Book and Movie Recommendation: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

"The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see."

Saruman (LOTR, The Council of Elrond, 252)

It has always been my contention that if modern philosophy is correct, then Nietzsche is correct: there is nothing but the will to power. Descarte Knew it, Hobbes Knew it, Locke knew it, but Nietzsche was honest about it. Yet it has also been my contention that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings shows the absurdity of the "will to power."

The two main villains in the Lord of the Rings, Sauron and Saruman, are nihilistic. They believe in nothing but the will to power. Saruman admits it when he says that "we must possess power" in order to "order things as we see fit." This is no different than what has been the prevailing theme of modernism, that people due to their intellect can and must "master and possess" the universe and conquer it to fulfill man's needs.

"But Festa, why is this such a bad idea? 200 years ago people died of colds, 2/3rds of the population had toothaches, and people used whisky as an anesthesia (sic). Hasn't this outlook on life helped us?" To a certain extent, yes it has. But it has also been the prime mover behind every single atrocity committed in the 20th century (I believe the count ended around 100 million people, but I could be low balling it). If there is no truth beyond the will the power, then there is no reason why my will to power (or self-preservation, or whatever) should prevent me from enslaving or murdering you.

It is in this context that J.R.R. Tolkien was writing. Noted Tolkien critic Tom Shippey claims that Tolkien was one of the great "traumatized" authors of the 20th century (others include C.S. Lewis, T.H. Eliot, and George Orwell). He was a Captain in the first World War, saw all his friends die, almost died himself from typhoid fever, and lived to experience the holocaust, the Atomb Bomb, Fascism, communism, and bureaucratic despotism. As I said: traumatized.

"traumatized authors" like Tolkien sought an answer to the following question: What is evil and why do I and others do the evil that I abhor? Curiously, however, Tolkien discovered the following
1) A proper explanation of evil was already explained through ancient texts
2) There was no way to re-explain evil without resorting to myth

The Lord of the Rings centers on a ring, about O big that was created thousands of years ago out of malice and greed. This ring confers upon its wearer both the desire for power and the ability to actuate it. The degree of "magic" that is conferred upon the individual depends on the individual, for a simply hobbit it makes you invisible, for a powerful wizard it makes you invincible. But there is no doubting that the ring creates a desire for power, increases greed and selfishness, and if used enough destroys you.

"Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" was the famous maxim from Lord Acton. Since the ring brings power, it does nothing but corrupt the wearer. That's Tolkien's answer to Nietszhe: power breeds selfishness and since selfishness is anti-human, it destroys the human.

Take for example the creature Gollum. Formerly known as Smeagol, Gollum was once a hobbit who discovered the ring along with his cousin deagol. Overwhelmed by his selfish desire to possess the ring, Gollum killed his cousin, worshipped the ring, and watched it destroy him for over 500 years. After a while, the ring became his master, he became a slave to his selfish desires and was totally incapable of self-sacrifice and friendship. His life was miserable and he knew it. Yet because he was so overwhelmed by his selfishness, he could do nothing to stop it.

Also consider the ring-wraiths. These 9 greatest servants of the Dark Lord Sauron were given 9 other, but lesser, rings of power. They, like Gollum succumbed to their selfishness, greed, and desire for power. Yet they are worse than Gollum. While Gollum still has a little corner in mind all to his own, the Ring-wraiths are totally subservient to Sauron. They no longer possess free will and are incapable of making any rational or moral decisions, they are no longer men. Their "wrath" (derivative from "wraith") destroys that which makes them human.

Tolkien's answer to evil, as mentioned above, is rather ancient. Evil is the privation of the good. It is not not a substance in itself, but rather a substance killer ("the shadow that mocks cannot create.") Evil destroys that which makes us who we are.

In order words, evil is a being acting against his nature. By attempting to conquer nature, man is actually enslaving himself to the very nature he is trying to overcome.

Tolkien saw this everywhere he looked. He saw it in fascism, in communism, in modern warfare, and even in democratic cultures. He saw it eating away at his fellow humans and he wrote an entire myth to show how to resist it.

Tolkien's answer to overcoming this is the following
1) You cannot fight evil by being evil, you must fight it retaining goodness (You cannot wield the ring, you must destroy it)
2) At the end of the day, everyone fails, even the most virtuous of us will succumb to the will of evil. (Watch the detrioration of the noble Frodo, it is sickening on both book and screen)
3) one should fight on anyway even if evil is guaranteed to win, because living as evil is worse than dying as good ("This war is but one long defeat, but fight we will)
4) Evil destroys itself because it cannot see the Good. It can only see evil and cannot understand nor even contemplate good motives (Sauron cannot comprehend that the fellowship should attempt to DESTROY the ring)

If you thought this review dry: good, it is supposed to be. That's why Tolkien wrote his book. People don't respond to philosophical proofs and rational arguments, they respond to good, well written stories.

Tolkien's book is magnificent, if not for everyone. But if it's not for you, go and see the movie trilogy. Before the movie was released, The Lord of the Rings was the best book no one read (or at least not as much as it should have). After the movie was released it is safe to say that there will never be another movie like it and the book has now risen to the level of immortality.