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Guest Post: Recommended readings, real and imagined for Military Leaders—Part II. Timothy R. Furnish, PhD

Friday, June 11th, 2021

Zen here – today we continue a series by Dr. Timothy R. Furnish, a longtime friend of ZP blog. Timothy Furnish is an Army vet and former civilian consultant to Special Operations Command with a PhD is in Islamic history. He’s written five books and runs the website Occidental Jihadist.

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Pournelle’s “Future History” Setting and Politics

by Dr. Timothy R. Furnish

Forty-seven years ago Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle published The Mote in God’s Eye. It’s not about religion, but about humanity’s first contact with aliens in the early 31st century. (I consider it one of the three greatest sci-fi novels ever—along with Frank Herbert’s Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.) A sequel by the same authors, The Gripping Hand, came out in 1993. Since then, some 22 volumes have been published dealing with that universe’s millennium-long backstory. The books are “hard” science fiction—that is, in the genre that strives for scientific accuracy and avoids mysticism, magic, and the like. (Star Trek is usually classified as “hard,” Star Wars as soft—if not downright squishy.) They could furthermore be classified as “military” sci-fi, which speaks for itself. 

A website with info on the stories and novels, as well as the Secondary “World” (more properly, universe) itself, is complete up through 2018—although another volume came out in March, 2020 (with even more to come, according to series chief John F. Carr, with whom I’ve been in contact). Many writers have contributed, although the heaviest hitters have been Pournelle (before his death in 2017), the aforementioned, and prolific, Carr, and S.M. Stirling (author of the superb Dies the Fire and its many “Emberverse” sequels). Larry Niven, the original co-author, largely parted ways with the series after the two seminal novels. But Pournelle—whose doctorate was in political science—had a great deal to do with shaping what has come to be known as his “Future History.”

In brief, this alternative history starts with the USSR surviving and joining with the USA in the 1990s to create the “CoDominium:” joint Soviet-American rule of the planet, carried out by the Grand Senate composed of American and Soviet politicians. CoDominium military forces, notably a Space Navy and Marines, are created. In the early 21st century an instantaneous interstellar drive is invented and by 2020 colonies are founded outside our solar system.  Before the century is up, there are at least 70 of them, many established by various countries on Earth, and/or by separatist and religious groups. The most important are Sparta, St. Ekaterina and Sauron. The first was founded by American professors who set up a dual monarchy with representative government. The second is Russian more than Soviet and eventually allies with Sparta. The last is run by “English separatists from Quebec and South African white expatriates” who soon embark on a program of genetic engineering to create a master race. By the beginning of the 22nd century, the US and USSR break their alliance and engage in nuclear war on Earth—making the stage of human activity the former colonies.  There are, arguably, four crucial aspects to this Future History.

First, although interstellar travel is possible, it has drawbacks. The Alderson Drive can only move ships between star systems, and is useless within one. There is no “warp drive” or ability to travel even close to light speed. “Starships,” whether commercial or military, take weeks or months to move within extrasolar systems in order to reach the “Alderson Point,” which is a “tramline” to another system. They then travel there instantaneously, but must repeat the slow process to reach the planets within the destination system. Ships do have powerful lasers, and nuclear weapons, but they fight each other at sub-light speeds. And most importantly in terms of military tactics, at least for the first few centuries of this history, armed forces that can be moved instantaneously between star systems still have to fight as infantry with rifles, artillery and the like on distant planets. 

Second, from the early 21st to early 31st centuries, there are no alien foes. All of the battles and wars take place between humans, albeit spread across hundreds of light-years. In this regard Pournelle’s universe resembles that of Frank Herbert’s Dune, in which homo sapiens is the sole sentient measure. Man’s inhumanity to Man is spread to the stars, but is thus that much more fathomable. 

