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Happy Tenth Anniversary, Battlestar Galactica

In 2009, I wrote an article on the representation of Mormon cosmology in the Ronald Moore re-make of the Battlestar Galactica TV series. I never got around to writing a second version of this article incorporating the revisions that were recommended to me in workshops and conferences in 2009 and 2010, nor a version incorporating the second half of the final season of the series. I doubt that I will now.

Anyway, with today’s celebration of the tenth anniversary of the series premiere, it seems a good time to revisit the article and pass it on to fans who may have missed it the first time around. So, without further ado, here it is: Battlestar Galactica and Mormon Theology

Oh — and here are the TV interviews I did that helped to inspire the article here, here and here.


Doctor Who: Man, Monster and Minor – Part II: The Silence, the Rise of the Trauma Monster and the Inward Turn of the Home Front

This article is the second of two on gender dynamics in Doctor Who. The first appears here.

In 2013, I suffered a minor psychological breakdown, triggered by, among other things, the new Doctor Who monster, a race of creatures called “the Silence.” The Silence, likely an homage to Joss Whedon’s the Gentlemen, are creatures with one singular power: the ability to make anyone who saw them forget that they had the moment they looked away. The horror of seeing one of the Silence inheres not in witnessing the creature’s hideous visage and diabolical nature but in remembering all the other times you had already seen the Silence and forgotten they were there. Not just “there” but everywhere.

These creatures had been distorting human history since its beginning, silently manipulating the fate of the world for their own diabolical ends. As one explains, “we have ruled your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight but you will never remember we were even here. Your world is ours… we are The Silence.” For how long have they been doing this, someone asks the Doctor, “as long as there’s been something in the corner of your eye, or creaking in your house or breathing under your bed or voices through a wall.”

The Silence are one of the most successful villains of the new Doctor Who, since its resurrection by Russell T. Davies in 2004, an adversary that has sent English children back to their proper viewing perch for the classic series, behind the sofa. While the Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans, the totalitarianism monsters of the Second World War and Cold War have returned, they mainly offer viewers a sense of nostalgia and continuity, not terror. Nor has there been any great effort to update monsters who are more adaptable to our contemporary fears of inhuman authority, dehumanization and the annihilation of culture and emotion; there are no new, scarier Autons or Axons to speak Matrix-esque fears of the present day.

I would suggest that this is because our modern risk of cybernetic dehumanization inheres, in part, in our loss of any clear sense of implicit threat as our phones and consoles merge with our bodies, the kind of fear that was narrated more easily a generation ago in David Cronenberg’s Existenz. For this reason, such fears are not central to the reinfusion of terror into Doctor Who.

As in the original series, the Doctor must convey a sense of manly heroism relationally and symbolically, by protecting a female companion from danger. Because the main character has been transformed from an asexual being into an ambiguously and ambivalently sexual one, the non-consummated nature of the Doctor’s relationship with his companion is one that, even more strongly, conveys a Victorian restraint-driven manliness. Now, the Doctor is tempted, from time to time to engage romantically or sexually with his younger female companion. And yet, for some important reason, he must restrain himself from doing do.

In trying to understand why this must be, the show’s queer subtext seems a logical explanation; Russell T. Davies’ Doctor feels fleeting moments of attraction to his female human companion but not enough to actually sustain the rich, romantic, sexual relationship she wants and “deserves,” with some more suitable male partner, the Will and Grace “fag hag” dynamic played out episode after episode.

But let us, for a moment, consider how the nature of the Silence and the other popular new monsters in Doctor Who link the unconsummated sexual dynamic to the return of the show’s ability to convey horror. Steven Moffat has struck fear into the heart of a new generation of youngsters (and adults like me!) with the Silence and the Weeping Angels by triggering the fears of contemporary watchers the way the Daleks and Cybermen played on the fear of totalitarianism that existed in audiences of half a century ago.

Like the creature lurking under beds and behind curtains in the current season, the Weeping Angels and the Silence evoke the consciousness of victims of childhood abuse and sexual violence, and the ways in which the resulting trauma plays on the memory of survivors. While the Silence are creatures one forgets every time one looks away, only to recall, with ever-increasing horror all the times one witnessed and forgot, when one sees them again, the Weeping Angels speak to the vigilance that survivors of trauma experience.

