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Brin on Tolkien
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David Brin has an interesting (and very long) article on progress, romanticism, democracy, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

I agree with him wholeheartedly when he says stuff like this:

Obsession with either past or future can almost define a civilization. Worldwide, most cultures believed in some lost golden age when people knew more, mused loftier thoughts and were closer to the gods -- but then fell from grace. Under this dour but recurrent worldview, men and women of a later, coarser era can only look back with envy, hearkening to remnants of ancient wisdom.

Recognize this motif? It drenches every page of "Lord of the Rings." It is the old classic, the eternal verity -- the worst of all human clichés.

Only a few societies ever dared to contradict this dogma of nostalgia. Our own scientific West, with its impudent notion of progress, brashly relocated any "golden age" to the future, something we might work toward, a human construct for our grandchildren to achieve with craft, sweat and good will -- assuming that we manage to prepare them. Implicit is the postulate that our offspring can and should be better than us, a glimmering hope that is nurtured (a bit) by two generations of steadily rising IQ scores.

Although I wouldn't hedge by saying that being either forward-looking or backward-looking "almost" defines a culture. It absolutely defines a culture, and the individuals in it.

Whenever I hear people harkening back to the romatic past, wishing they could "live off the land, in harmony with the earth", it makes me want to heave. As Brin points out, pre-industrial societies by far lived short, brutish lives, in which women were treated like scum and thuggery defined leadership. Yes...the "good old days" syndrome (Trent Lott, anyone?).

Anyway, Brin is dead on-target with his social analysis, but in the end he seems to falter, suggestion tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps Sauron and the dark hordes should be viewed from a sympathetic perspective. Perhaps they were the true industrialists and reformers of Middle Earth.

Um, I don't think so.

Brin is right that it's interesting to ponder, but if the humans, elves, and dwarves are stodgy, backward-looking proponents of the status quo, at least they had something resembling civilization. The orcs were all about razing, pillaging, and destroying, and there's not a hint of anything in the subtext to suggest otherwise. So as bad as the wizards and kings are in LOTR, Sauron and the orcs were infinitely worse. You can imagine them different, but then you're completely rewriting the story (which perhaps is Brin's's fun to rewrite stories).

Anyway, it's an interesting read, so if you've got the time and patience, give it a go.

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