A Hobbit’s Choice: Saruman or Sam
For those of you who have been living under a rock these last few years, Lord of the Rings is an epic story by English don J.R.R. Tolkien; it is set in an imaginary world peopled by fairy-tale beings and beset by demonic evil. At least once a year I re-read it, enchanted by the tautly-told tale of small, stout-hearted people who, though perpetually on the brink of disaster, manage to snatch an improbable victory in the face of overwhelming odds though courage, loyalty, stealth and guile. By no means the least of their strengths is that they inhabit a higher moral plane than their terrible enemy. Thus when I learned of Peak Oil a few months ago, it was all very familiar.
I have no doubt that we humans are on the brink of a great change, or perhaps even a great disaster. As in Tolkien’s book, the world as we know is coming to an end, for better or worse. Within my lifetime, what is left of it, most of what I have grown to know, if not love, will pass away, forever. I may not survive this change. You may not. Nothing is certain. On one side lies disaster, on the other only hope: Gandalf’s ‘fool’s hope’ perhaps, but hope nonetheless and while there is hope we must struggle and perhaps, just perhaps, we will come at last, if not to the Quays of Avallone in the Undying Lands then to our warm and comfortable Hobbit-hole in the Shire.
For those of you who think that the world of Lord of the Rings is only a place full of beautiful ethereal elves and cute homely hobbits, I fear I must disillusion you. It is a dangerous place, at least as dangerous as ours in parts, although it has its refuges and places or peace and beauty just as ours does.
The world of Lord of the Rings is a post-catastrophic one. Great and puissant realms and cultures throve in the past and have been destroyed, sometimes without leaving much of a trace. The hobbit-heroes and their companions spend a lot of time tripping over their remains, or invoking their legacy.
During the course of the book we learn that the Elves are exiles from the Undying Lands and have had their earthly kingdoms ravaged by the Shadow and drowned beneath the sea. Men have had similar hardships. Aragorn’s ancestors lived in a Tolkienian Atlantis called “Numenor,” which had been corrupted and destroyed by the intrigues of the demonic being Sauron. Ages later this same Sauron recycled himself as a giant burning Eye and resume his interrupted plans for world domination in the days of Frodo and his friends. The Dwarves never cease to pine for their lost realm of Moria. An air of almost heartbreaking nostalgia permeates the world outside the simple-hearted, bucolic Shire and its uncomplicated pint-sized inhabitants.
This feeling will be familiar to most of us Peak Oil buffs, knowing as we do that before long we too shall be pining for days that will never come again. Others of us might see something hopeful in what we are about to experience. Those who see our world as far gone in corruption and decadence might welcome the chance of a new beginning. We should not delude ourselves that it will be easy. It is a difficult thing to survive the fall of a civilisation: Aragorn’s ancestors fled doomed Numenor in nine ships and very nearly did not survive the voyage. Later when their successor kingdom of Arnor fell, the survivors had to live rough for hundreds of years as the Dunedain Rangers without even a township, let alone a kingdom, to call their own.
Our own situation is grave, but perhaps not quite as grave as theirs. There are no openly satanic powers, present and visible, in our world, seeking our destruction and enslavement; but perhaps there are such impulses within us and our societies, and these might be just as hard to master. At least Aragorn and friends knew their enemy, where he lived and what he looked like. Ours are hidden, subtle and approach us with deceitful gifts and fair words.
These latter-day Grima Wormtongues and Deceiver-Saurons to which I refer are the bought priesthood of Economics who blithely tell us that we can be greedy as we like and for as long as we like, and not only will the world continue to sustain it forever, but supreme good and happiness will come, if only we seek our own advancement at the expense of all others, including the earth itself.
In Tolkien’s last great work, The Silmarillon, the story contains a scene in which the last king of Numenor, under the spell of Sauron, his prisoner/councillor, is told similar pleasing lies designed to lure him to destruction. If King Ar-Pharazon will worship Sauron’s former master, Morgoth, the Lord of Darkness, he will make whole new worlds for his devotees to rule and conquer. This in effect is what the cornucopian economists are telling us now, and unlike Sauron, they actually believe their own lies.
For this power in the world I use the metaphor of the fallen Wizard Saruman, played so memorably in the movies by Christopher Lee, characterised by lust for power, technological amorality, contempt for nature and the ability to corrupt and seduce through the power of his voice. Tolkien himself once said that although there were no Saurons in the world, Saruman was doing business like never before.
Fortunately for us there remain in our midst many far-sighted and true-sighted people who study the real world as opposed to corrupt, dogmatic fantasies about it, and who know and aver the obvious truth: that this earth cannot support an infinite number of infinitely greedy people. It is these scientists and ecologists in whom we must place our trust and our hope: the good wizards or our age. We would like it if more of them were as inspiring as Gandalf, and less of them were given to droning about numbers and waving graphs in the air, but we must be guided by them and hope that the inspiration will come later.
