A review of Return of the Heroes: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Contemporary Culture. By Hal Colebatch.
The Australian Institute for Public Policy, 1990.
In 1987 George Roche, President of Hillsdale College in Michigan, wrote a valuable book called A World Without Heroes: The Modern Tragedy. In it he decried the emptiness of contemporary society, a world devoid of values, of absolutes, of worth. Such a world could inspire no heroes; it could only produce heroes. This is inevitable, for in a world where no value is worth defending or worth dying for, no value is worth living for. Collectivism, materialism, totalitarianism, secularism and relativism have all contributed to a culture where value, meaning and courage are empty concepts.
Traditional Western values of chivalry, courage, honour, loyalty, heroism, nobility, self-sacrifice and valour have been denigrated, and anti-hero values have supplanted them, leaving a wake of nihilism, pessimism and anarchy. The modernist tells us there are no absolutes, no values worth fighting for, all the while lamenting – and not understanding – the ensuing breakdown in morals, in authority, in humanitarianism. As C. S. Lewis put it, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Robert Nisbet once commented that the West lost its capacity for belief in heroes in the nineteenth century, when the influences of Darwin, Marx and Freud took hold. Along with these forces, “the rise of democracy dispersed for good the remnants of feudalism, a form of society virtually dedicated to heroes and hero myths. Critical rationalism and utilitarianism weakened man’s capacity for enchantment with God and man alike. Secularism routed old sacred values and scorned introduction of the new.”
Has belief in heroes then been abandoned in contemporary culture? No, argues Colebatch. The enormous success of the Stars Wars trilogy and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is proof that in spite of the efforts of the intellectuals, the social engineers, and the New Class, the masses still yearn for and appreciate the traditional values and virtues as exemplified in the concept of heroism. The significance of these two trilogies lies in “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.”
Not only do both trilogies display aspects of artistic, literary and technical brilliance, but both feature values and ideals which embody the Judeo-Christian worldview in general and conservative philosophy in particular. “The fundamental outlook behind both is traditional and conservative. It is a basically Burkean conservatism.”
Both trilogies, argues Colebatch, contain the following elements of traditional heroism:
-conflict between good and evil, with real heroes and real villains;
-the contrast between the ordinariness of the heroes and the destinies to which they are called;
-family and parents viewed as an important, crucial institution;
-the importance of the individual over against the state or the collective;
-emphasis on family heritages of honour and tradition; and
-the immortality of the individual soul and some form of final judgment.
It seems odd to have to list such elements, except when one realises how much they have come under attack lately. Values long accepted and assumed now have to be proclaimed and defended. Colebatch is not naive enough to assume that these tales can withstand the forces arrayed against traditional Western values and beliefs. Nevertheless their immense popularity, and the popularity of others like them, suggests that the battle is far from lost. The upheaval in the communist world demonstrated that the struggle against the “enemies of the permanent things” (as Russell Kirk put it) is not in vain. As Colebatch concludes in this fine study, “many of the economic and intellectual arguments for freedom against collectivism and leftism have been won. In art, culture and imagination the values of the essential Western heritage can also win.”