Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part VII
After all my post-writing last month, I’ve been taking things easier. Between all the disasters happening at the moment (both man-made and natural), it’s easy to get distracted. But it’s time to get back to business. Recall that we are dealing with this quote from McGarry and Ravipinto – specifically how it applies to Men:
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 around, we looked at Númenor. Today, the focus is on the Númenorean colony that for much of the Third Age was the undisputed superpower of Middle-earth, the Kingdom that served as the Byzantium to Arnor’s Western Roman Empire: Gondor.
Whereas the story of Númenor is one of increasing political power accompanied by decreasing moral sensibility, Gondor is different. Gondor reaches the apex of its political power a millennium into the Third Age, whereupon it starts a long, slow decline – not noticeably accompanied by a Númenorean-style moral decay, but rather a sort of mundane fading more analogous to the Elves. The ruling house dies out or disappears, and is replaced by Stewards – legally tasked with ruling until the King returns. In The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn (the Northern Heir) turns up and claims the throne, apparently rejuvenating the realm. The White Tree returns, and everyone rejoices. The End.
What to make of this in the context of McGarry and Ravipinto’s thesis? The traditional power structure of the monarchy is certainly restored, and Aragorn (if maybe not his descendants) looks set to be a just and wise King – certainly someone whose rise to power is to be celebrated. Meanwhile, Gondor is littered with the relics of the past (the Argonath), which clearly show the greatness of past generations. The old ways are better, right?
Perhaps, if one limits the analysis to “Gondor had a King —> Gondor had no King —> Gondor has a King again, and that’s a good thing.” And, to be fair, there are pieces of symbolism that accompany that – the White Tree being chief among them, though there is also the restoration of the statue at the crossroads. I would, however, argue a different interpretation: symbolic props notwithstanding, Aragorn reverses Gondorian decline precisely because (in contrast to certain other characters) he is not wedded to the past for its own sake. Aragorn is the first of the New as much as he is last of the Old, and, very importantly, he is prepared to act in the here-and-now.
One potent illustration of this is the reforging of Narsil. Recall that for millennia, these shards were a treasured heirloom: a symbol of the past passed down through the line of Isildur. This is entirely consistent with McGarry and Ravipinto’s analysis, constituting an on-going deference to the greatness of Elendil. Except that before setting out with the Fellowship, Aragorn literally destroys the sword. Narsil is no more; something new (Andúril) has been created out of the old material. In contrast to simply worshipping the relic of Elendil, with the implication that we cannot ever hope to improve on the past, the blade is now put to currently functional (as well as symbolic) use.
This idea of Aragorn’s restoration as “reforging,” not “reusing” stands in sharp contrast to the traditional Gondorian approach. Gondor’s traditional sin, like that of the Elves, turns out to be the mummification of the past: too much Gormenghastery and not enough concern for the future. We find several examples of this scattered throughout Tolkien:
(1) Faramir’s speech to Frodo:
“Yet even so it was Gondor that brought about its own decay, falling by degrees into dotage, and thinking that the Enemy was asleep, who was only banished not destroyed.
Death was ever present, because the Númenoreans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.
But the stewards were wiser and more fortunate. Wiser, for they recruited the strength of our people from the sturdy folk of the sea-coast, and from the hardy mountaineers of Ered Nimrais. And they made a truce with the proud peoples of the North…”
This rather dents the notion that the old ways are inherently good in Tolkien. Indeed, it explicitly links deference to the past with the desire for endless life unchanging – the same sin that afflicted and destroyed Celebrimbor’s Elves. It also suggests that the Stewards – being more active and pragmatic – were an improvement on the line of Anárion. Faramir might be biased here, given his own family, but he then goes and points out examples of Steward competence.
(2) Denethor’s speech to Gandalf:
“What then would you have,” said Gandalf, “if your will could have its way?”
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,” answered Denethor, “and in the days of my longfathers before me : to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me…”
This is full-throated conservatism in its purest sense. Denethor opposes change, and wants Gondor to remain as it has been for a thousand years. Yet, it is quite clear that Tolkien intended Denethor to be in the wrong here – a character who clings to the past, who refuses to adapt, and who then (as a giant “fuck you!” to a world that refuses to accommodate itself to his desires) attempts a tragic murder-suicide with his son. Tolkien’s Denethor (as opposed to Peter Jackson’s) is not a stupid character – he is highly intelligent and highly competent, even if he is riddled with character flaws that render him the Richard Nixon of Middle-earth. But he is wrong, and is what we should be contrasting Aragorn’s rejuvenation against.
(3). Gondor as Ancient Egypt
At the risk of violating Death of the Author, I think it interesting that Tolkien’s go-to analogy for Gondor was not the Byzantine Empire, but rather Ancient Egypt. See his comments in a letter:
The Númenoreans of Gondor were proud, peculiar, and archaic. and I think are best pictured in (say) Egyptian terms. In many ways they resembled ‘Egyptians’ – the love of, and power to construct, the gigantic and massive. And in their great interest in ancestry and in tombs… I think the crown of Gondor (the S. Kingdom) was very tall, like that of Egypt, but with wings attached, not set straight back but at an angle. The N. Kingdom had only a diadem. Cf the difference between the N. and S. kingdoms of Egypt.
(Letter 211: 14th October, 1958)
Compare the note about Gondor’s Egyptian-level interest in tombs with Faramir’s speech. This ties-in very well with the idea that Gondor was truly obsessed with mummification of the archaic: the extension of the dead past at the expense of the living present. It also puts the grandeur of the Argonath in an altogether new light – however grand and imposing, however monumental a structure, it still speaks of a people more interested in preserving the iconic image of ancestors than on adapting to change.
But wait, you say, surely Aragorn is still invoking ancient blood-right to rule, and that is presented as a good thing? Aragorn might not be a dusty relic obsessed with lineage, but he still falls back on it to claim the throne!
To answer that, I would point out two things.
Firstly, Aragorn and his ancestors cannot simply waltz into Minas Tirith with the shards of Narsil, and claim the throne. Neither legal nor political reality allow this – legally, the Stewards of Gondor are waiting for the return of the line of Anárion, and indeed there is past precedent for rejecting the claim of Isildur’s line. Politically, the Stewards are the ones with the army, and if nice-guy Faramir’s immediate reaction to hearing of Aragorn is “prove it!” one imagines that the rest of Minas Tirith’s traditional hierarchy would be less accommodating. One does not stick the hillbilly descendant of Romulus Augustulus on the throne of Constantinople.
Secondly, Aragorn’s rise to power does not, in the end, rest simply on him turning up with the right props. His ancestry is nice and everything, but what makes Aragorn King is the reality on the ground: a political coup d’etat launched by Gandalf while the existing power structures (Denethor and Faramir) are no longer functioning, and while the realm is in mortal peril. A surviving Denethor would have made life infinitely more complicated. This reality on the ground is further augmented by Aragorn’s victory in battle, which certainly wins over any undecideds, and which is finally ratified by the people of Minas Tirith giving his claim the thumbs-up.
In rounding off this look at Gondor in the context of old ways, I would just like to cite another Tolkien letter, hinting at what takes place after Aragorn’s reign:
I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.
(Letter 256: 13th May, 1964)
For all that Aragorn’s immense talents – built up over many years of military service and long-distance travel – made him a special figure, it is clear that this competence is not genetic. Having Kings with a fresh influx of Elvish (and Maia) blood via Arwen does not make them inherently “better” than anyone else.