Over the weekend a couple of people sent me links to ‘All the East is Moving‘, an online essay by the British popular historian Tom Holland. His long essay is thought provoking and flawed.
Holland describes the First Reich as born a thousand years ago out of life-or-death struggles between Christian Germans and invading barbarian hordes – which begin as Hungarians but rapidly turn into Muslim Arabs and then Turks. This early medieval history provides Holland with his ideal of a Christian Europe, which he then uses to criticize the liberal ideal of a secular Europe embodied in the modern EU, arguing that Europe today needs to recognize its Christian heritage.
The weak point in all this is a failure to note that modern European secularism was born out of the centuries of internal religious warfare that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In the 17th century Europe learned the lesson that Islam still needs to learn today, namely, that if tolerance and freedom are not enshrined in our constitution we will kill even our co-religionists in the name of God.
But my reason for making this post is not to argue over the ideological history of Europe but to warn against what I perceive as a new and all too compelling line in Tolkien appropriation.
Holland wants to claim Tolkien as a Christian scholar who understood and embraced the ideals of the the First Reich, a point he makes by drawing a parallel between Aragorn, who relieves a besieged Minas Tirith carrying the sword Andúril, Flame of the West, and Otto the Great, the king who rode to the relief of Augsburg carrying the Holy Lance that had pierced the side of Christ.
On one level this is interesting because I don’t doubt that some elements of this early medieval Christian ideal of kingship as embodied in Otto were consciously projected onto Aragorn by Tolkien.
But in general this seems to me yet another case of someone using Tolkien’s fantasy for their own ends. A more interesting case than usual because Holland knows a lot about early medieval Germany, and also – and more importantly – because we are no doubt seeing here the birth of a new wave of Tolkien appropriation.
A generation ago the great threat from the East, against which the ‘free peoples of the West’ had to band together, was the Soviet Union.
And to the generations before that – the generations to which Tolkien and his children belonged – the evil East was Germany herself.
These different identifications surely seemed self-evident to everyone at the time – how could the ‘evil East’ be anything else?
Today, with Holland, the East has become Islam. ‘All the East is moving’ is the title of his article, a quote from Denethor intended here to invoke the influx into Europe of Syrian refugees (Holland has to turn some cartwheels to push all this home because, as he tells us, Otto delivered Augsburg from Hungarians and not from Muslims).
I’m guessing that Holland’s essay is the start of a new wave and that it will not be long before it becomes a commonplace that Mordor is Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Now, I’m not trying to tell you what you should think of Islam, or Christianity for that matter. But I do want to warn against the mistake of believing that any of these identifications of Tolkien’s ‘nameless East’ and whatever happens to be the (real or supposed) geopolitical or ideological enemy of the day have anything to do with Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth.