- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

The film release of the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic novel "The Lord of the Rings" has spawned a new industry of games, toys and artifacts. Bookstores, too, abound in rich displays of an extensive set of new editions of the Oxford don's tale of a war pitting good against evil and a perilous journey to destroy the source of absolute power and, so, absolute evil.
But in reading or in my case rereading after more than three decades the page-turning, suspenseful and mythologically rich epic, there is no question of Tolkien's main theme: The book is all about freedom.
The wizards, hobbits, elves, dwarves and men who make up the "Fellowship of the Ring" come, according to one of Tolkien's protagonists, "from the Free Peoples of the World." Their quest to destroy the "One Ring" is a journey that involves an inner battle to reject the temptation of absolute power. And the story's triumph is in the end an affirmation of the power of individual will. Their quest completed, a great war ended, the Hobbits return to their homeland, the shire, only to find it despoiled by the authoritarian rule of the "big man" who introduces torture, executions, censorship, crude industrialization and an inefficient system of agriculture that has transferred power from individual farmers to "gatherers" and "sharers."
This order, in the end, is overthrown, and the more environmentally sound world based on individual freedom and small business initiative is restored so that every Hobbit again is capable of "going where I please, and in my own time."
Despite this treasure trove of allusions, Tolkien always rejected the notion that "The Lord of the Rings" was an allegory. In a foreword written in 1966, he declared "I think many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."
Writing between 1936 and 1949, Tolkien could not have helped but reflect some of the forces and events that had shaped his daily life. But in the end, as a scholar of antiquity, he transcended them. In rereading, the book clearly is not a simple allegory for a fixed set of past human events. Rather it is a fictional elaboration of basic values and ideas about human nature and natural rights.
Indeed, the ideas of freedom omnipresent throughout the novel take on different meanings through the freedom that successive generations of leaders have exercised in applying their world to the book.
Thus, its first small circle of post-war readers in the mid-1950s were tempted to see it as an allegory for World War II. The young growing up at the start of the Cold War might have seen in the alliance of the "free people of the world" an echo of the Achesonian idea of NATO and in the epic-ending struggle against authoritarian rule, the revolt in 1956 of the peoples of Eastern Europe against communism.
Reissued to a broader readership in the mid-1960s, the Ring was appropriated and to a degree distorted by the anti-war counterculture in this country. Its positive characters were seen as alternatives to corrupted and entrenched power. Graffiti and buttons pronounced "Gandalf lives," in honor of the epic's good wizard, and "Frodo lives," in honor of its diminutive Hobbit-hero. The 1960s counterculture focused on the allure of "pipe-weed," which it interpreted as something distinctly different than the epic's staid and conservative author. The counterculture circled the novel's powerful, almost-pantheistic passages on nature contained in the chapters about the elvish woods of Lothlorien and focused their approving attention on the lore of the walking trees called Ents. For the anti-war movement and for children of the atomic age, the Ring was seen as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, and the quest for its destruction became a metaphor for nuclear disarmament.
Each age has reinterpreted the Ring and so, too, today can it be a metaphor for our war with terrorism. Like the events told in the Ring epic, we believe that the unspeakable events of September 11 have placed us in direct conflict with pure evil. As in the novel, prosperous, open and at times naive societies awaken one day to confront a fully formed threat to their security. And, as in Tolkien's "War of the Ring," we are in a battle that has above all united a coalition of peoples from the North and West against peoples or people from the South and East. Nor will readers awash in TV images of Afghans celebrating in the defeat of the foreign-imposed domination of the Taliban be unmoved by the Ring's pithy summary of a patriotism confronting foreign domination: "This isn't your country, and you're not wanted."
Applicable to our time as to past generations, the lasting message of "The Lord of the Rings" is one of faith in the triumph of good over evil, of the virtue of freedom, and of the power and responsibility of free will (which the religious Catholic Tolkien understood as God's great gift to humankind). All this suggests why the message of the Ring epic and its "Two Towers" are a welcome antidote for those of us reeling from the tragedy of the terrorist destruction of our Twin Towers.

Adrian Karatnycky is president of Freedom House, an organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties around the world.


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