I have a Facebook friend whose posts are absolutely fascinating: vilification of Monsanto (down with big business!), vilification of Planned Parenthood (“Planned Murderhood”), vilification of not just Democrats and Republicans but democracy and republicanism. It took me some time to make sense of it, but as it happens, this apparently schizophrenic constellation of political philosophy is just… Catholic.
I was raised Catholic and spent fifteen years of my education at Catholic institutions, but the latter element of my friend’s beliefs was still a surprise. What I’ve learned in recent weeks of research and discovery was never taught in the (admittedly fairly politically progressive, at least by Church standards) Catholic schools I knew: that democracy and representative governance was not accepted as valid by the Vatican until after World War II, and that even today there are conservative factions who find the notion of government of the people, by the people, and for the people to be noxious and sinful, opposed to the very will of God. The thread of anti-Catholic sentiment throughout American history, often taught as a matter of ethnic prejudice, in fact ran deeper – the fear that American Catholics would follow orders from the Vatican above their own elected government was stoked by the Vatican’s insistence that the United States government was illegitimate, and that any true Catholic should follow the orders of the Vatican above it. Even into the twentieth century, the Catholic Church held firm belief in the divine right of kings and emperors, reflecting back its own ordained autocracy in the hierarchy of the secular world – hence they leant support to Franco and Mussolini in Spain and Italy; hence Rome supported and upheld the feudalism of pre-WWII Bavaria in which National Socialism (aka “Nazism”) flourished.
In the midst of my immersion into this particular corner of history, I decided to re-watch “The Lord of the Rings.” The movies are aesthetically superior to the books, and correct some of the story’s more egregious absences (i.e. having any significant female character, ever), but what stood out for me most starkly in this re-watch was a failing both narrative and political, and drawn directly from the books: that is, Aragorn.
Aragorn is the lost king of Gondor, rightful ruler of the realm of men. He is long-lived and wise, untempted by the power of the One Ring even as lesser men like Boromir fall under its sway. He is a great military strategist and a just and merciful lawgiver; he is, essentially, the perfect king, uniting his kingdom in glory and strength. He is Charlemagne recast in myth, and he is one of the most overt literary manifestations of Tolkien’s devout Catholicism in the entire series. Gondor’s decline, you see, is largely due to its rule over the ages by the stewards, lesser men who reach their nadir in the venal Denethor – alongside Rohan’s Grima Wormtongue, Denethor is the most villainous of the human characters in the novel, and it is no coincidence that both men’s primary sin is to usurp the role and power of kings from those who rightly hold that power. Only through the divine right of true kings can the realm of men find its way forward.
This is the truest form of Catholic rule: it stands in opposition to the devilish, nationalistic fascism of Sauron, and in opposition to the later communism of Saruman (when he overtakes the Shire, excised from the films for the sake of narrative expediency – a decision well-made, because Jesus H. Christ, that shit is loooooong). The rule of a wise and godly king, the flourishing of a Carolingian (Aragornian?) Renaissance in Gondor, also stands against democracy; to the true religious libertarian, like Tolkien and like my Facebook friend, democracy is not a bulwark against totalitarianism but just another mechanism by which such evil can be made manifest. (And that’s not a projection; both of the parties named in the previous sentence repeatedly stated as much, in writing.)
History – contemporaneous to Tolkien’s own writing – seems to have its own opinion on the matter, though. To start with, there is the small matter of democratic states actively defeating fascism in WWII, and outlasting the communism of the Cold War. There is the matter of the concentrated power of Catholicism’s divine right giving way to political nationalism, first in pre-Revolutionary France and, later, most dangerously, in interwar Germany (Hitler explicitly modeled the project of National Socialism (itself sold as an antidote the struggling, fledgling democracy of the Weimar Republic) on Catholic imperialism, publicly claiming the Third Reich to be a reincarnation of the First Reich – that is, the Holy Roman Empire). There is also an interesting gambit by Himmler, to turn Charlemagne’s massacre of 4,500 pagan Saxons near the town of Verden into a proud source of German pagan heritage and vengeance – but he was stifled when Hitler went around and said Charlemagne was a pretty sweet imperialist, and had to drop the project (the SS still met up at the memorial he commissioned, though).