Weeping Angels are monstrously strong and lethal creatures that can only move when no one is looking at them. One must never close one’s eyes, never look away, never let the lights go out, never blink or the Angels will set upon you and tear you limb from limb. For so many victims of childhood sexual violence, this fear of the dangerous world that comes into being when the lights are out has left a residual vigilance, that permanent imprint of trauma that remains sleepless and vigilant, hoping to delay the seemingly inevitable reckoning with horror.

Before I met the Silence, I had always found the idea of “repressed” and “recovered” memories hard to understand, hard to believe in. How could something so life-altering and horrifying really be forgotten? How could one go through life never remembering things around which an abused child’s life is organized? But that misses the point of repressed memories—the horror of repressed childhood trauma is not repressed once; it is repressed again and again. And even as the events themselves recede, the horror only grows in power because every time you remember the event again, every time it breaks through repression and localized amnesia, you remember all the other times you saw the monster and repressed it again because you could not bear to gaze upon its visage. The work of repression is constant, repetitive and exhausting; through it, we become unwitting, involuntary accomplices in the conspiracy of silence that surrounds trauma and abuse.

When we hear the voice of the Silence, we hear generations of priests, teachers, parents and relatives whispering those words, “we have ruled your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight. But you will never remember we were even here. Your world is ours… we are The Silence.”

It is in this light that we must understand the unconsummated nature of the Doctor-companion sexual dynamic. The Doctor cannot sleep with his companions—not because he is gay—but because he knows their secret: that they are victims of trauma and abuse, and that he would be exploiting his knowledge of who and what they really are if he did so, much as he might wish to.

It also helps to explain the feature of the series that fans find most aggravating: that nearly every companion, in her childhood, became entangled with the universe-threatening monster the Doctor is fighting. And it is her prior encounter with the trauma-inducing events and creatures that set her on a path that will, inevitably, intersect with the Doctor’s. Here, our modern Dcotor stands in for the charismatic, altruistic future therapist, police officer, social worker, foster parent with whom the traumatized person must confront the foundational evil that has been hanging over her life, a hero bound by ascetic vows never the turn that intimate relationship into a sexual one.

Serial killers, rapists, human traffickers—these are our new demons in popular culture; they have replaced the Nazi war criminals and Soviet agents of half a century ago. They hold that status because they threaten our patriarchy’s minors, our home front; they target “our” women and children, not men. And by interposing oneself between these predators and the women and children of England or America, one becomes a masculine hero, no matter how effete or unmanly one’s body or personality. This gendered, relational position doesn’t just permit the Doctor to be a dandy hero; it gives us Gil Grissom, Spencer Reid and a host of other otherwise-insufficiently masculine men who hunt the monsters who threaten the new home front.

At this point, people who are not me might focus on the ways in which this argument shows Doctor Who to have always been a patriarchal show that subordinates women to men (perhaps aside from the 1979 and 1980 seasons). This can be said of most shows on TV and, frankly, most good ones, not because the film industry is full of misogynists but because we continue to live in a patriarchal society that constantly re-inscribes its gender dynamics in its literary and dramatic production.

What interests me are the ways in which the show operates within these gender dynamics to adumbrate new possibilities for narrating the deeply gendered repression that remains near the heart of our society. I have yet to see any portrayal of repressed memories of abuse more compelling than the Silence, one that engages not just individual trauma but the multigenerational, structural character of abuse and trauma.

When Jack Cram, the radical native sovereigntist lawyer went mad, he spoke—inaccurately—of our society being run by a conspiracy of pedophiles in our courts, churches and legislatures. There is, of course, no such conspiracy. It is just that our society runs as if there were. When I wrote of the lethal silence that powered southern lynchings, the silence that enables predators like Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi to seek out and assault new victims with impunity, the picture in my mind was of the Silence, as depicted by Stephen Moffat, that powerful force, as old as the human race itself that stops us telling others what has happened to us, that chokes cries for help in our throats, that seeps into our houses and places of work, stifling our words.

While there is much to criticize about the new Doctor Who, in particular, the direction of the show since the Davies’ departure, I continue to draw inspiration about how to be an ethical man enmeshed in a patriarchal society. Just as the old series taught me how one could be clumsy, eccentric, hard-to-understand, strangely-dressed and yet mysteriously heroic, I choose to draw inspiration from the possibilities the show lays before us. All that is needed to be a man, Doctor Who continues to tell us, is to fight to protect the home front. As the Doctor says of the Silence, “they’ve been running your lives for a very long time now, so keep this straight in your head. We are not fighting an alien invasion, we’re leading a revolution. And today, the battle begins.”

