Orwell Versus Tolkien: Human Nature

Human Evolution Garden of Eden

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.

In establishing the worldviews of both 1984 and The Lord of the Rings, one can almost assume certain facets of the theories that follow. However, before more abstract subjects are considered, it is a necessary act to establish the overarching view of human nature which accompanies each worldview. Concepts of human nature are perhaps the most critical portion of a worldview, since it is this which directly affects how one sees almost every intangible or abstract component of life. One cannot understand hope, justice, freedom, love, or any other principle without first understanding human beings, because these ideas are directly linked with a facet of humanity which is not immediately visible in the rest of nature: Imagination. Without imagination, it is impossible to speak of anything beyond immediate, tangible experience. So how we perceive human beings, and thus their capacity to imagine, seriously impacts how we understand those things which are most important to the human experience. Both books manage to give a distinct image of human nature, and although there are a few passages that point to this understanding clearly, as a general rule the concept of human nature tends to rest beneath most of the overt messages of the book, propping them up and introducing both conflict and solutions.

Consider Orwell’s depiction of human nature. This scene comes on the brink of Winston and Julia’s first time having sex. As a rule, sex is forbidden between Party members who are physically attracted to one another. The very first act of rebellion which the two heroes of the story engage in is to sneak off to a field and have sexual intercourse.

“Listen. The more men you’ve had, the more I love you. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, perfectly.”

“I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere! I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.”

“Well then, I ought to suit you, dear. I’m corrupt to the bones.”

“You like doing this? I don’t mean simply me: I mean the thing in itself?”

“I adore it.”

That was above all what he wanted to hear. Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces. He pressed her down upon the grass, among the fallen bluebells. This time there was no difficulty. Presently the rising and falling of their breasts slowed to normal speed, and in a sort of pleasant helplessness they fell apart.

Because of the naturalist humanist perspective which is presented by 1984, human nature is linked very closely with “animal instinct”. If there is no active God, then human beings are only different insofar as they have evolved beyond other animals. As a result, those things which are most natural to human beings are often those things which are most animal-like: sex, consumption, violence… essentially, anything which contains that “pleasant helplessness”. Of course, reason and intelligence play a factor here. There’s no sense that Orwell is denying that humans can think. After all, Winston is very thoughtful and deliberate in his defiance of the Party. But ultimately, those things which are central to the human being are individual desires which run contrary to the cold reason of the Collective.

However, this establishes a conflict in itself. For the Party, which understands this side of people, utilizes instincts to exert control. One example is the constant warfare which takes place in the society. By creating a sense of fear — and a very powerful desire for safety — the Party manages to convince members to suppress their other desires. This is also seen in a more direct sense, where the Thought Police manage to bring about even more fear for the individual. So afraid are Winston and his fellow citizens that they can literally control their external features from demonstrating any emotions, to avoid the ever-present eyes of the Party. But, because of the acknowledgement that other animal instincts will emerge eventually, the Party also arranges for a variety of events — the Two-Minute Hate, Hate Week, show trials — which allow an outburst of anger and violence periodically. In a sense, this societal suppression is a dampening of human nature. In another sense, though, it fulfils human nature, since we are naturally collective beings.

The result is a very Freudian depiction of human beings. The Freudian model is Id (desires) -> Ego (reason) -> Superego (society). In 1984, the animal desires are present and undeniable, but the society’s desires and power are sufficient to generally oppress the individual desires. The result is that men and women generally suppress those desires for long-term preservation, and find ways to express those desires in more constructive, socially-acceptable ways. In the case of Winston and Julia, the Ego seems to have found a way around the Superego, but the entire time it is apparent that their rebellion will be short-lived.

The Lord of the Rings has a very different concept of human nature. Because it is flowing from a Christian worldview, Tolkien’s writing focuses on a very different contrast than the Freudian model. Consider this passage, which comes on the wake of Gandalf explaining to Frodo the life story of Gollum:

“Gollum!” cried Frodo.”Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Bilbo met? How loathsome!”

“I think it is a sad story,” said the wizard, “and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known.”

“I can’t believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,” said Frodo with some heat. “What an abominable notion!”

“It is true, all the same,” replied Gandalf. “About their origins, at any rate, I know more than hobbits do themselves. And even Bilbo’s story suggests the kinship. There was a great deal in the background of their minds and memories that was very similar. They understood one another remarkably well, very much better than a hobbit would understand, say, a Dwarf, or an Orc, or even and Elf. Think of the riddles they both knew, for one thing.”