The point is not to suggest that Catholicism and Nazism were political allies, or that the former gave rise to the latter – there are plenty of crackpot conspiracy theorists out there providing more than enough fodder on that front (and some of them manage to become millionaires from it – hi, Dan Brown!). Correlation does not equal causation, of course, and history is always multi-faceted and messy; humans are rarely so linear or neat as our narratives. Rather, the point is that the religious autocracy endorsed by the Church is all too easily corrupted, one way or another; hell, the religious autocracy within the Church has a hell of a history of corruption.
Sauron is the ultimate evil in “The Lord of the Rings”, and his henchman Saruman does great harm as well. Both are presented as authoritarian figures. But the antidote to such absolutism, in Tolkien’s eyes, is not representative governance but, essentially, religiously enlightened despotism – Aragorn is not explicitly Catholic, but if Tolkien has made anything clear about the books, it is that they are absolutely, 100% pervaded by Catholic symbolism and beliefs. (Seriously, that dude was hard-core.) Hence, his romantic notion that the true cure for a declining society is its rightful ruler, where rightness is determined by the will of God (acting through his instrument on Earth: the Church).
The moral simplicity of this resolution is, to the post-modern literary person, kind of mind-boggling. (“How do you stop the bad guy? With a good guy!” “How do you know he’s the good guy?” "Duh. God.“) The ultimate instrument of absolutism in the books is, of course, the One Ring, and there is some complexity to the story of its demise, even if that complexity is predicated entirely on dualism: Smeagol nonetheless fights a war within himself over what is right, and even the stalwart Frodo finds himself drawn in by temptation. The brothers Boromir and Faramir evince a bit of moral complexity as well, tempted by the dark power of the Ring, driven by their awful father’s words – but curiously absent from internal conflict is Aragorn. The ruler of men is an archetype, not an actual man, and even the fact that a muddy Viggo Mortenson is sexy as all hell cannot compensate for the narrative and intellectual void left by that authorial decision.
The counterpoint to the extreme simplicity of "The Lord of the Rings” is obvious: “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which in the title of its first volume announces its perspective on power – thrones are not a matter of divine right, but merely a game among men. To say that the series is more morally complex than Tolkien’s is like saying that I’m poorer than Bill Gates – an understatement so self-evident that it barely needs to be spoken. Because seriously, you guys, everything is more morally complex than Tolkien, or at least most things; my brother used to argue with me to read “A Song of Ice and Fire” by comparing it to “Harry Potter,” the latter of which he found egregiously morally simplistic. But having read all three series now, the most painfully didactic are not Rowling’s books, the ones marketed for children – “Harry Potter” is far from “A Song of Ice and Fire”, but it’s also significantly more nuanced than “The Lord of the Rings.” (I have a lot to say about that, but I’ll save it for a separate post, the long-awaited “Moral Universe of HP” essay that I swear will be up next on this blog.)
The details relevant to the cynicism towards power shown in “A Song of Ice and Fire” versus “The Lord of the Rings” are biographical: where JRR Tolkien was a devout British Catholic working in the first half of the twentieth century, GRR Martin is a lapsed American Catholic from the Baby Boomer generation – not a demographic known for their obeisance. But in not hewing to Catholic dogma, Martin is able instead to utilize psychological realism and to better reflect the messiness of history and politics. There is not only no Aragorn for Westeros, but it is doubtful that Aragorn would even be of any use there. (Let’s be honest: probably, Cersei would bang him and then cut his head off.)
But I am still left with a question. "The Lord of the Rings" is one of the most beloved and bestselling books in the history of the world. Why? I better understand the popularity of the movies – they are visually lush, whereas Tolkien’s prose is largely workmanlike – and, sure, who doesn’t love a mythic adventure, but… at the analytical level, the stories quickly devolve into religious fables. How can one relate to or root for figures so bland? Is there real satisfaction in the idea that the decline of men can be reversed by the restoration of a single individual to a position of absolute power? What… what is the enduring appeal?
(I’m asking for real. Please share opinions in the comments, if you’ve got ‘em…)