Gender in Doctor Who: Man, Monster and Minor – Part I: The Home Front, Manliness and the Dandy Hero

The first time I quit politics, I gave a concession speech crediting my seven-year career as leader of the BC Green Party to the British science fiction series Dr. Who for “teaching me that a tall, eccentric, clumsy, curly-haired man can, indeed, save the universe.” My valedictory remarks ended with a quotation from the Doctor’s first farewell, in 1964, to his young, female companion/assistant, a traditional feature of the show by the time of its cancellation in 1989.

Although, the first of these companions had been the Doctor’s granddaughter, the young, shapely, wide-eyed female companion became the most predictable feature of the cast. Indeed, out of the original series’ 667 episodes, 647 feature such a character. While Dr. Who companions were generally portrayed as assisting the Doctor, it was only at the apex of second-wave feminism (1977-82) that their role does not consist substantially of screaming, being injured, getting captured, being rescued and asking questions in a way that enables the main character to demonstrate his superior knowledge.

Although there is an argument to be made that Dr. Who companions did more good than harm when it comes to widening the range of possible female roles on television, I don’t think much of it. After all The Avengers premiered in 1961 and, by the year before Dr. Who began, already featured witty, assertive, female action stars. But, as with my views on racism in J R R Tolkien, the idea that a work of literature beloved by self-identified geeks be flawed, even chauvinistic, and yet still do and say worthy and important things, is unlikely to find unanimous acceptance.

And that is a shame because Dr. Who does have a lot of important things to tell us about gender and sexuality in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was, after all, the crew at Queer as Folk who successfully revived the series in 2004, because the original series could be easily read as having a queer subtext, a subtext that almost spilled over into simple text in the years 1970-74.

When Jon Pertwee played the title character, he portrayed him as a dandyish man with a slight lisp and an over-coiffed silver perm, dressed flamboyantly in a cape, powder-blue frilly shirt and velvet smoking jacket, a man with refined tastes who imported gorgonzola cheese from Italy when exiled to London. And just in case anyone missed what the Doctor was in those years, William Hartnell reprised his original role in the tenth anniversary episode, pronouncing of his two successors, “so, you’re my replacements, a dandy and a clown!

The “galactic hobo” portrayal of the Doctor, first by Patrick Troughton (1966-69) and then by Tom Baker (1974-81) was more typical of the original series, and one for which it is better-remembered. However, it is worth noting that an explicitly dandyish hero was played by Peter Davison (1981-84), featuring two young male companions, for the first time since the 1960s, something that would have simply been too queer for Pertwee’s already sexually problematic portrayal.

Still, one would be hard-pressed to find any portrayal of the Doctor in the original series that could be considered conventionally manly. Neither Troughton’s and Baker’s hobos, Pertwee’s and Davison’s dandies nor Hartnell’s and McCoy’s curmudgeonly know-it-alls were heroic in a conventionally masculine sense. They eschewed physical violence, favouring more ambiguously-gendered forms of aggression, relying on deception, self-control, trickery, superior knowledge and manipulating their enemies, almost none of which showed a trace of athleticism.

Sure, there were some ways the Doctor’s body was capable of feats impossible for ordinary humans but those feats were devoid of athleticism; he could hold his breath for minutes at a time, practice obscure martial arts without breaking a sweat and cheat death by “regenerating” into another body. But when it came to feats like mountain-climbing, the show went so far as to lampoon its title character’s lack of athleticism, having him retrieve from his pocket, the self-help book Everest in Easy Stages and, upon discovering it to be written mostly in Tibetan, Teach Yourself Tibetan.

This kind of masculine heroism, centred in superior knowledge, self-control and cleverness had once been the ideal form of “manliness” in the English-speaking world, as compellingly argued by Gail Bederman in Manliness and Civilization. Back when colonizing and “civilizing” the “darker races” was the job, the manly hero of Rudyard Kipling’s world was not unlike the Doctor. The Englishman or American who carried the “white man’s burden,” had to, by necessity, distinguish his manliness from the “primitive masculinity” he allegedly opposed. Indeed, societies whose theories of masculinity were most congruent with this exaltation of restraint, were those most lightly colonized by the English and Americans, the Kingdom of Hawaii and India’s Hindu principalities outside the formal British Raj.

But, the nineteenth-century drew to a close, concern over declining birth rates or “race suicide” and the rise of Tarzan comics made effete young men like Teddy Roosevelt re-make their refined manliness into a less restrained, more violent masculinity.

