Orwell Versus Tolkien: Worldviews

1984 LOTR Cover

Post by nebcanuck, Stephen’s son: Orwell Versus Tolkien is a series of posts which seek to compare key components of the worldviews presented in Orwell’s 1984 and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by considering excerpts in tandem.

Having just finished George Orwell’s 1984 Thursday night (okay, technically Friday morning…), I felt an intriguing desire to reread Lord of the Rings. This is an interesting circumstance for a couple reasons. First, as a bit of a side note, I’m surprised I had never felt the urge to read 1984 in the past, since it is considered a staple of political thought and I am studying politics at Trent University. Also, I don’t often reread books, so the desire to read The Lord of the Rings a second time is a testament to the degree of love I have for the work, as well as the power of my thoughts concerning 1984. But the real reason behind this desire, I believe, is because both books consider very similar topics — albeit in a very different manner — but that each discusses those topics from a different worldview. Orwell’s thoughts are very much derived from a natural humanist viewpoint, while Tolkien’s writing conveys a deeply Christian understanding on issues. It is this difference in worldview that drew me to The Lord of the Rings in response to 1984, and which has inspired this series of posts.

Before considering specific issues, this first post is designed to establish a mutual understanding of what is meant by each worldview. Consider this passage from 1984:

“I know that you will fail. There is something in the universe — I don’t know, some spirit, some principle — that you will never overcome.”

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”

“No.”

“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”

“I don’t know. The spirit of Man.”

“And do you consider yourself a man?”

“Yes.”

“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.” His manner changed and he said more harshly: “And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”

“Yes, I consider myself morally superior.”

1984 contains a powerful interplay between a natural humanist perspective on morality, and an entirely subjective perspective on morality. It was very well done, and without giving too much away, it’s sufficient to say that the subjective perspective wins out in the book, at least as far as maintaining power is concerned (which you could see coming from the start — it’s a dystopic novel). This passage provides a perfect example of what I will refer to as “natural humanism”. This philosophy consists of two components. First, it is naturalist, in that it denies the existence of God, or at least it denies his presence and interference in human affairs. Second, it is humanist, in that it attempts to place some value on human life by depending on empirical commonalities. Although the subjective moralists win in the book, the emotions of the reader are clearly drawn out in favour of Winston the Humanist, who believes in freedom and the goodness of human nature.

This particular scene demonstrates both aspects effectively, although both are at constant play throughout the novel. First, the concept that God is the central figure of the story is undermined, with the statement by Winston that he does not believe that God exists. This is in fact a bit misleading, as Winston entertained the idea of God earlier in the book, stating that he sometimes believes it, sometimes doesn’t. However, what is clear is that even if a God does exist, he doesn’t intervene in human affairs, doesn’t stand up for Winston, and any morality is not intrinsically derived from him or his nature. This is a very good picture of naturalism, as it does not necessarily deny that there is a God, but it holds to the fact that he does not directly alter the flow of nature Nature is absolute and autonomous.

This scene also demonstrates the humanist aspect of the book effectively, with the statements that follow the discounting of God. First, the idea that there is some indomitable “spirit of Man” which exists. This spirit is individualist, although also universal and communal. It believes in truth and the value of the observed. It follows natural inclinations, such as desiring sexual intercourse and loving music. It exists most freely — although most unconsciously — within uneducated people. Although the characteristics vary from argument to argument, this is essentially the core idea of humanism — that common values and traits give human beings as individuals some moral value. Thus, when Winston says that he is morally superior, it is on the grounds that he accepts what he observes (which the Party attempts to alter — the “lies” mentioned by the interrogator, O’Brien), and he values human life (which the Party doesn’t, as demonstrated by the torture surrounding this excerpt). Although O’Brien eventually forces Winston’s will to break, Orwell’s desire seems to be to stand up for these things which Winston himself represents, and the dystopia is made complete when it manages to overcome Winston’s resistance. Just because lies may hold some power does not mean they are correct — which is the core of Orwell’s humanist argument.

Combined, the two form a naturalist humanist perspective, which is the core of all of Orwell’s implied or stated arguments within the novel.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s writing takes a different bent. Consider this passage from The Lord of the Rings:

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.

The Lord of the Rings is not written from an overtly Christian viewpoint. Unlike C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings is not directly allegorical.  There is no reference to the Christian God (although the prequel, The Silmarillion, is much more theologically-constructed). There is not even a Christ figure, unlike a series like Harry Potter. However, despite this, Tolkien’s masterpiece is embedded with Christianity. In some senses, this is represented by God appearing behind the scenes in the text. In other senses, it is conveyed through the absense of God. Tolkien’s book ends on a rather melancholy note, and it is said that the reason for this, as stated by Tolkien, is that the lack of Christ means that ultimately these characters have no true purpose in life. He apparently could not bring himself to write a sequel because the future of Middle Earth is far darker than even The Lord of the Rings.

