Who's Sauron--bin Laden or Bush?

That's the title of an interesting article available at Salon.com--if you're not a member, you should be, and if you don't want to pony up the cash, sit through the commercial to get a day pass.

Let me get one point out in front of this discussion. My literary training is heavily influenced by a group known as the New Critics. They basically argued that a critic should look at the

text as an autotelic artifact, something complete with in itself, written for its own sake, unified in its form and not dependent on its relation to the author's life or intent, history, or anything else.
And that's pretty much where I come down on the issue as well. Attempting to deduce an author's intent is a dodgy proposition even when you've got the author hooked up to a polygraph and are willing to apply electric shocks to sensitive areas of his or her bodies if you don't like the answers they give. But I digress.

That doesn't stop people from trying to argue that important pieces of literature (or even unimportant ones) are allegories or moral warnings to society both at the time they were written or today.

And so the argument about The Lord of the Rings.

Over the years, the series has been dismissed "as hippie-dippie pablum, an incense-scented ur-text of the New Age movement." But recently, religious conservatives have been making claims on it as an object lesson of sorts, a quasi-prophetic tale of the clash between western (read "christian") civilization and, as the article puts it, the "evil [that] lives due east and has a really bad complexion."

Not I must admit that I haven't read these books in around 18-20 years, and I'm only 35, so my recollection of them is a bit hazy, but I do know that when I was reading them as a teenager, I was more taken in by the language and the adventurous nature of the story than I was thinking about the clash of technology versus nature. I wasn't making political connections, looking for American versions of Galdalf and Frodo, or (at the time) Soviet Saurons and Sarumans.

But oh, how times have changed.
Though Tolkien himself considered "The Lord of the Rings" a Christian (and specifically Catholic) work, he took pains to keep overt religious elements well below the surface. Only by digging through the voluminous appendices at the back of "The Return of the King" does one learn that the Fellowship of the Ring's departure from Rivendell -- the beginning of the mission to save all of creation from unredeemed evil -- comes on Dec. 25, while the timing of other plot developments roughly corresponds to the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the harrowing of Hell. Meanwhile, the pre-Christian ingredients of Middle-earth -- the Elder Edda, "Beowulf," the Icelandic sagas, the Finnish "Kalevala" -- are fairly obvious, as is the affection with which the author uses them. Tolkien's soul was in the Lord's keeping, but his heart -- like that of his friend, C.S. Lewis -- quickened to a pagan drumbeat....

Christian analysis now appears to be the dominant mode of writing about "The Lord of the Rings," and enthusiasts are ready to argue everything from the Eucharistic nature of lembas bread to the influence of Catholic liturgy on Tolkien's style. (Joseph Pearce's "Tolkien: A Celebration," offers a good sampling.) Last summer, Christianity Today devoted an entire issue to Tolkien, and a scan of scholarly literature shows plenty of academics arguing for Tolkien's place alongside overtly religious writers like Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.

So it seems everyone wants a chunk of Tolkien now, well, except for the really crazy christians who want to burn everything that even mentions magic. But culture warriors might want to be careful about jumping too heavily on the bandwagon, especially as regards this little situation we've got going on in Iraq. The analogy of Gondor and the noble humans (the ineptly named coalition forces) racing to fight Sauron's evil army (Saddam Hussein) only makes sense if there are old fuzzy pictures of Gandalf shaking hands with Sauron from 20 years ago and then when the armies of Man get to Mordor, the gates are hanging by one hinge and the orcs are hauling ass for cover.

Steven Hart, who wrote this article, though makes one last delicious point about the differences between Tolkien's conservatism (which featured a distrust of power) and the current "conservatives".
Contemporary conservatives, by contrast, are very much enamored of power -- indeed, it is hard to imagine any other way to define them. Certainly none of the qualities that used to typify conservatives -- fiscal prudence, limits on spending and checks against the spread of government power -- can be found in the Republican-run halls of power. All of which should make Gollum, the river-dwelling hobbit who becomes entranced by the Ring of Power and pays for it with his soul, an ominous metaphor. He never hesitates to exploit a wedge issue, be it Frodo's trust of Sam or the distribution of lembas bread, and is savage in combat until defeated, at which point he whines endlessly about how unfair it all is.

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