Scribbler’s Saga #88 – Perspective and Other War Crimes

Posted: July 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

The Great War of the Ring ends with Sauron’s master ring dropped into Mt. Doom. The whole of Mordor blows up as if the gods themselves want that blighted land just gone. The lava in the movie was a nice touch. Aragorn gets his crown. The hobbits go home to rumble the previously ignored Saruman out of the Shire. And what happens next?

According to the Appendices at the end of The Return of the King, Aragorn undertook several campaigns to reestablish the full reach of the Númenórian Empire of which Gondor was the surviving vestige. Included therein is the offhand acknowledgment that various orc bands that survived the Biblical scale destruction of Mordor albeit in greatly weakened state were subdued. Interesting, did the men of Gondor and, more to the point, King Aragorn commit war crimes in securing his throne?

By today’s real world reckoning, yes. Call The Hague. But, is it necessarily a crime inside the narrative presented in the story? And now we have ourselves a literary analysis essay touching on the conditions where a campaign of total war against a population might be deemed necessary or even acceptable.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy genres as a rule treat war in a small handful of ways. One, war is bad and the occurrence represents a failure to communicate before the shooting starts. Two, the author chose an enemy of a generally faceless character with an objective of total war against us and we, the good guys, are totally justified in dishing out what they intend to do to us, but do it first as the old saying goes. Three, a blended concept where the necessities of the Second Proposition conflict with the doubt, soul sickness and PTSD built into the aftermath of the First Proposition.

Let’s talk about the faceless and uncaring enemy trope. Fred Saberhagen writing his Berserker series proposed a race of sentient machines roaming the galaxy wiping out all biological life due to programming by races that fought each other to a standstill. The Machines won the war and then turned on their creators exterminating them in turn. Leaving the personification of death to roam the galaxy killing without mercy…until they bumped into the Solarian humans (people of Earth), depicted as being the surviving race who were otherwise still too emotionally close to their barbaric war making phase. “You’re our last hope, people of Earth.”

Saberhagen used this series mostly to present updates to various stories from historical, mythological and literary sources and then towards the end he went with a more traditional recurring hero possibly drawing from rogues like Han Solo. The later books didn’t land quite as well, but that’s just me. Throughout the series, the Machines remorselessly sterilize whole planets even down to the bread mold.

The story Stone Place retells the The Battle of Lepanto making sure to include the political rivalries of two brothers leading up to the great sea battle that checked the Muslim Turks of the Ottoman Empire from further expansion into Europe, a crusade by another name. Even the ram and boarding tactics of the original battle are replicated. All to present the story of a regular assault marine falling in love with a political bride promised to the Great Johann Karlsen (an analogue to the historical Juan Carlos who led the real battle).

Or maybe you wanted a rehash of The Battle of Midway where Saberhagen didn’t even hide his sources choosing to spell the battleship Arizona left in harbor backwards: Anozira. And the great film director John Ford, historically recorded at Midway to capture the action on film, makes an appearance. Or maybe you like Moby Dick? Also part of the series.

Now, Mr. Saberhagen was fully aware of the differing perspectives on war. Even though The Machines are coming and like the Terminator – “You still don’t get it, do you? He’ll find her! That’s what he does! That’s all he does!” – people who don’t fully appreciate the totality of the war abound. They’re called Good Life, a term the Machines use to denote life forms that break and provide temporary assistance in order to be killed later than everyone else.

Some Good Life do so because they can’t comprehend the totality of war and think they can behave like the people in the story about a group of people running away from the tiger behind them – “I don’t have to be the fastest person, just faster than the slowest person.” Other Good Life are depicted as falling into a strange worship of machines and death clearly making reference to historical death cults like the Thuggee. Opposing this process is a second version of the Templars who fanatically oppose all things Berserker and Good Life.

Now, let’s go with a more current version of the trope of the faceless enemy: zombies. As I write this, the Night King bears down on Winterfell advancing behind the snow flurries of the Long Winter. He builds his army of White Walkers every time he kills a member of the Living. Only weapons of obsidian or the unobtanium of Valyrian steel can harm these snow zombies. Bran Stark, the Three-Eyed Raven, offers to act as bait to draw him out…tune in next week.

A more traditional zombie infestation is heavily influenced by George Romero giving the immortal rule of shoot ‘em in the head. Movie zombies are typically depicted as made by some kind of supernaturally affected virus that kills the soul without immediately killing the body allowing transmission to others before the host rots. You can’t reason with a movie zombie anymore than a Terminator. Haitian zombies are something else that only gave the movie zombie its name.

The acceptability of Kill them All during a zombie outbreak trades on the fear factor of a disease. Black Death. Ebola-Zaire. Marburg. Its coming and…shoot ‘em in the head and burn your dead friends behind you. I’ve never heard of anyone experiencing these stories ever expressing remorse. It is, in strict point of fact, us or them and raise a beer at the remembrance ceremony in honor of the dead.

The diseases referenced don’t exactly fit the trope of the remorseless enemy. Plague, Ebola and Marburg all function by the spread of bodily fluids typically wiping out doctors and other caregivers first who then spread the disease to the rest of the population. The strictest of quarantine protocols must be kept, at least in any pre-Industrial society that doesn’t know how to make Class Four protective gear. But, the metaphor holds up slightly in that the quarantine procedures to allow your city to survive Plague requires at least as much tragic resolve as Shoot Your Already Dead Grandmother in the Head. We tell these stories over and over again along with all the others.

Back to Middle Earth. Aragorn wiped out the remaining orcs. These actions dovetail with possibly our race memories of once sharing the planet with our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthal. And now they’re gone. Additionally, Tolkien’s entire realm of Middle Earth takes on a character of previous times on our own planet.

There are textual references in the Appendices and The Silmarillion that hint at Middle Earth basically being Atlantis. Hobbits refer to the Big Dipper as the Plow. Same star field available to all who look up at the night sky…interesting.

Curiously the drowning of the Middle Earth version of Atlantis happens in two stages, the second one only implied long after Tolkien ends the story. The first happened in the First Age. The lands west of the Blue Mountains, Ered Luin, fall into the sea forcing a temporary return to the island of Númenór.

Númenór also falls into the sea because of its arrogance forcing a return back to Middle Earth kickstarting the Númenórian Empire of Gondor and Arnor that Aragorn rebuilds after the War of the Ring. To do it, he wipes out the orcs with no word about negotiating spheres of influence, Romulan Neutral zones or even treaties of friendship. It certainly dovetails with the absence of Neanderthal, except as a cool SF trope about cloning, something best left for other essays.

And to make the Atlantis analogy stick, I’ve intentionally buried the lead about Tolkien himself making the linkage between Middle Earth and Atlantis. He wrote in the same Oxbridge writing groups as his friend C.S. Lewis. In The Space Trilogy, Mr. Lewis specifically had his overtly Christian protagonist, Ransom, link Númenór to earlier Atlantan times as part of the eternal fight with darkness using a footnote to promote Tolkien’s work.

I have no word as to whether Tolkien and Lewis were even aware of Robert E. Howard’s post-Atlantean works including Conan the Barbarian, or how they felt if they did know, but theoretically the crossover fan fiction could be awesome. But, I digress.

Did Aragorn commit war crimes or rather Crimes Against Orcs? Depends on your perspective that guides how you choose to interpret what is actually on Tolkien’s pages. Honestly, it could go either way.

Tolkien asserted that orcs were once elves taken by the original evil lord, Morgoth (Sauron originally was just this guy’s right hand, think Beelzebub to Lucifer) for the purposes of ruining because Morgoth’s anger at all things made by Illúvatar is so profound that there is no separate peace. Similarly trolls are wrecked Tree-ents and so on. Is it ever acceptable to obey Divine Will so completely that you slaughter whole peoples? Again depends.

The examples of the remorseless foe given above solve one of the problems of the trope, that of relatability to the enemy. Berserkers and their literary descendants, such as Skynet and the Doomsday Machine from the Star Trek episode of the same name certainly qualify as faceless and remorseless. And the average zombie infestation counts more as a disease story where the Living protect themselves by isolating the Dead or diseased by way of violent quarantine. Do orcs count in this regard?

Tolkien may not have fully understood the contradictions lurking in his own writing. Few of us do until we read our stories back long after or a good friend points them out on a beta read. Judging from the totality of what’s on the page in both Lord of the Rings and the greater expanded work in Silmarillion he landed somewhere in the middle.

Orcs were the unholy spawn of Morgoth that don’t deserve to breathe the same air as men, elves, dwarves and hobbits. But, then in The Return of the King Frodo and Sam march across the Plains Of Mordor in the shadow of Mt. Doom wearing orc armor to properly infiltrate a land where no hobbit in his right mind would dare go. They are grabbed up into an orc battalion marching to the Black Gate and the orcs march to their version of a Jody – “where there is a whip there’s a way” that includes call and response lyrics of “I don’t want to go to war today!”

You, Dear Reader, might have missed this moment in the movie. Don’t feel bad, it’s not there. The book had it as did the Rankin-Bass animated version of Return of the King produced to take up the slack from the Ralph Bakshi movie that only got the story completed up through The Two Towers. Gee, orcs not really feeling like marching to war and have to be whipped by their sergeants and other officers? Certainly, a juxtaposition between that and the fact that orcs eat the other sentient species of Middle Earth, even amongst themselves.

Orcs with antiwar sentiments versus the command from the local name for God to clean up the unholy creations of the Evil One, in a campaign for total war? Decisions, decisions. Again, what’s your perspective?

Much has been made by writers I presume to be to be smarter on the subject of Tolkien concerning his presumed experiences and influences. The man served at the Somme and took a bullet that sent him home with lingering lung issues where he could then complete his PhD at his Oxbridge university. So witnessed what nearly total war looks like, check.

Did he write the modestly sympathetic portrayal of orcs in Return of the King as part of the truth that most warriors come to understand and respect the soldiers on the other side once they get to know them after the war? Without reading more of his letters and nonfiction writing, I don’t know and the answer might not be there because we don’t always write about our subconscious motivations after the fact of our books.

Much has been made of Tolkien and Lewis intentionally drawing from Christian theology in their works. A theology where the story of the Flood plays huge. The actual black ink scripture simply says that people so offended God that he decided to wipe the whole planet out except for the one representative Man (Adam), his wife, three sons and their wives. We pissed off the Creator; we died. God felt bad about it afterwards and promised not to do anything like the Flood ever again putting the rainbow in the sky as the symbol of that covenant.

But, there are a few indirect mentions in the Bible of fallen angels called Nephilim (Numb. 13:33, Jude 1:6) doing mighty works against the wishes of God. And a prohibition against the Sons of God mating with the Daughters of Man (Gen. 6.4) leading into the Flood narrative. These hints have been used by Biblical Literalists to explain why we can go to a museum to look at dinosaur bones. Or to make certain jokes like Gary Larson’s Far Side – “Oh, right, that’s it for the unicorns, all predators are now confined to C deck.” If so, perhaps we’re better off without orcs or the monsters drowned in the Flood? But, only if you accept orcs as a construct of pure evil with no redeeming features. We’ve seen above that Tolkien may not have been sure himself.

Real world genocides have been justified by rhetoric exactly like how Tolkien described the orcs. The difference between orcs on the one side and Jews, Armenians, Rohinga and Tutsis on the other side is this, these people are verifiably human and, if we breathe down a moment we see this. We understand Shakespeare’s imperfect attempt to address this with the Shylock Speech. We also see how Tevye the Milkman in The Fiddler on the Roof shows how all of anti-Semitic stereotyping is just lies. In a village where Jews have been segregated away from the good Orthodox Christians of Tsarist Russia, you see a normal range of social stratification and they aren’t all bankers, loan sharks and so on.

I have an ugly additional thought. Tolkien’s work was written at a time when Fantasy was automatically shunted into a for kids thought process. Can we make an argument for Tolkien’s orcs as a representation of pure evil and thus behaving more like Terminators, Berserkers or zombies because kids were assumed to have a more black and white moral outlook than adults and thus have less tolerance for evil? I don’t know and don’t know if I will ever learn the answer.

Enjoying The Lord of the Rings for some people will depend on the perspective they bring to the read. I give the work a great deal of benefit of doubt. I was presented with a villain with vast supernatural power and titanic rage with which to lash out at perceived enemies. I will accept the author’s word that orcs define the exception that proves the rule that we should breathe and discern as best as we are able if we’re being lied to when told about the Hated Other. Your mileage may vary.

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