cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Dictatorship and Pre-Modernity in the Popular Consciousness

I went to a free lecture tonight, called "Heil Aragorn! The Fuhrer-Ideology in Contemporary Fantasy Literature" by Robert Stuart.

Okay, I admit it. I was dubious about the whole idea of linking Fuhrer ideology and The Lord of the Rings. Extremely dubious. In fact, judging by the abstract, I would have bet real, hard cash that it was some cheap, ill-considered, superficial grab for a catchy title from someone who knew the fantasy genre not at all.

Oh, how wrong I was.

"Heil Aragorn!" was fascinating, well-informed, cleverly presented, logical, convincing, passionate, and contextualised in terms of history, philosophy and genre. It was easily the best of the public lectures I've been to so far this semester.

An Overview of 'Heil Aragorn!'

Stuart handed out a one-page overview of his key points. I'm not going to run through it all in detail here, because I couldn't do it justice. However, the argument went something like this:

  • Stuart began by linking the trends in fantasy to 'real' historical events:

    • Popular texts work as society's 'ideological imaginary'. They show the kinds of desires that lurk beneath the hegemony, especially with our current totalitising ideology of liberal democracy (ie. there is no real alternative we can actively live out in the West. This is one of the ideas of postmodernism: that we exist at the end of history).

    • Stuart gave examples of these same trends in earlier popular fantasy fiction, specifically the Volkish SF&F in pre-Nazi Germany.

    • There's been an explosion of pastoral fantasy in the last 30 years, which is backwards looking (rather than the forwards-looking themes of SF), and which corresponds pretty closely with this rise of liberal democracy as hegemony (Thatcherite Britain, etc).

  • Rethinking dictators from the inside -- they don't think of themselves as evil:

    • There is actually a long tradition of dictators with some legitimacy when put into historical context. For instance the Caesars (and the 'Tsar' and 'Kaiser' both come from that word).

    • From this perspective the dictator embodies the people in his own, often semi-divine, body. He is considered to be acting for the common good.

    • We still do this, although less overtly: the publicity seems to be telling us we are voting for Kevin or John, not Labour or Liberal, in the upcoming election.

    • Genre fantasy returns us to an unproblematised world in which the Good King (Aragorn) faces off against the Bad King (Sauron).

  • Genre fantasy as anti-Modernity

    • Modernity's motto is 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' with a focus on city-dwelling and science.

    • Pre-Modernity's motto is 'Authority, Hierarchy and Community' with a focus on greenspace and magic.

    • Fantasy signals a hunger for this earlier model of social organisation, or perhaps just for an alternative to the current liberal democratic hegemony, and pre-Modernity is a model we know.

  • Authority figures in contemporary fantasy

    • Aragorn ties into this idea of the Caesar as a divine dictator who embodies the people -- when he's crowned, he waits to be hailed by the people before entering his city.

    • I'm skipping some fascinating stuff here about Tolkien's life-philosophy, Nazi ideals, Modernism vs pre-Modernism, how the seeming anarchy of the Shire actually fits into this ideal version of pre-Modern dictatorship, and a whole heap of other evidence to support Stuart's argument and flesh things out. I don't know enough about some of the historical movements and pre-Modern story forms to really discuss them accurately.

    • Given all that, though, Stuart argues that the Ring in The Lord of the Rings symbolises the machinery of Modernity (mass production, weapons of mass destruction, science, cities), and that if used to forward the goals of pre-Modernity, it corrupts the ideal dictator so that he becomes the evil dictator.

    • This is why people like Gandalf and Galadriel are tested with an offer of the Ring -- they would become Sauron if they used the machinery of Modernity to achieve power in a pre-Modern system of governance.

    • This is what all the 20th-Century dictators have done in the real world -- taken the Ring, with the idea that the ends justify the means.

    • Aragorn, by contrast, uses the pre-Modern tools (individual artisans, armies, magic, pastoral) to win his pre-Modern role as Caesar.

I really wish I could do the argument more justice. It was so interesting, and I can't wait to read Stuart's book on Tolkien and pre-Modernity once he's finished it.
Tags: acafandom, discussion, lectures, politics
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