The wrong Lord of the Reads

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When Waterstone's named Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as the best novel of the 20th century, Germaine Greer offered a lament. "Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of fully grown women wearing puffed sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits," she said, "it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has been realised."

And we haven't woken up yet. The BBC's Big Read competition to find Britain's favourite book reaches its climax this weekend, and Tolkien is odds-on favourite to win. The success of his dire trilogy obviously cannot be attributed to literary merit. The great critic Edmund Wilson called it "balderdash" and "juvenile trash" when it was first published, and it's hard to disagree. Tolkien's obsessional describing of a fictional landscape borders on the autistic, as does the almost total absence of women or sophisticated emotion from his work. No, The Lord of the Rings isn't loved because it's a good novel, but because it taps into some of the most atavistic and ugly impulses of our times.

The most obvious is racism. The purely evil Orcs are, in Tolkien's words, "squat, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant-eyes". The enemy is the Dark Lord and he lives in the Black Land. The heroic hobbits and elves are, by contrast, über-Aryan and ethnically pure. Ideals of "blood" and its purity are always sloshing around his narrative. For example, the Men of Gondor - "the high men" - are descendants of the Numenorians, the greatest of all warriors. Over the centuries, they have become "degraded" because of breeding with inferior races. When their bloodline is pure, as in Aragorn's descendants, the strength of the original Lords of the West is retained.

Alarm bells ringing yet? As the academic Dr Stephen Shapiro explains: "Tolkien was not a Nazi but he was a Nordicist in that his works hark back to England's original culture before the Norman invasion. "

Some elements of the US and Israeli far-right have tried to use The Lord of the Rings to promote their "West vs The Rest" world-view. Rod Dehrer, writing for National Review, the US equivalent of The Spectator, claimed recently: "The trilogy explores the nature of individual heroism in the midst of an epic clash of civilisations, one that pits freedom-loving peoples of the West against merciless totalitarians from the East. As Frodo and Sam make their way across the bleak, hostile land of Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power, their companions in the West rally a coalition of tribes to wage war against Sauron's minions living among them. We are fortunate to have these books in the present moment, to give us hope and a reason to dig in for the long fight ahead."

The popularity of this reading of the story reminds us of a terrible wrong direction that the War on Terror could take, and one that has thankfully been avoided by the Bush administration thus far. Tolkien presents us with an absolute enemy who must simply be destroyed: purely evil and incapable of feeling. Of course, no such war can ever happen; it is a pernicious Tolkienian myth. The war against Communism, and the more recent war against Baathist fascism in Iraq, were battles in which the majority of people on "the other side" agreed with us and sought freedom from their dictators. They were not Orcs; quite the opposite. A recent poll showed that 90 per cent of Iraqis want to create a democracy in their country. Anybody who tries to confect a Tolkien-style dichotomy whereby Arabs (or anybody else) are our absolute enemy is making a crazy mistake. The Lord of the Rings offers no ethical or spiritual road-map - it offers a landmine-strewn path in entirely the wrong direction.

Indeed, the agenda encoded within the novel is entirely reactionary. Tolkien was animated by a visceral hatred of modernity, and its glorious embodiment, the cosmopolitan city. He is part of the Romantic backlash against the Enlightenment, an enemy of science and progress who is trying to recover myths and rehabilitate mysticism. Tolkien said that his preferred political system was "unconstitutional monarchy", and admitted that he was not a democrat. He sought retreat in a feudal world of deference, aristocracy and hierarchy.

Yes, it might seem absurd to take Tolkien so seriously, but the worlds to which we choose to escape reveal a lot about us. So please, when it comes to The Big Read, vote for Salinger, Tolstoy, Brontë. Anyone but Tolkien.

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