The Long View 2007-02-14: Happy Non-Existence; Who Lost Britain; AH Mag; The Longer Boom; Carl Sagan; God & Logos

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I would have definitely read this magazine.


Happy Non-Existence; Who Lost Britain; AH Mag; The Longer Boom; Carl Sagan; God & Logos


This study may have implications as unnerving as a trapdoor, if you think about it:

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is the worst country in the industrialized world in which to be a child, the United Nations Children's Fund ( UNICEF) said on Wednesday...Britain lagged behind on key measures of poverty and deprivation, happiness, relationships, and risky or bad behavior, the study showed.

It scored a little better for education but languished in the bottom third for all other measures, giving it the lowest overall placing, along with the United States.

Children's happiness was rated highest in northern Europe, with the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark leading the list. ...The study found there was no consistent relationship between a country's wealth, as measured in gross domestic product per capita, and a child's quality of life.

The Czech Republic, for example, achieved a higher overall ranking than economically wealthier France....

Colette Marshall, UK director of charity Save the Children...said "drastic action," including an injection of 4.5 billion pounds, was needed to meet a government target of halving the number of children in poverty by 2010.

I am as opposed to neglecting children as the next guy is, but may I point out that this ranking of child welfare correlates inversely with fertility rates? It does not do so perfectly: France has a somewhat higher fertility rate than Britain does, for instance. Nonetheless, the countries singled out for the best treatment of children all seem to be on a glide-path to extinction. Could it be that one effect of "halving the number of children in poverty" would be halving the number of children?

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has broadened his area of concern to include the zombie menace. "Who lost Britain?" Indeed.

* * *

Is the United States no longer a status quo power? That is one way to read this assessment from Spengler at Asia Times:

Some years ago I suggested that option theory offered insights into geopolitics. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the spoiler, seeking advantage from instability, while the United States sought to maintain stability. In financial parlance, the Russians were long volatility; they stood to exercise their political options opportunistically, and the more chaotic and uncertain the state of the world, the better for Moscow. For the past 20 years, though, it is Washington that is long volatility; in the absence of a contending superpower, instability frightens all contending parties into seeking help from Washington. The more unstable and uncertain the world, the stronger the position of the United States. Whether or not the US recognizes this is beside the point; the fact that President George W Bush has made a dog's breakfast of Iraq makes America's world position stronger.

If so, then what are we to make of these further observations?

A friend in financial markets observes that the world appears to be safer than at any time on record, judging by the cost of insurance against economic disaster...

Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard observes that world markets anticipated the outbreak of neither World War I nor II.

This is just another example of the return of the Long Boom mentality. Regarding the most recent Davos meeting, for instance, Richard Landes quotes a report on the many meetings about climate change, but notes this:

And apparently, no one mentioned global Jihad, which puts “real war” in the shade for its wide range of fronts and tactics.

The Eloi never know what the Morlochs are up to, until dinner time.

* * *

Sometimes I think it would be more fun to publish a little magazine than to write articles for one, but look at the kind of ideas I come up with. [see the post header for JJR’s magazine cover -BE]

* * *

I was always a great fan of Carl Sagan. I was never put of by his occasional effusions of agnosticism. Like many agnostics of high general intelligence, he did not realize that he did not know enough theology to make a serious critique of it. Unfortunately, his widow has seen fit to publish a compendium of this weakest aspect of his legacy:

“The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator....

It was Ms. Druyan’s impatience with religious fundamentalism that led her to resurrect Dr. Sagan’s lectures, which were part of the Gifford Lectures, a prestigious series about natural theology that has been going on since the 19th century.....

Ever the questioner, Dr. Sagan asks at one point in his lectures why the God of the Scriptures seems to betray no apparent knowledge of the wider universe that “He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is” allegedly created. Why not a commandment, for instance, that thou shalt not exceed the speed of light? Or why not engrave the Ten Commandments on the Moon in such a way that they would not be discovered until now, à la the slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey”?

There are many reasons why religious people in recent decades have tried to edit the physical science taught in the schools, but one of the chief reasons was the efforts of popular-science writers to present their own metaphysical views as the results of modern science. Creationism is nonsense, but no greater nonsense than Stephen Jay Gould's postmodern biology.

The late Cold War did not always see Sagan at his best. His Nuclear Winter hypothesis has not held up very well, either.

* * *

Vox Day does know enough theology to rise to the level of refutable error, or so I would characterize this exercise in walking the plank:

If I am correct that my God is the Creator God, that we are all his creations, then killing every child under two on the planet is no more inherently significant than a programmer unilaterally wiping out his AI-bots in a game universe. He alone has the right to define right and wrong, and as the Biblical example of King Saul and the Amalekites demonstrates, He has occasionally deemed it a moral duty to wipe out a people.

The argument about whether God is arbitrary is not new, but it is currently topical. Benedict XVI took the other side of the question in the Regensburg Address:

Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the [logos]". This is the very word used by the [Byzantine] emperor [Manuel II]: God acts, [su 'n logos], with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.

Actually, I am inclined to think that Benedict is wrong when he says that the rationality of the logos is incompatible with violence under any circumstances. (And yes, anyone can disagree with the address, since Benedict was speaking as a speculative theologian, not ex cathedra.) However, the point is that reason belongs to the divine substance; it is not a mere creation of the divine.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2007-01-17: Franco-British What-Ifs; Steyn on Children of Men; Obsolete Doomsday Clock

A Franco-British Union is the kind of alternative history that John J. Reilly loved to post about, except this one was seriously proposed more than once in mundane history.


Franco-British What-Ifs; Steyn on Children of Men; Obsolete Doomsday Clock

This is not one of the great "What-Ifs" of history, however much attention this archival revelation has received in the past week:

Britain and France talked about a 'union' in the 1950s and even discussed the possibility of Elizabeth II becoming the French head of state....

On September 10, 1956, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet came to London to discuss the possibility of a merger between the two countries with Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden.

But when Mr Mollet's request for a union failed, the French premier quickly responded with another radical plan: that France be allowed to join the British Commonwealth.

According to the BBC, this proposal appears to have met with more warmth from the British politician.

Actually, something like this had been a real possibility 16 years earlier, when the French government had fled from Paris to Bordeaux after the Germans took Paris. At that time, the British government made this astonishing proposal (I quote from William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic):

At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world, the governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution to their common defense of justice and freedom ....

The two governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defense, foreign, financial and economic policies.

Every citizen of France shall enjoy immediately citizenship of great Britain; every British subjects will become a citizen of France.

The Franco-British Union certainly had Churchillian boldness, but in fact Churchill had doubts about it. His government was prevailed upon to make the proposal by Frenchmen in London, among them Jean Monnet, who wanted to keep France in the Second World War. All that really interested the British at that point was securing the French Fleet. However, the desperate French premier, Paul Reynaud, was enthusiastic about the Union and thought he could convince his cabinet to accept. They did not, of course. His government fell, and its successor sought an armistice.

To this day that decision can be defended. The politicians who made it had been elected to save France. No one was paying them to save civilization, especially if saving civilization meant that all of France would be subject to foreign occupation. I think that calculation is incomplete: every state has a duty to the civilization of which it is a part, and indeed to mankind as a whole. However, the decision was not irrational, or even dishonorable.

It was also a much greater possibility than the proposal of 1956, simply because it would have served an immediate need. It is possible to imagine the French and British empires prosecuting the Second World War together (though one suspects that full union would not have been implemented). One result would have been that the Japanese would have included Indochina in their list of conquests a few months later. Another, perhaps more important, is that there might never have been a German campaign in North Africa: the hostility of the French possessions there would have made it untenable.

No North African campaign would, of course, have freed up resources for the Eastern Front. Would the non-capitulation of France have lost the war for the Allies by enabling a knockout blow against the Soviet Union? Probably not, but we see that the acceptance of the British proposal of 1940 would not necessarily have shortened the war.

* * *

Mr. Demographic Collapse, Mark Steyn, has seen the film version of P. D. James's book The Children of Men and is not pleased:

There are zillions of bad movies, but Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children Of Men is bad in an almost awe-inspiring way. ...the way in which he misses the point portends a difficult future for Hollywood in the years ahead. ...P D James’ short book is a meditation on loss of purpose in society: the symptoms are already well advanced in real-life Europe - convenience euthanasia, collapsed birth rates, wild animals reclaiming empty villages on the east German plain. Cuaron can’t even grasp the question, ...The film looks like a film – which is to say that, apart from Michael Caine, everyone in it is young: young transgressive leaders of young gangs pursued by young cops and young soldiers. But that’s exactly what the novel has in short supply: roads crumble to tracks because the employees of the state are too middle-aged to maintain the rural districts. Entirely accidentally, the ineptitude of Cuaron’s movie makes James’ point: A society without youth is so alien to our assumptions about ourselves that we can’t even make a film about it. Which suggests that Hollywood itself – at least in its present incarnation – will be one of the casualties of the coming of age.

I have not seen the movie, but I, too, regret that Cuaron chose to describe a conventional dystopia rather than to cinematize the book's unusual premise. (That is not the only case of directorial timidity I regret: just once, I want someone to make a film version of H.G. Well's The Time Machine and just shoot the book.) However, in Cuaron's defense, we should note his claim that James herself approved of his treatment of the book.

* * *

This gimmick has outlived its usefulness, as we can see from this report:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) is moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock on January 17, 2007, from 7 to 5 minutes to midnight.

BAS announced the Clock change at an unprecedented joint news conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, and the Royal Society in London. In a statement supporting the decision to move the hand of the Doomsday Clock, the BAS Board focused on two major sources of catastrophe: the perils of 27,000 nuclear weapons, 2000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change.

I'm sorry, but what does global warming have to do with atomic weapons? Is the clock now to measure all the Bad Things in the world? How about Bad Cholesterol?

Here's a more serious objection: what does the BAS do when nuclear weapons are actually used, probably in a terrorist attack or in an exchange between states with small arsenals? It is always awkward when the eschaton actually arrives.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Translator

John J. Reilly’s book review of John Crowley’s The Translator comes up at an apropos time: I am digesting a history of science fiction in the twentieth century, and The Translator seems to be a good example of science fiction as a kind of secular scripture.

There is one definition I want to post from 1973, because it is very revealing as to the type of people who made this separation such an obsessive goal to begin with. This is by Bulgarian writer Elka Konstantiova:

"Even though the origins of science fiction go back to the mid-19th century, nonetheless as a new literary genre, charged with special social functions, science fiction is the undoubted product of the nuclear age. The more meaningful the scientific and technological breakthroughs and their impact on modern life, the greater the role of science fiction, stimulating our vision for things to come, especially in the aspect of the changes wrought in man's mentality by the scientific and technological revolution. Science fiction brings home the awareness that the future will continue to bring radical changes in all areas of man's life; science fiction is there to prepare him for this eventuality."

In other words, it's secular scripture. Science fiction is a way to guide the populace by informing them on what path they should take to build a better tomorrow. Which better tomorrow, you might ask? Well, the one that will advance humanity as a whole.

This novel is a metaphorical [or metahistorical] interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and thus very much fits the mold described above.


The Translator
By John Crowley
HarperCollins, 2002
295 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-380-97862-8

Remember the Great Atomic War of 1963? It's odd that you shouldn't, or so it seemed in later years to Christa Malone, the protagonist in this metahistorical interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"The final logic of this [20th] century, this century that believed in logic and history and necessity, the final spasm so long and well prepared: it didn't happen, and now seemed likely never to happen."

The Translator explains why the inevitable did not happen, as well as something of the conflict in a higher world that the historical incidents of those days darkly reflected. This novel is not the long-awaited fourth volume of John Crowley's great work, the Aegypt series, but it does treat of many of the same themes: the end of the world, the hermetic subtext of everyday life, and the multiplicity of histories. The book is not precisely fantasy or science fiction, though readers may be reminded of Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. Rather, the author tries to use just the suggestion of magic in order to rise above history and show that it is not what it seems. As a technique, that works well enough. However, the exercise also presents an example of the fallacy of "beyondism." Though affecting to view a historical conflict from the point of view of eternity, the author is really picking a side, and the stupid side at that.

A love story holds the novel together. Christa "Kit" Malone, a Catholic girl with a recently acquired dark past, comes to a Midwestern university in 1962. She makes many discoveries, some of them specific to her era. She is, for instance, slightly surprised to find that there really are Communists in America; she had begun to suspect that the nuns at school had make them up as minatory figures. Her chief discovery, though, is a Russian poet-in-exile, the mysterious Innokenti Isayevich Falin.

