"Rings of Power" Speaks to a War-Hungry AudienceRoundup
tags: J.R.R. Tolkien, popular culture, television
Daniel Bessner is an Associate Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the co-host of the podcast American Prestige and the author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.
The Lord of the Rings is a story born of war. J.R.R. Tolkien, the Oxford philologist from whose mind it emerged, first began writing the mythic histories that told the story of “Middle-Earth” after returning home from World War I’s western front, where he experienced the Battle of the Somme and succumbed to “trench fever.” He published The Hobbit in 1937 as Adolf Hitler was preparing his Blitzkrieg. Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings—a saga eventually released as three books: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—soon thereafter, and during World War II sent early fragments of the saga to his son Christopher while the latter was stationed in South Africa. Finally, Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings during the early Cold War, when it seemed to many that humankind stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
The echoes of war are heard throughout Tolkien’s epic. From Gandalf’s famous invocation to the Balrog, “You cannot pass,” which mirrors French General Robert Nivelle’s order to his troops that “you shall not let them [the Germans] pass,” to the many battles that pepper the trilogy, war permeates Middle-Earth. Even the story’s premise, which pits Good Hobbits against Evil Sauron, reflects the Manichean politics of the mid–twentieth century.
And The Lord of the Rings’s popularity has always been linked to war. In the United States, the books first became mass phenomena in the mid-1960s, when, according to The Washington Post, anti–Vietnam War hippies were attracted to the “parahipp[y]” Hobbits, “who live, smoke and eat peacefully.” Indeed, by 1967, “Frodo Lives” buttons were found alongside anti–Vietnam War buttons on college and high school campuses.
In my own youth, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy became a quintessential “global war on terror” saga. Released between 2001 and 2003, the films seemed to dramatize the Bush-era “with us or against us” struggle against radical Islamic terrorism/Islamofascism/jihadism/what-have-you. As The Washington Post wrote in 2002, when The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in December 2001, “conservatives saw it as an allegory of America’s new struggle against terrorism”; after all, “Osama bin Laden bears more than a passing resemblance to Tolkien’s villainous Sauron.” Eventually, Jackson’s trilogy grossed about $3 billion, with the final entry, The Return of the King, receiving the Oscars for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, as well as the eight other awards for which it was nominated.
The Lord of the Rings, in other words, emerged from war and has historically been interpreted to reflect U.S. attitudes toward war. And this remains true in 2022.
Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings show, The Rings of Power, is unique in the canon. Unlike the previously mentioned products, this new show does not tell tales found in Tolkien’s original epic but instead embodies something novel in this age of Hollywood intellectual property. But to understand why, we need to take a brief detour.
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