The ring: Not quite as scary as it could be.
When we think of ‘lord of the rings’, we think of the stereotypical medieval fantasy realm. It’s got noble kings, beautiful queens, brave heroes, despicable villains, shining swords, magic rings, and poxy elves.
What we don’t realise is that Lord of the Rings is basically the fantasy version of Mad Max (Note to Americans: ‘The Road Warrior’).
The very concept of a post-apocalyptic setting is that there was once a mighty civilisation that was brought low, with powerful science and technology at its disposal. Survivors scrabble in the dust for the relics of the past to try and control who keeps the dreams alive.
I can hear the anguished howling of the fantasy purists now, but bear with me, and I’ll explain why, through reading the appendices and The Silmarillion I have come to this conclusion:
1) There was once a great cataclysm
Numenor: Not a place to build a summer home.
Tolkien waxes poetic about how things have changed. The world is not the place it once was. Things are no longer as good as they used to be. Stuff keeps breaking down and there is a general air, even in the most advanced societies, of decay and entropy.
This is very similar to most post-apocalyptic storylines, where heroes have to not only fight against menaces, but their computer/weapons/armour/vehicles are in dwindling supply due to the fall of the nations that supported them.
2) Magic/technology is nothing like it used to be
The original ‘right stuff’
Lord of the Rings is famous for having wizards who do suspiciously little magic. We only meet three of them, and one of those (Radagast) is only ever seen in a flashback anyway. For all that people scrape and bow to them, the wizards don’t really seem to do a heck of a lot. Gandalf in particular is vaguely unwelcome in most places he goes, simply because he stirs up trouble. What we later find is that these ‘wizards’ are not of any of the major races, but are effectively angelic heralds of great power, some of which (such as Sauron) have fallen from grace and have become (effectively) demons.
For all of their power and might, though, the wizards of Lord of the Rings are a pretty paltry lot compared to the mighty Valar above them that ran around doing absolutely mind-blowing stuff when Middle-Earth was young.
So what? I hear you say.
Well, it’s just that the more powerful entities don’t really bother with the world anymore, leaving their lesser successors to do their work. The world has fallen after so many great wars, and they just can’t be bothered anymore as their mighty trees have been destroyed (or something).
Magic itself is contained in items, such as the rings forged by the elves and Sauron. That’s kind of like saying ‘well we all used to fly by using our imagination, but now we have to use aeroplanes because the power is no longer with us’.
Mystic communication balls and magic swords that are used in Lord of the Rings are often referred to as ‘ancient’ or ‘something that we no longer possess the knowledge to make’.
I like to think of it this way: The most terrifying item in Lord of the Rings is the ring itself. A magical artefact/macguffin so insanely powerful that it corrupts those who possess it and is alluded to have the power to raise armies and fortresses, and dominate the will of lesser beings (but all we ever see it do is make people invisible).
That’s all well and good, except for the fact that the ancient elves of the earlier age would have laughed at the Ring of Power and thrown it away as ‘cheap junk jewellery’.
Another way to look at it is in a modern post-apocalyptic setting, where one hero has a handgun and a limited supply of ammunition. Everyone else is armed with improvised clubs and swords. This makes the hero powerful, but ‘in the old days, EVERYONE in the army had a handgun’. Well, so too it is the same in Lord of the Rings. Magic swords and other powerful artefacts from times past that are preciously hoarded and given only to the mightiest heroes were once ten-a-penny and doled out to the lowest soldier.
Remember, the leader of the ringwraiths is not slain by Eowyn. She just provides the bravado, special effects, and distraction. Boring normal steel would not bother him one bit. The thing that kills him is a tiny dagger wielded by a halfling that stabbed him in the back of the knee…. Except it was a pre-apocalypse weapon designed for just that purpose (“No other blade, not though mightier hands had wielded it, would have dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will”)
That’s right. Even the tiny daggers in pre-apocalypse Middle-Earth were kick-arse.
3) Architecture is ancient and crumbling
Orthanc: Unbreakable, but also sadly no longer build-able
Quick! What’s the biggest and mightiest city in Lord of the Rings? Why, Gondor of course! Gondor! Mighty remnant of older, better times!
Except it’s kinda crap.
Gondor is described as mostly empty, with a dwindling population. The ‘high men’ (such as Aragorn) who built and lived there had long since vanished and were replaced with regular ‘men’ (such as your average Rohirrim).
