Once again, it has been a summer of great movies lots of them. But two in particular, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers, have attracted a wide age range and so make great family viewing and family conversation, too.
They both deal with the timeless themes of good and evil. However, the huge scope of The Lord of the Rings we have now seen two parts of the trilogy and its massive array of human archetypes drawn from ancient history and literature, give the story something of the nature of a myth that encompasses potentially universal human experience. A myth is a story in which we can see something of our own experience, and be led towards an understanding of that experience.
The summer has also been both marked and marred by the impending and rising sense of the threat of a war that will undoubtedly have global implications. In Iraq, the weapons inspectors have been playing hide and seek and have been getting just slightly warmer. But the rhetoric of war still rages.
From all accounts, The Lord of the Rings has attracted huge audiences worldwide. Not really surprising, as we face the possibility of another epic struggle between good and evil. And, I guess it depends on where you stand, as to who you see as the armies of Gondor and who you see as the black forces of Sauron.
Here in New Zealand, we stand somewhere on the edge. Tourists flock to visit us, tracing the location guide for Lord of the Rings and relishing this country as a safe destination.
I had a fascinating talk with four young Israeli backpackers on a brilliantly beautiful early morning, at a beach at All Day Bay, just south of Oamaru. They were, they told me, seeking peace on their travels. I realised from them that our marginality, and our, as ever, uncertain foreign policy, make us accessible to all-comers.
Such marginality also makes us watchers and waiters, observers of the global struggles, trying to find our bit-part to play. So, perhaps our views of which side of the present global threat are with the orcs, and which are with Gandalf and Frodo, are somewhat more nuanced than in other places in this world.
Tolkien began writing The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings in the early 1930s. And since then, we have witnessed, on a number of occasions, the rise to power of great and terrible forces. Today, we are hearing demands for power from every side, and they are ever more shrill and imperative.
So Tolkien, 50 years on, has much to say to the impetuous leaders of our world. But what he says is not just advice for our own times. It draws on a familiarity with the wisdom of centuries of literature and history and is relevant to any age, and as he shows through a great range of characters to any sort of person.
The central question posed by the story is a moral one: what does the possibility of unlimited power do to the one who desires it even to the one who desires it for good ends? And the answer is unequivocal: the desire for power corrupts. Tolkien says clearly and without compromise: beware of power.
Evil is more powerful than good in Middle-earth, because evil seeks only to subvert and corrupt, rather than create, which is a far more difficult task. Evil can be defeated, but only temporarily, by turning its own devices against it. As Aragorn says of Mordor, "With its own weapons was it worsted". However, eventually Mordor is destroyed from within, which is the morally appropriate climax.
Who knows what the outcome of the present world struggle will be and doubtless the moral categories are more ambiguous than in Tolkien's tale but it is timely to reflect on his insight into the impulses, effects and consequences of overwhelming power.
The Right Rev Dr Penny Jamieson is the Anglican
Bishop of Dunedin. This article was published in the
Otago Daily Times of January 28, 2003.