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Tolkien and Technology

January 28, 2003

A public radio commentary

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings enchants because it let's us escape into another world called "Middle Earth." Yet, odd as this fantasy world is, it carries an important message for our world.

Tolkien placed at the center of his saga the question of how technology fits into our lives.

The story appears to be about the Quest to destroy a ring with incredible powers, but hidden not below the surface is a clear message about technology.

Throughout the Lord of the Rings Tolkien often characterizes evil as technology. For example, one of the major villains, a Wizard called Saruman, lives in a place Tolkien calls "Isengard." Tolkien, who was an Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, knew Isengard meant "iron yard", what we might call an industrial park. Inside that iron yard the evil Wizard Saruman spends his days building mills, chopping down forest, and blowing things up. He creates a system of tunnels and dams, and vents for poisonous gases and fires. Tolkien writes that "wheels and engines and explosions always delight" Saurman and his followers. The idea of machines appears again when he describes the evil Saruman as having "a mind of metal and wheels."

In contrast to this evil were the Hobbits. A simple, small people who have an agrarian economy. Tolkien once wrote to a friend "I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and [I] like good plain food (unrefrigerated) ....

Tolkien lived a life as opposed as possible to technology. During his lifetime he rejected trains, television and refrigerated food. He did own a car, but sold it at the beginning of World War II. By that time Tolkien perceived the damage cars and their new roads were doing to the landscape. He came to think of the internal combustion engine as the greatest evil ever put upon this Earth.

His experiences with war colored his view of technological change. He served in the trenches during World War I and experienced technology as fighter planes, tanks, bombings, and flame-throwers. "By 1918," he once said, "all but one of my close friends were dead."

Small wonder he disliked the immense power behind technology. In many ways the great theme of the Lord of the Rings is that no one should have dominion over the world. The Lord of the Rings is an anti-quest, with its goal to destroy universal power forever. Herein lies Tolkien's message to us, what make his Lord of the Rings still ring true today. He refused to let the material world draw the boundaries of life, and though his small Hobbits he asserted the individual's right and responsibility to shape the decisions and structures that determine their life.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises