Messages in Celluloid - The defeat of Isengard
by Sol Aris (Shaul Volkov)
The recent amazing film rendition of the great Lord of the Rings saga has captivated the imagination of people throughout nearly the entire world. This is already a third generation inspired by this work, and it has been very gratifying to experience it much more powerfully now, through this new transformative medium.
A great deal has been written about the mythological origins of this epic, and the historical symbolic significance of many of its notions and characters. The very concept of the Nine Companions who formed the Fellowship of the Ring should sound immediately familiar to a researcher of the esoteric. Many other symbolic and arcane references are given in the story, some greatly amplified even beyond Tolkien's original meaning, through the incredibly talented effort of director Peter Jackson and the screenwriters.
Leaving the specific symbolism aside for the moment though, there is one important aspect of the story which has largely escaped wide public notice, most likely because it's not very pleasant to think about. Yet the particular parallel which is being drawn is possibly the most significant part of this work's underlying message.
On the face of it, Good and Evil appear to be very sharply and clearly defined in the story. The "bad guys" are the forces led by Sauron and Saruman, consisting of several types of creatures who can all be broadly labeled as "Orcs". Their opposition is composed mostly of a race called "Men", aided by some other beings, like elves, hobbits, and a dwarf. These are making a joint last stand to prevent Evil from taking over their entire world, called "Middle Earth".
Of the many creatures and races populating Middle Earth, we as viewers today would of course tend to identify ourselves with the Race of Men. After all, we belong to that race ourselves, don't we? And yet "the men" pictured in the film obviously inhabit a very different realm than ours. The pristine simplicity of its life and ideology really is reminiscent of many scenes from our history. But the vast variety of strictly mythical folk endowed by various "magical" abilities, indicates that no clear comparison can be made with our world. Perhaps this really was "us" in some long-ago prehistoric and forgotten age, but it is certainly not our reality today.
No, our behavior today, and in fact for untold generations, resembles not that of the Men of Middle Earth, but that of an altogether different creature form this epic. The Orc. It's a shocking realization which takes a while to sink in and fully appreciate. And it is the most vital message for us today from this work.
Historically, we humans are said to have evolved by struggling against various elements of Nature, its inconvenient climate, its dangerous animals, or unpredictable uproars. We've always treated Nature as subservient to our needs and molded it to suit us - damming rivers to make dry land, then cutting down forests to build dwellings on the "reclaimed" portions, and quarrying minerals to make these dwellings stronger and the building methods more effective.
For a very long time this did not matter, because our numbers were relatively small. But since time immemorial, our existence has also been based on Proliferation and Growth. The commandment "be fruitful and multiply" has been faithfully observed since our earliest days by nearly every single society all over the globe. And when population reached unbearable limits in any given place, the only solution was to expand further outwards, subduing yet another part of Nature.
This process has been best described, curiously enough, by the cruel Agent Smith in another important recent film saga, "The Matrix":
"Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague."
Interestingly, the character of Smith was played by the same actor who portrayed the Elven leader Elrond in the "Lord of the Rings", the wisest of Elves and a tireless champion of Men. Many avowed fans of the two series were deeply upset by the casting of Hugo Weaving in both roles. We've already gotten used to him as the utterly sinister Agent Smith who hated humanity, and it was difficult to reconcile that with Elrond's incessant goodwill towards mankind.
Yet this apparent incongruity can be settled if we realize that, strange as it may seem, the message of both characters is essentially the same on many counts! The above, for example, could easily have been something Elrond may have said. Except for one big difference - had he said it, Elrond would've been describing the behavior pattern of the Orcs, not of Men.
The Orcs of Middle Earth are shown waging a war on all of Creation which lies outside their own lands. They expand mercilessly and destroy everything in their path. They disrespect and detest any life form which differs from them. Their main desire seems to be to have everything look exactly like their own disgusting cities, where they presumably can "rule". And to that end they continuously create others like themselves, so that these can in turn go out and destroy still more.
Nowhere is this better shown than in the story of Saruman's city, Isengard. When we are introduced to it in the first film, "The Fellowship of the Ring", it starts out as a green and lovely vale, overgrown with trees and crossed with quiet walkways and boulevards. Yet from the moment Saruman turns "evil", the scene changes dramatically. His first and foremost command to his underlings is to tear down the entire forest, and use it for fueling the engines to build an army of Orcs for conquest.
We see the land around Isengard quickly transformed, as trees are uprooted and burned or dissolved into slime by the thousands, and deep caverns are dug into the earth, where the fires never stop burning to keep producing the army and its weaponry. A good look at the area is given from the vantage point of Gandalf's imprisonment on top of the tower, who gazes upon what seems like a celebration of wanton destruction, to the insatiable glee of the Orcs as each new tree is torn down and thrown into the never-ceasing fire.
Painful as it is to admit, but the scene Gandalf observes is in fact very reminiscent of many industrial zones from oil or coal producing regions in 19th Century Europe and America. The stories describe rivers of mud, oil, and garbage flowing through the streets of towns like Titusville and Pithole in northwest Pennsylvania, where the oil industry was born soon after the Civil War. The industrial zones of England looked even bleaker, and prompted the poet William Blake to describe them half a century earlier in his immortal "Jerusalem" as "these dark Satanic mills".
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