It’s been very interesting keeping up on the thinkpieces over the last couple of days.
There has been something of a backlash against people retreating into pop culture analogies for the current political situation. Commentators getting really pissed that lives may be in danger and some people are only capable of viewing it through the lens of, say, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Talking about insurgencies in terms of Dumbledore’s Army rather than any real world political upsets to draw inspiration and guidance from. Some have characterized it as eschewing real world responsibility to try and fix things in favor of hyperfocusing on fictional events.
I think there’s a small element of truth to some of that. I think that some people are putting head in sand and acting as if someone else is going to come along and fix everything as long as they are studious and hide in a story until everything rolls over.
This is not really a pop culture thing, this is more akin to bystander syndrome.
We’ve always looked for solace in mythology.
Human beings, as a whole, have always looking into the gaping abyss of the unknowable and hurriedly crafted heroes and gods to stand between them and that great vacuum, beings who can stem the tide of dread for a little while. Larger than life stories that you can try to incorporate into your own.
Pretending that Harry Potter is going to come along and destroy Voldemort if you just tweet about it enough and wear a safety pin without leaving your house is silly. It may be the first stepping stone towards useful activism, but for some people it will stop there, and they might not be budged past it. But I think there are still more who will learn from the core elements of the contemporary mythologies they love and take those lessons to heart.
I know plenty of people who got into real, serious activism because they read very good genre books from authors who were very angry at the state of the world and envisioned a much nicer one in their heads, and even presented a bit of a blueprint for readers to get there. People who have marched, experienced violence, lost their jobs, been threatened with death and kept going because of stories that resonated with them on a deep and wonderful level, providing a fountain of strength to tap into during the darkest times.
For me, perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has known me more than five minutes, I get a lot of my strength from the works of Tolkien. In my blackest moments I have closed my eyes and imagined how it would be to be some of those hobbits at the point where they changed the world around them.
What keeps drawing me back, truly, is that when they do great things, it’s because they aren’t aiming to do great things. What makes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so utterly magical and timeless to me is that the most important heroes are the ones who push the wheels of progress forward with the simplest and kindest acts. Aragorn is great, swinging his sword around. Gandalf is superb with his mastery over fire magics and illusion. Legolas’s bow skills are unmatched. Gimli is an unstoppable wall of axes.
None of them would have been able to stop the tides of darkness from sweeping over the world if four hobbits from the backwoods of nowhere hadn’t gone out into the world believing that the most important thing was to be decent to others.
I’ve used the following quote as an example of how to write a protagonist before, specifically one who moves the story along through his or her own agency and by making choices. It’s a quote that flickers into my mind whenever I’m about to do something new or terrifying, a quote from when Bilbo first enters the Lonely Mountain and finds himself alone, in the dark, with the option of fleeing unseen:
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
Everything past that decision is easier and easier, even the sweeping five-army battle and the confrontation with Smaug. It’s making yourself take that step into the dark, either because you’ve made a promise to your friends or because you’ve made one to yourself or because you know it’s something that you need to do even if the thought makes you want to curl up in a ball and vomit until you die.
The other one is… slightly more complicated.
When you read The Lord of the Rings, the most common interpretation is that Samwise Gamgee is the “real” hero of the trilogy. He is the loyal commoner who sacrifices everything for Frodo without a moment’s hesitation, is able to pick up and return the One Ring without feeling the temptation that even immortal beings like Galadriel felt in its presence, whose entire driving motivation is to be the best friend that anyone could ever hope for.
I don’t think that interpretation is correct, but I think it doesn’t give enough credit to Frodo and to one of the underlying themes of the story. It begins even earlier on, when the Fellowship is being tracked through Moria, but one of the most heartwrenching passages comes much latter in The Two Towers when Gollum returns from his patrol and finds Sam and Frodo passed out, exhausted:
And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast.
Peace was in both their faces.
Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress.
For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.
I think that Frodo himself strikes the killing blow against Sauron by being kind to Smeagol when he has absolutely no desire to do so, because he feels empathy and mercy wins out over disgust in his heart. He holds his blade and in doing so slides it into Sauron’s lidless eye, putting it out forever, hundreds and hundreds of pages later.
Evil defeats itself. I think that we can help it along and fight it and we are morally beholden to do so, particularly to protect those weaker than ourselves, but in the end I think that anything built on hatred and anger will eventually collapse under its own weight. I think that it is a reoccurring theme in storytelling across the entire world because it draws its lessons from history. If a structure must lash out at others to survive, when there aren’t enough others left it will turn on itself.
Again, I have to stress, there’s still fighting that can be done. Tolkien was a military man who survived some of the worst battles of World War 1 and believed that Hitler had to be stopped in World War 2. He saw merit in opposing evil with weapon drawn, but seemingly just to protect the innocent while evil annihilated itself as it always does. Even his hobbits are willing to unsheathe their blades and face off against beings like the Witch King when they feel cornered or are standing between an opponent and a friend.
I’ve tried to carry that with me and let it influence my interactions. I’ve failed at that sometimes, but when I do I acknowledge where I screwed up and I walk back to my original path, hopefully having learned something along the way. I’m not saying you have to show mercy to someone after they have proven themselves an enemy; when Smeagol finally gives in to Gollum and turns on Frodo completely, there is no coming back from that, but by then Gollum is an engine of his own destruction and drags the greater evil down with him on his fall.
I’m… not sure exactly where I’m going with this, honestly. It’s something I’ve been aching to write all day. I’ll go back to book reviews soon, I’ve built up a nice backlog of stuff that has actually been read and I think some of you will really like it, I have some relatively indie pieces in the mix.
In the meantime I’ll leave you with another one of my “big” quotes, from Faramir, an underappreciated hero who I consider the most hobbitlike of the human characters in Lord of the Rings, and one who is even more noble than Aragorn at times:
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.