Power in the Name - Maureen McKittrick Stewart
Power. We all want it, and in various ways attempt to grasp it. Many people see the truths Tolkien has revealed about the nature of political or economic power in his writing. But one aspect of that is less noticed: The granting and withholding of full acknowledgement of personhood. In our own lives, the first way we give ourselves permission to control, abuse, ignore, or use someone for our own ends is to make them something less than fully human. By naming someone as unworthy, whether by racial slur, sexual insult, or some association with contemptibility, I can justify anything I may want to do to serve my interests.
The Lord of the Rings demonstrates this phenomenon. Notice how Tolkien contrasts the honoring of persons with the using of things. The free peoples of Middle-Earth honor one another with courtesy, hospitality, generous gift giving, and careful respect of free will. Sauron and Saruman and their acolytes pursue things, pursue absolute control, pursue the suppression of anything that might engender joy and grow personhood. Sauron goes so far as to take a significant part of his own personhood and imprison it in a thing, thereby demeaning even himself. His Nazgul have ceased to be persons. Orcs are a mockery of being, cunning enslaved to appetite.
What is a person? The part of me, as Descartes defined it, that thinks? The body that houses my consciousness? Or am I some indefinable something which defies measurement or observation that some call the soul, that inhabits the body, but remains still me whether it is damaged, diseased, or decorated. If a beloved person in my life suffers from depression, I would say, "She is not herself." Yet when another beloved person is physically altered by an accident or disease, and yet some familiar gleam of humor or way of expressing a thought appears, I say, "He's still the same."
I recall seeing an episode of Star Trek in which a single unit of the Borg (a sort of super-hybrid of organism and machine) was rescued from some disaster. The crew of the Enterprise were doing their best to restore this unit to full health--or maybe "functionality." Captain Picard, still suffering from the trauma of his capture and narrow escape from the Borg, ordered that the unit be programmed with a string of code that would eradicate the Borg from within, using its collective consciousness. In the process of complying, the crew tried to explain "me" and "you" and named the unit "Hugh"--primarily for the sake of convenience. But that was a mistake. Hugh became an individual, a person, a known being. Deliberately doing harm to one who was essentially a comrade was not something the crew could bring themselves to do. Hugh, however, not only was viewed as a person, but saw himself as a person. Infected with personal identity and free will, he had been given the very small idea that would in fact destroy the Borg--"I am."
How did Tolkien perceive persons? The very balance of Tolkien's world begins and continues with personhood, with its development or deterioration. Ilúvatar--Person--brings forth more persons by singing their names. Gandalf in all his labors wanders from place to place knowing persons, serving persons, and using lore and skill in the pursuit of protecting persons. Saruman settles in Orthanc, learning lore and skills in order to subdue and control persons. Frodo bears the One Ring in fear, supported by knowing and being known by his friends and companions, obedient to the guidance of the Council and Gandalf. Gollum acquired the Ring through violence against his only friend and bore it into isolation and misery under the Misty Mountains. Faramir pursues the protection of his people and his heritage through first compassionately knowing men's hearts before supremacy in the skills of war. Boromir to begin with understands only winning through physical and strategic force. Aragorn acts first for the well-being of all good things, waiting until the time is ripe to claim his heritage. Denethor holds his scepter as a right, fulfilling the duties of his office not out of love for the people of his stewardship, but as a measure of his honor, pride, and the grandeur of his house.
"I name you Elf Friend," Gildor Inglorion says to Frodo in the forest of the Shire. "I name you Wingfoot," Eomer says to Aragorn at their first meeting. And, of course, Gandalf, exasperated at his carelessness, calls poor Pippin, "Fool of a Took!" Names, identity, integrity of being, weave their way through Middle-earth and all the events of the War of the Ring. Characters are continually giving names and significance to one another.
One important aspect of Tolkien's understanding of personhood was expressed by his friend, C. S. Lewis, in an address entitled "The Weight of Glory": "Nature is mortal, we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. . . . The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. . . . It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours." [C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (1976)]
Viewed in this light, Tolkien's duality of equals choosing different paths raises the stakes. Gandalf and Saruman; Frodo and Smeagol; Faramir and Boromir; Aragorn and Denethor; each illustrates the potential outcome of characters moving toward or away from persons and personhood. Then Tolkien throws in a new and astonishing juxtaposition: Frodo and Saruman. In the chapter, The Scouring of the Shire, Frodo confronts a Saruman who is withered and diminished by his devaluation of personhood. He can only resent the mercy meted by a now grown-up and grown-great Frodo. By losing his own personhood for the benefit of other persons, and by the grace of events over which he had no control, Frodo's personhood has been restored. Frodo has now come to value persons above things in a profound way, respecting the once-great Saruman, and--like his mentor, Gandalf--seeing that redemption is more desirable than "justice." Even Frodo's woundedness, the remaining pain from knife, sting, and tooth, move him to hope for Saruman's cure, as he hopes for his own. Saruman, however, has so narrowed and darkened his own soul that he responds to Frodo's mercy with an act of malicious pettiness which goads Gríma to stab him. The last remnant of Saruman's once-large person is a momentary noisome smudge against the sky, then is no more.