Third, this Future History is cyclical. Dr. Pournelle was known to be a  fan of C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson’s primary thesis (besides his famous law) is that history “reveals…a sequence in which one form of rule replaces another, each in turn achieving not perfection but decay” (The Evolution of Political Thought, p. 9). Indeed, “there is no historical reason for supposing that our present systems of governance are other than quite temporary expedients.” The Western arrogance that “the development of political institutions has progressed steadily from the days of Lycurgus or Solon down to the present day” with “the ultimate achievement being British Parliamentary Democracy or perhaps the American Way of Life” is just that that (Ibid., p. 8).  In sum, drawing on anthropology as well as history, Parkinson sees the human cycle of political systems running thusly: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, dictatorship. The final then institutionalizes into monarchy, and the process starts all over again. There are variations on each of the four types (see Parkinson, p. 12, drawing on Aristotle), but in toto those are adequate. Across space (literally!) and time, humans try each of these—sometimes more than one, simultaneously, on the same planet.

Fourth, the series is rife with Great Power conflict. The CoDominium initially serves as a hegemon, not an imperial power—the single most powerful polity, but unable to directly rule all the colonies. (See here for a succinct analysis of hegemony v. empire.) It’s largely a unipolar interstellar system, then. After the nuclear war on Earth, the system becomes multipolar, with various colonies—now independent planets—vying for the upper hand via their own fleets and military forces (both planetary and mercenary). Eventually Sparta emerges as the next hegemon, thanks in main to the fact that the bulk of the CoDominium Navy swears allegiance to the Spartan throne. Over the course of 150 years, Sparta then creates an Empire by consolidating—both peacefully and violently—most of the other human-settled planets into its rule. Pax Spartanica then lasts until the 27th century, when the First Empire falls mainly after exhausting itself in defeating the Nazi-like, genetically-engineered Saurons—during which human-occupied space was bipolar in conflict terms. Not until the early 30th century is the Second Empire (once again ruled by Sparta), proclaimed, consisting of over 200 planets, all human; that is, until 3017. 

[Up next: how these political divisions played out in various wars, on various planets and moons, across the centuries.]

Guest Post: Recommended readings, real and imagined for Military Leaders—Part I. Timothy R. Furnish, PhD

Sunday, May 30th, 2021

Zen here – today we start a series by Dr. Timothy R. Furnish, a longtime friend of ZP blog. Timothy Furnish is an Army vet and former civilian consultant to Special Operations Command with a PhD is in Islamic history. He’s written five books and runs the website Occidental Jihadist.

Fictional novels about war have been around for quite some time. Millennia, in fact, if we include The Iliad in the category (although Homer likely thought he was recounting actual history). The genre, more realistically, began with La Chartreuse de Parme by “Stendhal” in 1839, who wrote about the Napoleonic Wars in Italy. Such proliferated in 19th, then 20th century, with realistic novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front, about WWI, or The Thin Red Line, set in WWII’s Pacific theater. Military science fiction kicked in the genre’s door in 1959, with Robert Heinlein’s (in)famous Starship Troopers. The following decade alternate military histories began to proliferate, thanks in large part to Philip K. Dick’s famous The Man in the High Castle (which was made into an arresting Amazon Prime TV show, 2015-2019). Perhaps the most famous, and influential, military fiction books of recent years have been Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, about the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae; and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, set several centuries in the future, during an interstellar war humanity is waging to survive.

I am a big fan of historical fiction in my world history courses, and always assign a relevant novel, such as Gore Vidal’s Creation. In military history courses, I have used Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius, Michael Shaara’s Civil War classic The Killer Angels, and Gates of Fire. 

In recent decades, such books have found their way onto some professional military reading lists. And why shouldn’t they? As genre author David Webb has said: “military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context. It is not ‘bug shoots.’ It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn’t an excuse for simplistic solutions to problems.” Certainly, a nation with a Space Force might find it worthwhile for future military leaders to study thoughtful, intelligent, well-written military fiction, set in the future as well as the past. Yes, there are some who would not deem it wise—for the danger exists that military fiction “confirms existing thought patterns of political and military leaders about future military conflict.” That is, “rather than fighting the last war, as the old axiom goes, military leaders may be more susceptible to fighting the fictional wars of their imagination, fueled by war fiction, instead of the conflict unfolding in front of them.” This same critic contends that “future war fiction, especially in the English-speaking world, tends to use super-weapons and surprise attacks as the two major plot devices.” 

