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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Politics, Power and Hobbits

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is a terrific movie about politics.

Why? Because it's about power. And that's what politics is all about: power, and the temptations that confront the powerful. Always.

To be sure, the movie watcher must wade through three hours of mostly mumbo-jumbo about hobbits and halflings, elves and orcs, and listen to dialogue such as, "I will bind myself to you, Aragorn of the Dunedain. For you I will forsake the immortal life of my people." But the experience is rewarding because at the core of the film is the vast erudition and sharp moral vision of the British novelist J.R.R. Tolkien.

A medieval scholar by training, Tolkien had settled into a comfortable life as an Oxford don only to discover that he lived near some of the bloodiest bombing of the Nazi Blitzkrieg in 1940. So while "The Hobbit," published in the pre-World War II year of 1937, is comparatively light, the three sequels published in the postwar 1950s -- "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "Return of the King" -- are darker in tone, preoccupied as they are with the temptation of power and the corruption that comes to the powerful.

Temptation, of course, is a common theme in the Western tradition, from Adam and Eve to Dr. Faustus. Yet the worst tempting in modern times has not been for the fruits of knowledge, but rather for the red meat of power, as seen in the totalitarian regimes that haunted Tolkien's life.

So it's fitting that the author wrapped his quartet of novels around the Ring of Gyges. The ring of who? According to a story cited in Plato's work of political science, "The Republic," written some 2,400 years ago, Gyges was a shepherd who found a gold ring. Putting it on, he discovered that it was magic and enabled him to become invisible whenever he pleased. Drunk with power, he traveled to the castle in the capital, seducing the queen and killing the king, all with impunity because he couldn't be detected. And so the question: If such absolute power existed, wouldn't anyone, even a virtuous person, be tempted to wield such might for his own selfish purposes?

Plato answered by describing an ideal society, in which people would want to do good for the sake of goodness. But what if they were naughty, not nice? Plato's hypothetical republic would be ruled by "guardians" who would oversee their behavior. But there's the rub, the mega-question about such guarded utopias: "Who will guard the guardians?"

In a democracy, of course, the answer is: "We all will." But Tolkien was writing in a time when fascists and communists, not democrats, seemed to be the wave of the future. As governments grew ever bigger, the need to safeguard against the power of would-be guardians pushing "progress" was a deep concern of Tolkien, who idealized the simpler folkways of Old England.

And so he spun out his own stories, in which good and bad characters alike are tempted and twisted, like Gyges of earlier yore, by lust for various magic rings, including the Ring of Sauron -- "one ring to rule them all." Tolkien's tales were disturbing because he presumed that nobody would be completely immune to such enticement.

Ultimately, Tolkien's fantasyland of "Middle-earth" is a place of happy endings, but he was thinking also of another ring cycle that ended sadly -- and then was acted out in the real world. "The Ring of the Nibelungen," the quartet of operas written by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, is a kind of weird musical cousin of Tolkien's work. Wagner, too, was inspired by pre-Christian visions of Northern European myth and magic. But Wagner's theme was tragic, even catastrophic; decades later, the last act of the last opera, "Gotterdammerung," in which the Norse gods are destroyed by fire, became a source of suicidal inspiration to Adolf Hitler as, late in the war, Der Fuhrer pushed for the final destruction of Europe.

And while Hitler was unique in his dictatorial monstrosity, the moral of Tolkien's story is valid for the politics of today and every day: Trust no one with power, least of all yourself.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday, to which he contributed this comment.