Monday, September 12, 2022

On Mills on LOTR

 The philosopher Charles Mills, who died not long ago, was known to have written a paper on The Lord of the Rings, and other events making it timely, the paper was recently published: The Wretched of Middle Earth: An Orkish Manifesto. It would have been better to let it die in the grace of oblivion, since it is embarrassingly bad. Mills is deliberately being provocative in his thesis, since he claims that if LOTR is read as 'true mythology' for Europe, as it was intended, the text ends up being a "literal transcription" of "the racist 'Aryan Myth". This is a very strong statement. It is also little implausible to begin with, since the large-scale social interactions in Middle Earth are already known to be modeled on historical and legendary interactions among Celts, Saxons, Goths, Romans, and Huns, not 'the Aryan Myth', and Tolkien in fact famously showed his lack of sympathy with the latter in a response in 1938 to a German publisher who asked him if he was of Aryan extraction. (Tolkien coldly replied that he was English and not, in fact, Indo-Iranian, none of his known ancestors having spoken Indian or Persian languages, a comment which is fundamentally inconsistent with 'the Aryan Myth'.) The implausibilities are heightened when one realizes that Mills's argument requires taking the Elves to correspond to the Aryans, a somewhat awkward correspondence given that both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings depict the Elves as a people in severe decline, and that the latter ends with their almost entirely vanishing. So one would need some reasonably strong foundation for the claim, even if Mills were being hyperbolic (which in fact he is not).

A key element of Mills's argument is that the world is structured by a racial hierarchy. After listing some of the various tribes and races, he says (p. 6), "And these can, I suggest, be uncontroversially ranked into three categories: elves at the top; dwarves, hobbits, and men in the middle; and orcs at the bottom. (If ents were considered to be humanoid, they would go in the middle rung." However, not only is this not an uncontroversial thing to say, it is inconsistent with the stories themselves. The Hobbit is a story about Dwarves and Hobbits; there is shown to be some hostility between Dwarves and Elves due to historical grievances, but Elves are not depicted as being in any way in a position of hierarchical superiority. The climax shows them having to put aside their grievances to stand against a common enemy; and again, the Battle of Five Armies is not structured in such a way as to suggest that the Elves are "at the top". The Lord of the Rings explicitly recognizes Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Men, and Ents as belonging to one category, the Free Peoples, and as needing to work together because of it; a third of the work is named The Fellowship of the Ring, which depicts Elf, Dwarf, Men, and Hobbits working together not in a hierarchy but in a (surprise!) fellowship, sometimes in the text called a company (with its members called companions). The Fellowship largely work as equals; insofar as a leader is needed and Gandalf (who is a member of none of these races) is not available, the leader is Aragorn, not Legolas. What is more, the members of the Fellowship who accomplish the most are the Hobbits, not the Elf; as Tolkien notes in another letter to a reader somewhere, Legolas is the member of the Company who ultimately accomplishes the least. Mills doesn't really include The Silmarillion in his argument, but if you do, the point just gets made again: a significant portion of these Elven legends are devoted to the extraordinary achievements of Men like Hurin, Turin, Beren, and Tuor. The Elves have the advantage of being older and already well established by the time Men arrive on the scene; but as far as anything else goes, Elves and Men are treated as being on a level.

There are many other problems with Mills's argument. The most glaringly obvious of these is that he bafflingly thinks that the Elves are shown as "intrinsically and apparently unchangeably good". He points to LOTR, thus gerrymandering his argument, because this is very obviously not how the Elves are depicted in The Hobbit, which he has elsewhere used for his purposes, but it's not even true in LOTR, which depicts the will to power in the One Ring as being able to corrupt anyone and  one of whose major temptation scenes involves Galadriel, even setting aside occasional references to historical sins and failings of the Elves that get more development in The Silmarillion. The footnote Mills gives to this is somewhat enlightening. He notes that Tolkien himself in a letter denies that the Elves are totally good, describing them as guilty of wanting to live in the mortal world while trying to stop history; this is simply inconsistent with Mills's claim, but Mills tries to alleviate the inconsistency by saying (p. 9n), "This seems to me a misdemeanor, certainly not on the level of the evil deeds done by the men, hobbits, and dwarves, so I think my substantive point still holds." We don't actually get much of the Dwarves at all in LOTR, except for Gimli, who commits no evil deeds, and references to the Dwarven armies fighting Sauron, and the evil deeds of Hobbits like Lotho are explicitly depicted as petty and instigated by others, so Mills is inflating his claim beyond the evidence. But more seriously, while Mills may think the will to power involved in trying to rule in Middle Earth while having the unchanging splendor of the Blessed Realm is a "misdemeanor", Tolkien very obviously does not. It's a particular form of the sin of pride and the Catholic Tolkien would never regard the mortal sin of pride as a "misdemeanor". The Lord of the Rings is thematically a story about the corruptions that arise from pride and its plot is explicitly built on the idea that evil can only really be fought by humility and pity. And it is very curious that Mills did not recognize that an analogue of this "misdemeanor" is found at the root of many of the evils of imperialism, of colonialism, and, yes, of racial exploitation, all of which have a similar, and often very recognizable, 'have your cake and eat it too' structure. How could it be otherwise? The atrocities associated with each all arise from pride. In LOTR, the desire of the Elves to create eternity in history by force of will is a trait they share with Sauron, although in them it has not grown as grotesque as it has in Sauron; they achieve victory by accepting that they must give it up and let the world take its own course. If they hadn't, they would all have eventually become Saurons after their own measure. That's the point of Galadriel's temptation.