Danielle McLaughlin: On Tolkien, and Trump's Tough Talk
OPINION: Tolkien's The Hobbit turned 80 this week. It's a tale well known to Kiwis, not least because Godzone is officially the incarnation of Middle Earth.
Some of the major themes of The Hobbit, and its accompanying Lord of the Rings trilogy, hit home here in Manhattan as the United Nations General Assembly convened. Tolkien, a veteran of World War I, infused his novels with imagery from the battlefield and the lessons of war, including who ultimately bears its cost.
This week, those themes resonated as the American president – before the annual gathering of world leaders on East 42nd Street – threatened to annihilate North Korea.
Trump's threat to destroy another UN member, from the UN podium, was unheard of in an organisation dedicated to maintaining peace and security and achieving international cooperation. And that's saying something, considering Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Cuba's Fidel Castro had at other times taken that stage.
It's not to say, of course, that North Korea's aggression is anything other than dangerous and destabilising. It is just that Kim Jong Un's ability to follow through with his threats is somewhat uncertain, whereas Trump's is assured.
Should the US launch a nuclear strike against Pyongyang, it is generally accepted that North Korea will at a minimum unleash its conventional weapons against Seoul, located just 55km from the DMZ. It is also accepted the residents of Seoul (in addition to millions of North Koreans) will bear the brunt of any strike directed at its northern neighbour. Trump cannot with a scalpel somehow spare the citizens of an ally located just 240km from the palace of his adversary.
Tolkien published The Hobbit on September 21, 1937, just two years before the start of World War II and some 21 years after Tolkien's service in World War I. The Lord of the Rings books followed nearly 20 years later, on July 29, 1954.
The world of Middle Earth first came to life in Tolkien's scribbles, written by candlelight in the Somme Valley. The hobbits he created were "a reflection of the English soldier," he said, and were incarnated as small fellows to emphasise "the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men at a pinch". The new machines of war – the tanks and guns – and the throngs of infantrymen who marched to their deaths became Saruman's mind "of metal and wheels" and Sauron's orcs.
Tolkien also captured his own experience in coming back from war in Return of the King: "How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand … there is no going back?"
Tolkien's works offered lessons of conventional war, but they remain relevant in war's new morphology. The bloody butchery of the Somme would be replicated many times over in a nuclear strike, and against those who never marched into battle. I expect most New Yorkers aren't thinking such lofty thoughts as the UN General Assembly causes our streets to dissolve into a morass of police cars, flashing lights, cordoned-off streets, and stand-still traffic, horns honking.
But perhaps the gathered heads of state, high above the din, will consider them anew.
Follow Danielle on Twitter at @MsDMcLaughlin
- Sunday Star Times