I, For One, Welcome Our New Evil Overlords

I’ve just rewatched the extended trilogy, and I’ve realised that I have a problem with Lord of the Rings. Well, there are many problems, but I have a different one.

A shot from the end of Lord of the Rings, Gollum sinking into the magma of Mount Doom

Gollum sinks?! This franchise is dead to me!

Let me just let you know where this is going to eventually end up: I’m going to forgive it and go back to loving it. When I first read the trilogy I went away and created my own epic fantasy world, and wrote two novels set in there. It captivated and inspired me. I’ve come to terms with Star Wars and I’ll no doubt come to terms with Lord of the Rings.

Now, back to getting my hate on. Actually, wait, one more thing: I’ve not read the Silmarillion, the appendixes, or any of the additional works. I’ve read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and I’ve seen the movies. So that’s what I’m talking about here, because stuff like this should never happen in the first place, let alone be patched up in obscure ‘bonus material’.

First, who the fuck awards the contract for making rings of power to a guy called ‘the Dark Lord’, who operates out of somewhere called ‘Mount Doom’? Frankly, you deserve what you get. If your characters stare at each other and say in hushed voices, “Evil McEvil the Lord of Evil from Fuck You Mountain betrayed us…” I’m not going to have a huge amount of sympathy for them. All it would take is Gandalf taking one minute to say, “he was not always known as the Dark Lord. Once, he was called Sauron the Ringmaker and his skill at the forge brought likes of Mr. T and Sonic the Hedgehog to his Mountain of Gold and Fire.” Then I might feel a bit sorry for Elrond instead of wondering why on Middle Earth everyone thinks he’s so wise, and making Mister Anderson jokes.

Elrond facpalms

He… he gave me mate’s rates. It seemed like such a bargain at the time…

And talking of the rings of power, there’s something even more fundamentally wrong with them. Here’s Gladerial’s introduction at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, the very first words in the film trilogy:

“The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost. For none now live who remember it. It began with the forging of the great rings. Three were given to the elves, immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings. Seven to the Dwarf Lords, great miners and craftsmen of the mountain halls. And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of men, who above all else desired power. For within these rings was bound the strength and will to govern each race.”

So each and every time Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond or anyone else talks about the ‘free people of Middle Earth’, what they’re actually talking about is a people enslaved to the ringbearer of their people. The ‘free people’ of Middle Earth live under a magical, despotic dictatorship. So now my choice of sides to cheer for becomes the magical despotic dictators, or the guy trying to overthrow the magical despotic dictators (MDD from here on). The MDD have labelled their opponent ‘evil’ and keep saying he wants to enslave the world, but when have despotic dictators ever said, ‘the opponents of my regime actually have a good point and maybe we should listen to them’.

Creating a clear ‘us and them’ line is an incredibly effective way to manipulate people. “We are Good. Anyone who is not Us is Evil. I decide who is Us, and who is Them.”

Seriously, when does Sauron actually do anything evil, other than have ugly servants? Does he really command Saruman to create an army to wipe out the world of men, to commit genocide? We only have Gandalf and Aragorn’s word for that. The only thing we actually hear from Sauron himself is “build me an army worthy of Mordor”.

The MDD hardly benevolent dictators. The only currency they understand is war. A leader must be a warrior, a fighter and a killer to be worthy of rule. The head of the vanguard is the only true place a king belongs. And all the thousands who follow him into the battle? The more who die, the more glorious the victory. And that’s the only use those of ignoble birth have. They are little more than cannon (… sword?) fodder for the nobles to play out their war fantasies. What drives a people to willingly throw themselves on the swords of their enemies for the glory of their unelected, unchosen leader? Maybe a magical ring that compels them to obey…

The power of the protagonists narratives (all the protagonists, with the exception of the hobbits, are nobles) extends beyond politics, magic and reason. In the third film, Merry rides into battle with the Rohirrim. The entirety of his martial training consists of a few seconds of holding his sword out for Boromir to hit. And yet, there he is, in the thick of battle, cutting down orcs who have spent their entire lives learning the art and craft of war. Anyone not of noble birth is there to fall upon the sword of the protagonists, to increase their glory, to prove the protagonist’s right to rule.

During both Helm’s Deep and the Battle of Gondor, Gimli and Legolas actually keep score on how many people they’ve killed. It’s literally a game to them.

The Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Day, 2012


The whole story looks a lot less heroic when you realise it’s the enslaved people of Middle-Earth fighting to keep their war-obsessed MDDs in power against the free, but ugly, peoples of Middle-Earth rising up after centuries of being slaughtered simply for the crime of existing.

Oh, and one last thing: the Witch-King’s, ‘no man can kill me’. But a woman can. So, presumably, could an elf of either gender. Or a wizard. Or a dwarf. Or a hobbit. Or a horse. Or rat. Or a particularly bad cold…

So, yeah, there are problems with Lord of the Rings and right now, I can’t help but see them. Problems that make it more than an accidental exercise in privilege, that make it propaganda for white, male, Anglo-Saxon power founded on violence against those who don’t fit the ideal. Will I forgive it? As I’m white, male, Anglo-Saxon and raised until I was nineteen in Surrey, I’m pretty much the ideal audience for Tolkein’s Deep England bullshit. Maybe I’ll just have to learn to live with it’s ugly, ugly flaws until someone else makes a film just as epic with just as amazing battle sequences. And the book? I dunno. It’s going to take quite something to get me to read over a thousand pages of fail. Especially when there are plenty of alternatives out there.

Gollum sinking into the magma from here.  Elrond from here.  Cenotaph from here.