“Yes,” said Frodo. “Though other folks besides hobbits ask riddles, and of much the same sort. And hobbits don’t cheat. Gollum meant to cheat all the time. He was just trying to put poor Bilbo off his guard. And I daresay it amused his wickedness to start a game which might end in providing him with an easy victim, but if he lost would not hurt him.”

“Only too true, I fear,” said Gandalf. “But there was something else in it, I think, which you don’t see yet. Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. He had proved tougher than even one of the Wise would have guessed — as a hobbit might. There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as though a chink in the dark: light out of the past. It was actually pleasant, I think, to hear a kindly voice again, bringing up memories of wind, and trees, and sun on the grass, and such forgotten things.”

The Christian perspective offers a binary in place of a trinity for human nature. Men were created perfect and in the image of God. In their “natural” state, they would live collectively, and appreciate one another’s company. The Shire is an idyllic portrayal of a quasi-human society, such that one can perhaps see it as a pre-fallen world. Hobbits have minor conflicts, but these do not result in violence, but simple disgruntlement. In general, they live comfortably, close to the land (even living in pits), close to one another (giving and getting gifts at least once a week), and close to God (the Shire is the point which is geographically closest to “Heaven” in Tolkien’s maps). However, another component of human nature is the fallen portion — Sin. In this excerpt, the Ring which Gollum found impacted his life for the worse. The influence of Sin not only affects the individual, it permeates him, replacing his nature with a new one which is tainted and ugly. So different is a person under the Ring’s influence that it is disgusting to compare the idyllic human to him. And yet, it is inevitable and necessary to understand concepts like good, evil, and salvation. All of these depend on the interplay of the two sides of humanity, and the conclusion that something within the individual is potentially good still, even when the Ring has impacted them so.

In both books, and thus both worldviews, humans are depicted as part of an internal conflict which defines their self as well as the society around them. The real difference between the two is centred around the overall worldview. In Orwell’s writing, humans are evolved animals, and thus expressing animal instincts is a manifestation of freedom while society is an entirely oppressive force. In Tolkien’s writing, humans are endowed with good traits by God, and evil traits subvert this goodness by exerting their own influence. The human is shaped much more by external forces than by themselves. Both of these will set up the primary conflicts and resolutions (or lack thereof) within the books.

Advertisements

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ubiquitous Che
    May 26, 2009 @ 18:00:44

    Nice breakdown. However, I have to be a bit of a bore and object to part of your analysis:

    Because of the naturalist humanist perspective which is presented by 1984, human nature is linked very closely with “animal instinct”. If there is no active God, then human beings are only different insofar as they have evolved beyond [my emphasis] other animals.

    This is not the naturalist humanist perspective. Not as it was depicted in 1984, and not as it is depicted by the science on which naturalistic humanism is usually based.

    Simply put, no one animal can be said to be more evolved than any other. The idea of one animal evolving beyond another makes sense under theistic evolution – but under naturalistic evolution, it is nonsense.

    Naturalistic evolution is not progressive. Humans have certain capabilities that a hawk does not. But a hawk has certain capabilities that a human does not. Each of us have evolved to fit a different niche within the environment. Neither of us is ‘more evolved’ than the other – merely different.

    This simple – and common – misrepresentation of naturalistic evolution has a serious impact on the remainder of your analysis of 1984.

    As a result, those things which are most natural to human beings are often those things which are most animal-like: sex, consumption, violence… essentially, anything which contains that “pleasant helplessness”.

    ‘Natural to human beings’ is redundant. ‘Natural’ for a hawk is simply what that hawk does. Humans are no different. To say ‘natural to human beings’ is just to say ‘human beings doing as they are doing’. It’s trivially true, by definition.

    Of course, reason and intelligence play a factor here. There’s no sense that Orwell is denying that humans can think. After all, Winston is very thoughtful and deliberate in his defiance of the Party. But ultimately, those things which are central to the human being are individual desires which run contrary to the cold reason of the Collective.

    This is where the contrast fails: You’ve created a contrast between the state of being an animal and the state of ‘cold reason’. This is a false dichotomy: Reason is as much a part of the animality of humans as our lusts and desires.

