Cognition & Reality

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Middle-Earth: Not A Workers’ Paradise

Filed under: Film — drtone @ 8:08 am

Watching all three parts of the movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” in the course of a week to celebrate my new A/V equipment, the implicit social commentary dismayed me. Written in the 1950s, the LOTR novels supposedly reflect JRR Tolkien’s experience of World War II, although the author denied that. In any case, the story assumes as good a monarchical society, in which kings have not only divine rights, but also magical powers. In the films, the social structure of the forces of good is highly stratified, not dissimilar from the British society in which Tolkien lived, which had entered a painful period of transition in the immediate post-war period. It’s been many years since I read the books, and there is therefore a danger of confusing the two, but I can only assume that the films, if anything, soft-pedal the evident class distinctions between, say, Sam and Frodo. Nevertheless, the agrarian societies of Middle-earth appear to depend on their class structure.

The evident charm with which the LOTR world is imbued caused me to wonder about the attractions of the sword-and-sorcery genre, which typically references the forms of the Middle Ages. It is almost inevitable that any sympathetic portrayal of a pre-industrial society will also be sympathetic to social arrangements that place one group above another based on accidents of birth. Much of the romance in these fantasies comes, moreover, from the more personal form that warfare takes. OTOH, there is the “fun” of a world in which people hack each other to death, rather than shooting each other or blowing each other up. OTOH, there is the comfort of a society in which everyone knows his or her place.

Tolkien, who was born in South Africa, rejected both racism and Nazi racialism. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to understand the conflict between the good beings of Middle-earth and the evil ones as essentially one between races. Regardless of Tolkien’s intentions, the racial divide is clear in Peter Jackson’s films. The orcs are horrible deformed non-humans or sub-humans, as are many of their allies. Jackson also manages to dress  the men who side with the Dark Lord as Arabs, with turbans, etc.

One further note: Although the production values of the LOTR films are generally the highest, there are numerous scenes in which it is clear that the filmmakers took the easy, cheap way out in portraying the hobbits and the Gimli the Dwarf. In many scenes, the hobbits are shot from the back clearly doubled by children. And when they are on horseback, one often sees only a Dwarf helmet or other headgear, suggesting the presence of a character, but without a face. I don’t remember noticing this when I first saw the films back in the early part of the decade, nor when I watched them as videos a few years later. Now it’s glaring and distracting.


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