It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
The Lord of the Rings
Gandalf, Chapter ‘The Last Debate’.
“I did not know what was going on. I did not know anything about those things.”
Leni Riefenstahl, chronicler of the Berlin Olympics, denies knowledge of the Holocaust, New York Times, 1997
“It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Eichmann in Jerusalem
The BBC Radio 4 drama series of The Lord of the Rings, first broadcast in 1981, was a highlight of my cultural development. Its undoubted quality (the cast included Ian Holm, Bill Nighy and Robert Stephens) coincided with my own personal journey out of university, through graduation and into adulthood as it progressed through that summer. I have vivid memories of gathering with friends to listen to it in the dark, shuddering at the pattering feet of the formless Gollum, pausing whenever the Fellowship paused in the Mines of Moria, and of being moved to tears by Bilbo’s Last Song in the final episode. Ever since, it’s been a benchmark of quality for me (I loved the movies, also, more in some ways, but the radio version allows the imagination to roam freely in a very special way, and because I came to it first many of the images it inspired in my mind have remained as an alternative to Peter Jackson’s vision).
Recently, DH and I have been revisiting the series by listening to it on CD in bed, and I’m delighted to say that, unlike some works of art fondly recalled from youth it stands up to the treatment. We both felt that, whereas in the movies the vast empty landscape of New Zealand shapes Middle Earth, in the BBC version it seems more like a world peopled by different, competing civilizations, which was closer to Tolkien’s vision. Another thing we commented on is the nature of evil in LOTR as a whole. Is it a weakness, we wondered, that it’s impossible to imagine Sauron as a real person, to construct a timeline of how he became the personification of evil? The Eye of Sauron is indeed a powerful image and a menacing metaphor, and Tolkien does provide a back story of sorts, but it remains a featureless, menacing presence – a force, rather than a character.
I think this is probably deliberate. It is a feature of myth, and LOTR is the most self-consciously mythic of narratives. Myths are designed to inspire us to moral reflection and worthy, sacrificial deeds. They generally avoid shades of grey. If you are not for something, you are against. The nearest Tolkien generally gets to subtlety is showing temptation scenes, or people like Theoden falling victim to the subtle manipulation of a character in the pay of the enemy.
This is not to say that people aren’t faced with moral dilemmas. Far from it – moral challenges and choices drive the entire narrative. But once a course is decided on, relatively little time is spent on reflection. Duty predominates – the duty to become the hero that one has always had the potential to be, to face danger unflinchingly, to suffer greatly but remain true to a vow. And morality, particularly in the case of humans, is fragile; too great a temptation to power and mastery is better destroyed than used. The moral universe of the story carries the resonance of two catastrophic world wars – from the echo of the trenches as Frodo is paralysed by the sight of the rotting bodies of warriors in the Dead Marshes to the clear parallel between Isildur’s Bane and the atomic bomb.
Such moral certainties have their uses. The courage and sacrifice of the characters is often deeply moving – not only the great ones with noble destinies but the unlikely, humble sacrifice of Frodo and Samwise. I appreciate now something that I didn’t realise back in 1981 – that the most important stories aren’t always the most true to life. Tolkien wasn’t aiming at realism – he was writing myth. He had no truck with the banality of evil.
By contrast, having visited Bonn and Cologne recently, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Nazi Germany. At the moment I’m ploughing thorough Angela Lambert’s biography of Eva Braun and finding it so disturbing that I can only manage a couple of chapters at a sitting. I’ve read far more graphic accounts of cruelty, violence and horror, but this tale of a very ordinary woman who fell in love with one of history’s most notorious monsters at the age of 17 and never wavered in her devotion to him has reminded me how very ordinary and incremental evil can be. The usual unanswerable questions persist – how much did she know? Was there anything she could have said or done to change things? A woman in love, besotted by a man whose attitude to her ranges from benign neglect to downright cruelty, is unlikely to be a regime’s most trenchant critic.