Falin is an uncanny fellow. He is one of those people, for instance, who seem able to appear and disappear without being seen to come and go. More concretely, there is the persistent question of why the Soviet government chose to exile him, when they did not exile, say, Pasternak. He also tells of a kind of life in the Soviet Union that has nothing to do with either the official world of the "gray gods," to use his phrase, or with the anticommunist polemics Kit heard from her nuns. Falin spent part of his childhood as a homeless vagabond in a Dickensian world of youth gangs and train stations, but "with no Dickens to make things right." Even in later life, Russia for him was a place where people just got lost, or were arrested for no reason even the jailors could name.

Kit becomes Falin's student, and later his translator. A fair amount of this book is about the difficulties of translation from one language to another, about whether a poem in translation is really the same poem. This being a John Crowley novel, however, we soon learn that translation is only a metaphor for the interface of worlds:

"Events in the world can perhaps be like rhyming words in poems: they can only, what would you say, pay off in one world, one translation, not in others. In one world people are cheering and weeping with joy, for best conclusion has been reached, heroes have come home safe. In another world, say this world, same events are events of no significance."

Falin's presence turns out to be of great significance in all worlds, however, because he is the way through which the apocalyptic logic of the 20th century can be confounded. Explaining it to her father long afterwards, Kit puts the reality of the Cold War this way:

"I think that back then, when he came to this country, there was a struggle going on between the angels of the nations, his and ours; and that in their anger and their fear, those angels came to destroy the world..."

Crowley's angels generally have more to do with the angels of the schoolmen than with those of popular comfort. Often they are like mathematical objects, insectile intelligences, both omniscient and stupid. There is more to be said about them, however. The great angels of the nations are attended by lesser angels, almost shadows, which complement their greater brethren's strengths and weaknesses. Falin describes the relationship in a poem written just before his disappearance, on the very night the danger of nuclear war crests and recedes. (There is a fair amount of original poetry in The Translator, and it's pretty good.):

"If a nation's angel is proud, then the other is shy
Brilliant if the nation's angel is dull
Full of pity if the angel shows none
Laughing if it always weeps, weeping if it cannot weep."

In a mysterious way, Falin embodies the lesser angel of Russia. In a wrap-around story set in a conference at St. Petersburg after the end of the Cold War, really a sort of Judgment Day in an afterlife, one of Falin's old friends expresses the real significance of Falin's exile:

"[The] worst thing such a corrupted great angel could do would be to send away into exile the lesser angel who is paired with him."

In some way that is not clearly explained, Falin intrudes himself into the attention of the idiot angels at just the right time to distract them from their work of mutual destruction. He dies, or returns to Russia, or otherwise vanishes, with only a car sunk ambiguously in a river to hint at his fate. The balance of the world begins to right itself, and we are given to understand that John Kennedy's assassination a year later was a compensating sacrifice.

The Translator reworks a notion that Crowley has been using for years. It is clearly set out in his famous story, The Great Work of Time, in which a disconcerted time traveler has this to say about an early 21st century world whose past has been unduly tinkered with:

"It was not simply a world inhabited by intelligent races of different kinds: it was a harder thing to grasp than that. The lives of the races constituted different universes of meaning, different constructions of reality; it was as though four or five different novels, novels of different kinds by different and differently limited writers, were to become interpenetrated and conflated: inside a gigantic Russian thing a stark and violent policier, inside that something Dickensian, full of plots, humor, and eccentricity. Such an interlacing of mutually exclusive universes might be comical, like a sketch in Punch; it might be tragic, too. And it might be neither: it might simply be what is the given against which all airy imaginings might finally be measured: reality."

This is not a bad way to put a story together, though we usually find it only in very long novels. The conceit of alternative realities lets us see the box-in-a-box structure. However, The Translator shows that this kind of structure is not necessarily a good way to think about history, or at any rate to write about it. If we can see the alternative worlds, we are outside them and can judge between them. The problem is that, in Crowley's telling, the view from eternity is awfully parochial. We get the first hint of this when Falin the Lesser Angel expresses reservations about a commencement speech that called on the graduates to simply "stick to your dream":

"Some dreams we do not wish that people stick to: we hope that they are weak, and do not cling to these dreams, that they fail to hold on. A dream that one day this world will be free of Jews. That Soviet Union will be destroyed. That all enemies of the state will be crushed. That only one God prevail everywhere."

One might plausibly object that these four aspirations do not belong on the same list. Indeed, it could be that anyone who thinks them morally equivalent is not unusually broadminded, but suffers from blinkered vision. In fact, as the story moves through the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we see that the view from eternity is essentially that of the early New Left. Kit learns that the sepia undergraduate world of the Kennedy years is a front for cruel and secret powers, as if the Land of Oz were really ruled by the East German Stasi. She even meets America's own lesser angel, in the person of an "intelligence agent" who could have walked out of an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. (He could not have come from The X-Files: Crowley does get the period right.) This discovery changes her life, even causing her to leave the country for a while. Eventually, though, she comes to grips with the powers that be:

"It was only when others who were braver than she was stood up to it - to them, to the secret power - gave a name to it, spoke truth to it; only when they came out in thousands and then tens of thousands singing Dona nobis pacem, that she found she could too."

It is perhaps some evidence that people really do live in different realities that I found this transformation so shocking. Could it really be the case that, even today, there are people who think that conversion to the New Left was a kind of enlightenment? Evidently, there is a world in which the victory of the West in the Cold War was an event without a rhyme.

Even so, it would be a mistake to miss this book because you might not find the political subtext congenial. The Translator succeeds in portraying the days of "The New Frontier" as the haunted time it actually was, as full of premonition in its way as the years before 1914. One need not be metaphysically inclined to accept that there may be more to history than meets the eye. For those who are so inclined, this book has good and bad angels for all.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-13: Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016  Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016

Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

I note that Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi did win election to the upper house in Iran in 2006, but that his party did not gain a majority in the legislature. The Wikipedia article is broadly consistent with Dr. Timothy Furnish’s description that John J. Reilly quotes here, but as this is pretty far outside my knowledge base, I don’t have much to add besides that.

I do like John’s use of Bayes’ Theorem in explaining millenarian decision making. In light of new information, what was previously crazy might not actually be crazy at all, if the new information is true.

John links here to a Youtube video of Julius Evola, and the years were not kind to the man. He actually looks a bit like Grandpa Munster in the film footage, whereas in his youth he was a rather dapper Dark Lord.

Finally, despite John’s caustic comment on the perennial Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I think Niall Gooch has the best defense of the movie’s merits.


Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch


As if the US Congressional elections were not exciting enough, an impending vote in Iran could be even more important, if we are to believe Patrick Poole:

A showdown over the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran is underway as the December 15th election of the Assembly of Experts, the top political body, rapidly approaches. The election of the Assembly of Experts has been a particularly contentious issue in Iran, as the traditionalist hardliners have already invalidated many candidates representing both the moderating party led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the burgeoning extremist party led by President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.

The burden of that piece is that a victory by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi would be unfortunate, because he is a millenarian of the first water in an eschatological tradition that views the eschaton as something one should help to bring about, not just to wait for. I cannot evaluate that assessment, since this is one of those areas I know only through secondary sources. However, Timothy R. Furnish of Mahdiwatch has a Ph.D in Islamic millenarianism, and he has this to say:

I think that his taking the helm there would virtually ensure eventual war with Israel and/or the U.S., for two reasons: Mesbah-Yazdi's geopolitical views – which include approval of first-use of nuclear weapons – make him perhaps the ultimate Shi`ite jihadist; and his eschatological fervor, which brings to mind previous historical examples of bloody Mahdist movements, such as Ibn Tumart of 12th century Morocco and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan.

For my part, I would say that only very rarely does millenarianism in power take the form of a man with a plan who makes a nuisance of himself while trying to carry out a step-by-step agenda that leads to the eschaton. Rather, it encourages risk-taking by denigrating the importance of the present state of things, which is seen as merely transitional. It's really an instance of Bayes' Rule: a policy that might seem too risky in ordinary time appears less hazardous because of the added information about a possible future provided by the millenarian model.

* * *

Niall Ferguson seems to have become interested in Alternative History because the First World War, whose economic history was his original concern as a scholar, cries out for such an analysis. That's because it was obviously a war of choice, at least of choice about how and when the war broke out. That is also true of the Iraq War, which has also occasioned a great deal of AH speculation, either about the war itself, or about alternative-historical parallels. David Warren here favors us with an example of the latter:

I was rewriting history, while walking along some cold lakeshore the other day. My thought was: if Churchill had only come to power in 1937, Chamberlain would have been installed to replace him in 1940.

Had Churchill been in power, and refused to sign Munich, he would have been blamed for the outbreak of war.

I can just hear the prattle in an English pub, circa 1950. "He pushed Hitler to it! Had it not been for Churchill, Hitler would have been satisfied with the Sudetenland, and England would never have had to surrender. Everything was Churchill's fault!"

Today, everything is Bush's fault.

Actually, Germany's strategic position was much worse in September 1938 than a year later, when the war in Europe actually began. Russia was still unfriendly, there would have been time to send Poland serious support, and an invasion of Czechoslovakia would not self-evidently have been an easy matter. A war begun in 1938 would have been confused and tentative, but it might have been the better solution. One suspects the same will turn out to have been true of the Iraq War. Would 2008 really have been a better year if a nuclear-armed and millenarian Iran were then demanding that Saddam Hussein's government come clean about its WMD programs?

* * *

But if Bush is not to blame, then how about this fellow? Yes, unless I am mistaken, that is no less a person than Julius Evola (compare his picture here) speaking about the metaphysical significance of Dada. Here he is speaking in French with Italian subtitles. I'm working on it.

* * *

You think America is forgetting the meaning of Christmas, do you? Well, according to Jeff Jacoby, matters are much worse across the Atlantic:

FROM THE land that produced "A Christmas Carol" and Handel's "Messiah," more evidence that Christianity is fading in Western Europe: Nearly 99 percent of Christmas cards sold in Great Britain contain no religious message or imagery...But some Britons, not all of them devout, are resisting the tide. Writing in the Telegraph, editor-at-large Jeff Randall -- who describes himself as "somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer" -- announces that any Christmas card he receives that doesn't at least mention the word "Christmas" goes straight into the trash. "

May I suggest that "A Christmas Carol" was the top of the slippery slope of which the "Seasons Greetings" card is the bottom? "A Christmas Carol" is a sentimental ghost story, excellent of its kind, but in no way intended to reinforce the religious significance of Christmas: rather the opposite, I suspect. In this it resembles Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a nightmarish tale of existential dread.

And what have I done for Christmas art? I did this poster.

xmas2006a.jpg

Anybody have a problem with that?

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Something Rotten

To start the New Year off, let’s jump into a book review by John J. Reilly of a series I am entirely unfamiliar with!


Something Rotten: A Novel
By Jasper Fforde
Viking, 2004
385 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-670-03359-6

A Review in Dialogue
By John J. Reilly

----------


NURSE: “Doctor, he's starting to come out of it.”

DOCTOR: “Thank you, Nurse Dreadful. Wake up, Mr. Lector! How many did you take?”

PATIENT: “Hunh? How many what did I take? I deny everything. Get me a lawyer!”

DOCTOR: “We have to know how many Thursday Next novels you've read.”

PATIENT: “What makes you think I've been reading Thursday Next novels?”

DOCTOR: “You overdosed on Literary Conceit. We just pumped four liters of Running Gags out of your stomach. The swelling of your Pun Glands alone could prove fatal.”

PATIENT: “Just one, doctor. It was an accident: someone slipped it to me in a pile of used books...”

NURSE: “If he's been reading them since The Eyre Affair, doctor, we might as well just send him to the Obituary wing right now.”

PATIENT: “No, please! I've read only Something Rotten. I can beat this thing. I swear!”

DOCTOR: “It could be tough. We may have to kill off your literary sense entirely with weekly doses of Gender Analysis. First, though, we have to gauge the overload to the High Concept region of your brain. Can you describe the book?”

PATIENT: “Just snatches, doctor. I remember the Cheshire Cat's surprise that an 'alligator' is not someone who makes an allegation. And I remember how wrong I was for thinking that Uncle Mycroft's Ovinator was a machine for processing eggs.”

DOCTOR: “Yes, it may never be safe for you to open an etymological dictionary again. But can you remember anything about the book's premise?”

PATIENT: “It hurts my head!”

NURSE: “If we can get him to Obituaries now, doctor, we can leave the paperwork to the next shift.”

PATIENT: “The premise is that of all the Thursday Next novels. There is a technology called the Prose Portal that lets people travel through fiction like they travel through time in other stories, except that they also travel in time in these books. Thursday Next is the name of an agent for a sort of police force called 'Jurisfiction,' which is dedicated to keeping fiction stable.”