As for the first objection, methinks it’s more contrived than concrete. The examples offered are unconvincing, and in fact one of them—that President Reagan, because of The Hunt for Red October, increased military spending—proves just the opposite, since Reagan’s defense build-up was largely responsible for the Cold War ending sans nuclear war.  Also, this objection presupposes that an educated leadership cannot distinguish between reality and fiction. Finally, not all futuristic military fiction in the Anglosphere utilizes “super-weapons and surprise attacks.” In fact, one major, largely-ignored series of such books employs the former rarely, and the latter not at all: Jerry Pournelle’s Future History.

Before examining the books and stories set in the universe created by Dr. Jerry Pournelle and further elaborated upon by S.M. Stirling, John F. Carr, and Don Hawthorne, as well as other contributors, let’s take a look at the fiction books on several major military institution’s recommended reading lists. In 2017 the Army Chief of Staff recommended professional reading list included 98 books, five of which were fiction: The Aeneid, The Iliad and The Odyssey (lumped together as one work), Gates of Fire, Singer & Cole’s Ghost Fleet (about a future world war between the US and Russia + China), and Marlantes’ Vietnam novel, Matterhorn. The most recent list from the US Army Chief of Staff includes only one fiction book, Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle. That’s one more than the Air Force CoS recommends, however. Ditto for the JFK Special Warfare Center and School. Neither the Air Force chief, nor the folks who educate our special ops, think much of fiction, it appears. In 2019 the Commandant of the Marine Corps put out a list with dozens of books, including four fictions ones: The Killer Angels, Gates of Fire, Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game. But those are recommended only for junior enlisted, not at all for officers. And the 2020 list from the same office had removed even those. The Chief of Naval Operations does recommend some fiction, notably the aforementioned Matterhorn, as well as Singer and Cole and Starship Troopers. But the CNO also wants sailors to read Ibrahim X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist—which might well qualify as fiction, come to think of it. 

Contrast these with the 131-page list, nay volume, of approved books promulgated by the Chief of the Australian Army. A full 25 of those are fiction. These include the usual suspects: Pressfield, Heinlein, Card, Shaara. But also ones on the Romans, the British in India, the Napoleonic wars and even a few alternative histories, such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland (another “Nazis won WWII” take) and the even more surprising, and little-known, Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson—in which Europeans were wiped out by the plague, and the modern world is dominated by China, India and Islamic states. Last year two Marine Corps officers even suggested that The Lord of the Rings be read “because of the focus…on alliances, coalition building, and strategy.” (As the author of a book on the political history of Middle-earth, I strongly agree.)

I have read many (but not all) of the fictions books mentioned herein. And I can still say that Pournelle, et al., stands with—or above—any of them in terms of potential value to the professional education of military leaders.

[Up next: a detailed look at the politics- and war-riven interstellar setting, 2020-3018 AD, which grew out of Pournelle and Larry Niven’s famous novel The Mote in God’s Eye.

BOOK REVIEW: The COIN of the Islamic Realm by Furnish

Sunday, November 8th, 2020

[mark safranski / zen ]

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The Coin of the Islamic Realm by Tim Furnish

Facing off with China is all the fashion in military, foreign policy and strategy circles these days but the challenges of insurgency will always be with us. This includes the Islamic world as old conflicts from the war on terrorism continue to burn despite the attention span of the American public and policymakers moving on even though or troops often have not. Dr. Tim Furnish, in a new book, forcefully reminds us that many of America’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism problems in the greater Mideast are neither new nor particularly American in nature. Indeed, in The Coin of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916 we learn that America or its Saudi allies in Yemen tread down very well worn paths that Ottoman sultans, even invested as they were with the supreme religious authority of the Caliphate, navigated only with difficulty.

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Furnish, a specialist in the eschatological history of Islamic sects and Mahdist movements, history professor and former consultant to US Special Operations Command is well qualified to parse the tea leaves of historical Arab insurgencies and religious movements that resisted Ottoman imperial rule. Western analysts coming from perspectives of counterterrorism, military history, IR, colonial history typically underrate or ignore the religious dimensions driving irregular conflict and as Furnish demonstrates, while not always primary, (usually) Arab religious disputes with their Ottoman overlords tended to shape the military and political responses of both insurgent and counterinsurgent for nearly half a millennia, echoes of which we still see today in ISIS or the Houthi rebellion.

