Tolkien and ‘the problems of another place’

Sandy Elliot makes the case for art in all its uselessness

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I do not know precisely, or even approximately, how many hours of my life have been passed watching The Lord of the Rings. Just watching each of the three films once in their theatrical cut amounts to about twelve hours of screen time. In the extended editions (arguably the only correct way to watch them) it’s even more. Time spent watching those well-loved DVDs stacks up effortlessly, in part because very few films have been made that are so profoundly watchable.

But watching The Lord of the Rings, while a source of great happiness to me and whoever my viewing companions may be, is not, for lack of a better word, very productive. For all the immense effort and expense that went into making the films (Sir Ian McKellen once told me personally that about one third of the entire process for the actors consisted of hiking around New Zealand) watching them seems to be an innocuous, but not a useful pastime.

Who says art should be useful? What does ‘useful’ even mean? Thinking about it for long enough (as with most things) our consumption of media is just another surreal aspect of a surreal existence: we like to stare at the marks on a page or the pixels on a screen, and one way or another this brings us great delight. No need to drag in Jean-Paul Sartre or Oscar Wilde to realise that The Lord of the Rings is not deep social critique. It does not have, nor does it pretend to have, a function as an instrument for political or social change.

If anything, it plays into and even invents the archetype of a fantasy film with an all-white cast, with only three prominent female characters, all of whom are in completely different parts of Middle Earth being ruled over by different men. This is despite the fact that the role of Arwen Evenstar was considerably expanded in the process of book-to-film adaptation.

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Indeed, in Tolkien’s world, the Elves, “wisest and fairest of all beings”, are also emblematic of absolute sexual orthodoxy. In defence of the novel (and to some extent, the films) there are very worthy environmental messages to be found in the plight of the Ents. But The Lord of the Rings nevertheless does not seem a particularly useful instrument for getting out of the current mess. Indeed, some would argue that such escapist works are part of the human instinct to run away from our problems rather than addressing them. Our attraction to them based on the ‘escape’ that they offer is, in this view, almost irresponsible.

I believe that this is a preposterous argument, for the simple reason that paradoxically, escapism is an inalienable part of who we are as humans. The true reason for this is that even at its most privileged, life itself is so very limiting. We feel confined to this insignificant rock named Earth like Prometheus in his chains, and on a deeper level, we can even feel lonely in our own bodies, entrapped by the cast-iron borders of our souls—the ones we erected to keep barbarians out.

That is why on the night of Trump’s election, Obama said that the sun would rise in the morning whatever the outcome, and also why that statement could be of no comfort whatsoever, for it was a reminder that we are so alone here.

Our world is endlessly spinning, and when our fellow humans commit such a senseless act as elevating a mindlessly destructive and bigoted creature to the purple, we cannot filter à l’anglaise—take the French leave—and close the door quietly behind us. We cannot hand in a letter of resignation from humanity when we see children gunned down in the school playground. Perhaps we, like the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey hope at each stage in the history of our evolution for some new level of transcendence, to find new and even more ‘final’ frontiers.

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Or perhaps, like Job, we feel that the meanderings of our lives are a joke played by the Almighty—that we cannot even hope to understand why it is that we live in such a senseless, cruel world, that we wouldn’t even be capable of understanding. It seems that all we can do is find new and ever more creative ways to escape. If, say, the Bible and Mad Men have one thing in common, it is that they are both works of escapist art. Even works which deal in grit and realism have the escapist quality of being something else: a problem other than our very own, no matter how familiar it may be.

As I place my DVD of The Return of the King in the disc drive for the umpteenth time, I am enjoying a truly majestic, life-affirming work of art, but fundamentally I am escaping to a world that is not my own and problems that are none of ours.

Watching The Lord of the Rings on a rainy day may not do the world too much good, but it does wonders for the soul.