DOCTOR: “What exactly are they guarding against?”

PATIENT: “Left to themselves, the genres will fade into each other. H.G. Wells's Martians might invade Victorian novels, for instance, or the characters in one story might try to merge it with another story. 'King Lear' was originally two separate plays: 'The Daughters of Lear' and 'The Sons of Gloucester.' That merger was stable, so Jurisfiction left well enough alone; and once it was done, it was how literature had always been, as far as anyone could remember. One of the subplots in Something Rotten is about preventing a similar merger called 'The Merry Wives of Ellsinore.' Hamlet has to be taken into the real world for his own protection.”

DOCTOR: “Is this real world like our real world?”

PATIENT: “At rare points. It's always 1988. England was occupied during the Second World War. There are zeppelins rather than jets. Wales is an independent socialist republic. An aging vaudevillian and former freedom-fighter named George Formby is President of England. He is the only thing that prevents Chancellor Yorrick Kaine, a minor character who escaped from a bad romance novel, from becoming dictator. To that end, Kaine foments hatred against Denmark. It ties into the Hamlet business, you see.”

DOCTOR: “And Thursday Next is part of the effort to frustrate Chancellor Kaine?”

PATIENT: “Yes, if she can avoid being killed by an assassin called the Windowmaker.”

DOCTOR: “Could you say that again?”

PATIENT: “The Windowmaker. Doctor, the textual resonance in my ears is getting louder and louder!.”

DOCTOR: “Just stay conscious and you'll pull through. Do you remember anything about Uncle Mycroft's Memory Erasure Machine?”

PATIENT: “I do and I don't. All the details run together: the World Croquet Championship, the home cloning kits, the dodos and the Neanderthals. I seem to remember that Hamlet becomes an alpha dodo before he returns to the play. Doctor, do we have to keep going over this? I'm developing a rictus again!”

DOCTOR: “You should be fine, Mr. Lector, provided you stay on a low-irony diet for the next few weeks. No reruns of The Simpsons; no Marx Brothers movies. Nothing for you but Business Week and books on natural history; maybe some public affairs programs, but not from FOX! You had a close call, Mr. Lector: the least witticism could still push you over the edge. Nurse Dreadful, take this man to the Noam Chomsky Ward.”

The nurse bent over the gurney to push it into the hall, and Mr. Lector glanced at her uniform's blouse. His eyes widened. His body convulsed and arched like a tortured metaphor. Then he fell back. The man was dead.

On the nurse's blouse was a small, black nametag, incised with white lettering. Her first name was PENNY.



The reviewer takes no responsibility for the effects of Thursday Next books on the emotional or physical well-being of readers. Any complaints should be directed to the Toast Marketing Board. That's an inside joke. Another one.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View: Tokugawa America

Tokugawa Ieyasu   [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tokugawa Ieyasu

 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tokugawa Japan is one of the more remarkable societies that have ever developed. It produced most of the culture that both we Americans and the Japanese find distinctive, and managed to be relatively stable and resistant to the outside world for nearly 250 years. When the outside world finally barged in, Tokugawa Japan responded more creatively than China did, although you could argue the mess Imperial Japan made in the early twentieth century mitigates this accomplishment.

Here, John Reilly asks the question: What would America look like if an isolationist policy as strict as the Bakufu's were implemented? This is the kind of fascinating thought experiment that John's fascination with alternative history made him well prepared for.


Tokugawa America

An Essay by John J. Reilly

With Thanks to Akatsukami

 

In this sixth year of the 21st century, one might argue that the American unipolar moment has ended, or that unipolarity has been revealed to be not at all identical with omnipotence. In either case, many Americans now feel less safe than they did ten years ago. The anxiety has many sources, all of them with an international component. There are the continuing wars in Central Asia and the Middle East, the ever more alarming terrorist threats, the relative decline of US manufacturing, the uncontrollable fluctuations in petroleum prices, the demographic transformation arising from Latin American immigration; and, an as yet insufficiently appreciated factor, the purely confessional tensions generated by the appearance of an aggressive Muslim minority in a Protestant-Christian country. For these and other reasons, there is now audible sentiment in the United States for less engagement with the wider world.

This sentiment is sometimes expressed in terms of an argument that the United States should share more of the cost of maintaining the global security and economic commons. The argument is, perhaps, incoherent. Quite aside from the fact that it assumes the existence of peer powers with an interest congruent with that of the United States in maintaining a liberal world order, the solution the argument implies would do nothing at all to shield America from the global forces that are causing the new anxiety. The opposite may be true: to wholly assimilate American interests to those of multilateral organizations in which the US does not have a preponderant voice would simply transform foreign engagement from a question of policy to one of legal obligation.

More interesting, if more radical, is the call by nationalists for far more radical disengagement. At least for purposes of this discussion, we will not consider the “civilizationist” variant, which holds that the West as a whole must fight off Islamist aggression. Though apparently of more than one mind on the subject, nationalists like Patrick Buchanan seem, on the whole, to be willing to write off the non-American portion of Western Civilization and concentrate on the defense and cultural preservation of the American homeland. In this essay will consider not so much whether such a policy would be possible or sustainable, but what it would look like if it were implemented.

As a metaphor for this project, we call the thorough-going recusant model “Tokugawa America,” after the period in Japanese history known as the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns (essentially a line of hereditary prime ministers) was perhaps the most successful and sophisticated hermit kingdom in history. It began as an attempt to re-impose order, after a long period of civil war, using an ideology of Neo-Confucian hierarchy to support a feudal four-layer caste system. At least at the beginning, the regime was anti-commercial; it famously limited foreign trade to a minimum. It also undertook to suppress Christianity as a disruptive foreign influence. Nonetheless, the Tokugawa period was by no means a dark age. The arts of the Tokugawa period, particularly in painting, achieved a level of evocative subtlety that has rarely if ever been matched. Neither was the period socially immobile. The original feudal caste system developed more market features with the passage of time, as well as a lively intellectual life. Some Japanese elites had kept abreast of events in the rest of the world. When the challenge from America and Europe came in the middle of the 19th century, Tokugawa Japan had the resilience and self-confidence to respond creatively, though the Shogunate itself was abolished early in the following era of reform.

What the American nationalists are asking for is the Tokugawa period, but with American characteristics.

Let us imagine that, after September 11, 2001, the American political system had determined to protect America by hardening the target rather than by eliminating the source of the threat. “Hardening the target” is here taken to mean, not simply making the US less vulnerable to terrorism from the Middle East, but less vulnerable to any disruption from any quarter. This invulnerability would be accomplished by changes to the United States and its immediate environment, not by attempting to modify the economic or political evolution of other parts of the world.

There would be three strategic principles:

Economic Autarky: The survival, and even the prosperity, of the United States could no longer be allowed to depend on events outside the reliable control of the American state. Tariffs would become the chief instrument of macroeconomic policy, as they were in the 19th century. Increasingly punitive imports would promote withdrawal from world commodity markets, and most especially from the world oil market. Other areas of the economy would, presumably, produce the technological innovations needed to accommodate the new price structure. In addition to the oil question, the US would no longer import manufactured goods, except perhaps for some luxury items; neither would export industries be favored. The single greatest change would be that the dollar would no longer be the chief international reserve currency, or the preferred medium of international exchange. Taxes on fund transfers would accomplish these goals. One suspects there would be a return to an international gold standard for such trade as still occurred.

Military Disentanglement: The rejection of foreign sources of essential commodities would remove the Middle East, West Africa, and Latin America as possible spheres of small wars. Large wars, or at least large wars involving the United States, would be prevented by the withdrawal of security guarantees from Europe and Japan, and indeed from everyplace east of Maritime Canada and west of Hawaii. The military could shrink to the Coast Guard, missile defense, and the Marine Corps (with the latter including its air arm).

Closed borders: Except for policed transit points, the Mexican border would be closed. Areas that could not be continuously patrolled would be mined. Businesses unable to meet their personnel needs from the domestic labor force or by automation would be expected to close. Schools, particularly graduate schools, would be in much the same situation regarding students: student visas would be rare. Travel of all kinds to the United States would be rare. Even tourists are a potential threat, both in transit and once they arrive. Government functions connected with the franchise and the administration of justice would be conducted in English.

We should note that the condition of the United States did approximate these principles during the Great Depression. The US was, almost, resource independent in those days. It actually ran a small trade surplus, though of course the absolute volume of trade was small. The US military was trying to disengage even from residual commitments in Latin America and the Philippines. President Roosevelt, during his first term, came close to turning the Army into a paper force. During the early years of the Depression, immigration actually reversed: more people left the country than entered it. Important industries were subsidized and regulated to keep them in business and to maintain employment. On the many occasions when government sought to influence prices, from the cost of wheat to the cost of airline tickets, it usually tried to raise them to prevent deflation.

Internationally, of course, the 1930s ended very badly, but that was because the US recused itself during a period of manifestly growing threats from peer states. It is not certain that the same bad result would obtain in a context in which the rest of the world were turning to rubble.

Similarly, Tokugawa America need not be a gray place of persistently high unemployment, shabby flannel clothes, and Humphrey Bogart movies. The isolation of America in the 1930s was more a matter of necessity than design, as was the disengagement of the United States from European affairs in the 19th century. The spirit and structure of a recusant regime would be quite different if the isolation were a matter of policy.

We might, for instance, consider Robert Heinlein’s novel, “If This Goes On,“ first published in 1940. During the 1930s, Heinlein thought that the United States would and should prescind as much as possible from European affairs. In most of his scenarios for the future, a second world war does occur, but the United States remains neutral. “If This Goes On---“ uses a variation on that idea: a few generations after the date of publication, Heinlein posits, the United States has dropped out of world affairs because it has become a theocracy, ruled by a line of prophets. The military is a small internal police. Life goes on pretty much as it always had (there are flying cars, but there were many flying cars in Depression era stories), except that it has become almost impossible to leave or enter the country.

Avoiding personal foreign contacts is a fundamental feature of the prophet’s system: the isolation is designed to prevent ideological contamination. This objective does not bulk large in the writings of nationalists today; neither are the nationalists, for the most part, would-be theocrats. The closest that nationalists come to an exception in this regard is the question of Islam. In some circles, every Islamic neighborhood is regarded as an incubator of fifth columnists. At the very least, Tokugawa America would have to discourage the spread of Islam, a policy that would require attention not just to immigration and nationalization policy, but also the administration of prisons. A consistent policy would also favor conversion to some form of Christianity.

A Tokugawa policy for America, however, would require some broader rationale than anti-Islamism and economic protectionism. The economic and social configuration it would seek to maintain is not natural. Markets do not stop at borders except at gunpoint. Energy will have to be continually applied to prevent the system from dissolving, something that was not true of the isolation of the 1930s. Investments will be forgone and expenditures made where they would not be in the absence of public policy. In other words, Tokugawa America will be expensive to maintain. The political system will have to be firmly committed to doing so. The recusal of the United States would have to be understood not just as a policy, but as a way of life.

In any case, Tokugawa America would need more command and redistribution features than have been fashionable since the era of deregulation began in the 1970s. It’s not just that command would have to be continually applied to keep the system in existence. The fact that the system would so obviously be picking winners and losers, particularly with regard to tariffs, that the losers would demand compensatory subsidies of various sorts. Tokugawa America would be in persistent danger of becoming a “blocked society,” in which competing claims for rents would tend to freeze the political system.

The really interesting question is whether Tokugawa America would be recognizably American. The United States has a venerable history of holy horror at the corruption of the outside world; the United States has experienced periods of “isolationism” (the 1920s was not one of them, but that’s another story); for much of its history, the United States has practiced beggar-thy-neighbor trade protectionism. What the United States has never been is defensive or culturally protectionist. In this the US has been the opposite of all the world’s hermit kingdoms, including Tokugawa Japan’s. These societies usually felt that their cultures were in some sense superior to those of the rest of the world. However, far from attempting to spread their arts or institutions to other societies, they often went to some lengths to ensure that foreigners would learn as little as possible about these treasures.

Universal liberal democracy is not the only element in American political culture, but it is one of the earliest and most persistent. Only episodically has America attempted to spread its institutions to the rest of the world as a matter of official policy. Nonetheless, the American view of the world, and indeed of itself, has always incorporated the tenet that liberal democracy would or should spread, that it would be better for everybody if the world became a society of liberal republics, as Kant had speculated. Do not be deceived by the Americans who claim to overcome American chauvinism by asserting that the whole world need not be like America. They are, perhaps, the most naive of their countrymen, since they have simply globalized American patriotism by failing to see that the world society of liberal republics does not yet exist.

