Repercussions of Extremism
Less in shame than shut in ear is narrow in thought. Open wide the doors and bid enter seeds of knowledge that lo! wisdom’s fruit might grow!
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I am disappointed. Or if not disappointed, then most certainly dissatisfied to some considerable extent. More than such disgruntlement, however, I can safely and with all surety say that I am saddened by the treatment the majority of people apply when reading the works of Tolkien, namely one of the greatest errors people can and do make: using, without thought, heavy doses of “extremism” in their judgments of Tolkien’s lore.
I put the word “extremism” in quotes because my version of the word takes the literal meaning of it slightly out of context. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of extremism is: “any political theory favoring immoderate uncompromising policies.”
My own definition is a lot simpler: “people taking facts to the extreme”. Evidence of this is thoroughly littered all over the place and Tolkien’s world, Tolkien’s characters more precisely, must suffer the grave consequences. Initially, such a concept of treating Tolkien’s works with extremism might look misplaced in its supposed severity when, in reality, no plausible way exists that it could create a lasting effect of consequences. Before delving into this error most people don’t even know they make (so be careful, for you might be one of them), below are listed examples to illustrate my point, examples of the more common opinions I’ve seen that are bleeding from the wounds of conclusions drawn with "extremism".
· From the whole fiasco of his interaction with Beren, it’s clear that Thingol must be a tyrannical king in all but name.*
· Because Galadriel helped calm Celeborn in his heartache, she wears the pants in their marriage.*
· The Sindar are, at best, country cousins compared to the Noldor, or rather the Noldor are simply better than them with everything.*
· Fëanor was an evil Elf and deserved to die.*
· Galadriel is faultless and able to do everything.*
· Thranduil had no right to imprison the Dwarves.*
· Hobbits are like children.*
· The Valar are perfect.*
Based on what Tolkien wrote, all of these examples couldn’t be further from the truth. Extremism, in short, is taking things out of perspective. There is an undercurrent of an innate refusal to take into account both sides of the story when analyzing a situation. This is the sole prerogative of a jury in court, to listen intently to both sides of the story before casting a final judgment. To do otherwise would be to brand the jury with the infraction of partiality, which no juror wishes to bear the consequences of. However, this monitored impartiality is an effort that needs to be practiced and forced. (Such is why the lawyers bring their cases before a judge in a courtroom.) But the key word there is practiced. Whether in real life situations or, in this case, reading the works of Tolkien, one must force himself to practice applying objectivity (or keeping things in perspective) before allowing the spur of emotions they feel when reading to overshadow the actual meaning of the passage in the book.
And I will be the first person to admit that this technique is not easy to do. It’s believable that everybody has trouble with it, or at least the general populace. So one must ask himself: Why do we all, at least at some point in our lives, subconsciously think in the ways of extremism? Or being that this is recognizable in the general opinions of Tolkien’s work, is it only with Tolkien that we do? No. Tolkien is literary proof that we do. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and all other affiliated works act as a mundane material that one can see and touch (metaphorically) and write about, whether in format of stories or essays. As a noticeable entity, Tolkien’s world acts as a lesser scale to how the populace generally treats reality with extremism.
No shame exists in admitting that one’s guilty of thinking this way outside of Tolkien and applying it to the very settings that make up the fabric of our life. Personally, I know I have and still do, though my gratitude goes to Tolkien for being a factor that opened my eyes to this. In the most basic of terms, “extremism” is black and white. Right and wrong. Though one might acknowledge that a grey area exists in between there somewhere, he subconsciously works to ignore it. Actually paying attention to that grey area would only make life more difficult, because that would necessitate actually having to decide about what is right or wrong, what side of the story reigns superior to the other, even if only by a little. Deciding is far more difficult than just resorting to a quick and simple answer (i.e. “He’s wearing black – my gosh, he’s so goth.” “He hugged another man – my gosh, he’s so gay.”).
Sadly, this mournful way of thinking is aided and abetted by the continual dumbing down of society in terms of “thinking for ourselves”, as well as the utter loss of the values of morality. Society itself demands and encourages extremism, black and white, in how a person functions daily. Society expects a man to maintain his routine: wake up, go to work, come home, do errands, have dinner, relax, go to sleep, wake up, go to work, come home….An established routine that is encouraged by a dominate mindset of society eliminates a person’s innate ability (and instinctive yearning) to take control of their lives and live rather than go through the motions in order to live. Extremism in terms of routine, drawing conclusions on something, and/or having it as a default attitude in one’s daily activities….Doing this may make “living” easier to undertake, but it is far less rewarding and enjoyable. Making decisions and engaging one’s own mind to find the grey matter between black and white is what makes a man independent, makes him “his own man” in terms of idealism and livelihood. Thinking for oneself is what makes a person an individual instead of “just another human being”. And modern society certainly doesn’t want this. Logically, it would seem as juxtaposition* with the notion of extremes in our world, in that one would abhor such an idea, but then we subconsciously do it without thinking. And that’s the key phrase; without thinking.
But back to Tolkien; while it may not be surprising that we use the same version of extremism (taking things to the extreme without thinking about it), it doesn’t lessen the abhorrence of it happening or the need for it to stop, especially because Tolkien is the target more than any other book. And why does one do it mostly with Tolkien? Because Tolkien is the perfect scapegoat out of all available. His world of virtues no longer exists. His world of honor, chivalry, compassion, generosity, tradition (to name a few) is so legendary, so foreign to our modern world that, in some respects, Tolkien’s “world” is unrecognizable to the average person who doesn’t go to think about it. Instead, if something of the modern deficiency of ethics is insinuated somewhere in Tolkien’s stories, the audience latches onto it, mostly without a second thought. For example, many people take to the extreme and blow way out of proportion the line “If the king had a weakness it was for treasure…” They completely dismiss the paramount usage of the word “IF” and see that last bit as greed. Just as they see Thranduil simply enjoying the occasional wine as an addiction. These two “traits” of money and alcohol are something society understands perfectly. Everything else is not necessarily “real”. And if it’s not “real”, who cares what one says about it? I beg to differ.
· For those who believe Thingol to be the worst Elf and a horrible king, what would you say to what Tolkien writes about how Fingolfin “acknowledged the high-kingship of Thingol and Menegroth, being indeed greatly in awe of that king, mightiest of the Eldar save Fëanor only.” 
· For those who think Galadriel can read anyone’s mind when she wants, what would you say to how Tolkien writes that “mind-reading” is not only conditionally impossible, but is also lawed to be of the worst of violations? 
· For those who believe the Valar are right in everything they say or do, what would you say to how Tolkien writes that the Elves were never meant to leave Cuiviénen? 
· For those who believe Beren to be right in telling Thingol off, what about how his attitude and his words towards the king “earned him death”? 
Now, it’s impractical to think one must know all canon there is to achieve some semblance of understanding. The above examples are the fruit, however, of being willing enough in mind to search for answers, to try and obtain understanding of a broader picture one just might not yet have a whole visual of.
But when a person latches onto something that society as a whole can recognize – money and alcohol with Thranduil, chauvinistic prude with Thingol, brawny sidekick with Sam, to name a few – the person not only inflates it beyond reason, but also exploits it so that society and the “modern fantasy reader” would not only recognize it, but approve of it, since it would then be set within the parameters of our rules. And once one accidentally does this concluding without thinking, it gets easier to do it every time after that. And when the many repetitions of misinterpreting what Tolkien wrote piles up, it ultimately transforms into a downward spiral of detriment to the characters and virtues behind them. And goodness knows the movies only made it worse.
And then, when one takes something about one of Tolkien’s characters to the extreme, false assumption immediately follows. And false assumption is the death of Tolkien characters. Anyone who takes Tolkien seriously would never stoop to this, and those who do so have most probably done a mediocre effort to comprehend what they read. Giving such a mediocre effort in Tolkien’s world doesn’t require us to think, to evaluate characters based on their deeds and not condemning words such as “greed” or “Kinslaying” or “pride”. Because if one takes what Tolkien wrote at face value based simply on his initial reaction, then the depth Tolkien imbued in his works is thoroughly eradicated to be replaced with reductionism, a reduction of the facts taken out of perspective. “Fëanor, who made jewelry, was evil. So his grandson Celebrimbor, who also made jewelry, is evil.” “Aragorn and Arwen mirror the scenario of Beren and Lúthien.” “Thranduil is a bad king, so Oropher must have been even worse.”
But here is something that must be taken at face value: in Tolkien’s world, answers are not handed to the reader on a platter. Círdan the Shipwright, for example, was one who Awoke at Cuiviénen.* But nowhere does Tolkien state this directly in canon. Instead, an unbelievable amount of sources had to be connected for this truth to be revealed. One aspect treasured of Tolkien’s world is that it’s a philosophical creation. Tolkien doesn’t dictate to you what you must think or provide the answers to the resultant questions from the narrative. You have to discover it. You have to “figure it out” and put the puzzle pieces together yourself. When you have no aid in discovering the answers Tolkien left us to find, taking things to the extreme is not the best way to start finding them. Such would be like making a cake and putting salt instead of sugar into the batter; no matter how much icing you coat the final product in, the cake is still ultimately ruined (and disgusting). Having things in their simplest form of black and white is desired by all, but those with some modicum of intelligence recognize that reality (just as much as Tolkien’s world) is grey everywhere.
How can one best fix this error while reading Tolkien? THINK ABOUT IT. Think about what you are reading before casting a final judgment without giving both sides of the story a fair hearing. Don’t condemn Thingol as being a horrible person after his interaction with Beren before considering Thingol's viewpoint; I myself was amazed what Tolkien wrote about his own side of the story (I may seem obsessive of him here, but as an example Thingol is probably the greatest to use for being the victim of extremism).
Tolkien deserves better from his audience than shallow thought. My context of “extremism” may seem harmless on the surface, but the repercussions of it echo more loudly than any other error people might make, especially in the writing of stories. And personally, I would encourage every person who has a habit of this to be rid of it, for I myself once read Tolkien with a narrow mind. And once I stopped, Tolkien’s world, already so great beyond imagine, exploded in vastness from a galaxy to a universe. And there have been no regrets since, only a greater understanding of all the hidden things that Tolkien wrote in between the lines. Try it. It’s worth it.
*All of these examples/topics will be the topics of upcoming posts.
1. “The Grey Annals” HoME XI.21
2. “Myths Transformed” HoME X.398-9
3. “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” HoME X.362
4. “Of Beren and Lúthien” Silm.166