Yet, in the English tradition, the ideal of the dandy hero did not die such a quick death, in part because of conscription. There was not just a cultural need to see the continuation of the dandy hero ideal into the twentieth century, but a politicized national interest. Characters like Biggles, the under-aged gentleman-hero of the RAF occupied a contradictory and frequently-lampooned role in British pop culture, increasingly incongruent with the appetite- driven, violent masculinity of the likes of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the heroes who epitomized twentieth-century manliness.

What allowed Biggles to survive through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as the Second World War, and attendant conscription, receded from the public mind was the fact that, in the Biggles comics, the war never really ended. Because he was defending the home front, the women and children of England, his masculinity, while quirky, could remain undisputed. Wartime masculinity was more capacious and diverse because it could be clearly unified around the defense of England’s territory and non-combatants against the forces of autocracy or fascism. There was a teleology to masculinity: it was the nature that existed in men that motivated and enabled them to defend the non-combatants at home. If they could not be masculine by virtue of their nature, dandies could be so by what they accomplished: the defense of the home front.

And so we come full circle to Doctor Who, the show that captured a nation’s imagination in 1964 by creating a space-age monster that perfectly symbolized totalitarianism: the Daleks, from whom the Doctor is forced to defend his granddaughter Susan and her teacher, Barbara Wright. Fundamentally, Doctor Who kept the ideal of the dandy hero alive in the same way Biggles did, by demonstrating his masculinity teleologically (by succeeding in his defense of women and children) and relationally (because this could be enacted through his observed protector relationship to a woman and/or child). Because a dandy was no longer intrinsically manly, his masculinity (and hence heroism – this is a patriarchy, after all) had to be telegraphed in this way. The dandy-hero defended the home front (i.e. women, girls and boys) from the totalitarian forces of continental Eurasia (Daleks, Cybermen, Autons, Sontarans, Rutans, Axons, etc.) The asexual relationship between the Doctor and the endless parade of pornographic archetype companions (leather-clad savage, stewardess, micro-skirted professor, ditzy secretary, etc.) served to underline their minority relative to the centuries-old Time Lord and, hence, his role as their protector.

As time wore on and we became a people whose contemporary political and cultural struggles came to revolve more around Stonewall and less around the Holocaust, the queer reading of Doctor Who became a more obvious one. And, for more and more viewers, it became a proto-Will and Grace. The companions came to stand in less for the women and children of wartime England and more as the beard or “fag hag” of the gay, male hero, the asexuality of the relationship conditioned less by the woman’s putative minority and more by the man’s queerness.

But this transition ultimately deprived the show of its underlying dramatic tension. As the memory of fascism receded, audience members were not on the edge of their seats, nor, as many fans remember their younger selves, peering out from behind the sofa, to see if fascism incarnate would succeed in its evil design and land on England’s metaphorical shores. The show, by the 1980s, had become a parody of itself (a parody that I personally loved!), with a cult following of gay men, sexually inept geeks and hard-core sci-fi aficionados.

Without the women of the home front to protect, there could be no compelling dandy hero and hence, no mainstream audience.

It is with this understanding that I will visit how it is that the tension and drama that old Doctor Who gradually lost have somehow been restored in the new series, how a dandy hero, who is queerer than ever, is once again a compelling television character. In the second half, I will suggest that this is, once again, centred in relational gender dynamics and our perceptions of the most sinister threats to the virtue and safety of women and children in Anglo society.

Hope in the Age of Nazg: Rediscovering Tolkien’s Themes Through a Ninth-century Text

JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth is generally understood to have been substantially inspired by the author’s long career as a medievalist at Oxford University and was explicit about the ways in which he borrowed heavily from medieval names, myths and historical figures. Aragorn, as imperial restorer, was Charlemagne; “Mardil the Steward,” founder of the lineage of Denethor, clearly referenced the emperor’s grandfather, Charles Martel. Sometimes, Tolkien seemed almost over-the-top in the relish with which he made his world an idealized, enchanted recapitulation of European history, as with his description of the siege of Gondor being all but directly lifted from Edward Gibbon’s narration of the siege of Byzantium in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, right down to the feared siege engine and its projectiles.

