Get Real: Confronting Lord of the Rings as Allegory
Literature/Film Association Annual Conference: Global and American Cinemas
Dickinson College, Carlisle PA
19 Oct. 2002
Steven Alan Carr
Associate Professor of Communication, IU – Purdue Fort Wayne
2002 – 2003 Fellow with the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
In 1992, The New York Times published an editorial written by two undergraduates accusing Tim Burton’s summer blockbuster Batman Returns (Warner Bros., 1992) of anti-Semitism. In “Batman and the Jewish Question,” Rebecca Roiphe and Daniel Cooper accuse the film of fomenting anti-Jewish stereotypes, particularly with its depiction of a hook-nosed Penguin with a penchant for herring (Roiphe 1992). The editorial provoked angry letters from Wesley Strick, one of the film’s uncredited screenwriters, from Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and from Rebecca Stokes, whose father read her the article and who declared, “for Pete’s sake, he’s a penguin, give him a break” ("Anti-Semitism in Batman Returns? Be Serious." 1992).
The incident demonstrates the pitfalls of doing allegorical readings, for readings that bestow a larger significance than surface meaning are only safe when the prescribed author announces or welcomes such “below the surface” interpretations as intended. Short of this invitation or intentionality, the unsolicited allegorical reading may seem absurd or even downright counterproductive. Such was the case in the affaire Roiphe-Cooper, where their allegorical reading dared to trespass Batman with an unwelcome charge of implied if unconscious anti-Semitism. While the Roiphe-Cooper editorial errs in assuming an excessively literal allegory – a kind of quid pro quo approach to the text that assumes equal exchange between the literal signifier of the Penguin and a more abstract signified anti-Semitism – their allegorical reading of Batman Returns - as well as the vituperative denials of this reading - suggest a necessary if somewhat fraught and convoluted direction for the analysis of popular culture to take. Starting with a crisis in defining anti-Semitism itself, this direction must inevitably grapple with the possibility that in the shadow of the Holocaust, any and all texts operate as potential allegories for the Shoah and its postwar aftermath.
To argue that all texts are allegories – not just those read, but those heard and watched as well – and that all of these texts as allegories address the Holocaust in one fashion or another are of course radical departures from conventional wisdom that risk offending sensibilities and trivializing the Holocaust. However, one might take Theodor W. Adorno’s famous dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” as the point of embarkation for this radical departure (Adorno 1967). More recently, Elie Wiesel has noted the ultimate inability of popular culture to represent Auschwitz and the unthinkable. In Wiesel’s words, Auschwitz “is always something else,” a “universe outside the universe” that “lies on the other side of life and on the other side of death” (Wiesel 1990). If Auschwitz exists outside whatever seems real and thus outside the sphere of human representation, then perhaps one needs to look elsewhere to find other ways – adequate or inadequate – in which popular culture has addressed the Holocaust. Allusion, allegory and the fantastic – as opposed to the transparent pretense of a work that announces itself as being about the Holocaust – would seem to offer a distinctive mode of addressing the Shoah, as a work such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings does in creating its universe outside of this universe.
Before advancing this argument too far, however, I should acknowledge that both scholarly as well as popular literature has been debating Lord of the Rings’ allegorical meaning, at least since the 1960s. Newsweek magazine recently derided the insistence of journalists on comparing the imagery of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation to what the magazine calls “modern-day political realities.” After compiling a list of analogues between the film’s characters and the characters of 9/11 (including Dubya as Frodo and Afghanis as any of the hirsute dwarves, elves, hobbits or wizards), Newsweek concludes that “now we understand why J. R. R. Tolkien emphatically denied allegory in his works” and that we should “take him at his word” (Beith 2002) However, Newsweek is not entirely correct in this assertion. Most notably embraced by anti-nuclear activists after its publication in 1952, the Lord of the Rings has undergone many appropriations as allegory. Tolkien in fact encouraged the view of his work as an open-ended allegory, yet denied particularly specific allegorical applications. For example, in a preface to the book, Tolkien refuted reading Lord of the Rings as an anti-nuclear statement, yet noted how World War I had served as the initial inspiration for the work. Tolkien scholar Jane Chance observes how Tolkien wrote the second volume of Lord of the Rings during World War II when he served as an RAF pilot over Africa (Chance 1992). According to National Public Radio, Tolkien considered Lord of the Rings “an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power,” – in other words, a kind of master allegory (Dowell 2001). A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article quotes from a 1953 letter in which Tolkien argues that Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Having studiously avoided either putting in or cutting out any reference to religion, Tolkien concludes that the book’s religious aspects are thoroughly “absorbed into the story and the symbolism” ("Tolkien's Rings" 2001).