In The Coin of the Islamic Realm Furnish begins by briefly reviewing virtues and flaws of policy advice given in recent popular natsec pundit books on Islamic insurgency and terrorism as well as pondering the paucity of COIN studies on Turkish military campaigns in general but also specifically in English; a strange lacunae for western military analysts seeking to understand groups like AQ and ISIS given that the Ottoman state faced many similar rebellious or dissident movements in the same regions. Furnish argues that “Islam is key to understanding both the non-state challengers to Ottoman rule, and the Empire’s state responses” which will offer better template for “lessons learned” for American policy makers faced with Islamic or Islamist orientated terrorists and guerillas.

Furnish takes a look at a spectrum of discrete groups that struggled against the Ottoman empire – the Celalis, Kadizadelis, Druze, Zaydis, Sa’udi Wahhabis and Sudanese Mahdists and then draws distinctions between Ottoman counterinsurgency policies that produced, wins, losses and draws and the disastrous experiences of the earlier Almoravids against the Almohads in the medieval era Mahgreb. Furnish uses two lenses in his approach to analyzing the performance of the Imperial Ottoman state and their insurgent enemies: a constructivist, contextual view that incorporates the social, cultural and religious factors of the time and the traditional yardsticks of modern counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. How well did the Ottomans wage kinetic operations, win hearts and minds, engage in state-building and employ proxy forces?

As with modern counterinsurgency wars, the Ottoman record was mixed though on balance more successful than that of France in the 20th century or America in the 21st. The Ottomans being a polyglot, albeit, Muslim imperial state were regarded by most of their Arab and ethnic minority subjects as foreigners so therefore the religious authority of the Caliphate was a particularly sensitive point for the Sublime Porte. Furnish illustrates how the Ottomans could wage brutal military campaigns against heretical Fiver Zaydis or heterodox Druze, but didn’t particularly view either of these challenges as threats to the Sultan’s authority. Neither the Zaydi imams nor the Druze chieftains could mount an effective ideological challenge to the Sultan’s position as Caliph over a mostly Sunni Islamic world. More dangerous spiritually and seriously viewed were the Wahhabi and  Sudanese Mahdist theological attacks on the legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate. There were no deals for the Abd Allah bin Sa’ud, his first Sa’udi State and Wahhabist revolt was crushed by the Ottomans for his temerity and he was dragged in chains to Istanbul and publicly beheaded. As a Sufi influenced Hanafi aligned Caliphate, as Furnish describes, the Ottoman Imperial State would brook no religious challenges from either proto-Salafists or messianic Mahdists and their harsh and uncompromising interpretations of Islam.

While Furnish is in particular an expert in apocalyptic Mahdist movements (see his books , Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden and Ten Years Captivation With the Mahdi’s Camps) he does not neglect the aspects of Ottoman military campaigns against self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammed Ahmad. The fact is that the Sudanese Mahdist state did not arise simply on cult like religious proclamations but the tactical prowess of the Mahdi and his commanders who repeatedly outfought a series of Ottoman-Egyptian armies with Turkish, Egyptian and British commanders included the heroic but ill-fated Charles “Chinese” Gordon.  While it is true that the head of the Mahdi was eventually dug up and carried away in Lord Kitchener’s kerosene can, Furnish uses the experience of the Sudanese to explain how a Mahdist movement can make the leap from movement to military insurgency to Maddiya, or Mahdist state that ruled much of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan for 17 years.  That the Almohads, who were even more successful than the Sudanese in that they replaced the Almoravid regime entirely also began under a Berber Mahdi, Ibn Tumart , demonstrates the potential danger if Mahdist movements are permitted to gain popular traction.

The Ottoman campaigns in Yemen against the Zaydi highland tribes have an all too familiar ring to them, echoing both the cruel but fruitless Saudi experience today as well America’s frustrating experience in Afghanistan. Indeed it is not hard to describe Yemen as the Afghanistan of the Arabian peninsula in which the Ottomans endured centuries long on and off again quagmire. Every tool in the modern COIN toolkit was applied in Yemen by Ottoman Pashas – bribery, clear and hold, reprisals, cultivation of local factions, divide and conquer, foreign proxies – nothing could establish Yemen as a docile vilyet integrated into the empire. Yemen had to be abandoned entirely by the Ottomans for very long periods of time and the best that could usually be mustered was Zaydi Imams ruling most of the country, pledging a face saving allegiance to the Sultan while the nominal Ottoman governor was reduced to twiddling his thumbs in Sa’na. And sometimes not even that.

