning the past is one thing, but mummifying it via magical means is quite another.
Next time we look at the old ways as applied to Men.