Especially central to Tolkien’s medieval source material is the Carolingian dynasty, the first Holy Roman Emperors and attempted restorers of ancient Rome. The choice by Martel, steward to the Merovingian Emperors, to depose their lineage and substitute his own, is one that Tolkien judges harshly and credits as a key factor in the downfall of the West. He expresses this criticism in Mardil the Steward making the opposite choice when the line of Gondor’s kings failed, instead founding the line of ruling stewards who governed in anticipation of the return of the true king. Because Tolkien’s references are made to isolated moments and individuals, his uncharacteristic direct admission that Aragorn, whose line descends from the true kings and not the stewards, is analogous to Charlemagne—both being imperial restorers—is unproblematic. His judgement of the partition of the Holy Roman Empire in the Treaty of Verdun (843) is similarly heavy-handed, with Arnor (corresponding to the HRE, as distinct from Gondor, which represents the Byzantine Empire) being fatefully partitioned into the three kingdoms of Rhudaur (corresponding to the Kingdom of Louis the German), Arthedain (the kingdom of Charles the Bald) and Cardolan (the kingdom of Lothar); this partitioning, Tolkien states, resulted in the dissolution of Arnor into “petty realms and lordships,” in the precise words Gibbon uses to narrate their ultimate fate.

It is surprising, then, that so little attention has been directed to other Carolingian sources in deciphering the rich and complex world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the case of the four ages of the world, with which I deal here, the lacuna may be credited, at least in part, to the existence of ready-made four- and five- age schemas in a variety of mythologies with which Tolkien was acquainted, such as in Hesiod’s Works and Days.

This was my view until I encountered an apocryphal document known as the Vision of Charlemagne. As historian Paul Dutton notes, even more than other medieval European societies, subjects of the Carolingian Empire tended to articulate social and political criticism in a fraught political environment by recounting real and alleged dreams. So it was that in approximately 870, an unknown individual, likely seeking to curry favour with the oldest and most stable of the Carolingian monarchs, Louis the German, penned an account of a lost document, allegedly written by the emperor Charlemagne himself, sometime between 806 and 813. In the Vision, the emperor is presented with a sword with an inscription organizing present and future events into four periods: 1. RAHT, 2. RADOLEIBA, 3. NASG and 4. ENTI. Situating Charlemagne in the first period when “there is abundance of material success,” these periods or ages are then described as follows:

“RAHT, that is, abundance of all things… RADOLEIBA… will be fulfilled in the times of my sons [when] there will no longer be such a great abundance… and certain peoples, now subdued, will break away… When… those sons have died and their sons have begun… to govern, NASG will exist, which was inscribed in the third place. For the sake of filthy lucre, they will… oppress travelers and pilgrims… have no sense of modesty… collect riches with great disorder and dishonour… But what was written at the point of the sword, ENTI, that is the end, can be understood in two ways. Either it signifies the end of the world or the end of our line.”

The similarity of the word “nasg” to Tolkien’s cognate for the rings of power “nazg,” (“ash nazg,” meaning the one ring, “nazgul” meaning the ring wraiths, etc.), grows only more striking to the observer the greater one’s prior efforts to locate this word or anything like it elsewhere. It appears that “nasg” was a term made by the anonymous ninth-century author that languished in obscuring for more than a thousand years before being picked up by Tolkien, the prodigious reader of medieval Germanic texts in their original language. As far as I can tell, it just doesn’t show up anywhere else.

Then, of course, is the simple fact that the first three ages bear such a striking resemblance to the Tolkien schema, especially as it relates to the elves, with the world growing less abundant and more depleted with each age, with both the land and people growing both less fecund and less virtuous with each passing epoch. The little-narrated second age of Middle Earth fits especially easily with the literal sons of First Age elvish heroes, such as Elros, founding new kingdoms in a still-bountiful but declining world, in which human kingdoms gradually break away from the elves and their exalted human allies. The third age, specifically described as the age of the rings of power by Tolkien, is one of accelerated decline as avarice, pettiness and vanity drive the free peoples of Middle Earth to ruin. The triumph of evil in Tolkien’s age of Nazg or the Carolingian age of NASG is one made possible by greed and divisiveness, traits the rings fashioned by the Dark Lord Sauron were designed to amplify in those who wore them.

In the third age, the power of evil does not wax so much as the power of good wanes until there is a final crisis that threatens to plunge the whole world into a final darkness, from which it will never emerge. The division of the realms of Elendil, the human High King of the second age and Gil-galad, the elvish High King into separate, smaller kingdoms marks the beginning the third age, a fate wrought when Elendil’s son Isildur chose not to destroy Sauron’s one ring but instead to take it for himself and make it an heirloom of his kingdom. This similarly parallels the Vision which dates nasg to the Treaty of Verdun, when the Carolingian realm was divided and “Lothar, Pepin and Louis began to extend nasg for themselves throughout the neglected kingdom.” Indeed, this theme of neglect and disuse suffuses Tolkien’s writings about the failures of the Third Age as cities like Fornost, Annúminas and Osigiliath fall into ruin.