Arguably, the most evocative manifestation of Lord of the Rings’ allegory comes from what some have observed as the book’s covert inspiration for American foreign policy. E. P. Thompson once surmised that American defense experts suffered from “an infantile political view of the world” derived “from too much early reading of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.” From the vantage point of the U.S., “the evil kingdom of Mordor lies there, and there it ever will lie, while on our side lies the nice republic of Eriador, inhabited by confused liberal hobbits who are rescued from time to time by the genial white wizardry of Gandalf-like figures such as Henry Kissinger . . .” (Thompson 1982). As Henry Jenkins finds, little has changed since Kissinger. “When George Bush talks about evildoers,” Jenkins recently told National Public Radio, “he’s cast the current war in a language of fantasy or mythology more than a language of the real. Surely he doesn’t believe that we could rid the Earth of evildoers, which is something that Jehovah never quite succeeded in doing” (Dowell 2001)
In considering Lord of the Rings as allegory, a series of tantalizing paradoxes emerge. To “get real,” one must completely divorce the text from political reality, or what Frederic Jameson calls the historical (Jameson 1981). Setting aside the morality of an approach that asserts reality as being ahistorical, the eventual result of divorcing Lord of the Rings from reality and categorizing it as nothing but fantasy – a universe outside a universe - would seem to reinforce the kind of cult worship that “getting real” seems to deride. Aspiring to be a master allegory, Lord of the Rings seeks to rediscover a lost mythology that existed before written history, and thus outside of it. This pretext is not unlike the Christian Identity movement, which bases its existence on the notion that White Anglo-Saxons are one of the lost tribes of Israel and that they and not Jews are the true Chosen People. Lord of the Rings expresses the profound wish-fulfillment to have an Anglo-Saxon Old Testament, monumentally and impressively filling its unearthed Bible with dwarves, elves, wizards and hobbits. Director Peter Jackson aptly realizes this vision when, for example, he wonders in an interview how one person could “have been able to invent all this stuff. It feels more like Tolkien discovered some sort of long-lost scrolls” (Dowell 2001).
While perhaps only half-serious, the notion that U.S. foreign policy is itself an allegory that draws from Lord of the Rings as its Bible seems to warrant further exploration. While Newsweek derides those who find political relevance in Jackson’s film, a notable media blackout has largely ignored the much more laughable work of the Bush Administration, which casts its moral high ground not on the basis of a coherent foreign policy or any particular evidence, but in the language of a Dungeons and Dragons game. Elsewhere, I have argued that submissive agreement with such platitudes – and hence a hostility to do the work of interpretation and criticism – forms the core of what I have dubbed Literal Correctness. Literal Correctness, of course, has its own paradox as it seeks to advance its distinctive tinge of extremist right wing biases under the camouflage of what is simply common sense, normal and on the surface (Carr 2002).
I raise this tension between doing interpretation and what I find as the resolutely anti-interpretive stance of literal correctness because in a healthy democracy, relinquishing the work of interpretation occurs at our own peril. In the case of 9/11, the Bush Administration is diligently toiling to unravel 50 years of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy, using highly evocative language that if not inspired by Lord of the Rings, at least aspires to the same lofty height of establishing a master allegory of such authority that its mythology remains insulated from any historical reality. A similar though arguably less pressing peril for now exists for crises such as the one involving Batman Returns. While the Roiphe-Cooper editorial might have done a better allegorical reading of the film, an appropriate response to this reading would seek to refine its interpretation rather than deny it. All texts – written, recorded or visualized – are allegorical because communication is inherently mediated, all mediation is inherently symbolic and thus such mediation will always suggest some unspoken, unseen or understood meaning, since all communication always communicates the absence of a signified.
