“Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
– Lord Acton (1834-1902)
“One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all,
and in the darkness bind them.”
– The Ring inscription in The Lord of the Rings
Few Prometheus Award winners incorporate an anti-authoritarian theme with more haunting power than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.
With Amazon Prime recently unveiling its mega-budgeted and long-awaited prequel to Lord of the Rings, this is an apt moment to recall that theme – summed up so well in Lord Acton’s famous dictum and symbolized so archetypically by Tolkien in his “One Ring to rule them all.”
That’s especially timely when Rings of Power offers such a vivid contrast to House of the Dragon, the other super-expensive prequel to another landmark television-adapted fantasy, but one with a much different and more cynical view of power.
Such an intriguing comparison is precisely what Atlantic Monthly and NR contributing writer David French offers in “It’s Time to Remember Tolkien.”
“I’m not here to compare and contrast the two shows…. Instead, I want to talk about the spirit of the two authors, and the ethos of their two worlds, and why America desperately needs to remember Tolkien again,” French writes in his Substack column, the latest in his “French Press” blog.
“…Perhaps the true rule of the game of thrones isn’t “Win or die” but rather “Win and die.” The quest for power, unmoored from virtue, is the doom of us all.
“Tolkien is fundamentally different. If Martin’s work is a mirror, Tolkien’s is stained glass. When you walk into an ancient cathedral, aside from the sheer grandeur of the building itself, the first thing you notice is the stained glass, but not just for its beauty. The glass is a source of light, and the glass typically tells a story — the story of sin and redemption.”
THE DANGERS OF POWER
“… there are deeper truths found in Tolkien’s work. The first is his profound suspicion of power.
“…One cannot truly defeat the enemy with the enemy’s tools. The ends cannot justify the means, even if the cost of that virtue is ruin and destruction. Tolkien knew that the alternative, the grasp for ultimate power, meant that the contest between good and evil would be transformed into a contest between evils. The raw quest for power will corrupt all it touches.”
But the above excerpts only give a hint of the subtleties, insights and nuanced attention to detail in understanding Tolkien (and Martin).
Some of French’s points parallel the Prometheus blog appreciation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Especially with both Rings of Power and House of the Dragon now available for streaming respectively on HBO Max and Amazon Prime, French’s whole essay is timely and worth reading in full.
It’s French’s latest careful and characteristically modest take on the multiple dimensions of America’s moral and spiritual crisis from his “French Press” blog, which generally focuses on ethics and politics from a principled and nonpartisan Christian and conservative perspective.
While French’s perspective is quite different from my own, I (and I think, other libertarian futurists will) find it intriguing because of the ways that it overlaps and echoes some libertarian insights about the dangerous seductions of power.
French also can be thought-provoking to read because his columns often tend to incorporate and reflect a respect for the role of liberty (among other necessary prerequisites) in any culture and civilization that aspires to be healthy, moral and humane.
TRANSCENDING THE SHADOW SIDE
Beyond his concern about abuse of power, French highlights even more the crucial role of love, faith and basic goodness in this and other essays:
“Why does America need to remember Tolkien again? Because we’re mired in Westeros, playing the game of thrones. When you hear words like “fight fire with fire,” or “make them play by their own rules,” or “punch back twice as hard,” or “wield power to reward friends and punish enemies,” you’re hearing an ethos that declares, “win or die.”
“Tolkien wasn’t naive. He knew that world. He’d confronted it directly (in World War I and II). That’s why characters like Boromir or Fëanor resonate so strongly. In the quest to confront the enemy, you become the enemy. Yet faithful people understand, in Faramir’s words, that they “do not wish for such triumphs.” Instead, they fix their eyes on the “high beauty” that is forever beyond the shadow’s reach.”
NOTE: David French is a senior editor at The Dispatch and a columnist for Time.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, a constitutional lawyer and an Iraq War veteran, French is a New York Times bestselling author.
His most recent book is Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.
* Prometheus winners: For the list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.
3 thoughts on “Remembering Tolkien – and his cautionary theme about the lure of power – as Rings of Power series debuts opposite House of Dragons”
I’ve only seen the first episode all the way through to the end, and a few moments of the second. It is entertaining and provides more Tolkien visuals where there hasn’t been for a little while. But at the same time it seemed a bit slow here and there, and preachy. Maybe just me. Not sure if that was literal JRR or not.
And trying not to give anything away, there’s a casual dispatch of a foe that I found a little too slick for Tolkien, and more along the lines of a movie producer.
I certainly agree in finding Tolkien’s worldview more congenial than Martin’s. But I don’t see The Rings of Power having any discernable relation to any but the most superficial aspects of Tolkien’s work.
I’ve just seen the first three episodes of Rings of Power (which do capture the visual look and the fictional universe as well as the six previous films did), but so far, I can’t disagree.
Yet, I remain cautiously hopeful that this prequel, partly based on some of Tolkien’s other minor works and historical notes, will ultimately prove entertaining and worthwhile. Perhaps it will even explore some of the central themes of good and evil and how power tends to corrupt that made Lord of the Rings such a libertarian classic.