In his recent American Prospect Online article, "Attack of the Metaphors," Matthew Nisbet lucidly explains why even though it shouldn't, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones will inevitably come to shape this nation's ongoing political debate about cloning. George Lucas's take on this technology, Nisbet argues, resonates with themes from Brave New World, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and other influential texts concerned with misuses of science, from The Island of Dr. Moreau to Jurassic Park. Besides Star Wars itself, perhaps the most recent work in this genre is Spider Man, yet another tale of hubris, science run amok, and unwise manipulations of nature -- specifically, the genetic engineering of spiders -- by human beings.
There are any number of reasons, plot not the least of them, that modern science fiction and fantasy take up these motifs with such frequency. But here -- as the U.S. Senate's cloning debate fortuitously coincides with another Senate cloning debate contained within Attack of the Clones -- Idea Log would like to draw attention to one oft-neglected factor. When it comes to the relationship between the fantasy and sci-fi genres and worries about technology, there's a huge elephant in the room. So huge, in fact, that it's some half a million words long. The novel in question, in case you hadn't guessed, is J.R.R. Tolkien's 1954-55 fantasy romance The Lord of the Rings (LOTR).
Tolkien's impact on both science fiction and fantasy is immense. It's probably no exaggeration to say that the fantasy genre as we know it today, which encompasses hundreds of English language novels published each year -- many of them "Tolclones" -- wouldn't exist without him. As Jane Chance, a Tolkienist and English professor at Rice University, once put it to this writer, "He's not only the grandfather of 'Dungeons & Dragons,' but of the entire sci-fi fantasy genre as a popular phenomenon." Indeed, the greatest Tolclone of them all may be Harry Potter. The parallels between Rowling's "Wormtail" and Tolkien's "Wormtongue" -- or between her soulless, black-clad "Dementors" and Tolkien's "Ringwraiths" -- are only the most obvious ways that her books draw on LOTR.
Star Wars, too, contains countless echoes of The Lord of the Rings. Both texts, for example, feature the creation, through biotechnological (or magical) means, of a sinister army of dangerous warriors. In Lucas's story these are the clones, the brainchild of the devious Palpatine; in Tolkien's they are the fighting Uruk-Hai, spawned by the traitor, Saruman.
And Tolkien wasn't using this manipulation-of-nature theme merely to advance a plot. A kind of twentieth century William Blake, Tolkien despised and distrusted technology in most, if not all, of its forms. He gave up driving and refused to own a television, or use a washing machine. In a letter, he expressed his disgust with the modern world as follows: "There is only one bright spot ... and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations ... But it won't do any good, if it is not universal." It's no defamation to say that Tolkien was a full-fledged Luddite. And given his foundational influence on sci-fi and fantasy, as Attack of the Clones hits theaters it may be only fitting to bestow upon him a more grandiose title: Lord of the Luddites.
The Lord of the Rings has long appealed to radicals (and reactionaries), especially those animated by a strong desire to restore more simple and ennobling ways of life. In the 1960s, LOTR was adored by hippie counterculturalists, who scrawled "Frodo Lives!" and "Gandalf for President" on buildings and subway stations. Tolkien labeled his American following a "deplorable cultus," but the author's deep disillusionment with modernity fed into the hippie ethos of creating a brave new world -- more natural, more true, more free. In Gandalf's counsel that the powerful but corrupting Ring of Power must be destroyed, rather than used as a weapon against Sauron, antiwar activists saw a clear allusion to the Bomb. Radical environmentalists derived similar messages. In 1972, when Greenpeace leader David McTaggart sailed into a French nuclear testing area -- thereby triggering the launch of the organization -- he wrote in his journal: "I have been reading The Lord of the Rings. I could not avoid thinking about the parallels between our own little fellowship and the long journey of the Hobbits into the volcano-haunted land of Mordor...."
Tolkien himself was a tree-hugger: "In all my works I take the part of the trees as against all their enemies," he wrote in 1972. But there's more than simple nature mysticism in Tolkien; there's also a deep distrust of the "unnatural." When the wizard Saruman presumes to tinker with nature through his magic-infused version of genetic engineering, Treebeard the Ent reacts by saying, "That would be a black evil." Indeed, some have seen nothing less than a rejection of the entire scientific enterprise in Gandalf's aphorism, "He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." It's easy to see how such a mantra would apply to the cloning (and destruction) of human embryos for medical research.
Tolkien's fantasy and politics alike were based on an underlying theory expounded in his influential essay "On Fairy Stories." In it, Tolkien advanced a latter-day Romantic notion of the redemptive power of myth, fantasy, and the imagination that remains with us today. Indeed, such an argument appears to have been behind Tolkien's famous -- because successful -- attempt to convert his friend C.S. Lewis from agnosticism to Christianity. According to Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter, this conversation between the two men proved pivotal:
We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
It's not just Lewis who bought into Tolkien's argument about myth and modernity. As a child, Idea Log had essentially the same point drilled into him by The Neverending Story, in which the fantasy world of a book literally becomes real. A germ of it also underlies the fascination with the archetypal "religion of Star Wars" as explored by Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers, and George Lucas himself. Finally, in today's Harry Potter books, a similar worldview provides an implicit justification for the invidious distinction between "Muggles" and wizards. The Lord of the Rings, The Neverending Story, Star Wars, Harry Potter -- what kid in America hasn't been nourished on the Tolkienian concept of true fantasy and myth, and the contrast between such fantasy and materialistic, technological progress? For that matter, what adult hasn't?
Which brings us back to Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There's every reason to suspect that, like Brave New World, it will powerfully shape how we think about controversial technologies such as cloning. (This is already happening.) And though the film has in some cases been unfairly panned, there's also every reason to suspect that it will be widely seen as lacking the magic of Star Wars episodes IV-VI. All of which suggests the following possible scenario: The Star Wars prequels will fail to capture us as the first batch of films did; and Peter Jackson's triptych of Lord of the Rings movies, the first of which was stunningly successful, will take their place.
On one level, such a re-emergence of LOTR would certainly mean that the Lord of the Luddites had finally reclaimed his throne. This doesn't mean, of course, that either Tolkien fans or Star Wars fans -- if there's any difference -- are inevitably technophobes. Indeed, many of them are precisely the opposite: computer geeks.
Nevertheless, among influential texts concerned with the problem of technology, The Lord of the Rings probably merits being mentioned in the same breath as Brave New World and Frankenstein. It has, after all, been repeatedly voted "book of the century" in various polls, and consumed by more than 50 million readers with no signs of an abatement in popularity. And its ability to inspire nature mysticism and other forms of anti-technological idealism were amply demonstrated in the 1960s. As recently as 1997, the radical writer Patrick Curry published a book-length polemic titled Defending Middle-earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity, arguing that Tolkien's views should be our own.
For most, however, the problems with Tolkien's approach to technology are so notorious that they've earned a dismissive moniker: Luddite. All indications suggest a similar vision with similar deficiencies will be contained in the latest Star Wars film. Such flawed messages notwithstanding, we will watch and enjoy these films -- as we should. But we should think twice before applying them to politics, or confusing the radical and nostalgic idealism of Tolkien and his followers with a true and viable approach to modernity. In Star Wars massive-scale human cloning may spell out the doom of the Republic, but in our own republic, human embryo cloning can merely be expected to cure diseases and improve lives.