Perhaps the main reason I’m so drawn to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ring, and to other series like Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Kingkiller Chronicles, is that I’m in awe of the imaginative power required to generate them. To conceive of a new world, with new laws, new people, new species, new customs, new geography and new lore is a feat that boggles my puny mind.
As a result of this admiration and fascination, I often end up lost in the labyrinth of wikis, articles, interviews and documentaries that take these alternate universes as their object of study. It happened again a few days ago. I watched an old-ish documentary about Tolkien, and from there was snared by a rather clickbait-y title claiming to be a video during which George R.R. Martin criticises J.R.R. Tolkien.
GRRM didn’t so much criticise as pose some questions concerning Tolkien’s world after the events of The Lord of the Ring. GRRM cited Tolkien as saying that, after he took his rightful place on the throne of Gondor, Aragorn ruled “wisely and well.” GRRM simply asked what that meant. He cites his own work as an exploration of this question, of what people do with power and what constitutes “good” and “bad” use of it. He then gets more specific. How did Aragorn deal with the issue of taxation? How did he confront and defeat poverty? And what did he do about the orcs? Did he tolerate them? Did he try to civilise and integrate them into the society of Middle Earth? Or did he refuse to suffer their presence and wipe them out, committing genocide in the process?
My first response to the latter question was something like, “Who cares if he wiped them out? They’re orcs; foul, disgusting, cruel creatures with no humanity in their hearts. Nobody would mind if they were massacred. In fact, the world would be a better place if he slaughtered them like the vermin they are.”
That response came unbidden, and after I’d played it back to myself, I was unnerved. Because it is that kind of reactionary and reckless hate which causes—and has caused—so much damage in the world.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot about Hitler and the Third Reich. One of the consistent themes is this overwhelming hatred of Jews. This idea that “Jewry” was the cause of all the ills of the world, that it was the Jews who held down the working classes the world over and drowned them in poverty and misery. To someone who lives in the 21st century and is the beneficiary of an exposure to diverse cultures and ideas, this is a ridiculous train of thought. It’s easy for me to dismiss it for what it is: nonsensical delusions arising from severely distorted minds.
But when I took stock of my own reaction to the imagined genocide of the orcs and compared it to the attempted genocide of the Jews during World War Two, I understood a little more clearly how such deranged thoughts came to inhabit the minds of so many people and manifest themselves in the world.
The individuals who hated and were repulsed by the Jews considered them the same way I considered the orcs: as vermin, as stinking, disgusting, nasty, tainted creatures whose very existence is a problem to be mercilessly solved with the severest of means.
Of course, the Jews are about as much the sole cause of the world’s problems as I am the master of the universe and all that’s contained within it. But the fact that such a senseless hate can exist in my mind is evidence of the hate of which the entirety of humanity is possible. It is an exhibit which shows that passions not investigated by reason and tempered with humanity are not only real, but bubble just below the surface of everyone’s consciousness. And it is a reminder that, if we are not careful, they can break out and have some truly harmful consequences.