Rush’s Tolkienesque Heroes in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’
Peter Jackson’s “The Desolation of Smaug” is the number-one money maker this week at the box office, so it’s a good time to dust off a Rush Vault book review from last year of The Hobbit and Philosophy, a compilation of essays from Wiley-Blackwell on matters fun and profound that J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit touches on.
Like Rush’s music, The Hobbit is a feast of ideas, mostly Aristotelian, that are as immediate today as they were in 1937, when Tolkien published his delightful story. What’s interesting about The Hobbit and Philosophy is how the contributors so deftly apply the lessons of Bilbo and his companions to the world we live in today. Moral luck, just and unjust wars, trying to find time to get contemplative in today’s world of distracting beeps and blips—it’s all there.
So, while the second part of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy is on the big screen, here’s a look at what it all means and how Rush has never really stopped channeling Middle Earth.
Alex, Geddy, Neil, and Bilbo on Life and Adventure
Chris Norris once said in Rolling Stone that Robert Plant may have sung about J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic realm of Mordor, but Geddy Lee “looked like he’d been there.” Well, Geddy and his bandmates also took their turn singing about parts of Middle Earth. They released “Rivendell” on Fly by Night and “The Necromancer” on Caress of Steel, both in 1975, when The Hobbit was pretty much required reading in high school English classes.
Rush might have left Middle Earth behind some 35 years ago, but it continues to dabble in narratives set in exotic environments and, maybe as a result of that, it’s never really shaken its association with science fiction and fantasy. So when Wiley-Blackwell in October released its book The Hobbit and Philosophy as part of its Philosophy and Pop Culture series, it seemed a natural to see how Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and the dwarves they shared adventures with linked up with Rush, and the answer is, quite a bit actually.
Almost two dozen philosophers, philosophy graduate students, and others contributed to The Hobbit and Philosophy, and what’s clear from their essays is Tolkien approached his tale from a very definite philosophical viewpoint, what you might think of as a meeting of Aristotelian virtue with a Taoist metaphysics.
With Bilbo, you have a simple, comfort-loving hobbit who leaves his cozy hearth to go off on an adventure and is tested in ways that would have certainly broken a lesser person and, as Gandalf had suspected he would do all along, emerges as a hobbit of character and virtue, a genuine hero. So, in a sense you have the ideal Aristotelian. The Taoism comes from the way Bilbo reconciles the two sides of his nature, the yin of his love of comfort and and the yang of his adventurousness, what Tolkien called his Tookishness (from his mother’s sde of the family). In a way, Bilbo exhibits the perfect balance between the two sides of his nature once his adventure is over and he’s back in his hole in Hobbiton.
You can see a lot of this same dynamic in Rush’s music, not just in their channeling of Tolkien in “The Necromancer” but pretty much in all of their narrative pieces, starting with “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and ending with their Clockwork Angels album and including “The Fountain of Lamneth,” “Cygnus x-1,” and “Red Barchetta,” among others. The narrative tales that don’t fit the mold, like “Hemispheres” and “2112,” don’t fit the mold precisely because they show the perils of not following the Aristotelian path but instead show what happens when you allow what you might call a Platonic paternalism to tamp down your Aristotelianism.
What’s wonderful about The Hobbit and Philosophy is how enjoyable it makes the reading of the many different philosophical ideas that are explored. I don’t want to assume too much, but I’m sure the contributors relished the opportunity to write about Aristotle’s virtue ethics, hermeneutics, Hume’s empiricism, Thomas Aquinas’ scholastic take on Aristotelianism, among other philosophies, as if they’re chatting about it with you before a nice fire and with some mellowed whiskey in their hands. It’s casual but still rigorous. You learn a lot but it goes down easy.
You have short, fun pieces like co-editor Eric Bronson’s piece, “Big Hairy Feet,” on the role of walking in helping us to do our best thinking, as it did for Bilbo, and David O’Hara’s “Hobbitus Ludens,” on the unexpectedly important role of play in both The Hobbit and in our own world. Indeed, as O’Hara, an associate professor of philosophy and classics at Augustana College in South Dakota, points out, our word “school” derives from the Greek word for leisure, meaning learning is inextricably linked to stepping outside the serious business of work so we can get new perspectives on things.
The piece that riveted me is “Tolkien’s Just War” by David Kyle Johnson, an assistant professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania. He walks us through different views of what constitutes a just war and concludes that, although Tolkien personally had no love of war, having seen it at its worst as a soldier in the killing fields of World War I, there is a time when war is called for.
Another good read is “Some Hobbits Have All the Luck” by Randall Jensen, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern College in Iowa, which looks at the role of luck in assigning moral worth to actions. Jensen walks us through different types of luck and how they match up with the kind of luck, both good and bad, Bilbo had during his adventure, and we conclude that luck and morality can coexist just fine. “Even though some of the elves, men, dwarves, and hobbits in Tolkien’s tale may have been better or luckier than others, each deserves a share of the dragon’s treasure,” he says.
Remarkable for a compilation of essays like this, there really isn’t a bad piece in the lot, a testament to the fine work of the editors, Gregory Bassham and Bronson, and the series editor William Irwin.
Thanks to their work, you can arm yourself with a whole bunch of new ways to look at The Hobbit the next time you read it—or, now that Peter Jackson’s cinematic take is in theaters—when you see it on the big screen. Not only will you think about whether the Battle of Five Armies (once the third installment hits the screens) is a just war or not, but how Bilbo’s good and bad luck reflects his virtuousness.
You also just might get out your old Fly by Night and Caress of Steel albums and listen to them with a whole new point of view about how Rush’s Tolkienesque heroes live up to the heroism of Bilbo Baggins.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
The Hobbit and Philosophy:
For When You’ve Lost Your Dwarves, Your Wizard, and Your Way
Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series
Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, editors
William Irwin, series editor
Wiley-Blackwell (Hoboken: 2012)
Paperback: $11.83 (on Amazon)
Kindle edition: $9.99
Buy directly from the publisher.