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Oz politics through the eyes of Tolkien

Vivienne Kelly |  19 September 2007

Tim Costello (who is nobody’s fool) was recently asked whether he thought his brother would ever be Prime Minister. He gave a wry and elegant answer that played with the notion of the difficulty of relinquishing power in the saga of the Lord of the Rings.

As we know, one of Tolkien’s central themes is the addictive quality of power. Even the good and gentle Frodo is vulnerable to its poison; and Gollum is transformed absolutely, becoming a slave to the power behind the Ring and losing both his integrity and his physical self in the process.

It was a playful answer, but (in the way of good playful answers) a suggestive one as well. Middle Earth is not a democracy, but the metaphor is oddly evocative: the notion of power as addictive resonates strongly in our present political climate. John Howard clearly finds it so. Never did cornered rat fight so desperately as Howard is fighting, now that he sees that the Ring must be passed on, and perhaps soon.

Even those of us who believe Howard’s stewardship of our country has diminished its character and quality admit that he is a good fighter. Yet there has been a manic element in his fighting of late — especially over those mid-September days when he so nearly lost the leadership — that’s not quite the same as before. He seems urgent and so frantic. There’s a new red light in his eyes. It’s so — well, so Gollum-like. He can’t give up his Precious. It’s his Precious, yess it iss, and he’s not giving it up to anybody, not yet. Not to Rudd, not to Costello. Not to anybody.

And that’s the thing about Tolkien: he reveals power not simply as addictive but as corrupting and deadly. Of course this is no news to anyone. But Tolkien shows its gradual acid erosion, its unexpected toxins and scarcely-perceptible inroads, the way it creeps into your bones, thins your blood and blurs your vision. We might ask ourselves whether the 'Ring' oughtn’t to have been yanked off our Prime Minister’s finger some time ago, so that someone else might be allowed to put a new perspective on things.

Let us imagine that a Ring was placed on Howard’s finger when he became Prime Minister. What harm might it have done over the past eleven years? What promises might it have caused to be broken? What characters might it have twisted? What judgments might it have corroded and what vision smeared?

Oz politics through the eyes of TolkienCould it have explained the non-core promises, the quarter-truths, the evasions, the multiplicity of duplicities? On seeing these things and others we might have understood more profoundly the long and damaging process of decay in the Prime Minister’s heart. And by removing the Ring from his grasp, perhaps we could have neutralised some of the damage.

Here is Tolkien on the Ring of the Dark Lord:

'The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so …'

This is at the very start of Frodo’s adventure, before the Ring has worked its way into his soul, but even at this point it has started to exercise its mastery over him. When, three volumes later, he must release the Ring altogether by casting it into the Crack of Doom, he cannot do so unaided. For the longer the Ring has remained in Frodo’s possession, the greater has become its authority over him.

Of course there is no Ring, no miraculous phials, no Mithril armour. But if there were, one can imagine the Treasurer, during Cabinet meetings, in Parliament, in private discussions, eyeing it, coveting its beauty and richness, even, from time to time, reaching a hand out for it. Almost involuntarily. Imagine the icy grip the Ring might have taken on Peter Costello’s heart and ambition.

Imagine the battle for the House on the Hill — as bloody a battle as the battle at Isengard, (although Ents will probably not attend). And at its end, if the 'true believer Hobbits' do finally get to put their hairy feet up in the castle’s banqueting hall while they down a few butter beers and admire the sullen glint of the One Ring on their leader’s hand, perhaps there’ll still be a small, lost, bespectacled figure roaming the corridors, muttering to himself, 'Gollum, Gollum.'


Vivienne Kelly

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Submitted comments

Actually, rather than "Oz politics through the eyes of Tolkien" this piece would have been more accurately titled "A one-eyed view of Oz politics by someone captivated by fantasy".The writer has clearly been lured into some tempting fork in the road by that other myth-maker -Kevin Rudd

Let's hope she finds a way out of the wood and makes her way home before it gets too dark!

Brian Haill 20 September 2007

Catholic News? I think not.

Bernadette O'Loughlin 20 September 2007

Substitute Keating and Hawk for Howard and Costello and the article would be just as relevant, but I suspect the author's sympathies would not allow, especially during an election.

Hugh Ivens 20 September 2007

What a brilliant piece of analysis to use Tolkein that way - and how applicable this could be to many other situations, especially perhaps, aspects of our hierarchical Church

Liz Morris 20 September 2007

Is not the chair of Peter also precious? Certainly no place for Gandolf

E. Olsen 20 September 2007

Ha! But just wait until "The Dark Lady" Julia feasts her eyes upon the ring.

Peter Stokes 20 September 2007

excellent analogy and ,like analogy can, exposes truth!

Paul Gill 20 September 2007

Some time ago I privately named John Howard "Gollum". This was not, as might seem, disrespectful.
Some of his actions as PM are more explicable, and less discredit to him as a person, if they are seen as being performed by someone under the power of a remote and malign force, such as the Ring of Power.
Who could wield the Ring without detriment? Only someone who did not desire it.
So not a politician. To switch books, we therefore have a Catch 22. Only a politician can become PM, but
no politician can resist the corruption of the Ring of Power.

Vin Victory 20 September 2007

For goodness' sake, this is just an observational article! Why does everyone have to read political inclinations and sympathies into everything.
While I agree the same could be said about other political leaders, the author is clearly discussing CURRENT people and events, inspired no doubt by the RECENT Tim Costello comment. Stop reading anything else into it. And by the way, Eureka Street isn't solely about Catholic News. I don't know the author or the publication's editors but this article fits with the Eureka Street ambit.

Marshmallow 20 September 2007

Vivienne. I loved the piece. A great take on "the game of power & influence" for any fantasy lover. Thanks.

Daniel Donahoo 20 September 2007

Excellent piece and analogy. Interesting responses. Whilst the terminal King hangs on for dear life I think Australia is waking up after a period of darkness and we might be coming out of the wood having been blinded for too long with too many fantasies that didn;t add up!

Frederick 20 September 2007

I fear the comment contains a great deal of truth. I am reminded too of the old adage,'all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely' , perhaps we should be looking for legal responses to limiting power in our democracy and to the very nasty personal edge which is now manifest in Australian politics. M.K.

M.M.Kerby 21 September 2007

An academic howard hater. What a surprise

David 21 September 2007

What an extraordinary insight. I think many people have been trying to say something along those lines about John Howard's wish to 'stick like glue' but having been able to find a way to put it into such eloquent words. Congratulations. (Now if Nicholcon could do a cartoon for the Australian to match ......)

Kathy 22 September 2007

Since Howrd has never known any other life than that of politics, he is especially vulnerable to the addictions of power. Maybe he needs to be able to visualise himself in some other role--any suggestions?

Lenore Crocker 23 September 2007

I have only one problem with this allegory: the Ring makes the wearer invisible. Howard may become invisible (and inaudible!) after losing the leadership, but it certainly hasn't happened yet.

Stephen 26 October 2007

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