Tolkien’s Heroes: Conservative to the Core

Sam Gamgee, the most ordinary of Tolkien’s major characters – and the most heroic, in the end.

One of the clearest differences between conservatives and liberals is how we envision our heroes. Conservatives love tough, enigmatic, good-upholding heroes, heroes that do not dither or worry about whether they are doing the right thing. They have internalized ethics. They are prepared for disaster, and whether they are ordinary guys like Todd Beamer or trained military men like Glen Doherty, they do not quail in the face of death.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to take Everyman or even victims and elevate them to hero status regardless of real accomplishments, the main criteria being that they fit a certain story. Their heroes are literary characters like Garp or Randle McMurphy, or real people like Sandra Fluke or Ted Kennedy. One cannot imagine any of these figures “taking arms against a sea of troubles,” but it’s certainly conceivable for any one of them to stand at a podium and give a good speech.

This particular vision of heroism has led to cases like MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes stating he’s uncomfortable with calling American soldiers heroes. Why? Because soldiers take action, instead of talking action? Because soldiers act heroically as individuals, rather than standing at the front of a mob yelling, “Let’s get ’em!”? Because soldiers rise up out of complete anonymity, make a difference, and then disappear back into obscurity (unless they die)?

Conservatives believe heroes make a difference. Liberals see them as victims of fate, icons of an entire class of people just like them – symbols, not people.

Tolkien’s heroes are definitely in the conservative mold, as most popular literary heroes are. Some are traditional action heroes.  Thorin Oakenshield is a mighty king in his own right and a well-known warrior and leader. Gandalf roamed Middle-Earth for a couple of thousand years doing good and working toward the ends of the White Council. Strider/Aragorn has devoted his entire adult life to quietly keeping men and hobbits safe, even though they regard him with suspicion and distrust. (Doesn’t that remind you of the liberal attitude toward our men in uniform?)

The more interesting heroes, however, are those who were ordinary men and hobbits who rose to meet deadly challenges. The hobbits, of course, are first on that list, especially Frodo and Sam. All were raised in comfort, in a safe homeland protected from danger and evil by the Rangers, yet bravely persevered even when all seemed lost to do what needed doing. There were, however, many lesser characters throughout Tolkien’s works that fit this mold. Bard the Bowman of Esgaroth slew Smaug, then refused to rule over his fellow citizens when they asked him in favor of upholding the government as it stood. Eowyn, the niece of Theoden King of Rohan, refused to stay behind and instead traveled seemingly to her death, where she fulfilled a destiny she was not even aware of. Treebeard and his people are roused into a passion when they realize everything they love is threatened by Saruman, and they march into fire to stop him, some of them dying terribly.

In each case, Tolkien’s Everyman heroes follow a pattern: they are more or less ordinary people of great character; they face death or worse, and succeed; they refuse honors and accolades and instead pass back into ordinary life. These, it would seem, are the sorts of people Tolkien admires most. We need more heroes in real life like these.

Celebrating Tolkien’s Atavism

Fun fact: Tolkien’s opus Lord of the Rings was utterly rejected for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961, at least partly because the Swedish translation was abysmal.

In honor of Hobbit Day (September 22), I’m devoting this week’s posts to J.R.R. Tolkien and his worldview and philosophy. While his works have been embraced by a leftist society, the truth is both he and his close friend C.S. Lewis were conservative lions. This was largely due to the atavism shared by both.

Consider this, from Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien:

C. S. Lewis too was a conservative and called progressivism “the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belaboured as the strumpet Fortune .

Progressivism is “chronological snobbery”, he wrote, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood (Surprised by Joy, pp. 207—8).”

Progressivism is arrogant, for we know the past far better than we know the future: “We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility?… A story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood until you have heard the whole of it” (Christian Reflections, p. 106).

In simpler terms, progressivism ignores the past in favor of moving forward. It is as if we have no anchor in the past, but rather one in the future that is inexorably drawing us forward. It is backward thinking, oddly enough, in that it gets it exactly wrong: we know what happened from the past and can learn from it in order to change the future. Progressivism seeks to eradicate the past from our future by claiming that we can know the future but we cannot truly know the past.

