Lord of the Rings is an enduring metaphor for the cyclical struggle against a “destroyer who would devour all.” So it’s not surprising that after November’s US presidential election, many turned to LoTR for solace—and inspiration.
As the first weeks of Donald Trump’s administration unfolded, the parallels with Middle Earth weren’t exactly lost on us. However, as notorious LoTR geek Stephen Colbert demonstrated in his hilarious takedown of Stephen Bannon likening Trump voters to “working-class Hobbits,” we should proceed with caution when connecting the dots between Mordor and the White House.
Here are a few examples that hopefully stand up a bit better than Bannon’s.
Lord of the Rings teaches us that true evil works in the shadows, manipulating others until its hold on power becomes absolute. In this metaphor, Sauron (chief strategist Bannon) preys on Saruman’s (president Trump) thirst for power and vanity until the wizard becomes his slave. Meanwhile, lesser minions such as Grima Wormtongue (counselor Kellyanne Conway) are sent out to seed the poisonous words of dissent among the race of men. Those who are corrupted finally become so trapped in their web of lies that they are no longer able to recognize the light, and finally become wretched creatures worthy of pity. So while Trump opponents might be tempted to focus our collective anger upon obvious, loud, and visible targets, we’d do well to remind ourselves that by doing so, we might actually be serving the Dark Lord’s purpose.
“Courage is found in unlikely places,” the elf Gildor tells Frodo in The Return of the King. Indeed, throughout Tolkein’s epic struggles, it’s not always the wise and god-like elves or the rich and strong dwarves who are first to step up to the plate. This is a reminder that, as we’ve seen with the rather timid efforts of industry leaders and tech billionaires so far, waiting for the powerful to save the day is not a good bet. While the mighty huddle in their ivory towers and fortresses, it has been women, minorities, and rogue scientists who have so far stepped forward to lead the resistance.
The LoTR story can also help us to understand how the concept of “Make America Great Again” is doomed to fail in the eyes of those who most want to believe in it. Not because the country is incapable of greatness, but because the idealized place and time in history where these Americans want to return is an entirely fictional construct.
Even if it were possible to go back to an era when America was “great,” we are now different people with different expectations. Tolkien recognized this concept as it applied to the struggles of soldiers returning from the battlefields of the World War I. Frodo’s inability to fit back in with the reality of the Shire when he finally returns home is a metaphor for these soldiers.
While Frodo tells Sam, “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me,” he’s talking about how he no longer feels that he belongs. Sam chooses to create a new reality for himself with his new family; he doesn’t forget, but he moves on to a different kind of happiness. The lesson learned is that instead of chasing after an imaginary past, we should focus on building a more hopeful future.
Ultimately we can take solace in the fact that Tolkien’s tale is one of enduring hope against all odds. In the Fellowship of the Ring, we’re told, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” There is hope for us yet.