Tokugawa America would no doubt retain the language of its ancestral universalism, but the meaning of the words would have shifted. For the first time, liberal democracy would just be something that Americans do, like baseball; whether or not other societies had similar institutions would no longer be relevant to the American view of historical development. For that matter the idea of historical development as progress would not fit into Tokugawa America. America’s only imperative would be its own preservation. That might make America less peculiar, but it would also make it less American.

Finally, one suspects that America in recusal might shift its emphasis from the production of popular culture to the production of a new high culture. American popular culture has always in fact been idiosyncratic, from the loner heroes in films to the advertising industry’s ideal of the female figure. Nonetheless, this culture was produced by people who unselfconsciously thought their own assumptions about beauty and virtue to be universal. The same holds true from music to food to the size of cars. Tokugawa America, in contrast, would be the kingdom of self-consciousness. These themes and motifs would be taken up like popular tunes were taken up by the great classical composers and reworked into creations of a new order. America has had self-consciously American art before, of course, but heretofore it has always been drowned out by the commercial popular arts on the one hand and the acids of the avant garde on the other. In Tokugawa America, however, there would be no subsidy for the nihilist avant garde, not in a political culture whose first duty was national preservation. As for commercial art, its market will have shrunk with the geographical sphere of American culture. Discerning patrons would determine the flow of American culture.

The model we have considered is scarcely a dystopia. Tokugawa America need not be poor, tyrannical or even ugly. There are ways in which it would be superior to the America of history. However, let no one imagine that the establishment of this society would be the preservation of the Old Republic against a globalizing world. Tokugawa America would be another country.

 

End

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! Book Review

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria  By Ferdinand Schmutzer - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria, Inventarnr. LSCH 0029-C, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18361001

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

By Ferdinand Schmutzer - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria, Inventarnr. LSCH 0029-C, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18361001

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I
by Richard Ned Lebow
Palgrave MacMillan, 2014
241 pages
ISBN 978-1-137-27853-1

I received this book for free as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

As part of my Lenten penance this year, I am choosing to work through my backlog of advance reader copies that I never quite got around to. I have a dozen or so sitting on my library shelves, quietly gathering dust.

This is another case where I have no idea why I haven't read this book yet. It is alternative history, a subject I find interesting enough that there is an entire static page dedicated to it on my site. My first introduction to the the subject was the volume What if? The World's Foremost Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. I think I read it as an undergraduate, and I happened upon John's site shortly thereafter. You see what happens?

Lebow summarizes alternative history thus:

Counterfactual means contrary to facts. A counterfactual describes an event that did not occur. In everyday language counterfactuals can be described as what-if statements. This nicely captures their purpose: they vary some feature of the past to change some aspect of the present. Some people use counterfactuals to imagine different futures, although strictly speaking they pertain only to the past.

Lebow takes the position that the Great War was truly an accident of history. It is not only contingent, it wasn't particularly likely. He lists six ways in which he thinks the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand altered what was an otherwise stable European political order:

  1. The assassination of the Thronfolger created a fear of escalation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The political leaders felt they couldn't let this go without encouraging more of the same.
  2. Franz Joseph and Kaiser Wilhelm were both shocked and offended by an insult to amour propre.
  3. Franz Ferdinand had been the primary advocate of peace in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  4. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, chancellor of the German Empire, may have been swayed to risk war by the assassination.
  5. The German Socialist party, the Social Democrats, were so appalled by the assassination that they were willing to throw their support to war to punish Serbia.
  6. Created an environment in which Kaiser Wilhelm and von Bethmann-Hollweg could feel like they hadn't actually chosen war.

I'm not enough of a specialist to really evaluate Lebow's list. (4) and (6) seem pretty speculative to me, but I'm not familiar with the character of Kaiser Wilhelm and von Bethmann-Hollweg, which is what Lebow says he based this judgment upon. I could buy the other four without too much fuss.

However, whether this historical judgment is correct isn't really the point of the book, in my opinion. We can learn something from alternative history, even if we think the alternative isn't particularly likely. What is interesting about alternative history is the attempt to understand the mechanics by which history unfolds, which is important in shaping what we choose to do.

Lebow has chosen a somewhat unusual point of departure for his alternative history. WWII is a much more common point of departure for alternative history. As it happens, John J. Reilly chose to investigate what might have happened if the Germans had won the Great War. Lebow went for something far more bold: let us posit that the Great War never happened, and peace really did have a chance. What might have followed?

Peace never had a chance in our timeline

Peace never had a chance in our timeline

Lebow follows this down two paths: the best and worst plausible worlds given his departure from history were true.

Lebow's Best Plausible World

  • The British and Austro-Hungarian Empires survive, but the Russian Empire does not
  • Germany's early lead in science and technology is maintained
  • Europe remains the center of gravity of the world, but is closely pursued in most economic measures by the United States and Japan
  • Israel is never created
  • The rest of the Middle East develops in much the same way as Lebanon in the historical world

This is a more peaceful and multipolar world, but it does have some downsides. Mostly in absence of the many technologies that were created as part of the war efforts in both world wars. It is also less dynamic, staying much the same through the end of the twentieth century as it was in the 1950s.

Lebow's Worst Plausible World

  • The British and Austro-Hungarian Empires survive, but the Russian Empire does not
  • Germany's early lead in science and technology is maintained
  • Europe remains the center of gravity of the world, but is closely pursued in most economic measures by the United States and Japan
  • Israel is never created
  • The rest of the Middle East develops in much the same way as Lebanon in the historical world

If that list looks the same, that is because it is. Lebow's worst possible world is very much like his best, with the difference that the culture evolves in unpleasant ways. The Germans become more militaristic, the United States becomes more isolationist, and the Russians more paranoid.

In this worst possible world, all of the least pleasant features of the countries mentioned are exaggerated, and eventually Cold War between the German and British Empires turns hot. A nuclear exchange follows a breakdown in communication created by a false alarm. 

Lebow's Worst World

Lebow's Worst World

I didn't find Lebow's alternative worlds particularly compelling, or plausible, even given his premise that preventing the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand could have completely prevented the Great War. Our models of history are just too different. This passage in the final chapter sums that difference up:

In an earlier collaborative study of the phenomenal rise of the West in the modern era, my colleagues and I argued that it had many causes, most of them contingent. The same can be said about China's cultural, military, and scientific superiority for almost two millennia. Above all it depended on the creation and maintenance of central authority over a vast land area and population. Nothing was inevitable about this development, and in its absence the landmass we call China would have developed into different political units with different languages.
Map of the Yellow River, whose watershed covers most of northern China and drains to the Yellow Sea  By Shannon1 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Yellow River, whose watershed covers most of northern China and drains to the Yellow Sea

By Shannon1 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Everything about the creation of a central authority in the valley of the Yellow River was inevitable. It has now happened three times in the same place, with a remarkable continuity of culture and language. That is as close as we get to inevitable in history. Demography and geography and social dynamics all align to make this happen.

Lebow isn't really interested in these things, and it shows in the kind of worlds he imagines. Lebanon was different than the rest of the Middle East because the Lebanese, Maronite Catholics, were different. Less inbred, and less clannish, which are closely related things, the Lebanese were relatively Westernized and prosperous. Most of the rest of the Middle East lacks the human capital to do that. Banning cousin marriage could help fix both things, but it is unlikely to happen.

The other thing that rang false to me is the Whiggish stance that art would suffer under authoritarianism in the worst world. There have been many, many great artists in regimes that were authoritarian, and even in worse ones. As John Reilly noted in his own alternative history speculation about World War I, Weimar culture, which Lebow praises, and Nazi culture, which he does not, were the same artistic culture. The Nazis made some visually arresting art, in pursuit of horrible ends.

The one thing I truly appreciated was Lebow's attempt to make sense of what the Spanish Civil War would have looked like in the absence of its major outside sponsors in our world. It definitely would have still happened, everybody in Spain hated each other, but it might have had fewer repercussions elsewhere.

In the end, it looks like my reluctance to pick this book up was justified. Memento mori!

My other book reviews

John J. Reilly's Alternative History page

The Long View: The Gray Havens

The Gray Havens

John Reilly's 1969 paperback edition of   The Fellowship of the Ring

John Reilly's 1969 paperback
edition of
The Fellowship of the Ring

An Explanation

The Lord of the Rings is not history, and as readers of that great work are aware, the title of its last chapter is "The Grey Havens," not the "Gray Havens." Nonetheless, the world of Middle Earth that J.R.R. Tolkien imagined for us is so detailed that it is difficult to think of it as pure fiction. Because the events of the War of the Ring have something of the density of factual history, they invite the sort of stretching and speculation that factual history invites. A major genre has grown up in fiction that treats historical scenarios that did not happen. That is what I have done in this novella with the climax of The Lord of the Rings.

John J. Reilly
March 15, 2006


A Disclaimer

The work to which this page links, The Gray Havens, as contained on the pages with URLs tg1.html through tgh10.html, is not a part of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings; neither does it purport to be a part of that work or a sequel to it. The Gray Havens does not include copyrighted or trademarked material from The Lord of the Rings or from any other work. The Gray Havens is a new work that alludes to a small set of the ideas and characters that the genius of Professor Tolkien has made the common possession of mankind in a very real and legally binding sense.

(1) The Downfall of Rivendell

“The end of the world is one thing, but missing lunch is serious.”

It was March 25, in the 3019th year of the Third Age, and Arwen was not taking the lack of news from the South well. She needed to get out of her rooms. As for me, being a Hobbit, I would have gone to lunch even if I were on fire.

“Bilbo, you are incorrigible,” she sighed, perhaps genuinely glad of the interruption. “Let us go down to the Lesser Refectory, then.”

She stood up, and I took my accustomed distance. I had long since stopped being uncomfortable around Big People, but a conversation at close quarters was a strain on the necks of both parties.

We passed through the double oak-doors of her suite and headed towards the first stairway, walking down a corridor whose waxed floor gleamed under the long skylight. Like most of the younger members of Elrond’s household, it was in one of the new wings of the Great House of Rivendell, built of wood rather than the immemorial stone of the central villa. We went quite a distance before we met anyone else. Arwen was not the only person in Rivendell who had things on her mind at the moment other than the next meal.

“Lady Arwen,” said Gelmir as we entered the Refectory. He came forward when he spied us at the doorway. He was one of Elrond’s senior advisors; the oily one, I had always thought. Now he was the one who said “I told you so.” The Lesser Refectory was a fine room, used much more these days then the vast and gloomy Great Hall. Today, though, the thin sunlight that shone through the tall, narrow windows cast no shadows; it was the kind of light that seemed to cool rather than warm. The scattered diners were more interested in whispered conversation than in eating. “It is good to see you about again,” Gelmir said. Turning lightly to me, he offered: “And you too, Master Baggins. I hope that even in these stressful times that you find nothing lacking in the table of this House?”

“Even in the best of times, Councilor,” I said bowing low, “the splendid hospitality of Rivendell can be eclipsed by the quality of the company.” I carefully did not look in his eye, but I was fairly sure I heard Arwen choke back a snort. She tactfully took up the conversation.

“I saw a rider enter the eastern courtyard an hour ago, Councilor. Am I correct in thinking that was a messenger from Lorien?”

“Indeed, Lady,” he replied as we took our seats. “As you have no doubt surmised, we have no new intelligence, or we have sent to you immediately. The Ring has passed beyond our knowledge into the Shadow. So have Elessar, and the hosts of Gondor and Rohan. And the Rangers. And the sons of Elrond. It would be comical if it were no so tragic. The flower of the West has offered battle to Mordor. It will be cut down unless the One intervenes.”

“And what would you have done differently, Councilor?” I asked as the servants placed dishes of bread and melted cheese before us. As a matter of fact, the quality of the food on Elrond’s table had declined in these distressful times; the villages of the network that traded with Rivendell were being attacked, or abandoned, or just had no spare produce to sell. I had alluded once to Elrond himself about the decline in quality. He was having a bad day and took the remark with less than his accustomed good humor. Gelmir seemed determined to never let me forget it.

“Perhaps I would have done nothing differently, Master Baggins,” he said as he munched his cheese sandwich philosophically. “We all had a hand in what has been decided, after all. Perhaps all will be well. Perhaps the Enemy will flee from the host of the West, and the Lord Elessar will be greatest King of Men since Ar-Pharazon the Golden. Perhaps, contrary to all appearances, the advent of the Hobbits into the affairs of the world has not been a sign of its downfall.”

Arwen put her hand on my arm. I thought she was cautioning me against making a sharp retort; then I realized she was listening. I heard it too. Far away, someone was screaming.

“It’s coming from the Keep,” she said. That was where her father’s private quarters were.

Without a glance at her companions, she rose from table and walked, and then ran, to the doorway that led to the Keep. Hobbits have long ears, and the elvish aristocracy were, well, sensitive to their blood relatives. Gelmir, who was neither, could not hear the cry. “What is happening, Master Baggins?” he asked.

“Trouble in the Keep, looks like. Perhaps I should see whether I can assist the Lady Arwen,” I said as I rose to follow.

“Yes, that would kind of you.” He said politely. He himself did not move. Several centuries as a courtier had taught Gelmir that it was often better to be available to discuss a mishap later than to be there to stop it from happening.

By the time I had caught up with Arwen, it was becoming clear that something was very wrong. People were not running to the cries for help, which were now audible to even ordinary elvish ears; they were standing stock still. I was not quite sure that I felt a tremor through the stones of the floor.

The noise became louder and louder as we approached Elrond’s private study. We burst open the door. There was Elrond, mighty among elves and men, writhing on the floor. His right hand was bloodied and mangled. It was smoking.

Some of Elrond’s household shook themselves from their bewilderment and ran into the study; doubtless the smell of burning flesh got their attention. On the ring finger of Elrond’s right hand, or what was left of it, there was a ring that glowed white hot. I knew about what it was, though few others did: it was Vilya, the Ring of Air.

Elrond had seemed to be trying to say something like, “Get it off me!” Then, however, he opened his eyes and looked at his would-be rescuers.

It was like being hit with a blast of air from a furnace. Several of us fell. I stood, but for a moment I did not see Elrond, or the room in Rivendell. I saw a space of infinite darkness, and in it I a burning eye, an eye with a slit pupil. I head a voice like thunder say:

“Air is mine; Adamant is Mine; Fire is mine. The One is mine. You are mine.”

The vision passed, and once again Elrond was just screaming and mouthing words. I heard a rabble of advisors, knights, and servants behind me, trying to decide what to do and who should do it. At my side Arwen wept and cried, “Father what is happening!”

Suddenly, none of this was important to me. Without anyone noticing, I slipped to the window that looked to the southeast. The view was the same as it had always been, of rocky pineland that fell away to the hazy feet of the Misty Mountains. Nothing seemed to have changed, but I knew that the view was a fraud. I felt, with a certainty that I could never have achieved with mere vision, that everything had changed. And what I felt was envy and fury. He had it. It was mine, my Precious, but He had it now. I would never get it back.

* * *

The Council was held a week later, in a pavilion in the north of Rivendell. It might have been held earlier, but the Keep and the oldest parts of the complex began to shift off their foundations on the day of Doom. Everyone was evacuated from the oldest structures before they collapsed, but getting everyone billeted and accounted for was challenge enough for the government of the High Elves. Besides, Elrond was not recovering quickly from the amputation.

“My Lords, Lady Arwen, distinguished guests, this is a day that we have long dreaded,” said Erestor, another of Elrond’s advisors. He was a windbag of the first water but not a bad fellow; what he had to say was usually worth hearing, once he got around to saying it. “We have dreaded this chance so much that we could never bring ourselves to plan for it. Now there is no time to plan. The Enemy has triumphed in the field and in the Other World. Our own resources have fallen to nothing more than our lives. As I have said, there is no time to plan. We have only…”

“Yes, yes, you have only to flee to the Gray Havens, if you can reach so far, and if any ships remain to carry you.” So said Gloin the Dwarf, the father of one of the members of the ill-starred Fellowship of the Ring. He had returned to Rivendell as an ambassador from the Lonely Mountain to bring news of the defense there and seek Elrond’s advice about securing increasingly dangerous Forest Road through Mirkwood. Now it seemed he would not be going home anytime soon. Now it seemed there might be no home to return to.

“The Elves have always had the option to flee, and Men, Men seem as happy in the service of the Dark Lord as out of it. But what of the Dwarves, I ask the Council? We have nothing but this Middle Earth. Now it is lost, lost, and where shall we go? Do the Elves know any refuge for my people, for any remnant of the people, before the Shadow covers the whole world?”

“Peace, Gloin,” said Elrond with difficulty. The remains of the right arm were well-bandaged but swollen. The evil was beginning to affect his chest. “The elves do not know just what form the sorrows of these days will take. Also, the elves of my kindred have not yet determined whether to stay or to flee. That is among the things we must decide.”

“But surely there can be no doubt?” said Hador, the Councilor who performed the necessary function of stating the obvious at every meeting. “We have few men at arms, and our powers have waned almost to nothing, or passed to the Dark Lord’s control. We saw this just a week ago when the Keep collapsed. It had been built with the aid of the Ring of Air. When the Great Rings passed to his control, everything ever done with them crumbled. We cannot resist the Dark Lord, even in the near term. We have no choice but to go west. The only question is whether we can still reach the Havens.”

“And whether the Havens still stand,” Gelmir interjected mildly. “Cirdan also wielded a Great Ring, remember. And we see that Lorien is burning, where Galadriel had worn the Ring of Water.”

Actually, all we could see was a darkening of the sky on the southern horizon. When we first saw that darkness, we feared the Shadow of Mordor was spreading over the whole world. Within a few days, though, the last of our scouts reported. They were no longer able to cross the mountains, but they said that the darkness was an immense billow of smoke, almost too big to see, that an east wind blew over the mountains. There was only one explanation. Lorien was burning.

“My Lords, these are craven counsels,” said Glorfindel, the chief of Elrond’s warriors in the absence of the Elrond’s sons. He was a fine Elf, but he was also evidence for the proposition that immortality need not sharpen the wits. “We do not yet know what is happening in the wide world. Are we to flee on the mere rumor of defeat? May we altogether abandon our allies, as the worthy Gloin has hinted that we might? And if the worst has happened, a flight to the Havens would have as little chance of success as a last defense of Rivendell, and far less honor.”

“Master Elrond, may I make suggestion?” I asked.

“I think perhaps that we have heard enough suggestions from Hobbits for many an age,” Gelmir said.

“Gelmir, this is my Council,” said Elrond as sharply as he could. “What is it, Bilbo?”

“Might I suggest that an age has ended, and not the world? We cannot live as we have lived, but we need not assume that no life is possible. We do not know enough to despair, and that means we should avoid a final stand, if we can do so with honor,” I said, nodding to Glorfindel. He might be wrong, but no one had ever called him malicious. Unfortunately, was not true of Gelmir, who interjected again.

“The aged Halfling speaks unexpected good sense,” he said. “Indeed, I think that we have underestimated our remaining resources. The name of Elrond carries great weight in the North and West of Middle Earth. In this time of fear, it might be possible to turn that reputation into power. Also, the power of the Dark Lord remains limited, even now. Only in Gondor and the borderlands of Mordor can he rule like a king. His power in these parts is terror and treason. And he knows this well. He also knows that we have things to trade. We might yet secure from him leave to rule ourselves.”

“What sort of things, Councilor?” asked Arwen in a carefully noncommittal tone.

“Vilya, the Ring of Air, for one. Yes, he now controls it, but he does not have it. He might be persuaded to forgo a raid in force on these lands if he could receive it as tribute.”

“And what other things?” she asked again.

“Rivendell has ever been a center of opposition to his ambitions, and rightly so, for many lives of Men. However, we must now consider whether we can continue to support all the enemies of the Dark Lord, or any of them. The families of the Rangers who disappeared into the Shadow have some call on our charity, perhaps, but we must acknowledge that the people of Isildur have failed. We can no longer aid them in war, even if we would. There may even be some individuals who have the misfortune to be the special enemies of the Dark Lord. We may pity them, but we can no longer shelter them.” He carefully did not look at me.

“Councilor Gelmir has persuaded me to seek the Havens at all hazards,” Arwen said, “if Middle Earth is to be ruled in the way he proposes.”

“Erestor,” said Elrond, “you were about to propose a course when you were interrupted. May we hear it?”

“Lord Elrond, my first advice is that we do not deceive ourselves. We have no power in this world any longer. Our old policies have wholly failed. We have nothing with which to make new ones. The Dark Lord has no need of our bargains. Perhaps he would not trouble to send an army from Mordor to this thinly peopled country, or maybe he would. In any case, he has creatures nearer to hand. And I can only repeat that we have nothing: neither provision, nor magic, or even a decent fort. We can only run. The Gray Havens is the obvious destination, but we should not count on the ability to leave Middle Earth. As we travel, must be alert along the way to the possibility of refuge. And we must leave now. The longer we stay, the worse our case will be.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, Elrond spoke.

“I have no ambition to be the viceroy of Mordor. Neither do I wish to leave Rivendell. For the moment, in fact, I cannot. We are not strong enough to fight. We do not know enough to flee. We will remain where we are, and gather news. That is all for now.”

* * *

And so we did nothing for two months. Actually, we did even less than Elrond had proposed, since news got scarcer and scarcer. We learned that Orthanc had been briefly abandoned and then occupied by a lieutenant of the Dark Tower; then all news from that quarter ceased. The wizard Rhadagast joined us from southern Mirkwood, which was becoming a lawless jungle. He came through a northern pass that, remarkably, the Beornings had managed to keep open. He said that Lake Town had been sacked. However, the Lonely Mountain had come through relatively unscathed. The siege was lifted after King Dain paid a heavy tribute to the Dark Tower and pledged fealty to Sauron. Gloin did not like this news any better than Elrond did, but on the strength of it he risked the journey home. Rhadagast himself, seeing Rivendell had slender hospitality to offer, continued West. From that direction scouts brought sporadic reports of Trolls, Wargs, and even the occasional Orc raid, but worst of all were the Men. Most of the recent immigrants from the South had been simply displaced persons looking for a home. Rumors of the great change in the world, and the influence of the Enemy’s agents, had here and there turned the newcomers into marauding hordes.

Our own situation deteriorated, first slowly and then quickly. Ordinary supplies that had been hard to import in January were unobtainable by the middle of April. Rivendell was self-sufficient in some commodities, notably dairy products, but there was not nearly enough to feed a population of 500. Hunting and fishing supplemented the dwindling stores, but hunting became harder and more dangerous, and fishing at Rivendell could never be more than a sport. Soon we were eating the cattle, and then the horses. Just as bad, the place was literally falling apart. The pavilions and outbuildings had never been meant to be lived in, as a late snowfall proved. There were no materials or enthusiasm for repairs. The softwood ornament beloved by the Elves was designed to be ephemeral; it almost melted in the wet, cold spring. Meanwhile, the new wings of the Great House that had connected to the Keep suffered several major fires, and another major collapse. By May, Rivendell had decayed to a network of encampments, cut off from the outside world and bickering with each other. I myself wound up in a tunnel with straw for a floor, like my remotest hobbit ancestors. I was better off than many.

The end came on half-a-day’s notice. A scouting and hunting party that had ventured as far south as the border of Hollin returned in a panic. “A host is coming this way! Hundreds of them, thousands of them! They are attended by Wargs and evil birds!”

“Hundreds or thousand of what?” asked Arwen. She and Elrond had taken up residence at one of the few decent lodges remaining in Rivendell. I happened to be present when the scouts made their report. Arwen said I cheered up her failing father, and maybe she was right. “We are not sure what kind they are, Lady,” continued the scouts, “but we saw from afar, in the dusk of the morning. We think they were Orcs at the end of a night’s march.”

“Or maybe they Men at the beginning of a day’s march,” I suggested, to no one’s satisfaction, including my own.

“Men or Orcs or wraiths, they are coming this way, and they can be here in a day’s march. They could even arrive tonight!”

“Or they could miss us,” I observed. “You know hard the entrance to this valley is to find, Master Elrond.”

“That obscurity was partly a glamour created by my will, Master Baggins, with the aid of my Ring. We no longer enjoy that protection. If anything, we must reckon that the Ring draws our enemies and guides them. No doubt the Dark Tower has dispatched this force to collect it. And me, I suppose. The simplest course might be to give them both. Then, perhaps, they would overlook the lives of my people.”

“Father, you are talking nonsense,” Arwen said. “The Enemy would not forbear to destroy Imladris and everyone in it once he has it in his power. And if you think to make a quick end, consider that Gelmir was right in this: your name really is known through all these northern lands. If we are to find a new refuge, or fight our way to the Havens, we will need the authority of your House.”

A hurried meeting of the Council was called. No one even suggested that we not flee. Glorfindel might have done had he been present, but he was away south toward Tharbad. We trusted that he would notice our absence when he returned. Nonetheless, the Council still managed to argue for several hours about what to do. Elrond was almost unconscious, and Arwen lost control of the meeting. In the end, with the sun already about to set behind the mountains, the order went out: “Take everything. Go West. Now.”

* * *

There was never a moment when the flight from Rivendell was not a catastrophe. The lack of clear instructions began the evil. “Everything” was interpreted to mean the books and chief treasures that had escaped the destruction of the libraries. The valuables were taken from storage places, where they had been safe from the weather and well hidden against theft, to assembly areas, where they were supposed to be loaded on carts. Arguments and then fights broke out between people trying to load the valuables and those trying to load the foodstuffs. Nothing was properly packed. It started to rain. Books and much grain were spoiled. Maybe it was just as well. There were not enough carts for either, much less for both.

Since there were only a few draught animals, most of the carts were pulled by soggy Elves and the few adult Dunedain whom Elrond still had under his protection (most of the Rangers’ families had drifted off into the wilderness since March 25). We reached the Ford of Bruinen with difficulty, and some injuries. Elrond was one of the few to be riding in a cart; certainly he was too weak stay astride one of the few remaining horses. (I rode in a cart, too: not because I was held in such high honor, but because no one noticed me among the barrels. It was like old times.) Elrond tried to exert his power over the ford, which was submerged in swift-flowing water because of the recent rains. The other Elves of power tried also. It started to rain harder. Arwen, finally, signaled that the train would have to make what headway it could against the flood.

It was not our good luck that the first carts had almost reached the other side before the lead cart overturned, spilling its contents into the water and sending its handlers downstream. Nearly the whole train was stranded in the current. The carts were not linked together (maybe they should have been) but the stream did not seem to grow especially stronger. For whatever reason, three quarters of the carts overturned within a few moments. Mine was among them, but as I said, it was like old times: I latched onto a barrel (of glue, as I later discovered) and quickly washed up on the nether shore. Many of us were not so lucky. An unknown number disappeared into the darkness then. So did most of our goods.

The survivors assembled at the western side of the ford. In the nearly total darkness, there was no way to count noses, but I was sure that Elrond was there, soaking wet and carried on a litter. Arwen was nearby, just as wet. We abandoned the few carts that had reached this side of the ford, and made up backpacks of the remaining goods (we later found out we had left quite a lot of preserved meat and accidentally took several packages of bunting and other festive decorations).

We were on the Great East Road, and many of us knew the lands about it well. This land was almost empty, but to the south of the Road were a few villages that helped provision Rivendell. One of Elrond’s stewards led us west into the dark to what he assured us was a secure refuge perhaps 10 miles distant. Then the really bad part began.

There was movement in the night that was not our own. The enemy did not come from behind: if that army ever reached Rivendell, assuming that’s what it was, it would not have followed us over the ford in this weather. Rather, it was clear that things were moving in the dark to either side of us, both in the forest on the north and the high grass to the south. Some of those things sounded as if they were quite large.

Elves had always had sharp eyes, and did so still in this dark new Fourth Age. Archers and spearmen moved off from the main body of our group, and sometimes found a mark, as some of the gurgling death cries attested every few minutes. What the Elves no longer had was luck; some of those cries had elvish words in them. Our stragglers soon began to be snatched. Later, an intrusion of shadowy shapes from the trees cut our column in half. Elrond was in the rear section, so that was where his guard rallied. Possibly all the Household of Elrond, along with its guests and dependents, would have disappeared into the shadows that night, if Glorfindel had not come up from behind just then.

He was mounted on that magnificent white horse he had refused to let us eat. Accompany him was a small squadron of guards on foot. It was like the old days; like this time last year, in fact. The intruders were beaten off or killed, but the forward group of our column was much smaller when the rear made contact again. I knew this because I was in the forward group. I actually was picked up by something that was very strong and very foul smelling, but it had caught hold of my backpack. The pack came loose and the thing slouched off with it, apparently not noticing I was missing. Or maybe it really was interested only in the backpack.

The march went on so long, or so it seemed, that I had actually forgotten about the refuge; I had been accustoming myself to the assumption that we would always be walking. I felt as if I could have done so. Since the day of the great disaster, I had seen no further visions of the Lidless Eye. The Ring was affecting me, though. I felt, if not younger, then at least of no definite age. I felt quite up to walking forever in the dark, but I did not have to.

We were led down a trail to the south of the road to a sturdy stone doorway. It was set into the end of a low ridge that made two levels of the forest floor. The heavy wooden door itself had been split in half. The doorway led to a burrow that served as a warehouse and a refuge for a nearby village that had sold produce to Rivendell for time out of mind. The burrow had been dug, however, as a shelter for the Rangers and others of Elrond’s household who had need of it. When we lit some torches, we found that the villagers were here, too, along with their butchery tools. The bones had been stripped and cleaned and some had been broken open for that marrow. Any food that had been stored there had been looted. We set a guard outside in the dark. At least the bunting we draped across the entrance allowed us to make a fire without being seen.

Just 200 of us remained. Erestor was with us; and so, for better or worse, was Gelmir. Arwen was with her father. Glorfindel was there, with all his personal guard. It was apparently safer to hunt the nightwalkers than to be hunted by them. Hador was never seen again.

(2) Weathertop

Even Elves needed some sleep after a night like that. In the morning, Glorfindel remonstrated with the remnants of Elrond’s Council. The exchange was actually part of a general meeting, however; elvish culture at its dissolution was retuning to democratic forms of its origins. Glorfindel spoke for almost an hour about the folly of taking off in the night like that, and especially about not taking him. When he had run out of expletives, he answered some questions.

No, he did not know whether Rivendell had been occupied. He had come north on the western side of the Loudwater and found at the ford the wreckage from our passage. He guessed what must have happened. No, very few people were passing through Tharbad now, or heading northwest on the Greenway. He did meet bands of folk fleeing across the countryside, many of them people of Gondor and Rohan, and even Belfalas. Tharbad, the long-ruined city, had briefly been choked with refugees, but they were massacred a month ago by an army of the Great Eye. The army came through the Gap of Rohan, most of the refugees thought.

Yes, they told many tales. Some said that Sauron had moved his capital to Minas Tirith. Some said the city had been besieged twice but still stood. Others still said it had been abandoned without a fight. No one he spoke to, he was sure, had been in a position to know. It was certain, though, that the Host of the West that had gone eastward had disappeared. The only survivors were a small group that had been assigned to guard some islands in the Anduin. They fled after March 25. Many people throughout the South fled then, long before the Enemy appeared.

Elrond could barely speak, but he whispered to Arwen, who finally asked something relevant:

“Glorfindel, is it safe for us to travel on the Road?”

He considered the question with evident care. “No,” he answered. “Of course not: but at least we can know a little about what is happening on the Road. That is not true a hundred yards to either side. If we send scouts before us and behind us, and we don’t do anything suicidally foolish, such as traveling at night, we may hope to arrive at our destination.”

“And what might that be?” asked Gelmir.

The members of the Council groaned. Some of the ordinary Elves gasped: this was the first they learned their leaders still had not decided what to do. Erestor responded almost through clenched teeth.

“Councilor Gelmir, I thought we had decided to head toward the Gray Havens, but also to look for alternatives along the way.”

“That is certainly what we discussed,” Gelmir replied. “I do not recall that we ever decided. We followed that course in any case, and lost more than half our number in less than a day’s march. Perhaps at this point we should reconsider.”

“Do you propose to return to Rivendell, Councilor?”

“I think that we should at least determine the state of things there before we proceed. If the valley of Imladris has not been taken, we should consider reestablishing our position there and maintaining our contacts with the outside world.”

“We were slowly starving in the cold at Rivendell,” Arwen noted. “No one was offering us aid, or asking for it. The only people who were coming to visit were probably Orcs. We might as well ‘reestablish our position’ in any hollow to the side of the Road, if it comes to that.”

“The point, Lady, is not so much where we are, as what we are doing there. We should be seeking an accommodation with the powers of the age. As I noted, we do have things the Dark Tower greatly desires. In any case, I insist that we ascertain the state of our ancient home before we go much farther west.”

“My Lord Gelmir may do so if he insists,” said Erestor dryly, “but I fear he may have to go on foot. I doubt that Lord Glorfindel would consent to lend him his horse.”

The strange thing was Glorfindel almost did lend Gelmir his horse, or ride off himself on the same errand. Glorfindel had not wanted to leave Rivendell, either. In part, that was because he really was willing to make a brave stand, but also because, after living there for so many centuries, he could not easily imagine being anywhere else. Elves often got like that. It was a wonder that so many ever managed to reach the Gray Havens.

In the end, we decided to split the difference. We would go west to Weathertop, Gelmir included, and there set up a camp where we could gather information. Meanwhile, we sent a small party back to Rivendell to see how matters stood there. Glorfindel finally decided not to risk his horse on that trip after all.

That was good, because the Last Bridge, which crosses the Hoarwell, was held by the Enemy. There they were, three Men on the bridge in some dark livery. They had two horses between them. They were not really a guard on the bridge, perhaps, but relay riders. Certainly they fled when they saw us. The much diminished Host of Elrond would have been adequate to deal with this unit even without Glorfindel, but he was able to make sure that none of the Men escaped alive.

We crossed the Hoarwell without further incident. After walking for a few more hours, we camped a short distance to the north of the Road. The land on that side was rising and not heavily wooded. We did not dare risk a fire. In the morning, we continued west, and by noon we were approaching Weathertop. Glorfindel went scouting a mile ahead of the column. The bulk of our party had just left the Road for the trail that led to the peak; then we heard a single horse behind us.

Through the bushes I saw a large black figure on a large black horse. He face was covered, and he was riding the horse hard. One of the elvish archers saw him, too. He launched a single arrow that felled the horse. The rider, who was limping after his fall, tried to run back east, but two spearmen quickly broke from the foliage and killed him. Erestor came out to examine the body. I came with him.

“A messenger, clearly,” Erestor concluded, “and from some force in Mordor, but not from the Dark Tower. Look,” he said, indicating a badge on the man’s shoulder strap that showed the Eye and some elvish characters rendered in an unlovely script. “The Morannon,” I said. Erestor continued searching until he found a round leather case. “The message. We will look at it when we reach safety.” Erestor gave orders to hide the corpse and to butcher the horse.

Horsemeat would not have rendered the evening merry, even if there had been more it, but at least we had some fires. I suspect we were in the same dell where Frodo and friends had been attacked a few months ago. The Elves had rediscovered their skill at scavenging. Arwen and, surprisingly, Gelmir proved particularly adept at finding folk-salad. The result tasted like the hash of weeds it was, but at least it was not poisonous. After supper, a small group gathered around Erestor to examine the message borne by the dark rider. Erestor opened the leather carrying case and extracted a sealed scroll.

The seal, predictably, was impressed with image of an eye. When Erestor broke it, the paper around it began to ignite. He was not the person to whom the message was addressed, evidently. We did manage to put the fire out without losing any text, but the paper was smoking and quickly decaying. “The script is elvish,” Gilmer observed, “but the language is not Elvish or Westron.”

“It’s the Black Speech,” Arwen. “My father can read that tongue, but not now.” We glanced at Elrond, who was flat on his litter a few yards away. His eyes were half open. He was breathing with evident difficulty. He was shivering. “What do you make of this, Bilbo?”

“Here, move aside; let me see,” I said as I bowed over the document.

“You know the Black Speech, Master Baggins?” asked Erestor with evident surprise.

“Some. I made quite a study of it when I first arrived at Rivendell.”

“May I ask why?

“Because it is the language of the One Ring, Councilor. Now give me a moment.”

In Elrond’s libraries, there had been only two kinds of texts in the Black Speech. One consisted of spells and curses, often inscribed in stone to protect hiding places. The document before me fell into the other category: a message of administration. The latter were rare, outside the Black Tower and Dol Guldur, since only the elite of Sauron’s government used the language regularly. The mere presence in the West of the intended reader of such a document was a very bad sign.

“As nearly as I can make out, it says:

“To the Prefect of Ecstasy, now succoring the Ratland, the Second Secretary of the Office of Persuasion of the Ministry of Peace reflects a glint of the Great Eye, and sends this instruction:

“The Prefect is to double and redouble his efforts to find the principal traitor. The Rat People whom the Prefect has dispatched to our Office have proved unsatisfactory patients. They know nothing. Our Office is surprised and displeased that the Prefect supposed they would know anything. Our Office judges that the Prefect has sufficient means at his disposal to induce ecstasy without further taxing the resources of the Ministry.

“The Prefect’s request to remove his seat of operations to Tharbad is denied. The Prefect is to persevere.”

“That sounds as if they are in the Shire,” said Arwen. “Sorry, Bilbo.”

