What do 1984 and The Lord of the Rings have in common?
Other than being on most lists of well-known books you should get around to reading (and being written around the same time), they don’t share much similar ground. J.R.R. Tolkien pretty much single handedly founded the genre of escapism fantasy fiction and comprehensive worlds populated with wizards, elves, dwarves, and other magical beings. George Orwell pretty much defined the genre of dystopian nightmare-land totalitarianism as political commentary (although Aldous Huxley gets an honourable mention here). The two stories and their authors are so, so different, in nearly every respect. But there is one striking similarity: both stories are about trying to defeat evil, all-seeing eyes.
I think that because these two books are so vastly different in every other way, it’s not a comparison the mind naturally jumps to. The only reason it even occurred to me was that my copy of 1984 has a singular eye staring out from the red background of the front cover. But perhaps because the two books are generally so different, I’ve found myself captivated by the idea of characterizing evil in the form of an ever-watchful, malevolent Eye. Tolkien and Orwell depict the effects of their respective Eyes very similarly (surprisingly similarly, actually), especially regarding how they affect the senses, corrupt reason and truth, and attempt to dominate the wills of others, specifically Frodo and Winston.
Being in the domains of both Big Brother and Sauron affect the senses of taste and sight. Filthy, watery Victory Coffee, vile black bread, and oily pinkish-grey stew are but a few of the foods that cause Winston to wonder “Had it always been this way? Had food always tasted like this?” (Orwell 65). This echoes the sentiments of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, where the water is “at once bitter and oily,” and at a certain point when Sam ruminates on a rabbit stew they’d eaten in Faramir’s country, Frodo admits that “I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water” (Tolkien 900; 916). Sight-wise, the Eyes both bring darkness (a fitting oxymoron). Winston lives in London, a city that’s not exactly known for its cleanliness, and everything around him seems to be dingy, dirty, and dilapidated. Sunshine doesn’t exactly break through and shine into the streets; there is only surveillance. When Winston is out under direct sunshine for the first time, “it made him feel dirty and etiolated, a creature of indoors, with the sooty dust of London in the pores of his skin” (Orwell 126). It isn’t much of a stretch to compare this description to Gollum’s of Mordor: “Ashes, ashes, and dust, and thirst there is” (Tolkien 601). Sauron’s goal is to “cover all the lands in a second darkness” where there is no sun but only his fiery eye (50). In sum, this is the very opposite of Psalm 34:8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (NIV).
Both Sauron and Big Brother prefer not only physical dark for their realms, but also a metaphorical darkness masquerading as light. To put a twist on Plato’s cave analogy, this is not a matter of bringing cave dwellers into broad daylight to show them they were in darkness; it is luring citizens of broad daylight into the cave, and convincing them it is the best and only light they’ve ever known. This is simple to see in 1984 in the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Obviously these are contradictory statements. They’re confusing as well, an assault on logic and common sense, which one must either abandon completely or else twist beyond recognition in order to accept them. But the Party claims that these slogans are purest truth, and have managed to convince their multitude of followers that this is the case. We may as well add a fourth slogan: DARKNESS IS LIGHT.
This concept is at play in The Lord of the Rings too. The Black Riders, faceless as shadows in the light of day, become “terribly clear” and “glowed with a pale light” the moment Frodo slips the ring onto his finger at Weathertop (Tolkien 191). When a person wears the Ring, they are hidden from the sight of the world. When they wear it too much, as evidenced by Gollum, they become so comfortable in darkness that even regular sunlight and moonlight become painful. Saruman the White, supposedly the wisest guardian of Middle-earth, has become corrupted through and through by clever words and lust for power. It is impossible to oppose Sauron, he reasons, so why not join him, believe that he is right? And Saruman’s white robes, “which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered” (Tolkien 252, emphasis mine). Saruman’s truth shifts and changes thanks to the influence of Sauron. Even Sauron himself once disguised all his malice and dark intent beneath a fair form, in order to trick the Elves into submitting to his will. Under Sauron’s influence as well, then, darkness is light.
Both Tolkien and Orwell give a temperature to their respective Evil Eye. The Eye of Sauron is wreathed in flame, and one gets the impression that this is an evil that burns eternally hot. Mordor is a parched land, where the air is scorching and dry. Even the One Ring was forged in the hottest fires Middle-earth has to offer. Conversely, the ever watchful Big Brother is terribly cold: detached, emotionless, calculating. Winston thinks of the people who follow it as cold as well, almost as though they are dead or machines walking about. But both the heat and the cold are inescapable.
