The Two Towers' wishful technophobia.

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Jan. 8 2003 1:50 PM

Drop the Gun

The Two Towers' wishful technophobia.

A Luddite's worldview captured in f/x
A Luddite's worldview captured in f/x

Without digital technology, there's no way a visually convincing film version of The Lord of the Rings— like the one we now have—could ever have been made. The irony is that J.R.R. Tolkien was a pure Luddite, a man deeply skeptical of modernity, horrified by "mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic," and nostalgic for the English countryside before it had been scarred by the railroad and the car. The sight of the digitized figure of Gollum in The Two Towers would undoubtedly have appalled him.

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Tolkien's hatred of technology was central to his conception of Middle Earth. The good hobbits are classic old English villagers, content to cultivate small plots of land and smoke their pipes, while the noble men are horse people and farmers. The evil wizard Saruman, by contrast, is a kind of demented Henry Ford, with a "mind of metal and wheels," while Tolkien writes of the orcs—who are born fully-grown from a monster-making assembly line of Saruman's design—that "wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them."

Most of the time, Tolkien's technophobia is harmless enough, manifesting itself as a kind of quaintly radical environmentalism, as in the scene in The Two Towers where the giant Ents (treelike creatures who care for the forests) destroy Saruman's "factory." But elsewhere its effects are more dubious, particularly when it comes to Tolkien's depiction of war. The climax of The Two Towers is the battle of Helm's Deep, where a small force of men and elves are besieged by an army of orcs who outnumber them 10 to 1. And what the film's version of that battle makes clear is that Tolkien's reflexive distrust of technology led him to a profound misrepresentation—and misunderstanding—of the roots of Western military success.

Now, to accept this argument you'll have to accept that, in some vague sense, the men and hobbits of Middle Earth are stand-ins for the English (and, more generally, Westerners), while the orcs represent the enemies of freedom and light. This has become a hot debate topic of late, with some critics decrying what they see as Tolkien's racism and pro-war propaganda and others insisting that the orcs are just orcs. Without stepping too deeply into this, and recognizing that Tolkien disclaimed any allegorical purpose for his books, it seems to me impossible to watch The Two Towers and not be reminded of those battles in British history—Crécy, Agincourt, Inkerman, Rorke's Drift, or for that matter the Battle of Britain—where small contingents of brave Englishmen successfully repelled wave after wave of enemy troops.

There is, though, a profound difference between Helm's Deep and all those real-life battles. At Helm's Deep the men and elves get by purely on quickness of wit and strength of arm, while the orcs deploy all manner of newfangled technology—explosives, catapults, siege ladders. The victory of men is a victory of the heart over the machine. In the real world, though, technological superiority—and in particular the ability to turn it to pragmatic military ends—has historically been the engine of British, and Western, military dominance. The longbow at Crécy and Agincourt, the Enfield rifle and massed artillery at Inkerman, the Martini-Henry rifle at Rorke's Drift, and radar during the Battle of Britain ensured victory for outnumbered armies. And this paradigm remains in place today, as evidenced by the Gulf War and the battle of Mogadishu. Of course, Western armies have also benefited from excellent training and discipline. But the machine played a central role in every real Helm's Deep in Western history.

On a deeper level, the machine has also been the engine of the West's economic vitality. And in that sense, it's Tolkien's Luddism that defines The Lord of the Rings as not allegorical but escapist, since it's an attempt to imagine England without the very things that made England possible. It may be comforting to think that bravery and a good heart are enough to repel the Dark Lord. But having guns that fire 4,000 rounds a minute makes a difference, too.

James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.

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