Fall, Mortality, and the Machine: Tolkien and Technology

From the beginnings of modern fantasy, in the work of Tolkien, technology has always been the enemy of the good life. But does it have to be that way?

Billet Potter

Writing to a friend in 1951, when The Lord of the Rings was nearly completed, J. R. R. Tolkien commented that though his book seemed to be largely about power, and the corruption of power, there were other issues more strongly in his mind: "Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine," and with power only as it relates to those three large themes. What did he mean by "the Machine"?

By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents -- or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised. . . . The Enemy in successive forms is always 'naturally' concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.

The idea that technology ("the Machine") is a kind of magic, or at least deeply related to magic, is one that Tolkien shared with his close friend C. S. Lewis, who argued that, in the early modern period, "The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve." Science, Lewis continued, "is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians: but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that [Sir Francis Bacon, one of the founders of experimental science] and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. . . . Nor would Bacon himself deny the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was 'noble.'"

So it makes sense, then, that the chief exponents of technology in The Lord of the Rings are a demonic figure bent on world domination (Sauron) and a wizard (Saruman). Treebeard, the Ent or tree-shepherd, says of Saruman, "He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment."

Fantasy writers since Tolkien have picked up on this link between technology and dark magic. In Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand (1978) -- which King consciously modeled on The Lord of the Rings -- Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Sauron of this novel, starts gathering the forces of evil to himself in Las Vegas, while a shambling collective of good guys assembles in the hippie capital of Boulder, Colorado. One of the leaders of the Boulder community speculates on what's to come:

"I think he's going to get most of the techies," Glen said finally. "Don't ask me why; it's just a hunch. Except that tech people like to work in an atmosphere of tight discipline and linear goals, for the most part. They like it when the trains run on time. What we've got here in Boulder right now is mass confusion, everyone bopping along and doing his own thing... and we've got to do something about what my students would have called 'getting our shit together.' But that other fellow... I'll bet he's got the trains running on time and all his ducks in a row. And techies are just as human as the rest of us; they'll go where they're wanted the most. I've a suspicion that our Adversary wants as many as he can get."

Some years later, when Neil Gaiman wrote his remarkable American Gods (2001), a similar tension is still in play. The old gods from the Old World -- Odin, Anansi, Thoth, Anubis, and the like -- struggle for survival against the new gods of the New World, who are gods of technology. One of them appears to the protagonist, Shadow, as he's watching I Love Lucy reruns:

"I'm the idiot box. I'm the TV. I'm the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I'm the boob tube. I'm the little shrine the family gathers to adore."

"You're the television? Or someone in the television?"

"The TV's the altar. I'm what people are sacrificing to."

"What do they sacrifice?" asked Shadow.

"Their time, mostly," said Lucy. "Sometimes each other." She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gun smoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.

"You're a god?" said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. "You could say that," she said.

In the end, Shadow's decision to stick with the old gods seems a matter of taste more than ethics: "It occurred to him that the reason he liked Wednesday [Odin] and Mr. Nancy [Anansi] and the rest of them better than their opposition was pretty straightforward: they might be dirty, and cheap, and their food might taste like shit, but at least they didn't speak in clichés. And he would take a roadside attraction, no matter how cheap, how crooked, or how sad, over a shopping mall, any day."

Last Ringbearer

Not everyone shares these inclinations. The implacable hostility to technology that Tolkien bequeathed to fantasy led the English writer China Miéville to "take on Tolkien" in his novel Perdido Street Station, "which was conceived in radical antipathy to as much of his aesthetic and thematic furniture as I could think of." Similarly, but more literal-mindedly, the Russian writer Kirill Eskov simply retold Tolkien's story in The Last Ringbearer so that Mordor becomes an idealized city of the Englightenment, using technology to bring peace and prosperity to the world until thwarted by the reactionary and tyrannical Gandalf.

But these projects are too dependent on Tolkien, even if in opposition to him, and they require a rejection of the whole apparatus of fantasy. Which raises some questions: Is fantasy intrinsically hostile to technology? That is, was Tolkien simply drawing out what is already there in the genre? Or has he limited it in unnecessary ways? What would a fantasy that embraces technology look like? Arthur Weasley's fascination with Muggle tech in the Harry Potter books is simply comical -- though a great source of fun in the books. I'd like to see a writer imagine what technologies would arise in a fictional world where magic rules but is not the only game in town. Is that too much to ask?