To press the point further, all texts as allegories after World War II bear some relationship to the Holocaust, no matter how covert, accidental or circuitous this relationship might be. Whatever else texts are, they are historical, and as history all texts stand alongside the Holocaust. Even if the relationship is not a transparent one, the reading of a text after the Holocaust is a reading committed in a world that no longer encompasses one universe. Although asserting a link between the Holocaust and all postwar texts as allegories arguably runs the risk of flattening interpretation and meaning to the point of insipidness, the problem lies not in doing allegory, but in the kind of allegory considered, and the way in which allegorical interpretations get done. Allegory remains central to the construction of meaning after the Holocaust, since it encompasses not just intended as well as unintended meanings, but public attempts to make sense of that meaning, including avowals of larger meaning as well as equally public disavowals of that meaning. Ultimately, allegorical readings can help identify the fundamental collision between the reality of the text as it exists and the utter artifice of its representation. No matter how “real” the reader gets about the text, that reality exists because or even in spite of the historical relations that structure text and reader in the most arbitrary – and in the shadow of the Holocaust, ill-equipped - of ways.
This paper suggests the value of performing and where necessary refining allegorical readings, as opposed to shunning them. In an effort to emphasize the necessity of reading all texts allegorically, and acknowledging that these allegories stand in relation to the Holocaust, I’ve admittedly given short shrift to exploring specific instances in which Lord of the Rings stands in relation to the Shoah. So at the risk of providing too little too late, I’d like to use a brief scene to demonstrate how Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation uses highly evocative imagery that resonates with the popular rendering of concentration camp imagery. Let me stress here that I do not view Lord of the Rings as a quid pro quo allegory about the Holocaust, or that there is an intention to reproduce the documentary imagery of concentration camps. Rather, in its attempt to create a universe outside of this universe, Lord of the Rings aspires to the status of a master allegory that recasts the role of the Jews from the Old Testament with a series of mythological figures. In its artifice of recovering a lost world and people, the moment in which Gimli the dwarf discovers the massacre of his own people proves particularly striking. Returning to his ancestral homeland, Gimli along with the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring are barred from entering by a stone gate featuring a riddle above its doors. Upon solving the riddle, the Fellowship enters not a mine but a tomb. The allegorical relationship of this moment to the Holocaust is not so much one of Jew equals Dwarf, but one of analogous loss. The rendering of this scene invokes the image of the concentration camp, complete with puzzling inscription above the gate and shots of decomposing bodies. Aspiring to be a master allegory, the Lord of the Rings may lack the intent or specificity of a Holocaust allegory, but its studied refusal of specificity leaves it open to this allegorical reading.
Of course, I do not wish to suggest that in viewing Lord of the Rings in relation to the Holocaust, that one should view this allegorical relationship to the exclusion of all other possible allegories. One could view the same scene in relation to World War I, to images of combat during World War II, to nuclear holocausts, and even 9/11. But the point here is that when faced with the possibility of allegory or multiple allegories, the response should embrace the possibilities of making rather than shunning new meaning. To explore such meaning does not denote a necessarily lofty allegory as well; the rhetoric of current U.S. foreign policy certainly demonstrates that. But better to root out ill-advised and unspoken assumptions through an allegorical reading than to ignore these meanings altogether.
As for Lord of the Rings, I remain ambivalent on the adequacy of this text in response to the Holocaust. I am struck by the religious character of this work, how its attempt to create a universe outside of a universe is itself a postwar response to the Holocaust, and how it seeks to recast lost civilizations with the intonation of the Old Testament. In confronting the popularity of this work, we might do well to heed Adorno’s proscription at the time that Lord of the Rings was first published: to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. I actually prefer Lawrence Langer’s useful revision of this credo: to write poetry after Auschwitz the way we wrote poems before Auschwitz is barbaric (Langer 2002). Whether Lord of the Rings barbarically generates its fantasy after Auschwitz the way that the fantastic occurred before Auschwitz is open for debate. What seems more certain is that to do criticism and analysis after Auschwitz the way in which criticism and analysis occurred before Auschwitz seems at least as potentially barbaric, not to mention perilous.
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