“It also sounds as if there is someone in this land with the authority to treat with us,” said Gelmir.

“Treat with us about what, Counselor?” asked Erestor. “We have nothing they want but our lives.”

“As I have had occasion to remark before,” Gelmir replied, “we have two things they want: a traitor and one of the Three Great Rings.” This time he did not trouble to avoid indicating me.

“Do you have a Great Ring, Counselor?” Arwen asked innocently. “You really should have told us.”

“But your father’s Ring…!” he spluttered.

“…Is still in the lodge at Rivendell. It’s well hidden. I put it under the rug in the study.”

I don’t think I had ever seen Man, Elf, Orc, Hobbit, or Troll so surprised. Gelmir’s mouth made a perfect circle.

“Are you mad!?!?” Gelmir shouted.

“No, and I am the daughter of Elrond, which you should keep in mind when you address me, Gelmir. Look, we could no longer use the Ring. We cannot even pick it up without being burned. We suspect it may draw the Enemy. Also, I suspected that its presence might have been what was keeping my father sick.”

“The ring must be recovered.” he said, a bit more politely.

“You are welcome to try, Councilor, provided you don’t return to us with it. As for Bilbo, he is a thief; no, excuse me: a burglar, not a traitor. The Dark Tower seems uninterested in Hobbits at this time.” And so we went to a night’s uncomfortable sleep. Well, sleep for some of them: I was having increasing trouble telling day from night.

* * *

The next morning, we found that Elrond was dead. There were plenty of shaped stones on Weathertop, so we were able to make a decent burial chamber. We used the last of the bunting as a winding sheet. Still, it was a barbaric end for such a cultured being.

When we returned to the Road, we met the scouts who had gone to Rivendell. No, they said, Rivendell was not occupied. It had been disturbed, probably by no more than a band of robbers, or maybe just refugees foraging for food. Some of the remaining structures had been damaged, though.

“Was Master Elrond’s lodge destroyed?” Gelmir asked.

“There had been a small fire, and part of the roof collapsed, Councilor,” one of the scouts replied. “Most of the house still stood when we left.”

“Lady Arwen, I will take you at your word,” Gelmir said. “I am returning to Rivendell for the Ring.”

“Councilor, why?” she asked.

“Because anyone who follows the road you are on will die in the woods like a sick dog. The Three Rings set us apart from all the other Speaking Peoples. The Ring of Air may have passed out of our power, but only a fool would let it out of our possession without getting something of value in return. The Enemy knows he has defeated us. That means he has nothing to fear from a bargain. I at least propose to try to make one. Will any come with me?”

Ten people did; that was ten more than would have gone if Elrond had still been alive. The small party left the main group after dispirited farewells. We continued westward.

(3) Bree

As we marched, we came upon more signs of habitation, and of former habitation. Columns of smoke rose above the trees to the north, presumably from burning homesteads. On the other hand, sometimes we found farms immediately to the south of the road that had not been touched. Occasionally we found bodies of men and animals. We even saw a few living farmers, but they ran off as soon as they saw us. Obviously, someone had been pillaging the country, but not very systematically.

We met no sign of the Enemy until that evening, when we were bivouacked to the north of the road. It was fortunate that we had put our fire out. Suddenly in the dark, we could hear the clanging tread of iron-soled Orc shoes on the road, and see the glitter of torches through the trees. They were heading east, apparently in a hurry, and did not seem to be looking for victims. Could it be that the Enemy had finally found the leisure to dispatch a force to Rivendell?

The next morning, we arrived at the gates of Bree, or rather the place where the East Gate used to be. Today it was gone, and the hedge that had surrounded the town was smoldering. The fires have gone out in most of the buildings of the town itself. We passed gingerly through the main street, since that was the fastest way to pass from east to west. Then, to our surprise, a hail of arrows came from ruins to either side of the road and struck three of our number dead.

“Take cover!” shouted Glorfindel in Sindarin, so we did. The arrows stopped. Before we could get off any of our own, a voice speaking the same language came from the north of the Road:

“Ahoy! Who are you? What sort of folk are you?”

“Who are you, who murder strangers unawares?” asked Glorfindel.

The rhetoric became heated, but it was immediately clear that neither side was Orcs or allied to the Enemy. By and by, the chief Elves, plus me, were standing in a town square and talking to a young Man and a few companions. They were dressed in the ragged remnants of what must originally have been some fine uniforms.

“I am Faramir, the Steward of Gondor,” the young Man explained after our party had introduced themselves. “I ask what pardon you can give for our ambush. In the past fortnight, an army has passed twice through this town. However, it is the smaller units of the Enemy, no bigger than yours, that do us most damage now. They raid the hamlets and the homesteads to which the people of this land have retreated. I have, of course, heard of all of you, particularly of Lady Arwen and the Halfling.” He bowed to Arwen. He looked as if he were about to pat me on the head, but thought better of it.

“And I have heard of Gondor, Master Faramir, and that its Stewart is named Denethor,” said Arwen. “If you are the Steward, you are far from office. Tells us, does that city still stand?”

“The buildings may still stand, but only as a mirror to Minas Morgul. The people are scattered.”

Then he told a remarkable story: a siege of the city, the lifting of the siege, and the coming of a pretender to the long-vacant throne.

“I might have followed such a one, had he achieved victory over the Enemy, or even restored our defenses, no matter the strength of his claim. Now whether his claim be true or false is no matter. He and the principal lords of Gondor went into the Shadow, and were swallowed up on the Day of Doom.”

“The ‘pretender’ of whom you speak was Aragorn son of Arathorn, Man of Gondor, and his title was more firmly established than yours!” Arwen said with unaccustomed ferocity. “Also he was my betrothed, and I will not hear his memory dishonored!”

“Lady, I meant no disrespect,” he said in the polite tone used by one who plainly believes he has been given every reason for discourtesy. “He fought well and he meant well, but he played a central part in the downfall of my country.”

“The downfall of your county?!” she nearly shouted. “The downfall of your country, Man of Gondor, was the fault of….”

“Arwen,” I suggested, “maybe we should hear the story before we cast the blame.”

Faramir told the story. On That Day, despair flowed from Mordor like a wave. The darkness did not return, but spirits fell lower than they had been during even the worst of the siege. There had been plans to evacuate the Minas Tirith again if the Enemy again crossed the Anduin. Faramir never received a report of such a crossing, but rumors of one spread as quickly as the despair. A trickle of citizens had begun to leave the city by sundown on the day the pretender fell. By morning, there was panic flight, and no order from Faramir could control it.

Perhaps 400 men at arms could be persuaded to remain in the city. Chiefly they were men of Gondor, but also some of the people of Rohan, commanded by Queen Eowyn. She had ascended to that unlucky dignity on the death of her uncle, who had been king for many years, and of her brother, whose kingship ended with the pretensions of the pretender. There was also an intrepid Halfling who had helped to slay the Enemy’s most fearsome commander and lived to tell about it, but not, alas, for long.

The guard and the Rohirrim could not give their whole attention to the defense. A degraded rabble had remained in the city to loot and dishonor it. By the time the Enemy did come, the lowest three levels were already burning. Some of the guard remained occupied, even at the end, with preventing the rabble from pillaging the treasures of the citadel.

The force that Mordor sent was an insult, but more than sufficient. A few thousand Orcs, and some Easterlings who could bear the daylight, entrenched only about the gate. The assault was made with a single siege engine of no great size. The Great Gate fell in a day. Thereafter, the defenders removed to the higher levels as the Enemy took over the city ring by ring. The Halfling fell in the brief defense of the Second Gate; he had never really recovered the wound he took when he attacked the commander of the Dark Tower.

Sometimes the Orcs and Easterlings captured and slew the rabble; sometimes they recruited it. They had no great need of recruits, however, since a leisurely column of the Enemy poured into the city night after night. Finally, the guard realized that the host of Mordor did not distinguish between them and the looters. The city was considered abandoned; it was being repopulated, not conquered. A remnant of the guard and the Rohirrim, no more that 100 fighters in all, quietly abandoned the city by taking secret paths that led into the White Mountains.

“Useless human weasels…” muttered Arwen with no attempt at inaudibility. The tactful Erestor cleared his throat. Faramir continued:

Descending again to the plain of Anorien, Faramir and Queen Eowyn headed northwest. As they moved, they acquired horses at the widely scattered homesteads. Often they found horses riderless in the fields, still saddled with the gear of their luckless owners. In four days they reached Edoras.

In Edoras there ruled Grima, who had taken the title of Protector. He had escaped from his detention at Isengard and returned to Rohan to rally those of the folk who believed that the alliance with Gondor had been folly. That number had never been small, and the return of deserters and survivors from Gondor and Anorien had only swelled their number. Grima, in fact, commanded no fewer than 1000 lances. He immediately took Faramir’s little band prisoner when they arrived at his door, though their capture and imprisonment were framed in the most polite terms. The very next day, he acknowledged Eowyn’s title. He also announced that he would rule with her as her advisor and wedded consort. Grima then sent heralds to the Orkish army in Anorien to seek terms from Mordor, and to offer them Faramir as a token of good faith.

The queen did not survive her murder of Grima on their wedding night, but Faramir and 15 of his men did contrive to escape in the confusion that followed. They stole horses, but no one pursued them. The next noon, when they were well away from Edoras and nearing the gap of Rohan, they looked back and saw smoke rising from the direction from where the town lay. Grima’s heralds, Faramir surmised, had found that the Dark Tower no longer needed to parlay.

The rest of Faramir’s tale was soon told. He and his little band continued to the northwest toward Tharbad. Their first thought was to seek refuge in Imladris, but when they realized that none could tell them where it lay, they continued up the Greenway with the other refugees. Some of these were men of Gondor who held Faramir for their lord; others were simply folk of goodwill who sought any legitimate authority in the chaos. Soon Faramir and his caravan of a few dozen followers reached Bree, which had not yet been sacked and whose townsmen refused to admit any strangers. However, Faramir drove off the outliers of an army of the Enemy, maybe part of the host that had burned Edoras that was coming up the Greenway a few days behind him. Some of the cannier folk of Bree Village surmised that the main force could be not be far behind, so they left with Faramir for the remote and more easily defended village of Archet. Faramir informally assumed command of the defense of Breeland after Bree Village, Combe, and Staddle were destroyed.

When Arwen and her people arrived, he and a few scouts had been in the ruins of the village to reconnoiter the movements of the enemy. When it came to the point, Faramir was not much happier than the Breelanders had been about taking in our contingent of strangers, particularly that aggravating Elf woman. Nonetheless, he agreed to admit us to Archet for a few days. He sent a few of his men with us to show the way.

We did not take the old track to the village. When the army of the Eye left for the West, the Breelanders set about erasing the track as much as possible, so that no one without local knowledge could find Archet by accident. What should have two hours’ walk became an afternoon’s scramble along twisted paths among bushes and ravines. The village turned out to be both heavily fortified and very well camouflaged. We entered through a nearly invisible gate hidden among fir trees. The center of the village was dense with temporary structures to house the new refugees. We were escorted to a long, low shed, evidently used as a sort of barracks. There we were given water and promised food.

Breeland had traditionally been governed by an annual meeting of the householders of all four villages, but now it was ruled by an Extraordinary Council of Both Sizes, with six Men and six Hobbits. The Senior Councilor was a Man named Barliman, who had once owned an inn in Bree Village. He owed his position in part to his ability to organize relief for the many displaced Breelanders. Besides, as the keeper of the largest public house in Breeland, he knew everybody.

“Baggins: now there’s a name I remember. Didn’t your nephew stay in my house one night last year, Master Bilbo? He caused quite stir, I can tell you, or at least what we used to call a stir in those days. No time to worry about that sort of thing anymore, of course.”

I was wondering whether to try to explain what Frodo’s visit had meant, but Arwen interrupted me.

“Master Barliman, my people and I are trying to go west, to the Gray Havens, or possibly north, if the Havens no longer exist. Do you get news here from those quarters?”

“Aye, Lady, lots of news; none of it good, but maybe none of it true, either. Many of the Fair Folk have passed through Breeland since the Bad Day, and most don’t come back. A few do, though. They say the Shire is too dangerous to pass through. It’s not just the Enemy, though there’s a proper army of Orcs and Men there, by all accounts, burning or killing whatever they see. The greater danger is the Shirefolk. They now shoot at everyone they see who isn’t a Hobbit, no questions asked. Anyway, the ones who come back say they will head back East over the Mountains until things calm down, or they try to go around north to Fornost and Lake Evendim.”

“Isn’t that the way to the Blue Mountains?” I asked. “Do the Dwarves still have works in the Blue Mountains?”