Eva Braun comes over as being a good and decent woman – at least in this account. And I don’t feel comfortable with that. I would rather demonise her. Instead, reading about her endless weeks of waiting at the Berghof for something to happen, patronised by the elite Nazi wives who regarded her as a nobody, forever changing her outfits and honing her youthful body to perfection, frightened to stray far from the complex in case she should miss an unexpected phone call or visit from the Fuhrer, as the best years of her life slipped away, she arouses my pity rather than my revulsion. Hers was the lot of mistresses since time immemorial – to wait discreetly and exchange freedom for luxury. Marriage was never an option – Hitler was haunted by the risk of passing on his tainted genes to the next generation. When Magda Goebbels acted as his sophisticated hostess in Berlin, and groupies like deluded Unity Mitford stalked him, all Braun could do was suffer agonies of silent jealousy. She was never publicly acknowledged as Hitler’s consort – when she attended public events like the 1936 Olympics they did not sit together and she would be spirited away by taxi just like Elvis leaving the building twenty years later.
Politics? Hitler kept her in isolation, forbidding her to read newspapers or listen to the radio as the events of the war unfolded. He believed firmly that women had no place in matters of state, and wished to preserve her as part of a world apart where he could relax and forget his megalomanic world-building for a while. Given this, and the fact that the slightest challenge to his authority would have lost her not only his affection (which seems to have been quite genuine) but also the entire, protected world that she inhabited, is it right to castigate her for failing to influence the atrocities of his regime? If his finest generals could not dissuade him from invading Russia, the possibility that Eva Braun could have mitigated the effects of the Holocaust, assuming she knew of them, seems remote.
Yet, even having said all that, I feel tainted by the very act of making excuses for her. I do not want to think of this loathsome band of elite Nazis and their bitchy wives as human beings with impulses and desires that might resemble my own. I look at photographs of this nice-looking woman, her face suffused with devotion and joy as Hitler stands beside her,and feel that it is so much easier to grapple with the Eye of Sauron. Morality in the real world, however, is more usually a case of our boundaries of the unthinkable slowly and relentlessly contracting (a process also described with chilling realism, in relation to contemporary Russian society) in AD Miller’s Booker-longlisted novel Snowdrops).
If I ever find the time to re-read LOTR I will pay closer attention to the character of Saruman, because it seems to me that he brings us as close as we are likely to come in the world of Middle-Earth to this less definable and more human face of evil. Gandalf warns everyone to beware of the hypnotic power of Saruman’s voice, a distinction he shares with Hitler, who was a nobody until he discovered his powers of oratory. And it is Saruman who mobilises vast armies of the nameless and disaffected. It is Saruman who brings the cruelty of war home to the humble dwellings in the Shire – an important episode omitted from the movie trilogy for reasons of length.
I think one has to tread carefully when pointing out parallels between Tolkien’s vision and the times he lived through. He himself denied any allegorical intent, but in fact the defining events of the mid-twentieth century lie palimpsest-like beneath his epic narrative. And, even if the writer himself was unwilling or unable to acknowledge it, Peter Jackson’s vision of Saruman’s oratory bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Nuremburg rallies documented so persuasively by Leni Reifenstahl in Triumph of the Will.
It is a credit to Tolkien that, although LOTR reflects many of the assumptions of the command-and-control generation, he makes it clear that true morality must add empathy, pity and imagination to unquestioning obedience. Left to his own devices, Samwise Gamgee would undoubtedly have murdered or banished Gollum, long before he proved to be the unexpected saviour of the entire Quest. In Frodo’s case, it is pity and a remembered warning from Gandalf that stays his hand. In Sam’s case it is a loyalty to his master that we, in our more egalitarian times, may find alien or even offensive. It was the unimaginative, stoical loyalty of the Gamgees of England that won two world wars, but did Tolkien sometimes suggest that empathy, imagination and the ability to show compassion was the prerogative of the educated classes? Possibly, but with the example of Hitler fresh in the public mind he could, perhaps, be excused that particular mistake.