Furnish closes The Coin of the Islamic Realm with a summation of lessons learned from the Ottoman experience to deal with fundamentalist and apocalyptic insurgencies in the Islamic world: be willing to take the kinetic fight to the enemy, interdict outside support, deny the use of safe havens, capture or kill charismatic insurgent leaders (especially Mahdists) enlist respected Muslim religious leaders to condemn the theological distortions, errors and crimes of the terrorists or guerillas. Sound advice, but difficult to do when US policymakers want to fight limited wars with unlimited objectives in far away lands without expending political capital against enemies they seldom have the courage to describe honestly in public. Hopefully when facing the next ISIS or al Qaida they will take Furnish’s advice to heart.

The Coin of the Islamic Realm by Timothy Furnish fills an important gap in COIN literature and is particularly helpful for laymen to get a fast understanding of the theological fracture points within the Islamic world that crystallized into political upheaval and armed rebellion against central authority. I for example, learned much about Zaydi Fivers and the Ottoman Turk relationship with Sufi orders that were previously unknown to me as well as the historical nuances of Islam as practiced in the world’s last great multinational Muslim empire. What stood out from Furnish’s highly contextual take is how deeply rooted America’s policy challenges with irregular violence in the greater Middle-East are as well as how difficult it is for our politicians and generals to profit from lessons learned many times, often painfully, by others.

Strongly recommended.

New Book from SWJ! The Plutocratic Insurgency Reader

Friday, July 26th, 2019

[Mark Safranski / zen]

Plutocratic Insurgency Reader edited by Robert J. Bunker and Pamela Ligouri-Bunker

The newest book published by Small Wars Journal contains 376 pages of essays by 15 contributors, a foreword by Nils Gilman and conclusion by longtime criminal insurgency analyst John SullivanWhat is a “plutocratic insurgency” you ask?

According to Robert Bunker:

The plutocratic insurgency concept dates back to 2011 and has been influenced by earlier work done by John Robb (Onward to a Hollow State, 2008) and Nils Gilman (Deviant Globalization, 2010). As a theoretical construct, it was further inspired by the global street protests and demonstrations of the Occupy movement taking place during that period. Research on this topical area for its U.S. national security threat potentials has been conducted related to U.S. Department of Defense and Army programs, with a number of works produced or derivative of these efforts; Op-Ed: Not Your Grandfather’s Insurgency (2014), Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies (2014), and Old and New Insurgency Forms (2016). Of these works, the “Foreword: The twin insurgency—facing plutocrats and criminals” written by Nils Gilman for the derivative 2014 edited book project—and reprinted online as The Twin Insurgency in The American Interest—is by far the best known and eloquent of these writings:

The defining feature of the plutocratic insurgency is its goal: to defund or de-provision public goods in order to defang a state that its adherents see as a threat to their prerogatives. (Note that, conceptually, plutocratic insurgencies differ from kleptocracies; the latter use the institutions of state to loot the population, whereas the former wish to neutralize those institutions in order to facilitate private-sector looting. In practice, these may overlap or co-mingle.) Practically speaking, plutocratic insurgency takes the form of efforts to lower taxes, which necessitates cutting spending on public goods; reducing regulations that restrict corporate action or protect workers; and defunding or privatizing public institutions such as schools, health care, infrastructure, and social space.

Review: Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

[mark safranski / “zen“]

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Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine

I have been a lifelong fan of The Lord of the Rings and of J.R.R. Tolkien generally, Tolkien being one of a small handful of writers who were formative influences in my youth and who remain favorites today. Therefore, I was quite pleased when Scott Shipman alerted me to the publication of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine. Other than Christopher Tolkien himself, there could not have be en a better author and editor of a retrospective look at Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth than McIlwaine, who is the longstanding Tolkien Archivist of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  The book, which includes original essays by Tolkien scholars, including McIlwaine herself, is a companion catalog to the major exhibition of the extensive Tolkien collection held by Bodleian:

The Bodleian Library will publish Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth as a companion to the forthcoming exhibition of the same name on 1 June 2018.