However, for the sake of comparing the two books, the most important aspect of Tolkien’s work is the Christian Worldview which lies underneath the entire book. This passage is an excellent sample, and one I will refer to again. There is no universal Christian Worldview, however certain characteristics are essential, and it is these which Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings. One is that God exists, in and of himself, from eternity past to eternity future. Another is that he created the world, and ultimately he has control over the world, and can stop the world from existing as easily as he created it. These are important factors in Sam’s realization in Mordor. By looking out upon the sky, he is considering the limited nature of the world and his own circumstances. The conclusion — that it is all unimportant in the grand scheme of things — is only reached because of the eternity which Sam observes. Although Tolkien does not state that God is the reason for this, it is clear that God’s eternity is the factor Tolkien is pointing us to. A Christian worldview is key to understanding The Lord of the Rings‘ interpretation of things like freedom, hope, humanity, and morality.

These two worldviews can be compared through the two works. Both give an excellent perspective on the main problems faced by each worldview, and the ways that they deal with those problems. Without going into detail of the arguments to be presented later in the series, it is important to establish that each of these worldviews is present and consistently applied within the books, because the overall impact of each one largely rests on the underlying assumptions and solutions to problems.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephen
    May 25, 2009 @ 19:45:34

    I don’t have much to say about this post, yet. You’ve set up the basic contrast in worldviews very clearly. It looks like it will be an interesting series!

    I read 1984 when I was a teenager; I liked it much better than Brave New World, to which it is often compared. But reading your post makes me want to reread 1984.

    Reply

  2. nebcanuck
    May 26, 2009 @ 10:57:34

    I liked 1984 better as a book, too, although I must admit that Brave New World seems to have more in common with our own world, nowadays. In 1984, the control over the party members is much more overt, whereas in BNW there’s a lot more control via pleasure, drugs, etc.. One can definitely see how in our society, it is more effective to convince people to waste their time (video games) than to actually oppress them. But as far as the characters and plot development goes, I found 1984 much more enjoyable (and repulsive at the same time — the oppression is pretty realistic!)

    Reply

  3. Stephen
    May 26, 2009 @ 13:16:52

    Perhaps, but 1984 got several important things right.

    One is the use of propaganda — subtly directing the public to think what you want them to think. We’re seeing a terrible example of that with the US government’s torture policy, supported with a lot of misleading information: e.g. describing every detainee at Guantanomo Bay as a terrorist — not a suspected terrorist, in some cases turned in for a bounty:

    The Uighurs became our problem when we imprisoned them. We were the ones who set up a system whereby we paid bounties to people for turning in foreign fighters. We were also the ones who decided, against decades of precedent, not to hold Article 5 Tribunals to determine which of the people we captured were actually combatants and which were not.

    That is: we set up a system in which people had incentives to turn in the innocent, and then we decided that we could dismantle our normal systems for telling the innocent from the guilty.

    But the propaganda describes every detainee as a terrorist and concludes that it’s justifiable to torture them.

    Important instruments of propaganda include the FOX network, right-wing talk radio, and the pop culture TV hit, 24. Also Orwellian neologisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques”. So Orwell was on the mark re propaganda.

    Also with respect to surveillance. The Bush Administration bypassed Congressional oversight for its program of eavesdropping on telephone conversations. And there are other, very subversive means of surveillance: every time you purchase something with a credit card, or make a withdrawal with a debit card, you leave an electronic footprint of your location.

    It’s not as obvious as Big Brother watching through the TV screen in every building, but it’s every bit as inescapable.

    Third, there is the creation of a perpetual state of war — even if Government has to make up phony enemies. That’s one of the things that Andrew Sullivan finds so disturbing about “the war on terror”. How will we know when we’ve won, so that we can relax our guard?

    The answer is, we’ll never know. And so the dictatorial powers seized by the Bush Administration — hold people in jail indefinitely without charging them with a crime, torture them, eavesdrop on people’s telephone calls, etc. — those powers will remain in place indefinitely.

    It’s perpetual war against an ill-defined enemy. A real enemy, to be sure, but the threat isn’t half as great as it’s being made out to be.

    So there’s a lot of relevance to 1984, if you think about the principles Orwell identified as means of control, rather than the specific mechanisms.

    Reply

  4. Zayna
    May 26, 2009 @ 15:16:08

    Okay, I meant to comment when you first posted this because I am a fan of both books.

    But now that I’ve skimmed through the comments and see reference to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, which I haven’t read yet…but so want to and I think I may get in over my head.

