Socialism, Nationalism, and Tolkien

“Deep indeed run the roots of Evil, and the black sap is strong in them. That tree will never be slain. Let men hew it as often as they may, it will thrust up shoots again as soon as they turn aside.”

It is with this depressing thought that Borlas begins his dialogue about the nature of evil with his interlocutor Saelon in The New Shadow, J.R.R. Tolkien’s scrapped sequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The text is brief, just the beginning of a novel that was meant to show “the inevitable boredom of Men with the good.” Amazon has brought attention to what occurred before the trilogy in its new series The Rings of Power, but it is worth examining the few pages Tolkien wrote in which he explored what came next. His understanding of human nature makes what little of The New Shadow that he wrote deeply insightful, and an unsettling warning about our own political climate.

As a devout Catholic, Tolkien believed we live in a sinful, fallen world that will never be perfected by human hands. It’s a concept reflected in his works; the whole of the Middle Earth writings is a saga about the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall of evil. Over and over again, Middle Earth is faced with a dark force, which Middle Eartheans band together to defeat, only to see another malevolent threat rise after. The lesson ought to be clear: At best, evil can be guarded against and squashed out when it first starts to rear its head. But the inhabitants of Middle Earth, like those of our world, tend not to go for that strategy, falling, instead, into complacency. As Tolkien noted in one of his letters, mankind has a “quick satiety with good.”

This satiety is bad enough when it leads to blindness to the rise of a new evil, but in The New Shadow, Tolkien sought to explore a more frightening outcome of it: What happens when people don’t just ignore the threat of evil, but forget why it is a threat to begin with. Set in one of the kingdoms of men, Gondor, 105 years after the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sauron and his Orcs have been relegated to the stuff of legend while all the humans who fought them have died off. Only a few survive who have even the slightest memory of the War of the Ring from their childhood, and having known nothing but peace and prosperity for their entire lives, a restless sect of young Gondorians become fascinated by the evil figures of old. Boys run around committing acts of vandalism pretending to be Orcs, and there are whispers that a cult devoted to the old evil has begun. Our introduction to these goings-on is through the conversation between the elderly Borlas, who was a boy during the War of the Ring, and Saelon, a young man who subtly reveals he may be a part of the new cult. The two go back and forth, each using the conversation to probe the extent of the other’s knowledge of the cult while debating morality.

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