The threat of the Eye is everywhere, in both books. The poster of Big Brother is described as “an enormous face… so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move” (Orwell 9). Because it is a picture, the eyes need not blink, so there is never even a momentary reprieve. The Eye of Sauron does not blink either — Tolkien describes it as lidless. It is ever watchful, ever seeking, never sleeping. Of course, even Big Brother and Sauron cannot see everything at once, but the idea of the Eye translates to their many minions. In Big Brother’s case, this includes technology as well as citizens so attuned to the Party that they will rat out any suspicious behaviour. As for Sauron, Gandalf warns Frodo and Sam that “the enemy has many spies” while they are still in the Shire! This suggests that the breadth of Sauron’s gaze nearly spans the entirety of Middle-earth. In the words of Roz from Monster’s Inc.,
For the protagonists of these stories, Frodo and Winston, the presence of a watchful Eye makes their aims much more perilous. Both carry around with them a sort of secret that must be hidden from their respective Eyes, a form of quiet rebellion: the one Ring and the forbidden notebook. Both burdens also grow more intense as Frodo and Winston get into more dangerous territory. For Frodo, the longer he carries the Ring and the closer he gets to Sauron, the heavier the Ring gets, with more and more effect on his mind. For Winston, his illegal activities intensify from writing in a notebook to pursuing a relationship with another human — an act which puts both himself and Julia in danger, forcing them both to be on extremely high alert at all times.
I think it’s interesting to note that in both The Lord of the Rings and 1984, the place of refuge and reprieve from this watchful evil is in a nature setting. For Frodo, that place is Lothlorien, an Elven realm where Nature is so omnipresent that it seems almost a force of its own. Galadriel, in many ways an extension of this natural power, sets herself against Sauron’s will with Nenya, the Ring of Water. For Winston, the place of refuge is the wooded clearing Julia leads him to. There are no hidden mics or cameras there, only water and trees and flowers and singing birds. It is surprisingly, almost shockingly, safe after the ever-present danger up to this point in the book. But for both Frodo and Winston, this is only a reprieve, not a permanent residence.
To us, all these “rebellious” activities seem relatively normal: wearing jewelry, writing, dating… What makes them so wearying, and also so important, is that both Frodo and Winston are asserting independence from the Eye. Sauron’s wish is to bend all wills to his own through the very Ring that Frodo wears. All of Sauron’s minions are simply an extension of himself and his own power and will. Even his designated ambassador is not named Sauron’s Spokesperson or even Sauron’s Mouthpiece, but simply the Mouth of Sauron. He is purely another function of the Eye. By refusing to claim the Ring for himself and thereby be subjected to Sauron’s will, Frodo maintains his individuality and selfhood, perhaps the greatest form of rebellion. This happens in a physical sense, too; by Frodo refusing to actually put the Ring on his finger, Sauron is unable to fully see him (though he is searching constantly).
Orwell makes Winston’s rebellion a little more explicit, but the principle is the same: small acts of independence and individuality that go against the pressure to submit and conform to a greater will. Big Brother takes the idea of a mass will/desire even further than Sauron does, only content when the population enthusiastically (almost maniacally) agrees instead of simply submitting: “You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him: you must love him” (Orwell 288). Big Brother strives to be a singular entity rather than an army of corrupted minds. Thus, Winston and Julia’s attempts at free thought and independence are indeed a rebellion, and they, too, must hide from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother at all costs.
Ultimately, both Frodo and Winston fail.
Despite everything he has sacrificed to get to Mount Doom and complete his mission, despite more than a year of resisting the urge to claim the Ring for his own, Frodo at the very last stands in Mount Doom and “spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use… ‘The Ring is mine!'” (Tolkien 924). Despite all his attempts to avoid detection by Big Brother, to rebel in small acts of independence, to join a movement of resistance and withstand torture, Winston’s final conclusion is that “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother” (Orwell 304).
But here comes the ultimate difference between Tolkien and Orwell: hope. Both Sauron and Big Brother would love to snuff out even the tiniest flame of hope from their opposition. In The Lord of the Rings, hope is in many ways personified in the character of Aragorn. One of Aragorn’s many names is Estel, an Elvish word which literally means ‘hope’. Aragorn is symbolic of the hope that the free races of Middle-earth have against defeating, or at the very least, resisting, Sauron. Peter Jackson portrayed this well in the final battle at the Black Gate in the movie; as Frodo gives in to the Ring, Aragorn is knocked down in battle and nearly crushed completely. Winston clings to hope as well, but in a feverish and almost despairing manner. O’Brien’s “therapy sessions” with Winston are intent on driving out any sense of hope that he has, slowly and methodically. But where Big Brother ultimately succeeds, Sauron fails. 1984 ends with Winston falling to Big Brother, but The Lord of the Rings does not end with Frodo putting on the Ring in Mount Doom. Orwell calmly spells out inevitable catastrophe. Tolkien, at the final struggle, coins the word eucatastrophe.
Of course, at the end of the day, 1984 and The Lord of the Rings are still vastly different stories. For one thing, Tolkien fights evil with goodness and virtue, while Orwell weaponizes and politicizes sex, pleasure, and immorality as a means of rebellion. 1984 is quite allegorical; Tolkien despised allegory and went out of his way to avoid it. It is really only the depictions of evil that have striking similarities; but the endurance of hope in The Lord of the Rings is the vital (in the literal life-giving sense of the word) difference. Perhaps this difference can be most clearly seen in the symbolism of stars, a motif which both books use at a crucial moment in the narrative. Winston grasps at the idea of something beyond Big Brother’s reach when he says:
“‘But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach for ever.’
‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.'” (Orwell 271-72).
Orwell gives Big Brother the final say. In the face of evil, the stars don’t matter. But for Tolkien,
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 901).
The stars matter a lot.
Orwell, George. 1984. Arcturus, 2013, London.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Collins, 2001, London.