January 7, 2019

Rings, Wands, and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (that’s Tr*mp, not Voldemort)

At the end of the Battle of Hogwarts, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after the flashy heroics—Harry having let himself be killed (albeit with the Resurrection Stone in his pocket), Neville having killed Nagini with the great Sword of Gryffindor, Mrs. Weasley having dispatched Bellatrix Lestrange to hell—after all of those great deeds are finished and done, the greatest act of all takes place on a bridge. It is a quiet moment. Harry is there with Ron and Hermione, standing over a great chasm with the Elder Wand in his hand. The Elder Wand is the most powerful wand on earth, and Harry is its rightful owner, having taken it from Voldemort. He stares at the wand for a moment, then breaks it in half and drops it into the gorge.

The moment is remarkably similar to the climax of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo takes the One Ring to Mount Doom to throw it in the fire and undo its power forever. In The Lord of the Rings, this act is even more central to its story than the Elder Wand’s destruction is to Harry Potter. The destruction of the One Ring is the raison d’etre of the entire three-novel series, the purpose of the hero’s journey from beginning to end. And the terrible challenge of letting it go—for both the power-hungry (or perhaps “power-desperate”) like Boromir and the pure-hearted like Frodo alike—is the central challenge and driver of the plot. While the journey may seem to be about enduring avalanches, battles, and subterranean horrors, it is actually about enduring temptation. It is about the difficult, heroic task of renunciation.

Renunciation is a tough sell in our culture. It can be unhealthy (cf. those wild-eyed, anorexic, teenage nuns of the Middle Ages, or the evangelical men enduring conversion therapy), but maybe we’ve gone overboard in renouncing renunciation. It’s the key to all moral behavior and is the basis of one of our enduring national myths (myth referring here not to a fiction but to an important, identity-building story). George Washington was revered in early America and was a military commander to boot, yet he gave up the presidency willingly, setting the example of a two-term limit that endured nearly 200 years. Interestingly, his reasons for retiring after his second term included excessive partisanship and the toll that political attacks and character assassination took on him, along with the simple desire to enjoy some leisure. But he also was wary of the corrupting influence of ambition and very much wanted to avoid the appearance of dictatorship.

This is why Tr*mp is so disturbing—he idealizes power rather than renunciation. When he attacks the press for negative coverage or federal judges for ruling against him, he is not just being indecorous in a way we have never seen from a president in our lifetime. He is assailing the very idea that there should be any obstacles to his power and believes that any denial of his wishes—irrational, whimsical, random as they may be—is an injustice unique in the annals of history. He discards the very idea that embracing limits of power is a treasured American ideal. For him the pursuit of the greatest possible power is natural, and he is not a person who believes in the restraint of natural urges.

When Tr*mp  was being briefed by a military transition team after his election, he asked “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” This is exactly what Boromir asks about the One Ring, and what Ron briefly suggests regarding the Elder Wand. In those stories, which we so love, heroic renunciation—of great powers and great weapons—by Gandalf and Galadriel, Harry and Dumbledore, prevail. So it’s a shocking development to have a president presenting so much like a Dark Lord, with his bottomless desire for worship, his casual cruelty, his dispatch of underlings who displease him, his command of vindictive throngs. One would think that the historical examples of fascism and Nazism would make these danger signs repellent to the older generation. If not—if the ideal of renunciation has lost its place in our national mythology and its seat of defense in the White House—it will be a telling test of the influence of literature to see whether the great literary mythologies of our time can rescue the younger generation from the seduction of power.

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