Sunday, September 21, 2008

Thinking like a hobbit

I first read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in the early 1960s. The maps of Middle-earth attracted my interest. I had not previously heard of Tolkien, and his books were only beginning to become cult favorites of the college crowd.

I was a graduate student at the time. As I read the books, I retold the tale in a much condensed version to a recurring gathering of children in the housing complex for married students in which I lived. They hung on every word of hobbits, elves, orcs and ents, and, of course, wise Gandalf and dashing Aragorn.

In the 1990s, The Lord of the Rings was selected in four separate polls as the "greatest book of the century." It is a classic story of good and evil -- power, ambition, greed, courage and heroism. On the face of it, it is a magical tale set in a fantasy place in a mythic past, but that hasn't stopped any number of interpreters from finding in it lessons for our time. Tolkien wrote the Ring as his beloved England waged war against a Nazi empire that threatened to drag all the world into darkness. It is tempting to identify Sauron, the book's embodiment of unmitigated evil, with Hitler.

But another character from the trilogy, perhaps more than Sauron, has contemporary relevance -- the wizard Saruman, Gandalf's traitorous counterpart.

Saruman professes to be interested in knowledge, but his real objective is control. Language and meaning are slippery on his tongue. Ends justify means, and he is willing to make an alliance with evil if it serves what he believes to be the greater good. When Saruman speaks, "mostly [his listeners] remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves."

"We can bide our time," Saruman says, "we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order, all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak and idle friends."

Hubris, moral pragmatism, and high-sounding doubletalk. Sauron, the Dark Lord, is the enemy we contend with abroad; Saruman, who calls himself Wise, is the enemy within ourselves.

Not least in science.

Knowledge, rule, order: These are the goals of science and its handmaiden technology. Worthy goals, too: Saruman's professed goals. As Tom Shippey noted in his study of Tolkien, Saruman is the consummate technologist. His name derives from the Old English searu, which means cunning, with connotations of metalwork and craft. Treebeard the Ent says of Saruman, "He has a mind of metal and wheels."

In Saruman, the wheels spin out of control. Shippey writes of Saruman's treason: "It starts as intellectual curiosity, develops as engineering skill, turns into greed and the desire to dominate, corrupts further into a hatred and contempt of the natural world, which goes beyond any rational desire to use it. Saruman's orcs start by felling trees for the furnaces, but they end up felling them for the fun of it."

Saruman's dream, which is often our own, is of a future techno-utopia contrived by human cunning. What we often get instead are fouled wildlife refuges, nuclear waste dumps, poisoned rivers, unbreathable air.

Tolkien's answer to Saruman is the folksy Shire, home of the hobbits with fuzzy feet, a sort of pre-Industrial-Revolution English countryside untouched by the curse of iron or gold. But, of course, there can be no going back to a pretechnological past. Knowledge once learned cannot be unlearned. What can be done, will be done. As Gandalf says: "It is wisdom to recognize necessity."

But Gandalf also says: "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." What is required is a brake on hubris, an abiding love for the natural world, and a willingness to resist what Tolkien calls the "bewilderment" of treasure. The solution to our technological dilemma is nothing so simple (or so dangerous) as throwing a ring into the fire in which it was forged. But a little Hobbit pluck and Hobbit restraint might serve us well as we feel our way into an uncertain future, embracing the beneficent artifacts of knowledge, but holding fast to all things that live and breathe and grow.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.