    Though I will say this…

    I totally hated the way 1984 ended (I read it for the first time only a couple of years ago) …I saw it as defeatist, as submission to the norm, as the acceptance of an idea that had no respect for the individual soul.

    I wasn’t looking for allegory nor a Hollywood type happily ever after…I just hoping to understand the point of the story and I didn’t.

    “Did he really just accept that reality and give in?”

    As for LOTR, which I’ve read twice already…I never asked myself those kinds of questions. In reading them, perhaps because of the inclusion of Elves and Ents, it never occurred to me to see them as anything other than a really cool fantasy story.

    Have to say though, that I think this is a really cool topic and I’ll be following your series. 🙂

    Reply

  5. nebcanuck
    May 26, 2009 @ 17:07:07

    Stephen:
    So there’s a lot of relevance to 1984, if you think about the principles Orwell identified as means of control, rather than the specific mechanisms.

    Re. the principles, you’re talking like a true political studies student now! We definitely talked about 1984’s use of constant warfare a great deal in our Causes of War class this last semester, which is part of the reason I picked up the book.

    I read Brave New World in grade 11, I think… I don’t recall if it had much about specific surveillance techniques. But I did think there was merit in the idea of keeping everyone satiated through the encouragement of mindless entertainment. I think it was this, plus 1984’s very Soviet-style society which made BNW a little more “on-track” in my mind re. the specifics of our society. But you’re very right about certain principles, like surveillance society, becoming very relevant in recent years. And certainly the permanent state of war is an obvious one — the United States has had something like 4 years without some war going on in its entire history! That one’s nothing new!

    A question regarding one point:

    Important instruments of propaganda include the FOX network, right-wing talk radio, and the pop culture TV hit, 24. Also Orwellian neologisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques”. So Orwell was on the mark re propaganda.

    Certainly, 24 is mainstream entertainment. Is Fox actually run by the government? Or is it simply “alternative media for the right” run by a private company? Because I think that’s one thing which stands in stark contrast with 1984… most of what we see in the States is still very much about private enterprise. Rather than getting a governmental class which rules permanently, we have a financial class which almost subverts the government’s authority by being largely responsible for financing the wars. For example, right now, the oil tycoons in the Middle East basically own the government because of extreme lending which has gone on since the latter quarter of the 1900s.

    Zayna:

    I totally hated the way 1984 ended (I read it for the first time only a couple of years ago) …I saw it as defeatist, as submission to the norm, as the acceptance of an idea that had no respect for the individual soul.

    I found the ending fascinating. It was largely the ending which encouraged me to write this series! I think it’s very interesting how the conflict is essentially unresolved at the end of the book — that he introduces solutions to the problems, then introduces problems which completely wipe away any sign of a long-term solution. Defeatist? Absolutely! But a defeatist point is perhaps the most intriguing one to make in some senses. Not sure it’s exactly submission to the norm, though, and I think Orwell would hope that the individual can wake up to the ideas contained in his book and nip it in the bud before society spirals out of control to the degree it’s seen in 1984. But I wonder, if perhaps Orwell was depressed by his own conclusion?

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    May 26, 2009 @ 20:58:58

    • nebcanuck:
    Rather than getting a governmental class which rules permanently, we have a financial class which almost subverts the government’s authority by being largely responsible for financing the wars.

    That’s a fair point. In the case of the Bush Administration, it’s hard to say who was running the show. There was a hand-in-glove relationship between private industry and Government. Cheney’s relationship to Haliburton, which was given such choice contracts in Iraq, is an obvious example.

    At the same time, there’s no doubt that people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and some of the guys behind the scenes (e.g. Paul Wolfowitz ) had a serious hard-on for going to war in Iraq. And some of the right-wing talking heads — I don’t think they profit directly by the war machine. They support it because they have bought into the whole propaganda pitch, I guess.

    • Zayna:
    I suppose Orwell honestly believed that a totalitarian state could break people’s wills, if they operated outside of any restraints whatsoever. (As we’re seeing with the Bush Administration, I would argue.)

    Thus the ending of 1984 serves as a warning: don’t let Government assume totalitarian powers. At least, that’s my interpretation.

    Reply

  7. Zayna
    May 27, 2009 @ 17:14:44

    Nebcanuck – “But I wonder, if perhaps Orwell was depressed by his own conclusion?”

    Well, I don’t know about that, but I know I sure was.

    And I can see perhaps that was the purpose, to instill that impression so as to motivate the reader to be more aware of political issues.

    Which lends to Stephen’s comment, “Thus the ending of 1984 serves as a warning: don’t let Government assume totalitarian powers.”

    Thanks guys, that was enlightening…and makes me want to read 1984 again. 🙂

    Reply

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