A review of Return of the Heroes: The Lord of The Rings, Star Wars and Contemporary Culture by Hal Colebatch, published by the Australian Institute for Public Policy.
Return of the Heroes is a fascinating study in which Hal Colebatch, a well-known conservative poet and essayist, argues that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and George Lucas’s Star Wars are important and praiseworthy repositories of traditional Western values.
Colebatch notes that there was a collapse of traditional Western values in the 1960s and 1970s. This collapse “seemed to affect all aspects of life. The anti-hero, in various aspects, seemed to dominate ‘high’, ‘serious’ or intellectually fashionable culture. Serious literature and art had largely embraced Nihilism, and established religions seemed to have become, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it, a matter of ‘crazed clergy, empty churches, and total doctrinal confusion’” (pp.1-2).
Colebatch attributes the moral collapse of the West to several causes, but most particularly to the pervasive influence of moral relativism throughout the twentieth century. He quotes several “important spokesmen” by way of illustration. Lenin, for example, maintained that morality is merely whatever serves to establish the socialist state. Consequently, he rejected outright any thought of moral absolutes: “We do not believe in an eternal morality, and we expose the falseness of all fables about morality” (1920). Hardly had the kilns cooled in Auschwitz before the Canadian scientist Brook Chisholm advocated “The reinterpretation and eventual eradication of the concept of right and wrong” (1946). Sir Julian Huxley proclaimed with absolute certainty that “There are no Absolutes of truth or virtue” (1962). And Philip Johnson seemed to sum up the intellectual mood of the West when, speaking on the BBC with Susan Sontag, he declared, “What good does it do you to believe in good things? … It’s feudal and futile. I think it is much better to be nihilistic and forget all about it” (1965).
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, “Leftism and varieties of Nihilism apparently held the cultural high ground. … It is because of this apparent state of affairs that the successes of The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars are culturally significant. They were a small part of a thorough-going revolution, which may still be only beginning” (p.8).
Colebatch does not argue that the Tolkien and Lucas tales greatly influenced political events or social attitudes in the West. Their significance lies primarily in both the fact and the popularity of their portrayal of values antagonistic to the prevailing ideas of Marxism, collectivism, nihilism, moral relativism and anti-heroism. He states:
I do not intend to suggest here that these two tales created a significant change in culture or values. The people of Eastern Europe [suffering under communism] did not need stories from another society to tell them of the necessity to resist evil. These tales, along with many other things, may have made some contribution in the West. … Far more significant for our purposes here, however, was the way in which they reflected and expressed the values of a strong and continuing culture whose existence had been discounted by much conventional wisdom (p.9).
Both The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars depict a life-and-death struggle between good and evil. The very nature of this struggle causes the structure of both stories “to be permeated with spiritual issues and questions” (p.14). Both stories depict the use of force as essential to defeat tyranny and evil. Both depict the ennoblement of hitherto ordinary individuals who choose to oppose evil in spite of terrible odds. Both celebrate courage, honour and chivalry. Both “take for granted a conservative and traditionalist view of love and the family and of romantic and sexual relationships” (p.14). Both “look to individual rather than social salvations” (p.13). Both are ultimately optimistic in outlook, but neither is Utopian or socially progressive. Both accept the immortality of the individual soul. These characteristics give the stories “a mental atmosphere at once both classically ‘Western’ and at odds with much of the atmosphere of modern secular society, art and culture” (p.14).
While careful to eschew grandiose claims, Colebatch considers it reasonable to believe that, given both their exalted worldview and their extraordinary popularity, The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars may have contributed in some small way to the preservation of traditional Western values:
It is impossible to measure precisely the effect of literature, film, television and other entertainment on a culture. However it is generally thought that where the values expressed in entertainment (and education, into which it merges) consistently denigrate notions of courage, honour, gallantry, nobility, self-sacrifice and discipline as evil, contemptible, obsolete, neurotic, boring, absurd or suicidal, there will be some real social and political effect, and that a converse effect may be expected in a culture where such values and notions are promoted and portrayed positively. Myths and stories as well as formal education programmes that explicitly or implicitly promote certain cultural values affect in some way how people think and behave (p.46).