This brings us to the other reason why our situation is not as grave as the fallen kingdoms of Tolkien’s world. If we are quick and clever we have the power to turn aside the worst of that which threatens us. We have a choice. We don’t have to endure the analogue of being overrun by orcs and dragons as the Elves were, dig up the Balrog as the greedy Dwarves did, or sail terrified and witless into the West, as the Numenorean invader-King Ar-Pharazon did, to be destroyed in a Universal Cataclysm.
However if normal politico-strategic thinking transpires, our way down will be short and painful. Peak Oil will see a severe and ever-deepening depression against which the old powers and their nostrums will avail not at all. Democracies could sink into despotisms of the Left or Right; wars could break out between competing nations and religions over the failing reserves of oil. In the resultant desperate carnage, some Orc could put on the Ring and start throwing nuclear weapons about. Even if somebody “wins,” the earth will be so poisoned with radiation and so blighted by nuclear winter that those who survive might well wish they hadn’t. Civilisation might crumble away like the Kingdom of Arnor in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, not least because much of the remaining oil would be consumed or destroyed in the fighting.
For us Hobbits who do not wish to be swept up into the wars of the rival Sarumans and see our Shires turned into ugly replicas of Isengard, it behoves us to come up with some other way. Our first priority will be to keep some ordered society intact. Hobbits were blessed with a placid temperament and almost never killed each other on purpose; we humans are not so well-configured. In a brutish struggle of all against all, we will become like the Uruk-hai, brutal, cannibalistic and cruel. It would hardly be worth surviving if that were the world we were bound to live in. It would represent the final triumph of the Shadow.
Those who imagine they could isolate themselves from this catastrophe in Hobbit-like isolation must be prepared to defend themselves against the rampaging orc-hordes indefinitely, with no friendly Rangers to guard them and no empty leagues of Eriador to keep enemies at bay, just perpetual war with hostile neighbours interspersed with waves of invaders: that was the lot of Europeans during the real Dark Ages. While this might be better than the Uruk-hai scenario, it is a long way from the Shire, let alone Lothlorien. It would be better if we could avoid this by retaining a degree of social organisation above the local level, to keep our kingdoms as well as our mayors.
Yet Tolkien’s tale of the survival of the Hobbits in the former lands of Arnor has an important lesson for us humans in the real world. Eventually everyone else in that region perished, leaving the Hobbits alone in their little land. We have already noted that Hobbits didn’t kill each other. This bespeaks a social harmony and cohesion in their society that our more “advanced” culture might well envy. All that we know of them with their close-knit families and social egalitarianism suggests this very strongly. It is these qualities above all that we must learn to cultivate.
A similar solidarity exists between the characters in the Lord of the Rings, often of diverse cultures and races. This solidarity makes the story instinctively attractive and real to us. The Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and Men are able to work together despite their differences, differences which make our own seem trivial. We cannot survive alone. We may not survive together either, but our chances are very much enlarged if we try to.
After the other races left and the Hobbits were alone in their region, they did not breed their way into the empty spaces and take up all the vacant land until they were pressing up against the borders of Gondor far to the South. They stayed within their boundaries happy with what they had. How Hobbits controlled their population is not known. Tolkien is silent on this delicate subject, but however they controlled their population we would do well to emulate them. We must learn, like Hobbits and Elves, to control our numbers, if we are to have a life above orc-level.
Being at war with nature, blighting and defiling that which is beautiful in the pursuit of profit and power, is what distinguishes the evil powers of Middle-Earth. Mordor is a poisonous wasteland, full of smoking desolation and toxin. Isengard is a place of wheels and machines, steadily laying waste to the neighbouring Forest of Fangorn.
Our version of this madness is of a particularly virulent kind. We have even pressed the corpses of the plankton that floated for tens of thousands of generations in the sunlit waters of the long-vanished, dinosaur-haunted Tethys Sea into our service. Here indeed was a Lost World worthy of Tolkien at his most nostalgic, and our exploitation of it worthy of Saruman at his most corrupt. This substance, which we call ‘oil’, has been our glory, and as it expires, as it must, it will become our bane.
Using it we have created a society unique in the history of the world for its bland, arrogance and soulless uniformity; producing an endless array of foods that do not nourish, medicines that do not cure, recreations and satisfactions that do not satisfy.
In some ways it is worse than the squalid, industrial ugliness of Tolkien’s Mordor; for it carefully hides the evidence of its relentless murder of nature behind a screen of slick, fair-sounding patter. Every day through our TV palantirs and printed scrolls, the Voice of Saruman erodes our good sense, our morals and our reason. Slowly we become beguiled wraiths, cut off from light and nature, passing inexorably into Shadow.
The destruction of forests particularly disturbed Tolkien and he devised a whole race of Tree-herds or “Ents” whose task and function it was to protect the trees. After much provocation these slow-moving, slow-thinking creatures turned on Saruman and tore his factory-fortress of Isengard to pieces.
There are of course no Ents left in our world. It would be wonderful if there were, as it might have slowed, the destruction of our forests. Without Ents the forests must take their revenge on us in slower, more indirect ways. Soil depletion is one: according to scholar Jared Diamond the bloodthirsty Maya civilisation perished in exactly this way.
Global warming is another. The clearing and burning of trees, both those alive today, and those in ages long vanished (coal) adds gases to our air that are changing the climate. Without thriving, growing forests to absorb these gases, they cannot but build up in our air, and perform their deadly office. Before we are done we might well wish there were some Ents left to put limits on our appetite for killing trees.
We know much than we would like to of the ways of Saruman, but what of the humble Sam Gamgee, Frodo Baggin’s devoted servant? What can he teach us? Widely recognised as the true hero of the trilogy he has many sterling qualities including courage, loyalty, and humility. Let us see how these virtues might help us in Peak Oil.
The one characteristic that all the Free Peoples in Lord of the Rings share is courage, sheer guts, the will to go on struggling no matter what the odds. It is the courage of Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn pursuing the orcs across the leagues of Rohan, straight into the battle of Helm’s Deep, an encounter with the living dead beneath the mountain, another, bigger battle at the Pelennor Fields and the final suicidal march on the Black Gate. It is the courage of Frodo and Sam, battling Shelob, stalking the haunted stairs of Cirith Ungol, struggling till body and mind give out, and beyond across the toxic plains of Gorgoroth to Mt Doom; or the courage of Merry overcoming his terror to stab the Lord of the Nazgul at the Pelennor Fields. Whatever we do in the years to come, we will achieve nothing without courage.
Sam and the other heroes are loyal to each other and their cause. Although tempted by the Ring and the lure of power they, with one or two exceptions, renounce such temptations and stick by their friends. To me the most moving scene in the book is when Queen Galadriel of Lorien is offered the Ring by Frodo and turns it aside, exchanging the certainty of power (“All shall love me and despair!”) for the near-certain loss of her Kingdom and everything she loves in the world (“I shall diminish, and fade into the West, and remain Galadriel.”).
Humility is a virtue out of fashion these days. By keeping a realistic eye on ourselves, by renouncing the desire to dominate, by turning our back the Ring and the Shadow we can work together for a better world. Egotists are weak, they can be bought. Humble folk like Sam are strong. Over them riches and power have no dominion.
Samwise was more than a stout-hearted hero, he was a gardener too. In future we will all be growing much of our own food. We must learn to love the earth and all growing things as he did, as the Elves and Ents. As Peak Oil hits, the mechanised Mordor-agriculture that feeds us will experience breakdowns. Veggie gardens, both individual and collective, will make all the difference. Permacultural techniques, using natural methods to combat insect predators and other pests will inevitably replace the undead food-production methods in use today.
We must learn to eat a lot less meat. It is ludicrously expensive in energy, space and water. It also involves, even at its best, unconscionable cruelty to other sentient creatures. The less we have of it the better. There were no butcher’s shops in Lothlorien.
The Elves, whom Sam adored, have an important lesson to teach us. They delighted in beauty and so can we. We should surround ourselves with beautiful, useful and uplifting things. We should strive to create them, music, poetry, things painted, moulded, woven and carven, with our hands and with our hearts. In such a way the goodness that is within us can find expression. That is how Tolkien’s Elves coped with the burden of their immortality. It can help us cope with our burden of living under the Shadow of Death.
Under this Shadow then lies not only each one of us, but the civilisation of which we are part. It is doomed to die a bitter death from short-sighted greed and lust for power. Of this there can be no doubt. Like the great Mumukil-Elephants on the Pelennor Fields, Peak Oil will bring it down. It need not be a complete catastrophe, another Downfall of Numenor, but it would be too much to hope that it will be like the Fall of Barad-dur and the end of demonic evil on earth. Saruman and Sam are aspects of our own nature and it is inside us that the great struggles of our time will be fought.
We are in for a very hard time. Even at best we will suffer economic depression, joblessness, hunger, weariness, uncertainty and despair. The outcome is not forgone one way or the other. The Powers of Night are old and strong, but they are not invincible, and they are not beyond fear. If we are willing to cultivate the virtues of Samwise the Stout-hearted we can still have the world we want. It will not be easy, it may not even be probable, but there is no nobler thing we can do than try.
Alex Macsporan is a writer of fantasy tales and essays. He lives in Brisbane, Australia, and has been investigating Peak Oil intensively for the past year. His first novel, "The Tale of Farwander," is awaiting publication.
Bring me my bow of burning gold: Bring me my arrows of desire: Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire. I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand Till we have built Jerusalem In England's green and pleasant land. from "Jerusalem" by William BlakeUPDATE (Sept 8) Comments on this essay appeared in The Oil Drum and peakoil-dot-com. -BA