More than that, Gondor was considered at the time of its building to be nothing more than a glorified watchtower.
It’s like the post-apocalyptic movie where you finally see one speck of civilisation left in the festering desert, and it’s actually just some outback town.
This leads us onto….
4) Armies are tiny
Morgoth’s mighty big horse still seems puny compared to his armies of dragons and balrogs
In a post-apocalyptic world, armies are pretty difficult to raise, and even more difficult to maintain. Lord of the Rings is no different. Aragorn himself laments that their entire army is no bigger than the vanguard of Gondor during its height.
(Note that around this point came the most confusing line for my ten-year-old brain when I first read it ‘It was through a mist that presently he saw the van of the men of Gondor approaching’. I never understood why Gondor never used the van to at least carry their stuff.)
Sauron’s armies of Orcs are, if larger than that of Gondor, still comparatively tiny. In order to do any sort of assault at all, Sauron needs to call in every favour he’s got with every ally he has in order to get something like an army together.
Sauron’s boss, in the old days, wouldn’t have put up with that kind of crap. He’d have just spawned about a million more orcs.
Legolas just about wets his pants in Moria when confronted with a balrog (‘”‘Ai! Ai!’ wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog is come!'” “of all elf-banes the most deadly, save the one that sits in the Dark Tower.”!’). Funny thing, that’s just ONE balrog. It totally kills Gandalf until he is rescued by the power of Deus ex Machina. Now imagine WHOLE ARMIES of them…. That’s what life was like back in the pre-apocalypse days.
5) Elves are even more poxy
Yes, that’s Legolas as he was imagined by people before the movies.
I’m not a fan of elves overmuch. Not in Lord of the Rings, not in Dungeons and Dragons, not in most fantasy settings. At worst, I see them as annoying mary-sue characters for impotent DMs and PCs; at best they are a sexually-transmitted-disease vector. Why else would there be so many bloody half-elves running around being snooty at people?
Anyway, the elves of The Silmarillion are absolutely godlike in their incredible abilities. Their power is legendary, their magic incredible. They are truly some of the greatest heroes that Tolkien has ever written. Fast-forward to the time of Lord of the Rings and the best we’ve got is Legolas, a ‘dark elf’ (as in, he has never seen the Light of the Trees) of mirkwood. Any of those ancient elves would merely tolerate him and his ‘awesome elvish abilities’ like an Olympic athlete would tolerate a 5-year-old’s long-jump attempt.
As with all post-apocalyptic settings, we get a glimpse of what once was in the form of three different elves:
– Elrond halfelven was around during the time of the Last Alliance of men and elves. He was considered kinda crap by everyone and carried the banner for the actual heroes. By the time of Lord of the Rings he is considered massively powerful and has huge respect, even if he does seem to pass the time by running a retirement village.
– Glorfindel is the archtypical pre-apocalypse Elvish badarse. He is fairly quiet and unassuming, but when confronted by seven of the Nine, he whips off his hood, lights up the gem on his brow, and takes them on quite comfortably. It’s alluded to that the seven get the stuffing knocked out of them by a single, unassuming elf before going on to get pulped at the ford of brunien. Certainly, at the council of Elrond, Glorfindel just shrugs off that he took on seven undead unkillable wraiths all by himself as if it were not big thing at all.
– Galadriel is probably the oldest being in Middle-earth apart from one or two others. Her power is legendary, and she wields a ring, although in secret because otherwise the local bully would nick it, or something. We don’t see her doing much except giving the weary travellers tea and biscuits, as well as some useful (pre-apocalypse) items, the scarcity of which is commented on at the time.
6) Dragons are gone
This picture graced my bedroom wall for pretty much my entire childhood.
Smaug was, as far as anyone can fathom, the last of the dragons. While he claimed to be ‘the magnificent’, he didn’t seem to have really made a name for himself much outside of eating a lot of dwarves that nobody else wanted. Other dragons fought wars and did great deeds. Smaug sat counting his treasure mound and was the last one to die.
Which only goes to show that it sometimes pays to be an accountant, even if you are a dragon.
So there you have it: Tolkien invented Mad Max Fantasy. I believe it’s why the story has never been eclipsed by other, regular ‘high fantasy’ stories, due to its grim outlook and gritty scrabble-in-the-dirt-for-what’s-left violence.