The “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibition will be held at the Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, from 1 June to 28 October 2018. It will feature an unprecedented array of Tolkien materials – manuscripts, paintings and maps – sourced from the Bodleian’s archive, Marquette University in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) and private collections.
According to The Bookseller, the companion book will be “the largest collection of material by J.R.R. Tolkien in a single volume”. It will also include “new” material, including draft manuscripts of The Hobbit, Middle-earth illustrations and paintings by Tolkien, and letters from admirers such as W.H. Auden, Joni Mitchell and Iris Murdoch.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is both a serious addition to any Tolkienphile’s library as well as a 411 page coffee table book full of resplendent pictures of Tolkien’s handmade artwork, annotated maps, marginalia, correspondence with publishers and authors, calligraphic character sketches from the legendarium and photographs from J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, many published for the first time. The essays, by John Garth, Verlyn Flieger, Carl F. Hostetter, Tom Shippey, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull as well as McIlwaine are thoughtful and reflective investigations and commentary on par with what readers would find in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. I particularly liked Shippey’s “Tolkien and that noble Northern spirit” and Garth’s ” Tolkien and the Inklings” but the entire catalog section contains informative and explanatory passages about the immense mythic legendarium that Tolkien created.

Friend of ZP, T. Greer has weighed in at The Scholar’s Stage with a superb post about the importance of J.R.R. Tolkien as a literary figure that is a must read for fans of Middle-Earth:

On The Tolkienic Hero

….Here I’ve sketched out an archetypal template. This is the template upon which the vast majority our era’s hero-tales are crafted. This is the story of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Jack Ryan. It is Captain America and Spiderman. It is the central trope of science fiction, fantasy, international thrillers, super hero stories, and their “YA literature” counterparts. It is the myth that drives the imaginations of our times.

For all of this we have John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to thank. I am sympathetic to the argument that Tolkien is the seminal Anglophone author of the 20th century. Perhaps his literary craft is deft enough to deserves that title. Perhaps it is not. Either way I wager that in a few centuries time when our descendants’ literary memory has collapsed our age down to one author (as we have done with the ages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton), Tolkien will be the man remembered. This is not just because Tolkien’s works have been fantastically popular, even decades after its first publication, and in cultural milieus quite divorced from its creation. Nor it is because in Tolkien we find the genesis of so many of our era’s most popular genres (fantasy, science fiction, role playing games, and so forth). Tolkien’s influence is both subtler and more fundamental than this. Tolkien redefined the way popular literature treats many of its most common themes. This post looks at only one of those themes, but I am comfortable with the contention that Tolkien’s work embodies an entire era’s way of understanding the world. It is hard to say if Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings actually created the central cultural currents of our age or if it is simply their most prominent and enduring incarnation. Either way, Tolkien’s work is here to stay.

Readers familiar with Lord of the Rings will immediately see the connections between my opening sketch and the tale of Tolkien’s ring-bearer. I am not going to devote an entire essay to this topic—a great deal has already been written about Tolkien’s conception of good and evil, power, corruption, innocence, and heroism, and I see no reason to repeat others’ feats here—but I will emphasize two points that deserve strong restatement.

The first point: An aversion to glory is not just the defining character trait of the novel’s central hero. The distinction between greatness and power as goods to be strived for versus greatness and power as burdens to be carried is the distinction that sets apart almost of all of the novel’s protagonists from their foils. It is the defining difference between Frodo and Smeagol, Faramir and Boromir, Aragorn and Denethor, and Gandalf and Saruman. The second trait saves Galadriel in exile; the first corrupts Sauron anew after his master’s defeat. If one is allowed to describe objects as foils, this same distinction sets Sauron’s rings, key to his strategy for corrupting Middle Earth, as a foil to the methods of the ‘wizards’ sent from Western lands to save Middle Earth….

Read the rest here.

Tolkien’s influence will be here to stay for many an age.


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