The Cultures of Middle Earth

Thanks to a friend for letting me borrow the extended versions of all three Lord of the Rings DVDs, I have been on a bit of a LOTR binge as of late! This has been highly gratifying because The Lord of the Rings is awesome and, for Tolkien lovers like myself, the extended versions of the movies attempt to depict aspects of the book that your average movie goer might not be interested in.

All of this being said, as I have watch the movies, I have been struck by a thought that I would like to share with you all here. The thought has to do with the very clear and distinct cultures laid out in The Lord of the Rings. When you read the books or watch the movies, the distinct cultures are very clear to behold. In The Fellowship of the Ring you start off in Hobbiton and get to see the culture of Hobbits. The next most significant culture is that of Rivendell and the culture of the Elves. After that you get to see the ruined culture of the dwarves in Moria and once again the reader/viewer is introduced to elvish culture in Lothlorien. In the transition to The Two Towers you are presented with one of the cultures of men in Rohan and finally, in The Return of the King, you are introduced to the epicenter of the culture of men in Gondor.

Not to worry, I have no intention of going into each of these cultures specifically. Furthermore, the astute reader will see that I have left out certain cultures (The Wizards, the Ents, the Dunadain) . What I would simply like to highlight in this post is the clarity of each culture. As you watch or read The Lord of the Rings and begin to look into these cultures you are presented with clear examples of what each culture views as right and wrong, honorable and dishonorable, glorious and inglorious, etcetera. Furthermore, you begin to see what each culture holds in esteem collectively, or as Augustine would say, what are each culture’s “loved objects held in common.”

The reason I want to point this out is because in many ways we have lost this in our day, and I believe Tolkien knew the West was losing this when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. To a very large degree, we have no true culture in the developed West (America, Western Europe…). We have adopted a culture of humanistic individualism (largely the result of enlightenment thinking) which has rendered the basic instincts of the individual as more important and more highly regarded than any set of beliefs or values that a society holds.

When a culture gives way to individualism it is essentially no longer a culture. Individualism calls for a myriad of individual cultures at the expense of any shared culture. Not only is this unsustainable (economically, morally, socially, etc) it also bad for the individual. In his great work The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis shows how all ancient societies believed that the minds of young people should be taught what it is that they should love. The Greeks, the Romans, and many others, did not believe that the basic desires of a young person where at all honorable or to be left to themselves. Instead, as Lewis highlights in The Abolition of Man, the mind of a young person should be taught what it is they should love. This is how a culture is made.

In The Lord of the Rings we are presented with many great cultures (most of which are in their zenith) and in confronting his readers with them, Tolkien forces us to take heed lest we allow or continue to allow our own cultures to stray so far from any objective foundation to build upon.

Obviously, if you haven’t read or watched The Lord of the Rings I would highly suggest you do so.

Food for thought.

Michael 

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