- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

There once was a professor an "expert in cultural studies, race and slavery" they called him, whatever that might mean at the University of Warwick in the city of Coventry in England.
One day the professor saw that a beautiful story had enchanted the people, and he was very angry, for the story made the people feel glad of themselves, and this, the professor believed, must never be.
So Professor Stephen Shapiro has started telling anyone who will interview him that J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is "an epic rooted in racism"; an attempt to make bigotry seem "innocent"; an allegory in which the "good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde"; and a reflection of "longstanding Anglo-European anxieties about being overwhelmed by non-European peoples."
He also claims Tolkien specifically intended his work to warn the English against growing waves of immigration from Asia and the Caribbean, despite the fact that the Ring trilogy was conceived in the trenches of World War I and completed by 1949, while colonial immigration to Britain did not begin until years afterward.
Discovering that certain "neo-Nazi groups" are thrilling to the "white supremacist" message of the trilogy, Mr. Shapiro further demands, "If readers of Tolkien feel that this is wrong and the books are not racist, encourage them to challenge these groups."
Those who decline to take the professor's bait may instead wish to clarify a few points for him:
(1) The beauty of fantasy is that it is whatever it becomes within your own heart. Fantasy cannot be "hijacked" by some "illegitimate" group, because if it symbolizes something to you, that's all she wrote, my son. If neo-Nazis discern racial symbolism in the Ring trilogy, they are entitled to do so.
After all, Mr. Shapiro has discerned the exact same symbolism, although evidently from the opposite point of view, since he seems to favor a Europe "overwhelmed by non-European populations." And his remarks such as "The Orcs are a motley dark-skinned mass, akin to tribal Africans or Aborigines" reveal much more about his own heart than they do about Tolkien's.
(2) Europeans traditionally exalt light "fairness" over darkness. They are a Northern culture, so it's not surprising. Other peoples are proud to nurture other aesthetics, always based (again unsurprisingly) upon their own characteristics and situation.
(3) Allegory is a one-to-one correspondence between things, a sort of roman a clef that functions like "Pilgrim's Progress" to instruct by indirection.
With symbolism, however, the correspondences become far more complex, because a transformation occurs in the heart between symbol and reality.
This transformation is often impossible to plot in rational terms. The closer to the allegorical a story lies, the simpler and more simplistic it is; the closer to the symbolic, the more richly open to interpretation.
(4) With the "Ring" trilogy, we have symbolism whose form is indeed purely and ecstatically European, a quest saga of the European soul in all its varied splendor. The European Union is currently exploring what "European" means (and does not mean) and what Europeans have (and do not have) in common sure to prove an exciting experiment in the combination of volatile compounds.
The joke has it that a perfect European combines the charm of the Germans, the cuisine of the British, the modesty of the French, the punctuality of the Italians, the extravagance of the Dutch, the humility of the Spanish and the humor of the Swedes. Rearranging the attributes instantly brings Europe's greatness into focus: Italian charm, French cuisine, Dutch modesty, German punctuality, Spanish extravagance, Swedish humility, British humor.
More jewels can easily be added to the crown of Europe: the "Gemutlichkeit" of the Austrians, the all-too-human soulfulness of the Russians, the spit and polish of the Swiss, the stubbornness of the Poles, the gentleness of the Danes, the long memory of the Greeks, the lyricism of the Irish.
(5) The Europeans and their descendants worldwide invented the modern world, which is the reason European norms and forms predominate wherever one turns. The cultures of Europe have at least as much right to celebrate themselves as any others do. Is there no people or culture that Mr. Shapiro prefers above all others and would defend, right or wrong? To dismiss the fear of losing one's culture as "racial anxiety" is to say that certain peoples have no right to want to survive or thrive.
(6) Symbolism taken to heart inspires you to respond in certain ways to your environment. It is a spiritual resource drawn upon to guide action as the world changes around you. When in "The Two Towers" Aragorn replies to King Theoden's despair with the stirring words, "Open war is upon you, whether you wish to 'risk' it or not," the heart hears that aggression must not be ignored in the vain hope it will simply go away. When the bloodied remnant of Helm's Deep defenders mount their horses and break out through the armies overrunning the keep, the heart sees that one must never give up or wait for the battle to come to him, but meet it head on.
Such messages are universal, and for this reason the symbolic content of the "Ring" trilogy belongs to all lands and all peoples. It embodies the hard-won Iron Age wisdom of every race: the distinction between power and true kingship, the unnerving sense of the "old spirits" of the Earth somehow "departing" as man becomes self-aware, the failing magic of shamanism, the terrible threat of new weapons forged by enemies who have discovered iron smelting: the "ring of power."
Sir Walter Scott said of "the man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land": "For him no Minstrel raptures swell." "The Lord of the Rings" is one such Minstrel rapture in a world that needs all the song, inspiration, nobility, beauty and ideals all the fantasy it can get.

Marian Kester Coombs is a free-lance writer.

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