But it is actually the point of divergence between Vision and Lord of the Rings that makes it a key to understanding the fundamental themes in LOTR and more than just an antiquarian curiosity, allowing us greater clarity on Tolkien’s larger project as both medievalist and novelist. Ultimately, the question LOTR, as distinct from the Hobbit or Silmarillion, asks is “what if people had risen to the occasion instead?” Gondor’s ruling stewards, the line of Mardil, are his answer to this question as it relates to the Carolingian dynasty using their power as Mayors of the Palace, to usurp the Frankish throne. What, he asks, would have happened if they had awaited the return of the true Merovingian king? Similarly, he asks, what if the Germanic peoples had heeded the pleas of the last Byzantine Emperor and their ancient alliance and ridden south to break the Ottoman siege of Constantinople, as the Rohirrim did during the Siege of Gondor? Not all of these hypothetical questions make us comfortable; Tolkien also asks how much better Europe would have been ruled if the great ancient houses had remained racially pure and not allowed their lineages to be “mingled with the blood of lesser men”? Indeed, what if all the white-skinned peoples of Europe had united to defend Constantinople against the dark-skinned Saharan Africans (the thinly-disguised Haradrim) and the Turkish Seljuks of Rum (the equally obvious people of Rhûn)?

But whatever late Victorian racism Tolkien mobilized in his writing, ultimately, Lord of the Rings is a fairly direct commentary on his view of the importance of hope and selflessness at key turning points history. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, when structuralist historiographies were on the rise, whether through Marxism, Malthusianism, Whiggism or Social Darwinism, not just in universities but in popular consciousness, Tolkien used his trilogy to say what he could not as a scholar of medieval history: that evil triumphs not because of immutable structural factors but because people lose hope. In one of his few forays the politics of his day, the foreword to the 1954 edition of LOTR pushes back against claims that his novels allegorized the Second World War, remarking that if they did, the Council of Elrond would certainly have chosen to use Sauron’s ring of power, the axiomatically evil “one ring” to defeat him.

In recent years, these seemingly conservative views, at least as they pertain to the history of the Carolingian Empire have been borne-out. It appears that the belief that their empire would fall, termed “consciousness of decline” became a powerful force, independent of material factors that produced fragmentation and collapse in early medieval France. Just as Denethor, the penultimate ruling steward loses hope and commits suicide, nearly causeing Gondor to fall, because he cannot imagine that the Rohirrim really are riding to the rescue to break the siege, it appears that the pessimism in Vision was part of the set of social forces that really did make “enti” come to pass, just as the document foretold. And so, when we read Tolkien’s appendices to Return of the King in which he narrates the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, we encounter a curious alternate early modernity, a hyper-monarchical, harmonious, pastoral, literate, anti-industrial pseudo-Europe, one too humble and virtuous to defy the will of God and permit anyone but the elect to take ship and sail across the ocean to the unknown sacred lands of the West.

As Tolkien says in his abbreviated synopsis or recapitulation of LOTR in the final chapter of the Silmarillion, it is the character of Gandalf who is explicitly revealed to be the true hero of the Third Age. As the author’s Christ-figure, a hypostatic being who is resurrected halfway through the story, he is revealed to be this hero because his power, assisted by Narya, one of the three unsullied rings of power, is to kindle hope in the hearts of mortals, causing ordinary people to undertake world-changing acts of extraordinary bravery. This bravery, he suggests, is anchored in humility because, in the words of Gandalf, “help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter,” as pointed a response as any to the historical determinists who surrounded him.

Much as I love his books and have a special place in my heart for them, I don’t find Tolkien’s particular alternate utopia compelling or his racism easy to tolerate, despite it being unexceptional bordering on unavoidable in his time. Nevertheless, I think there is real value in ignoring his obfuscations and denials that his books were as precisely referential as they clearly are and, instead, engaging thematically with Lord of the Rings by looking at times past and present and asking “what if people rose to the occasion and acted with unexpected hope and courage even in the face of long-foretold and certain doom?”

Stuart Parker isn’t just a failed politician and seasonally employed academic; he remains a committed geek too.