Progressivism permeates the liberal movement today, from literature to politics and everything between. Political progressivism generally rejects the ways of the past as something that was created by old white men who owned slaves or ruled countries or in some other way dominated other people. Progressive religion rejects the hierarchy that has developed over decades or centuries or millenia in favor of promoting things that address the evils its proponents see before their eyes. The literary brother of progressivism, deconstructionism, rejects history and seeks reality in experience alone (which is silly, I think, since history is just collective experience.) Progressives, in short, tend to reject the idea that they are “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Instead, they try to encompass the whole of wisdom inside themselves.

Now, the giants weren’t always right. But history proves – over and over – that listening to her lessons is a valuable way to prevent missteps in the future. While repairing the evil of poverty by giving people money may address this moment’s issue, it does not prevent poverty in the future; only by teaching people self-motivation and self-respect through denying more than the bare basics can you help them overcome poverty themselves.

There is another reason Tolkien looked to history and had little but scorn for the progressive movement. Like many men his age, he’d had a difficult time during World War I; he stated himself that only one of his close friends was still alive in 1918. He saw firsthand the horrors of war exacerbated by technology and inhumanity. After such an experience, it is perhaps reasonable that he rejected the progressive’s hopes that technology and progress would eliminate all human problems in the future, looking instead to the past, a time that was perhaps difficult but that he’d survived, for his inspiration.

(It is particularly interesting to me to note that of the early 20th century speculative fiction writers, those who wrote science fiction tended to be progressives and believed that the future could be shaped into a perfect utopia, whereas those who wrote fantasy and horror looked to the past for their inspiration. Today’s science fiction is largely dominated by military science fiction, which is libertarian in tone, and fantasy is dominated by environmentalism, progressive in tone.  The story can be changed.)

Honoring Our Heroes

Please bear with me as I step away from literature for a moment, this one day.

It is, once again, 9/11. We have routed the Taliban, who helped evil men plan and perpetrate the murder of 3,000 innocents. Al Qaeda has been dispersed, though like any infection each living cell has become the center of a new cancer. We have seen the death of Osama bin Laden, the sick and twisted man who masterminded Al Qaeda. We are winning this war, though others may follow behind.

We have also seen the deaths of over 6,500 American servicemen and women, more than half of whom were in their 20s – young adults leaving behind families and the unfulfilled potential of a good life. One of those young men was under my brother’s command in Afghanistan, killed by an IED when an inexperienced officer took their vehicle through the wrong area. Another was a friend’s brother, a young officer shot by an Iraqi sniper when he stepped outside the safety of his tank. My husband and my oldest son have both been deployed to the Middle East multiple times in the last ten years. Millions of Americans have good reason to remember 9/11, as they have been directly and indirectly affected by that day and its lengthy aftermath.

You will hear media talking heads try to define these young warriors as victims: victims of failed policies, mistaken choices, terrorists. They are not victims. Not a single one is a victim. They are all heroes, the people in our country who stepped forward to say NO! Not another American will be involuntarily lost to savagery.

Take a moment today to remember the innocent victims lost on 9/11. Their fates were not their choice, and the monsters who stole their futures are surely being punished by a fair God.

Then take a second, separate moment to celebrate the courage and sacrifice made by our heroes, the 6,500 and more who gave their lives for our freedom, the millions who served and were prepared to make that sacrifice, and the supportive families these millions left behind. Our soldiers are heroes, not victims.

Let’s never, never forget that.

Storytelling and the Empty Chair

Commenters at all levels of sophistication have criticized Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” speech. I confess to being confused at their confusion, if in fact that confusion is legitimate and not feigned. Eastwood was drawing on a long history of stage symbolism; the empty chair is quite common on stage and in ceremony as a symbol of something that is absent.

In Jewish tradition, for instance, an empty chair is used to represent loss or sorrow, the guest who is not present at the table. When the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot” is staged, directors often use empty chairs to represent those who should be present but who are absent, or to represent Godot, who of course never shows up. Detective dramas use empty chairs to symbolize the murder victim, and television and movie dramas of all sorts use them to symbolize absent loved ones: children, spouses, and others. Clint Eastwood is a master of dramatic art; certainly he was not ignorant of the history of this piece of stagecraft.

Of course, as an actor, Mr. Eastwood may have had a different empty chair in mind: the theater seat that should be filled by a listening and engaged person but is instead conspicuously empty. What better metaphor is there for Obama’s complete disengagement with most voters? At least this way, Eastwood gained an audience (I use the term intentionally) with the President.

(For that matter, Obama may be a bit concerned about empty chairs in theatrical settings himself – the ones that loom in his nightmares at his DNC acceptance speech, haunting him with the cricket-chirp of an empty stadium. An empty chair talking to empty seats – I like the image!)

Symbols have power. It is easy to make fun of them,, particularly the simplest ones, as the liberal left is furiously doing. But symbols are more than “just words,” and they are more powerful than any thousand words Obama has ever spoken. A symbol used properly is a conduit directly to the human soul. The best symbols are universal, easily interpreted within a story by just about anyone even when the audience is not intending to interpret at all. Judging by the empty-chair meme he seems to have initiated, I think Mr. Eastwood’s symbol may have touched quite a few people right where it counts.

Now a writing note: writers, consider how powerful Eastwood’s thirteen or so minutes of addressing an empty chair has been to the story surrounding the election. He used simple words, simple ideas, a shtick that has been around since before Vaudeville reigned – and he created what may be an immortal moment, a point upon which the future of our country may hinge. (For I think Eastwood’s empty-chair speech may be identified as that moment when Obama most clearly began losing this election.) The power of clear communication, drama, and a storyline, all displayed for us in a brief free-form performance by a master of the storytelling art: this is a gift on many levels we should appreciate, examine, and learn from.

Book Review: Michael Isenberg’s Full Asylum


It’s hard to know quite what to say about this book. Was it good? No, it was outstanding. What genre is it? Um, comedy/suspense/satire/men’s action/political commentary, if you must nail me down. Oh, and romance. And, as we Southerners call it, rasslin’, the performance-art version of wrestling. Michael Isenberg’s Full Asylum is, like many independent books, in a genre of its own and must be read to be appreciated.

Gimbel O’Hare is Everyman, a brilliant programmer and out-of-the-box thinker who has been trapped by the accident of his sex in the slow lane of corporate advancement. He’s also, like most men, thoroughly confused by women, particularly women in this day of Third Wave Feminism. Because of an unfortunate comment referencing his obsession, the debonair secret-agent character John Dunn, he finds himself inveigled in a sexual harassment case at work that nearly costs his job. Because he goes over the head of his brown-nosing Peter Principle boss to suggest a cost-saving measure that would eliminate his entire department, he finds himself in an escalating battle to keep his job, his sanity, and his life.

I don’t want to say too much more about the book because the surprises Isenberg tosses out left and right are just so much fun. I’m a sucker for eccentric characters, and there are some real gems in this book, particularly Brownie, the old hippie with a surprising love for dangerous technological tinkering, and Cheri Tarte, an absolutely priceless and gorgeous caricature of an Amazonian wrestler-chick with a very sharp mind. Some of the story structure is modern epistolarian, including excerpts of television, movies, and notes to move the plot forward, and these parallel tales enhance the main story very nicely. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this story is there’s not one moment in the book that I can recall skipping over or getting distracted. It’s a rather long novel, and I literally could not put it down.

The single flaw was the tendency of some characters for, to use a TV Tropes concept, author filibuster.  Isenberg does it rarely, and it’s always from the mouth of Cheri or O’Hare, but it did throw me out of the story a bit. The mini-lecture was always conservative libertarian in nature, so I glossed over them, but a liberal might have a different opinion! This flaw was more than made up for, however, by the plot content before and after each; the lectures seemed almost to be a means to slow a plot down that was careening nearly out of control.

I think every single conservative and libertarian out there with a shred of humor would love this book. If you love James Bond, Kurt Vonnegut, and Douglas Adams and would love to see the three blended together in a slightly-dystopian, completely-hilarious book, you MUST read Full Asylum. I’m not kidding – get it.

(Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book but no other compensation.)

Liberty Island Magazine

If you want to see more conservative fiction outlets, consider checking this out and maybe even pledging them a little money. Liberty Island Magazine will eventually be publishing conservative- and liberty-leaning fiction. I like their philosophy.

You can read more about them at their crowdfunding pitch page. Spread it around; they only have a couple more days in their campaign, and a few bucks from a few people could make all the difference.

 

Update: The Liberty Island guys have started a second phase of crowdfunding, so if you’re interested, they still need assistance. By the way, I have no association with Liberty Island outside of a single email exchange. I just love the idea and want to support it however I can.

