Oz politics through the eyes of Tolkien

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 has worked as an academic, a public servant and a university administrator. Recently she obtained a PhD from Monash University: her thesis examined myth, history, and theatre in Australia. She lives in Melbourne and currently works as a freelance researcher.




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