    The idea that naturalistic evolution is some way progressive is a very easy mistake to make, but it is a mistake. What you have found in 1984 is not an ideal put forward by naturalistic evolution – it is an ideal that raises the will of the individual above that of authority.

    Reply

  2. nebcanuck
    May 26, 2009 @ 18:18:24

    There are two components I’ve tried to draw out with the term “naturalist humanistic perspective”. Not sure if you read the first post in the series, but the point is that in 1984, both naturalism and humanism are contained within the worldview. Naturalism has nothing “ideal” about it, that’s true. But humanism? It is a form of idealism. It is “progressive” in a sense, in that it attempts to give some value to human life based on commonalities. And as far as I can tell, reason is the value usually pointed to.

    Perhaps the term “naturalistic humanism” is wrong. But both ideas — that there is no God and that nature is absolute, and that human beings are valuable based on certain traits — are present in Orwell’s writing.

    Reply

  3. Ubiquitous Che
    May 26, 2009 @ 19:14:56

    Wow – fast reply. My thanks.

    Your response is a good one – if you’d said that in the first place, I wouldn’t have had any objection at all.

    My problem was entirely down to the fact that your reading of Orwell was using the (unscientific) concept of progressive evolution as the link between Orwell and naturalistic humanism. That link is entirely invalid to humanism, so the reading failed.

    Now you’ve substituted in a different link that does bridge the gap from Orwell to naturalistic humanism. And in a way that highlights some of my personal problems with humanism in general, no less. ^_^

    I’m still a bit unhappy with your dichotomy between the ‘animal instinct’ of Winston and Julia’s relationship and the ‘cold reason’ of the Party in 1984. A just reading of 1984 needs to take into account the unity of Winston’s animal instincts and his reason – that his reason is itself a kind of animal instinct. 1984 is a narrative showing how authority perverts animal instincts, including reason.

    That said – this second objection isn’t quite so vital to your blog post above. As a shameless Orwell-fanboy, it’s just something that’s bugging me. ^_^

    Reply

  4. Zayna
    May 29, 2009 @ 16:48:23

    “Sin. In this excerpt, the Ring which Gollum found impacted his life for the worse. The influence of Sin not only affects the individual, it permeates him, replacing his nature with a new one which is tainted and ugly. So different is a person under the Ring’s influence that it is disgusting to compare the idyllic human to him.”

    Is that why Tolkien made Gollum a Hobbit-like creature instead of making him an Ogre or a Troll lets say?

    Doesn’t Frodo at one point say to Gollum – “You were not so different from a Hobbit once?”

    In the end, the battle for the ring was between two very similiar creatures…even distant relations perhaps?

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but a light when on after reading your post and that’s what I saw. 🙂

    Reply

  5. nebcanuck
    May 29, 2009 @ 17:21:32

    Ubiquitous Che: I’m still a bit unhappy with your dichotomy between the ‘animal instinct’ of Winston and Julia’s relationship and the ‘cold reason’ of the Party in 1984. A just reading of 1984 needs to take into account the unity of Winston’s animal instincts and his reason – that his reason is itself a kind of animal instinct. 1984 is a narrative showing how authority perverts animal instincts, including reason.

    Interesting analysis. I think it’s definitely worth pursuing. Although, from that reasoning, would social authority not be in itself a sort of animal instinct? Human beings naturally exist within societies, and it’s clear from Orwell’s writing that he takes a thirst for power to be a natural desire of men as well. So it’s almost one instinct cancelling out another if you take things like reason to be an “instinct”.

    Zayna: Is that why Tolkien made Gollum a Hobbit-like creature instead of making him an Ogre or a Troll lets say?

    I believe that’s why he chose a hobbit-like creature for Gollum, anyways. I’m afraid I’ve not read many of Tolkien’s own commentaries, so I’m running almost exclusively from my reading of The Lord of the Rings itself, but the perfect state of the Shire versus the dark, sinful nature of Gollum seems to me a deliberate comparison to show the effects of sin on a human, anyways.

    Reply

  6. Anonymous
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 12:47:07

    hey just wanted to say Ive seen someone using your garden of eden image as their own album cover design work and not referencing it from anywhere, is that not plagerism?

    http://www.deepinthought.co.uk/www.deepinthought.co.uk/My_Work/Pages/Beastie_Boys.html#2

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: