Where tech aligns

Tolkien and the Nature of Making

Industrial modernity is J.R.R. Tolkien’s arch-nemesis, but his work might contain unexpected forgiveness for the juggernaut of late-capitalism wresting his world.

The first items that I ever bought on Amazon.com were a songbook by Johannes Brahms (short works for solo piano) and a biography of Clara Schumann (composer wife to the composer Robert). The year was 2000, pre-9/11, when the order-fulfillment-service website was still in its infancy, peddling hard- and soft-cover imperishables with a market-savvy that seems terrifying in retrospect. As a matter of fiscal viability and corporate branding, one might wonder, why make books the originary stock-in-trade? They do have an impressive shelf-life, resistant to spoilage even when stored in an entrepreneurial garage. They keep well, from month to month and from age to age, spawning a perennial audience. Also, though masses of garbage masquerade as literature in every era, I suspect Amazon trusted the bookstore’s aura of literariness to cloak its rapacious business model in hipster credibility, the kind that would appeal to a consumer-base of upwardly mobile web-users then discontented with chain retailers like Borders or Barnes & Noble. (The branding choice, I imagine, would have tested well with focus groups.) Back then, all corporate dreams of global domination and extraterrestrial joyriding were still just a twinkle in the merry eyes of the founder. I have no memory of this millennium-turning purchase, which was surely made on behalf of my former wife, a pianist with a fine hand for Brahms. She played on a cherry-wood Yamaha that we rented from a music store for thirty dollars a month. The specific order date – Dec. 14 – tells me that this must have been a Christmas gift. Though I have no living memory of this bibliographic transaction, there it is, in my personal account history, a biographical fact.

As an organization, Amazon didn’t so much grow up as blow up. The corporate metastasis must be the greatest triumph of the middle-man ever achieved, the most successful act of capitalist horning-in available in the economic record. With The Washington Post and Whole Foods now in the outfit’s extended portfolio, and having moved on to produce and sell actual things (Kindles, Fires, Alexas, New Shepard rockets, you name it), Amazon’s acquisition of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (by Amazon Studios) feels like an afterthought. It was, in any case, inevitable. What, excepting maybe a well-provisioned hobbit, could hope to escape the sweep and ken of The Everything Store? With a billion-dollar price tag, the series debuted on September 4, hyped as the most expensive television show ever made. It opened, no less, to stiff competition from HBO’s Game of Thrones spin-off, House of the Dragon. Game on, as it were. 

Rumor has it that something besides streaming-media market share inspired Amazon’s quest to score The Rings of Power: namely, Bezos has professed deep personal admiration for Tolkien’s work. In some ways, this feeling of kinship makes perfect sense. Tolkien’s vast imaginarium – he invented not just a fictional world, but a cosmos, replete with two classes of gods, fracturing supercontinents, dream-augmented flora and fauna, three evolving humanoid peoples (depending on how you tally), and a glorious profusion of tongues – is among the few literary achievements that might rival Amazon’s sense of scale. And the series’ plotline, with its forging of enchanted rings meant to yoke sovereign realms under one megalomaniacal overlord, correlates eerily with Amazon’s corporate brief. But I suspect something pettier played a role in Amazon’s latest splurge. The show’s title phrase, Rings of Power, probably resonated in special ways with Amazon’s executives, reminiscent of those power rings that glow LED green or blue on all of the devices that furbish the modern household. (In the gaming community, among Xbox users, there’s a catastrophic hardware malfunction known as the Red Ring of Death.) The coincidence feels charmed.

As all concerned parties know by now, The Rings of Power mines the Appendices in The Return of the King for dramatic material. Meanwhile, the biggest prize in the Tolkien rights sweepstakes – the prequel to the trilogy, The Silmarillion, published posthumously in 1977 – remains off limits to buyers, per the wise steward of the writer’s estate. An anthology of interrelated short works, The Silmarillion appears predestined for screen-adaptation because the epic storyline of its title saga mirrors the audience-tested plot from LOTR: enchanted jewels are crafted, then stolen, and a cataclysmic Age-ending war ensues. Actually, LOTR’s Appendices include a very brief overview of the prequel saga, so it remains a mystery how the estate dissuaded Amazon’s screenwriters from unauthorized plunder. The short synopsis intones a theme that ripples throughout the Ages of Middle-earth to wash up at last on the doorstep of Amazon Studios: “Fëanor was the greatest of the Eldar [elves] in arts and lore, but also the proudest and most selfwilled,” it begins. “He wrought the Three Jewels, the Silmarilli, and filled them with the radiance of the Two Trees, Telperion and Laurelin, that gave light to the land of the [gods].” Now the Act II turn: “The jewels were coveted by Morgoth the Enemy, who stole them and, after destroying the Trees, took them to Middle-earth, and guarded them in his great fortress of Thangorodrim.” The theft leads the elves to spurn the gods, strike tents in the Blessed Realm, steal by force a fleet of marvelous ships from their own coastal cousins, and seek vengeance and restitution in Middle-earth. At one point, a love-struck human undertakes a quest very like Frodo’s, and meets with something like Frodo’s success, journeying to Morgoth’s lair to wrest a Silmaril from his iron crown. The parallels between the epics, between Fëanor’s and Sauron’s feats of jewel-craft, are unmistakable. The teleplay virtually writes itself. 

It’s easy to sneer at Amazon’s unslakable appetite for acquisition, hard not to resent those infinitely deep pockets that afford every indulgence, even the purchase of large swaths of Middle-earth. And the Studios’ flagship series will continue to take lumps for the flat-footed identity representation encoded in its casting and script, one person’s equity (of contemporary persons) being another’s exploitation (of artistic vision, its own kind of ideological horning-in). The show may well capsize amid the heaving commentary. But to the larger questions – can Amazon be a capable steward of Tolkien’s legacy, either on screen or in print? what would Tolkien make of this high-tech impertinence? – the answers would appear to be obvious.

The environmentalist thrust of Tolkien’s novels – where tree-like creatures count among the heroes; the elements and terrain are dramatis personae – itself seems sufficient to rebuke Amazon and its digitized legions of Prime subscribers (200 million at last count, including my now-and-forever wife, a mere fraction of the global population, I suppose). But in a 1939 essay, Tolkien addresses the subject more directly, and he doesn’t mince words when expounding his distaste for live-action fantasy or his disgust for the Robot Age in general. Ostensibly re-defining the twee genre known as fairy tales – to make room for legendary tales of sword and sorcery – Tolkien ponders the “values and functions” of such works, among which he numbers “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.” The latter three lead Tolkien to shout out his reverence for the natural world and to infuse the genre’s conventions with a Catholic Christian’s spirituality, but it’s in discussing the first, Fantasy, that he admonishes all cinematic adaptations and links the labors of Bezos to the forges of Mordor. The particular aptness or ineptitude of The Rings of Power is really beside the point. 

When discussing the special virtues of Fantasy, Tolkien all but proscribes staged dramatizations: “In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature…. [T]he visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it.” On this front, not even Shakespeare escapes censure. Tolkien scolds him for the fantastical witches in Macbeth, which seem ludicrous on the stage, less so on the page: “Macbeth is indeed the work of a playwright who ought … to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that.” Though movie-making was ascendant in 1939 – Disney’s Snow White premiered in 1937, on the yuletide solstice – Tolkien considers only the schism between stage drama and fiction, stressing their fundamental incompatibility. Those who happen to prefer the former to the latter “are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage plays,” which precisely exclude Tolkien’s singular gifts. Theater people are likely to “prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things. Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play.” 

More, arguably, about mallorn trees might be captured and articulated via CGI. But when summing up, in an endnote, the stark difference between the two genres or modes, Tolkien stresses the matchless virtue of literary reading: “The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive… at once more universal and more poignantly particular.” His old-school point finds support among the theories of postmodern eminences like Wolfgang Iser (strange company for a tweedy don), who likewise stresses the imaginative intimacy of reading (see the surprisingly legible “The Reading Process”). 

Another of the essay’s endnotes offers Tolkien’s final word on the subject, cutting across time to throw shade on the efforts of Bezos and co. Tolkien considers the case of A.A. Milne (of Pooh fame), a self-professed “great admirer” of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which he (Milne) adapted for the stage. Tolkien’s verdict on the production is casually withering, light-handed scorn that lands equally on Amazon’s showrunners: “a perceptive admirer (as distinct from a great admirer) of the book would never have attempted to dramatize it.”  

Tolkien might have raged epically against the machine, but he was no Thoreau, no Muir, no Audubon. The creator of the bucolic Shire was not indifferent to creature comforts, and though he imagined Mordor as a blast furnace, he was also the lead architect of both Minas Tirith and Rivendell, as well as the idea-guy for mithril (the legendary dwarvish chainmail of diamantine sparkle and toughness): he loved human-made things, well-made things, of all kinds. A marital spat among the gods, in The Silmarillion, captures the tension between the antipoles of nature and culture, as Tolkien felt it. The goddess of the forest mourns the environmental degradation sure to follow from the peopling of Middle-earth (aka, Arda), particularly the flint-hearted delving of the dwarves. Her husband, god of the earth and the crafts of making, tries to reassure her, saying people “shall use all that they find in Arda: though not, by the purpose of Eru [the highest god], without respect or gratitude.” Uncomforted, the goddess, who holds “trees most dear,” dreads particularly the coming deforestation, and she remains uneasy until her grief incites Eru’s divine intervention: the compensatory creation of ents, guardians of the forests. When the goddess lords news of this fiat over her husband, a mythological “I-told-you-so” moment, his curt reply, on behalf of Middle-earth’s blundering populace, sums up Tolkien’s brand of naturalism: “Nonetheless they will have need of wood.” For Tolkien, human making, the work of culture, is also imbued with the divine.

In 2015, Oculus debuted a VR game (subsequently nixed and never released) based on The Hobbit films, particularly Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug in his Lonely Mountain lair. The demo ended with the intrepid gamer roasted in dragon fire. Tolkien’s 1939 essay seems to anticipate such technological wizardry when he contemplates the legendary stage plays of elves: the immersion in the Secondary World of the elvish play is so complete as to constitute a delusion, a crossing of the boundary between imagination and reality. Tolkien might harbor some admiration for the pseudo-elvish craft of VR, though he doesn’t recommend the experience. In fact, at this juncture, he makes an important distinction that provides a framework for understanding not just The Rings of Power, but Amazon’s place in the global supply chain. 

The overwhelming immersion of elvish plays Tolkien classifies as Magic, a deplorable exercise of power; the magician seeks to dominate and subsume “things and wills.” What Tolkien calls Art, on the other hand, engineers a more benevolent Enchantment (all irregular caps in this essay are Tolkien’s): audiences suspend disbelief and invest the imagined world with credibility, but never confuse the virtual illusion with actual reality. The creative desire that manifests in Fantasy, for Tolkien, seeks neither “delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.”

This distinction, between two kinds of making, is at the very heart of Tolkien’s storytelling. Power-seeking is the cardinal sin among creators, for Tolkien, the hamartia that defines Sauron, corrupts Saruman, and dooms the Ringwraiths, as well as a long line of worthies (Isildur, Boromir, the high elf Féanor, and the entire island of Nûmenor). The absence of this desire (for power), a wise restraint and self-contentedness, defines Tolkien’s heroes: Gandalf doesn’t trust himself with the One Ring, Sam totes it for a brief spell, his “plain hobbit-sense” countering its grand temptations, and only steadfast Frodo can be relied upon to carry the thing to the lava (where even he fails to pitch it in). The Silmarillion seeds this ethical framework into the very inception of the universe. 

In line with his Catholicism, Tolkien’s creation myth posits a singular godhead on the order of Yahweh – called Eru, the One, or most often Ilúvatar, all essence and no tangible substance. But spawned from Ilúvatar’s thought is a pantheon of lesser gods, called the Valar, on the model of the Norse myths that Tolkien loved: seven lords and seven queens, all associated with the elements and the natural world, plus one Lucifer figure named Melkor, aka Morgoth, the Dark Enemy of the World. Most pertinent is what we learn about the aforementioned Aulë, patron deity of all smiths, artisans, and craftspersons. Aulë is one of Melkor’s two main rivals, the restorative yin to a raging yang. (The enmity between Aulë and Melkor is analogous to that between Gandalf and Sauron.) And Aulë, with that golden name, models an idealized attitude toward creation: “the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made, and neither in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work.” 

Another short work in The Silmarillion reiterates this thematic node, harping on the ethics of making. Both Aulë and Melkor “desired to make things of their own that should be new and unthought of by others, and delighted in praise of their skill. But Aulë remained faithful to Eru and submitted all that he did to his will; and he did not envy the works of others, but sought and gave counsel. Whereas Melkor spent his spirit in envy and hate, until at last he could make nothing save in mockery of the thought of others.” Exhibit A of Melkor’s creative perversity: it was Melkor who bred the Orcs, through a cruel kind of bioengineering worked upon captured elves, perhaps his “vilest deed … and the most hateful to Ilúvatar.” 

In a parallel creative act, Aulë too spawned a new humanoid race, working in secret to give life to the dwarves, an upstart transgression motivated by his impatience to meet the Children of Ilûvatar (the elves and humans) that he knew would wake soon on the creationist Middle-earth. For his troubles, he gets a talking-to from Ilúvatar, who asks whether Aulë sought to create subordinates and slaves to his will. And Aulë responds with pious humility: “I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä [the created world], which thou hast caused to be.” In his defense, he offers a classic Tolkienien apology for the creative impulse: “the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” For Tolkien, creative making is a form of gift-giving and genuflection. 

This ethical ideal would seem to cast Amazon as an agent of Melkor. Amazon, in theory, proffers “shared enrichment … and delight” to its corporate partners and third-party businesses, extending the Faustian promise of greater sales. But in actual corporate practice – discounting prices and eating losses to bust competitors, strong-arming distribution deals with unprecedented bargaining power, building actual gargantuan warehouses around the world (sites with cheap land, lucrative tax incentives, interstate-transport access, and a workforce amenable to counting steps), offering free delivery as a sweetener to cancel the one downside of not existing IRL (cue the Amazon Store in which Pinocchio pretends he’s a real boy), and launching a global fleet of blue delivery box-trucks (the sight of which cheered me during the darkest days of the pandemic, when little else stirred) – the resultant disproportion of profits (Amazon’s astronomical bloat to everyone else’s tightened belts), the accelerated pace and waste of global consumption, irrespective of quality or need, suggests that Amazon is a short-sighted dream, a nightmare really, of maximum power.

A contractual relationship with Amazon seems very much like Sauron’s bait-and-switch concerning the Rings of Power. These pages of The Silmarillion read like a mythologized version of the retail giant’s history, with Bezos in the role of Sauron. Taking up the incognito Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, Sauron exploits division among the elvish peoples and widens the rift between them and the Valar. Rebuffed by Elrond and another elvish leader Gil-galad, he seeks out those who “desired ever to increase the skill and subtlety of their works,” in a manner at odds with the will of the Valar (read, the forces of nature). As part of his pitch, Sauron asks, “Can it be that [the holdouts and naysayers] do not desire to see other lands become as blissful as their own? … Is it not then our task to labour together for [Middle-earth’s] enrichment?” It’s the same-old huckster’s con, predicated on mutual benefits, that ends with the sucker stretched over a barrel. And thus, the elves fabricate their share of the Rings of Power.

Not until Sauron forges the One Ring do the elves sense his treachery and renege, perceiving that “he would be master of them, and of all that they wrought.” Those book publishers who signed distribution deals with Amazon must know the feeling.  

Besides, or behind, the question of Amazon’s omnivoracity, when I consider Tolkien’s thoughts on artful making, I start to wonder, rockets or no rockets, whether Amazon can be said to make anything but money. Siphoning nickels from the sales transactions for other people’s goods: even if those transactions were more numerous than the stars, I can’t imagine a smaller human ambition. I understand the appeal of locating esoteric songbooks or scoring hard-to-find hair product while in one’s pajamas, the bliss of perusing all conceivable consumer delights on a single searchable, forever-open-for-business website. But what sensible human wouldn’t balk at the idea of smuggling shopping malls into living rooms and turning kitchen tables into points of sale? What reader could believe that books are better with batteries? Boosting volume and load, making consumption more convenient and “frictionless,” seems, these days, like: worst idea possible. There’s no such thing as free shipping. That Amazon, for its troubles, is so egregiously rewarded offends any reasonable sense of proportion, though I confess that my personal sense has been conditioned and calibrated by long years of reading. 

Literary works have their own economy, in which all things are meet, all things suffice. Patterns proliferate; far-flung particulars cross-reference and converse in a meaningful nexus, like neurons in the reading brain or links in a swatch of mithril. However encyclopedic in scope or maximalist in style, good books offer an education in thrift, frugality, parsimony – in an ecologically viable medium, no less. This wordcraft is what the truth of literature entails: not some external truth about how things are, but the palpable internal truth of their forms, the trued nature of the form. This truth goes by another name, beauty, and Tolkien felt it in language itself: “It has always been with me,” he writes, in a 1955 letter to W.H. Auden, “the sensibility to linguistic pattern which affects me like colour or music.” But this quality inheres in his own epic novels. 

Though not as deep, dense, intricate, or subtle as the great books beyond the fantasy genre (from Paradise Lost to Infinite Jest), The Silmarillion is the work of a skilled craftsman with a special genius for language and a booming, world-rendering imagination. As should be clear by now, narrative episodes and thematic nodes echo and rhyme. Put it this way: twice in the geological history of Middle-earth, the gods haul an island across the sea to bring a worthy people closer to the immortal land of Aman. The White Tree of Minas Tirith? Descends from a lineage of predecessors – Nimloth in Númenor, Celeborn in the elves’ Eressëa, Galathilion in the elves’ Túna, Telperion in Valinor (Aman): again and again the seedling is replanted, drifting ever farther from its divine origins.

Consider Fëanor, the maker of the Silmarils. Proud and possessive of his work, he’s hell-bent on recovering the jewels because he knows he can never craft their like again. But in order to pursue the crook across the sea, Fëanor himself steals the white ships of his kinsfolk, which they value for an identical reason: “these are to us as are the gems of the Noldor: the work of our hearts, whose like we shall not make again.” Blind to his own hypocrisy, Fëanor not only steals the ships but sets fire to them – no going back, lads – upon arriving in Middle-earth. The parallels and repetitions produce a thematic clarity and logical unity, but also, in aggregate, a palpable, perhaps irrational beauty.

In Middle-earth, malfeasance is inevitably laced with déjà vu, and Fëanor’s particular breach, of the maker’s ethical ideal, extends all the way back to Tolkien’s origin story. And it’s here, at this distance, from this cosmic vantage point, that Tolkien’s work begins to smile upon the works of Amazon and confer upon its frantic labors a measure of grace. 