Jackson and crew have so far carried this theme into the movies with vivid success. Again, I find myself quoting Lewis, because he says things so well. "In poetry the words are the body, and the 'theme' or 'content' is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul; the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes--they are not much more than a telephone." (from the introduction to George Macdonald: An Anthology) Tolkien's work has just this integrity, allowing its essential themes to carry through in the new medium. Its "soul" is intact; the "line" is clear.
The movie (both the installments seen so far) highlights the valuing of persons intrinsically over simply seeing and using them as convenient resources for achieving ends. It uses different scenes and different emphases, because of a different medium. That necessity brings a fresh wonder and a new look at the familiar. I even value the changes made to Faramir's character. They annoyed me no end, but they also shook me out of the set vision I've been stuck in since I was thirteen or so and made me bring thirty-five years of living, raising children, holding my grandchildren, and loving relationships into the equation. Suddenly whole new vistas have opened, and I am experiencing that special wondrous joy that came the first time I read the books. Way to go, Mr. Jackson and friends!
With personhood comes responsibility. When I have the right to choose, I also must accept the consequences of my choices. I cannot get away from the fact that consistent choices to use people as things, to acquire wealth for the sake of power, to pursue the satisfaction of my appetites will alienate me from my fellow persons. I will become smaller, meaner, uglier, and--eventually--completely banal. If I consistently choose to reach out to people, to form relationships, to put persons above things, I will be named "beloved," and my heart and my life will expand to encompass sorrow with beauty, joy more than pleasure, faith, hope, and above all, love.
What a delicate balance the honoring of persons can be. "The quest stands upon the edge of a knife." Any activity or goal or creed of man or woman can shift subtly from light to dark, from building to taking away, from knowing to using. Unless I am watchful, courtesy becomes manipulation, morality becomes a way to justify achieving my ends, spirituality becomes a way to disenfranchise any who don't exactly share my views. Even my appetites, tempted by "you deserve it" slogans from advertisers and easily satisfied by my prosperity, may begin to rule my life.
Outside forces push us off course as well. Our government and employer assign us a number. In the marketplace we are not persons, but sources of cash-flow. Corporations analyze the transactions we have had with them and serve us according to profit margin. Yet the fair business practices, the human rights that the world tries to establish, the abolition of slavery, would never have been possible without the introduction of the idea of personhood. Yet, all the systems in place that make the distribution of resources and conducting of business possible for huge masses of humanity also turn us into interchangeable counters on a series of electronic storage devices. "The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret." (Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
How curious that Tolkien's observation of the truth in myth seems to be permeating not only the movie but the lives of those creating the movie. There are quotes to be read and heard about "growing as a person," "these are life-long friends," "I have brothers." And also, "the awards, the money, the craziness--it's like the ring." Surely they must sometimes fear they are living among orcs, when media and fans pursue them so relentlessly.
But Tolkien reveals the whole truth in the myth. The ways to grow personhood are all there in the story, in the interactions among the characters, in the kinds of choices they make. Merry and Pippin see even the great as simply friends and generously offer themselves as soldiers of the cause, though they consider themselves of small account. Sam, wise above all in what really matters, patiently and stubbornly sticks by Frodo and to the quest. By faith he raises his eyes to the sky and sees the bigger story, recalling Frodo to hope. Legolas and Gimli become transparent to one another over time, forging a miraculous friendship, each taking time to walk in the world of the other. Galadriel chooses to "diminish and go into the West, and remain Galadriel." Arwen chooses relationship over life. Eowyn awakes from confusing greatness with valor to the affirmation of green growing things and love. Communities mobilize to restore war-ravaged lands. Peoples send craftsmen as emissaries to Gondor to restore its glory. Gondor remains within its borders, promising freedom and friendship to its neighbors.
Long walks, good books, hospitality, celebration, gift giving, laughter, arguments, forgiveness, making music--all of these are the small things that we share that grow each of us. But notice that it is in giving personhood away, and receiving personhood as a gift from others that the growth occurs. Personhood cannot be achieved by grasping. "Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality." (Lewis, Membership)
I'd love to hear what you think and how you grow as a person. Comments or feedback can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Maureen McKittrick Stewart