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Tolkien versus the future
'Want to forget terrorism, the economy and rumors of war? This year's installment of "Lord of the Rings" carries audiences to a world more beautiful and stirring than humdrum modern life. In book and film, J.R.R. Tolkien's wildly popular epic has sparked a huge popular ardor for heroic fantasy.
It's ironic. The great-grandchildren of serfs -- who now fly through the sky, roam the Internet, view far worlds and elect their own leaders -- find themselves bored by such routine miracles. Millions yearn instead for towering demigods, princesses and loyal vassals. Would life seem finer under kings? Or if wizards hoarded marvels in high towers, instead of rushing onto PBS the way unseemly "scientists" do today? Can anything be wonderful if it's bottled and marketed for $1.95?
This impulse is understandable. Didn't chiefs and kings rule us for 99.44 percent of human existence? Whenever any culture discovered metallurgy and agriculture, some well-armed bullies grabbed the top of a social pyramid, aided by fast-talking guys with painted faces or spangled cloaks who wove stories to explain why the bullies should remain on top.
"There's a reason kings built palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over," said "Star Wars" fantasist George Lucas. It left people " feeling a ruler has the right to rule over them, so they feel good about being ruled."
Only then came a revolution so dramatic -- coming with such heady, empowering suddenness -- participants named it enlightenment. Questioning, inventing, illuminating a path ahead. Progress.
Imperfections of social diamond
One epochal result -- the universal social pyramid became a diamond, wherein a comfortable, well-educated middle class actually outnumbers the poor. For the first time. Anywhere. We can argue over the social diamond's vast remaining imperfections -- that's what democratic politics are for -- but not whether a profound revolution occurred. In just 200 years, education, health, tolerance and confident diversity have momentously transformed.
Yet, there soon arose an ironic counterrevolution. Calling modernity "soul-less," Keats, Emerson, Henry James and others spurned pragmatic experimentation, production, universal literacy, enterprise, democracy, city life and flattened social orders. Romanticism extolled instead the traditional, personal, particular, subjective, rural, hierarchical and metaphorical.
That's where "Lord of the Rings" comes in. For J.R.R. Tolkien was an energetic, self-proclaimed Romantic. His ideal society is ruled by secretive-mystical elites, self-chosen based on inherent qualities of blood. His heroes strive to preserve some graceful, pastoral beauty against the quasi-industrial, smokestack ambience of Mordor and its manufactured power-rings. Like his elves and uber-human kings, Tolkien saw change as inexorable, but lamentable, a view supported by his experience on Flanders battlefields. In "Lord of the Rings," even victory over evil only softens the sense of inevitable decline. Of loss.
Tolkien was not only brilliant, but honest. He worried about romanticism's dark side, a tendency to paint good and evil in terms so stark they excuse genocide. He knew the slaveholding Confederacy and Nazi Germany were both romantic states. Yet, he could not resist. As a class, his orcs deserve only death. His heroes take no prisoners.
Lost golden age
The key romantic theme is a lost golden age, a time when people knew more, mused loftier thoughts, were closer to the gods, but then fell from grace -- a look-back orientation shared by almost every human culture, other than ours.
Only a few societies dared to contradict the look-back dogma. Our scientific West, with its impudent notions of equality and progress, brashly relocated any "golden age" to the future, something we might all work toward, a human construct for our grandchildren to achieve with craft, sweat and goodwill. Implicit is the brazen postulate that our offspring can and should be better than us.
They had better be, if humanity has any hope.
Yet lately, our confidence in progress has been attacked by stylish cynicism, from all political wings -- the old romantic dogma, rejecting the future. Might it be time to recall that we're the true rebels, stoking a light that's burned for only a few generations amid 10,000 years of feudal darkness? You -- an educated, critical, technologically empowered citizen -- are proof that something new has happened. Something as yet imperfect, always imperiled, yet special. Hopeful.
Take pride in it. Improve it. Look to tomorrow. That's where true miracles will soar.'
David Brin's novels include "Earth," "The Postman" and "Kiln People." His non-fiction book "The Transparent Society" won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. Extended versions of this commentary may be found on Salon.com or at http://www.davidbrin.com/