In Tolkien’s creation myth – an inspired resolution to the conundrum of the Big Bang – Ilúvatar and the Valar occupy their eternal selves with singing, at first separately but eventually in concert. Melkor, seeking “to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself,” introduces a melody-warping dissonance, and the other Valar rally to compensate and restore order. The music swells three times, threatening to descend into chaos and catastrophe, and Ilúvatar intervenes, three times, initially enriching the harmony, but finally stopping the music altogether. Melkor’s self-glorifying creative urge, synonymous with power-seeking, stands as the original sin, repeated over and over through the ages: in Fëanor’s hubris, the downfall of Númenor, the rise of Sauron. 

The theme radiates further: the treachery of the wizard Saruman, who wishes to rule a patch of Middle-earth for himself, reads like a diminished echo of Sauron’s otherworldly evil. The likeness of their names, the supernatural saurian slouching toward the human, is no coincidence. And Saruman’s final end transports us from the fantasy-rich days of old Middle-earth straight into the Fourth Age, when the same conflicts play out in a less magical key. Recall that, with the One Ring destroyed and the Two Towers toppled or taken, Saruman, a sorcerer no more, is granted a stay of execution, left to roam free with his minion Wormtongue in Middle-earth. He beats the hobbits home to the Shire and, in a hostile takeover, begins a reign of bullying, abuse, extortion, imprisonment, and environmental degradation, aided by a band of human ruffians. Eventually, he gets his shocking and gruesome comeuppance, but you can feel the way that Tolkien weaves the narrative to bind the mythic saga of Middle-earth to our more ordinary and familiar human strife. In this light, the best-laid plans of Amazon’s board appear like a cosmic inevitability, a dissonant chord that yet holds a place in the great chain of being.

Elsewhere, Tolkien writes, early and late in his epics, how nothing falls outside of the song or lies beyond the will of Ilúvatar. Of foolish, wasteful, exploitative humans we learn, “These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.” Though I don’t share Tolkien’s creationist theology, at moments like this, I begin to appreciate its beauty, all things, even malevolence, being meet in the end: as if all the universe were a single concatenated work of art. This vision doesn’t necessarily end in fatalism or predestination; it isn’t a blank-check to indulge worst impulses, abide injustice, or shrug at stupidity. The good fight – resisting Amazon’s wares and wiles, minding your own ecological footprint (buy less shit, forsake “convenience,” drive much less, lay off your cellphone, read more and better books, limit your drain on the power grid, and maybe learn the names of your neighborhood trees, who might not begrudge their pulping for Tolkien’s novels; or wait, I suppose, until we no longer have a choice): this too is woven in the song.    

Tolkien’s creation myth would appear to offer back-handed charity to our post-industrial, Information-Age modernity, a sort of rueful assent to moronic capitalism. But Tolkien’s cosmogony reserves a special benediction for the aims of Amazon’s showrunners, and for the millions of Prime subscribers who will find The Rings of Power enthralling. Unbeknownst to the Valar, their song constituted and contained the entire history and prehistory of life on Middle-earth; all the ages of the world to come are the song, translated into the grammar of life itself. Ilúvatar reveals this marvel to them (for one show only) in a vision, and, amazed, feeling for the first time an existential otherness and its ontological absence, they plead with the godhead to give this secondary vision actual and tangible form, to etch it into the facts of the primary cosmos, to make it real. Ilúvatar obliges, saying, “Eä! Let these things Be! … And suddenly the [Valar] saw afar off a light, as it were a cloud with a living heart of flame; and they knew that this was no vision only, but that Ilúvatar had made a new thing: Eä, the World that Is.” Even deities are susceptible to this desire, to cast the song, modulated breath, an imaginative figment, into a single visible form. The longing, in this light, feels, if not sainted or sacred, at least benign. But unlike Ilúvatar’s transient vision, Tolkien’s world abides well enough in his own words, endlessly rekindled in the minds of his readers, no batteries or blockbuster budgets required. That should suffice.