If this is true in general, it is reasonable to assume that it is true in the particular cases of The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars.
When defending material that is politically radical or sexually perverse, members of the left often ridicule the notion that people are influenced by what they read and view. However, they are quick enough to endorse this notion when the material is morally or politically conservative. This hypocrisy is an effective strategy for claiming liberty of thought and speech for oneself while denying it to others. It is a hypocrisy that Colebatch decries:
Members of the progressive intelligentsia have, virtually by definition, regarded it as natural [and] right … that their work should have a political, social or ideological message. There has also been a considerable pressure to deny legitimacy to equivalent non-collectivist or conservative messages in literature, art and entertainment. In Britain, for example, radical-progressive groups such as Librarians for Social Change and sections of the Inner London Education Authority have moved to ban ideologically unacceptable children’s books, such as Peter Rabbit, which deals allegedly with ‘middle class rabbits’ … (p.58).
Judging from the numerous and influential attacks on The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars, it would appear that opponents of traditional Western values believe, like Colebatch, that both tales have had an impact on popular thought.
Attacks on the two stories “by hostile critics have run along strikingly similar lines, and shown a similar political agenda and set of value judgments” (p.58). In general, Colebatch claims, the critics have been associated “with left politics (that is, progressivism, collectivism and moral relativism)” (p.59). Their objections have been almost entirely ideological rather than literary/artistic.
Colebatch documents and debunks the criticisms in detail. Predictably, the qualities that enamour a conservative like Colebatch are the very qualities that enrage progressive critics. They detest the fact that, in varying ways, both stories: oppose collectivism; support individualism; endorse free enterprise; advocate political pluralism; postulate a dichotomy between power and freedom; validate the use of force in a just cause; praise heroism and chivalry; espouse moral absolutes; posit the eventual triumph of good over evil; and contain a religious consciousness. All these things are supposedly evidence of Cold War propaganda and middle-class morality.
For those who had thought that The Lord of The Rings and Star Wars were simply good yarns, Colebatch’s ideological analyses of the two stories may seem rather heavy-handed and far-fetched. However, the importance he ascribes to the stories becomes quite credible in the light of the vicious attacks of the leftwing critics.
Colebatch views the stories as metaphors for the great struggle against totalitarianism and evil: “Tomorrow belongs automatically to no-one, and we not only see and applaud from afar the tale, told to entertain or stir, of the heroic quest against great odds, but live in the same tale still” (p.103). Indeed, in the light of the recent (1989) collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he views them as prophecy, too: “Cultural modernism and political collectivism are not all-conquering, and perhaps, as Frodo says when, in one of the darkest moments in The Lord of The Rings, he sees a small flower growing like a crown on the ruined and defaced statue of an ancient king: ‘They cannot conquer forever!’” (p.99).
In Return of the Heroes Colebatch not only expresses Frodo’s hope, he also advances it.
Note, October 2019: Hal Colebatch could hardly have guessed the ongoing significance of Return of the Heroes when he published it in 1990 (nor, for that matter, could have I when I wrote this review for Quadrant magazine in 1991). He wrote his book long before the magnificent movies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were produced by Peter Jackson—movies that are faithful to the books and that continue to be widely admired and enjoyed. Amazon Studios recently signed a $250 million deal with the Tolkien estate to produce a five-season series of The Lord of the Rings, and plans to begin the billion-dollar production in 2021. Once again, Colebatch’s insights and analyses will be as pertinent as ever—assuming only that Amazon Studios do not transform Tolkien’s characters into politically correct mouthpieces for leftist ideologues, feminist chauvinists, global-warming alarmists and LGBTI bullies.