I’m still slowly working my way through <p>The Lost Tales</p> by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher. I found the story of the destruction of the great, hidden city of the Elves wonderfully moving—the story in <p>The Lost Tales</p> presents much more detail than the version in <p>The Silmarillion</p> and there are some interesting concepts that Tolkien later removed.
I’ve written about the fact that Tolkien wrote about airships in Middle Earth. In “The Fall of Gondolin”, it looks like the Dark Lord Melko used technology resembling familiar 20th/21st century war machines to attack the city of the Elves. There is a description of a contrivance that kind of sounds like a transport helicopter, disgorging battalions of Orcs from its belly. The dragons also sound kind of mechanical, radiating an unnatural, all-consuming heat, and I can’t help but wonder if the Japanese did not catch on to these details way back when, considering that manga and anime are replete with fantastic airships, and bizarre technologic creations that may never become reality. I immediately think of mecha, and transforming robots, and the like. In later drafts of these stories, dragons become organic creatures, and there are no allusions to things that may or may not be internal combustion engines.
Tolkien’s works can be read as a reaction against the dehumanization inherent in mass production and wholesale mechanized killing, which he witnessed first-hand during WWI, and which became even more magnified during WWII, what with Hitler’s systematic genocide that seems original to the industrial era, and the ferocity of his flying and crawling war machines. Better minds than mine have looked closely at how <p>The Lord of the Rings</p> has a lot to say about the evils of our mechanized exploitation of the environment.
Sadly, Tolkien may be a modern-day Cassandra or Laocoön, prophesying the fall of Western Civilization at the hands of the technology we created. (As much as he protests the allegorical reading of the Ring as a metaphor for nuclear power, this idea is nonetheless quite powerful, and as I am reminded by a bumper sticker, it seems that “Frodo failed. Bush has the Ring.”) The process invented by Henry Ford (who as you may know was a prominent Nazi sympathizer) is profoundly widespread, with mass production still successfully fueling the engines of capitalism, and we’ve even tried to apply these processes to service industries which were not long ago thought to be entirely the exclusive demesne of actual human beings. (When’s the last time you called customer service and didn’t have to deal with a machine?)
The advances in depersonalized mass killing have likewise been striking in the last hundred years. While the intercontinental ballistic missile is perhaps the most feared and most horrific piece of technology ever created thus far, the progress in other realms of wholesale slaughter is also impressive. Just like the invention of the transistor and then the microprocessor has allowed great strides in communication and information technology, so too has miniaturization revolutionized the ability for people to kill lots of other people. It is no longer considered surprising when a single person walks into a place of business with a very portable, very lethal piece of machinery that can easily kill nine or ten people before he/she runs out ammo and/or is killed by the SWAT team. Hand-held personal missile launchers are quite widespread and easy to get a hold of, as the current fiasco in Mesopotamia well demonstrates. And, God help us, the United States is trying to create tactical nukes so that a single soldier can go out into the field and create their own little mushroom clouds.
I say, never mind at looking at how we’re raping the environment—not that the environment isn’t important. But it sort of doesn’t matter if we succeed in wiping each other out via mutually-assured destruction. I can tell you that the environment will be the least of our worries if nuclear winter sets in.
But enough cheerfulness.
What I’m finding interesting about the <p>Lost Tales</p> and the entire <p>History of Middle Earth</p> series is that it creates a distinctly postmodern canon of Tolkien’s work. Despite the fact that Christopher Tolkien explicitly delineates what he considers canon and what he consider apocrypha, the very fact that these alternative drafts are published make them a sort of quasi-canon. Like real history, and real ethnography, the whole body of Tolkien’s published work (the <p>History of Middle Earth</p> included) has inconsistancies and contradictions. Mythologies—like the Bible or the <p>Iliad</p> , for example—frequently have alternative depictions, some in agreement, but others at variance. Even the simple fairy tales that we hear as children have conflicting provenances and contradictory themes, and Walt Disney’s reinterpretations are only one of several. This quality actually makes Middle Earth even more immersive. Reality varies according to what you read.
Which tangentially brings me back to this interesting quote that Kagro X brought up again in a post on the Daily Kos (this context of the post is not necessarily relevant to why it struck me today):
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” —Ron Suskind “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush” New York Times 2004 Oct 17
This is now my impression of post-modernism and post-colonialism. The most pervasive cultural products of our time are basically remixes. After all, look at all the Tolkien knock-offs and homages sitting in the Fantasy section of your book store. We’ve gotten to the point where we can remix reality in real-time and have it stick and carry scholarly wait. It used to be you had to wait until you were dead before people starting adding their own isogeses while deconstructing you and/or your work.
It’s not so much that we keep revising history. This has happened since history existed, because we all know that the winners write all the books. it’s the fact that no only can we re-write history as it’s happening, but we can, in fact, pre-write history.
Which is, as a matter of fact, kind of what Tolkien actually tried to set out in do.