Book Review: Kia Heavey’s “Night Machines”

Kia Heavey’s Night Machines is a difficult-to-classify novel (more or less paranormal suspense with strong romantic elements)  that asks the reader to really think about what marital fidelity is. Among the many surprising things in this novel is, despite its very Christian theme, it is not a Christian book at all. It is, instead, a very female book, one that takes the darkest and most private thoughts of a woman and lays them bare.

In Night Machines, Maggie Moore and her husband, police officer Rowan, are undergoing a transformation in their lives. Maggie, after devoting herself to her family as a stay-at-home mother for five years, is re-entering the workforce; Rowan has been presented with a difficult case, the murder of a little girl, that haunts him when he looks at their children,  Hazel, 5, and Charlie, 2. Maggie is additionally presented with a terrible temptation: her new boss, a wealthy, handsome, and charming man who desires nothing more than to put her at the center of his life. Both Maggie and Rowan turn inward to deal with these problems rather than to one another, a reaction that begins to tear them apart.

When Rowan begins to work double shifts in hopes of solving the murder, Maggie is left even more alone. She creates a rich fantasy life with her boss at the center of an imagined affair. Soon she begins dreaming about it, wonderful lush erotic dreams that fulfill her in ways her husband is currently unable to. This seems like an innocent solution to a complex problem – until her dreams begin to turn real.

Night Machines was a difficult book for me to read, largely because Kia Heavey manages to make the story both realistic and personal. Every woman has this dark fantasy life within her – heck, that’s why Fifty Shades of Gray is such an enormous success. It is uncomfortable to stand back and look at that fantasy, questioning whether it does more damage than good to your life and mental health. Kia shows us how that fantasy life can twist and turn against you, warping into a monster that controls you. While Night Machines‘ monster turned out to be quite real, it did not have to be. Maggie’s fantasy pulled her away from her husband and family simply because it was more attractive to her than the daily grind. Our fantasies do the same for us, whether it’s the wonderful dream of hitting the lottery or imagining the road not taken. When our fantasy lives take root and shape our waking thoughts, we are no longer living in the present real world, but instead are a step removed from ourselves, cheating us and those we love by weakening the ties we have and sapping our desires for real things.

Night Machines is set primarily in modern Connecticut, largely in a big pharmaceutical company, and Ms. Heavey does a remarkable job of evoking the unique atmosphere of this world (I once worked at Pfizer in Connecticut – she captured it perfectly.)

I highly recommend this book to women who want to understand themselves better and to men who are brave enough to look at a darker side of women. Unlike many self-published novels, Night Machines is not only well-written but carefully crafted to evoke some very specific feelings. I found it to be not particularly frightening, but haunting, leaving behind questions about me that I’m not certain I can ever answer. I very much hope that this is only the first of many books from Kia Heavey.

(Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book but no other compensation.)

Fiction Books for Conservatives

I was trolling the web on a search for great conservative fiction books – or rather, lists of conservative fiction books that have been compiled by people more knowledgeable than me – and came across a gem. It’s an older list, dating back to 2009, curated from reader suggestions by author John J. Miller (The First Assassin, The Big Scrum). It was later published in NRO.

If Mr. Miller gives me permission, I’ll reproduce the list here in a later edit (that way it won’t be lost to the 404 monster); for now, check out the list, and the post that gave birth to it.

Michael Isenberg Asks, “Who Is Henry Galt?”

Over on his Full Asylum website, author Michael Isenberg posted an interesting review of Garet Garrett’s The Driver, published in 1922. He does a great job of linking the history recounted in this book with what we can all see happening around us today. An excerpt:

The Driver begins amid the economic Panic of 1893. While everyone else is convinced the country is bankrupt, Wall Street speculator Henry Galt is certain it’s rich. He takes advantage of the crisis to buy up shares of the Great Midwestern Railroad at bargain prices. Making himself chairman, he cuts costs, reforms a corrupt procurement system, and takes over other railroads. The resulting powerhouse makes Galt spectacularly wealthy and breathes new life into the American economy. But the pugnacious Galt makes enemies along the way. Unable to defeat him on the level playing field of the market, they turn to the government to take him down.

Sounds familiar, no? Go read it – he makes some very interesting points. History does repeat itself, but it’s amazing how plain this truism is in the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

Michael Isenberg is the author of  Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on Amazon.com.