“Seemingly, Master,” he answered, “some of their traffic even finds its way through Archet these days; but not much, as you can imagine. Some Men and even a few Elves are seeking the Blue Mountains, too. That looks as if it might become the safest place in this part of the world. I’ve been thinking of heading there myself. It’s a dangerous way, though, and a slow one.”

Erestor addressed our party:

“It is not far from the Blue Mountains to the Gray Havens. The wiser course may be to seek shelter there, until we find how things stand at the Havens. We might, perhaps, even make a haven for ourselves there. That part of the world is too remote to be of much interest to the Enemy.”

Arwen thought otherwise. “Councilor, I suspect that time may be of the essence with regard to the Havens. They can be defended longer than almost anyplace in Middle Earth: certainly longer than Imladris could have been, even had we had the fighters to make the attempt. However, if there is an army of the Enemy in the Shire, then can we doubt that the Dark Tower will move against the Havens before the summer is out? We must go now. The Havens may be besieged in a few weeks, if they are not already.”

“And if they are already closed to us?” he asked.

“Then we will know; and as you say, the Blue Mountains are only a few days further north.”

Barliman watched the argument with placid interest. Finally he interrupted to suggest that we need not settle the matter now. We were welcome to stay until tomorrow, and then our further journey would be provisioned through the generosity of the People and the Extraordinary Council of Both Sizes, though of course neither the People nor the Council would take it amiss if we cared to contribute trinkets or other valuables to the general fund. Additionally, our leaders were invited to dine with him and the rest of the Council that evening at the inn of Archet, which these days served the small republic as a sort of capitol. The Steward Faramir would also be there, and could advise us further. Arwen did not actually spit.

“Yes, there is room for you in Breeland,” Barliman answered Erestor after a surprisingly sumptuous dinner. One of the few advantages to rapid depopulation is that, briefly, there is more than enough for all the survivors. “There are only about a thousand of us here now. But think: if you stay, you would have to become farmers or gardeners, or maybe hunters. And we might not stay. We are hidden here, but Breeland is right on the Road, and the Road is where the Enemy moves. My thinking is that we will all have to move north. If the Dwarves won’t have us, then maybe we would be left alone at Fornost, or the Hills of Evendim.”

These possibilities interested Erestor, but not me. Pioneering did not appeal to me at my age. I had my reasons seeking the Gray Havens, but it seemed less and less likely that I would ever get there. Still, I had hopes of seeing the Shire before I died. I did not care if I were shot for a Mordor Orc as soon as I crossed the Brandywine; which is what might happen, seemingly.

These possibilities did not much interest Arwen at the moment, either, not when she had Faramir to hand to berate for the fall of Gondor.

“And you say these Nazgul never appeared again after the siege of Minas Tirith was lifted?” she asked him. “I could understand your terror of them, you being a mortal, but it seems to me that your people fled at the mere rumor of the Enemy.”

“Lady Arwen, by your grace, the people had had enough. And speaking of having had enough…”

“I think the Lady has made an important point,” Glorfindel broke in. “If these winged nightmares can fly like the wind and cannot be resisted, then why have they not come here?”

“Perhaps we are not important enough for them,” Barliman suggested.

“The Enemy thought these parts were important enough to send an army here, to look for ‘traitors,’” I interjected. “Why not send a Nazgul? And besides, Gelmir was surely right that the Enemy desires to collect the Three Rings. Perhaps he does not want them urgently, but is it not strange that many weeks passed after the Enemy’s victory before he reached out his hand to Imladris?”

“Would that Aragorn and his kinsmen had escaped,” Arwen said. “The true Men of the West would have found a way even in this dark time.”

Faramir actually slammed the table. “Lady, I am the rightful Steward of Gondor. I am as much of the race of Numenor as the pretender; no, I withdraw that; as the late King Elessar ever was!”

Something clicked in my mind them. I had been trying to place who Faramir reminded me of. It was Strider, obviously. Arwen had made the same connection; her problem was that she didn’t realize it.

Erestor re-imposed decorum in a very loud voice. “Lady, my Lords, Extraordinary Councilors, there is only thing we must decide this evening, and that is what we are to do in the morning. For my part, I think the wisest course would be to follow Councilor Barliman’s wisdom and go north. In that way, we could remove ourselves from the greatest danger, ascertain the possibility of making a new settlement and, with due prudence, determine whether the Havens…”

“Summer would be fading by the time we reached the Havens, if we took such a course,” Glorfindel said.

“Yet if we go directly West, we will lose much or all of our party,” Erestor countered. “So large a company could not hope to pass through the western end of Eriador in these days without serious fighting.”

Arwen said quietly, “If the remnants of the House of Elrond are as cowardly as the Men of Gondor, then I will seek the Havens alone.”

“Look,” I said, “let’s do both. A small party can go through the Shire, avoiding trouble, and determine the lay of the land at the Havens. The larger group should take the northern route. The small party can send word about what they find, either through Bree or the Blue Mountains.”

“As I said, Master Bilbo, the Shire has become dangerous, even for Hobbits,” Barliman warned. “Who would you send on such a mission?”

“Myself, for one, obviously,” I answered. “Like Arwen, in fact, I will say that if no one goes with me, then I will go alone.”

“I will go with the Lady Arwen and the Halfling,” Glorfindel said. “Perhaps no one else should come.”

Arwen decided to make the parting easy:

“Erestor, as the heir of Elrond, I charge you to take lead the remnant of his people north. Seek the possibility of refuge wherever you can, but look for word from me to come from the West. Indeed, if I find the path over the ocean is closed, I will come to you.”

Erestor nodded. “I think this is the best we can do, Lady.”

“I need to scout the region to which Elrond’s people are going in any case,” said Faramir. “With Erestor’s permission, I will accompany them.”

As the meeting broke up, Arwen remained seated with Faramir.

“Lord Steward, please forgive me for what I said in the heat of the moment. In these terrible days…”

“My Lady, you said nothing to me that I have not said to myself. You must see…”

No one saw either of them again until the morning, so apparently they did get a room.

(4) The Old Forest

The Breelanders were actually better than their word. The next morning, they gave backpacks with clothes and food for the westward-bound trio, and the loan of a small pony for as long as we remained on the Road. That would not be long; the Road was not safe, and in any case, to attempt to enter the Shire through the Brandywine Gate would evidently be suicidal. We hoped to travel in reverse more or less the course that Frodo had taken: across the Downs, through as little of the Old Forest as possible, and then into Buckland through the Brandybuck Gate. I knew the Gate, and poor Meriodoc Brandybuck had left some of his small effects with me, for safekeeping, so I also had the key. Faramir would accompany us to retrieve the pony.

As for the rest of our party, they would remain several days in Archet. The Breelanders were outfitting them as pioneers for their own move north. If the members of Elrond’s Household were not torn apart by unnamed horrors in the dark of night, then the Breelanders would follow them. Fair enough.

We four, plus the pony, returned to the Road after taking an even more circuitous route that bypassed Bree Village entirely. There was no one on it, neither armies nor travelers. On the other hand, there was a trail of discarded wrappings, some bones, occasional bits of papers, lots of spit, and fecal matter of various origins. The hardened earth of the Road had been turned to powder by marching feet. Many were prints of iron shoes, but there were as many tracks were of ordinary boots. We noted that more of the Orc tracks were headed east than west.

It was fine morning in late spring, and we made good time. I walked with Glorfindel, who explained that he was still of two minds about making a stand somewhere in Middle Earth or taking ship. He thought those Elves who had turned back east over the Misty Mountains might have made the best choice. The Sylvan Elves of Mirkwood had been as much masters of their domain as any Elves on Middle Earth, including the Elves of Lorien. Now their position was unique, since their magic was close to the ground and little affected by the changes in the great world, unlike the high magic of Galadriel and Celeborn.

“And what do you think happened in Lorien, Glorfindel?” I had never been there, but I had met Elves from there, and I had long been curious about that land.

“I think the Dream Flower burst into flame like a dry leaf. It is a loss beyond tears, Bilbo. Rivendell was a sapling compared to the Golden Wood.”

As we talked in this vein, Arwen and Faramir, and the pony, were walking a little ahead of us. They were taking great care not to look at each other. The lack of shouting between them was deafening.

By midmorning, we came to a place where the plain to the south seemed to flow toward the forest and yet offered us a little cover from enemy eyes on the Road. The pony’s burden was unpacked and divided into bundles according to our capacities. I protested that mine was enormous in comparison to my size. Yes, said Glorfindel and Arwen, but you are also by far the youngest of us three. There’s Elf humor for you.

We said rapid but not wholly despairing goodbyes. I wondered what I would do if Arwen gave Faramir another one of those elf-broaches that seemed to have jinxed so many fine people, but the occasion did not arise. They clasped hands and he bowed lightly. Then he turned east, taking the much-relieved pony with him.

The walk south was a golden reminiscence of my own youth; which, despite the mockery of the Elves, really had been a very long time ago. The land sloped at just the correct angle to help us move swiftly over the short turf. The sunlight seemed to fill me, a feeling that received appalling confirmation when I trotted a little ahead to hop on ruined wall to see the lay of the land.

“Bilbo,” Arwen said tactfully, “you are not casting a shadow.”

This was an exaggeration. A definite darkening of the grass could plainly be seen to the north of me. When I stood in front of a white standing stone, I thought I cast a fairly clear outline, all things considered.

“Bilbo, you’re fading,” Glorfindel said.

A stout fellow, I thought: always so quick on the uptake.

I explained as we continued south.

I was not sure it had not begun to happen even before the Day of Doom. I had given up the Ring, which seemed to slow whatever had been happening to be, but still I was not ageing quite normally. No one ever noticed me fading. I saw no signs of it myself. What I did see, sometimes, was that other people faded for a while. I also needed less and less sleep. After the Day of Doom, the symptoms accelerated. The bad days still came and went, but I was surprised it took so long for someone else to notice. Elves might not be impressed by mortal longevity, but I was the oldest Hobbit alive; soon I will be the oldest Hobbit who ever lived. Did anyone think I could have gone on this journey if my condition had been altogether natural?

I was trying to explain my puzzlement about the indifference of the Eye when we came in sight of a house and garden, with a small stable attached. There was nothing alive or dead in the stable. The straw was clean but old. We knocked politely on the door of the house several times. When there was no answer, we less politely pushed it open. The house was a neat as a pin, but dusty; clearly no one had been here for several weeks. There was a bag of beans in the kitchen, along with some other non-perishable items, but otherwise nothing to eat.

We were farther west than we wanted to be, but the Elves assured me that the land was not trying to mislead us. It did not occur to them not to follow the path down the banks of the Withywindle. It was summer here already, to judge by the warmth, but there was almost no foliage. There was plenty of grass and the bushes were flourishing, but the only leaves to be seen were on this season’s saplings. It was a scene from the dead of winter on a day more than warm enough to take your coat off.

With every step we took, a sense of chill deepened that had nothing to do with the temperature. I began to be surprised that I could not see my breath smoke. Glorfindel and Arwen felt it too, I suppose, but they seemed more puzzled than uncomfortable. As the afternoon began to decline, we came to a wide place in the river where a huge oak stood on the bank. It had not been damaged; its wood seemed to be perfectly sound. However, there was not so much as a green twig in all its canopy of branches.

“Could it all have been poisoned somehow?” I asked as I put a hand gingerly on a root. I drew it back immediately.

Arwen nodded. “See, it is not dead; it is terrified.”

The root had been trembling.

“Are you saying the forest is too frightened to grow?”

“Too frightened to grow; too frighten to move; too frightened even to face the sun with a leaf.”

“Can it stay like this?”

“No,” Arwen answered again, “not for very long; no more than a Man could live if he could never wake up. This is not an enchantment. The forest is insane.”

What insane thing could a vegetable do? I thought. It could deliberately ignore the spring. Of course, considering the sort of things that one might encounter this spring, I was not sure the forest did not have the right idea.

“What about that wood sprite Frodo was talking about? Tom, Tom Bombadil was his name. He had a consort, too.”

“Wood sprites are imaginary, Bilbo. Anyway, Tom is probably hiding in a cave, as terrified as the trees. He and the forest have grown together. When the forest dies, he will die. No doubt his consort has left him.”

We saw a trail that headed west; we began walking again under the blind and barren trees. The path led us to a ridge, which we followed until we could find a way down into a ravine, which brought us a little south. We repeated the process many times in the course of the waning afternoon. I could see how Hobbits alone might have been trapped in this sort of landscape. As it was, Glorfindel set me on his shoulders during the rough parts. We made good time.

The sun was almost setting when we reached the bare top of a tall hill. We could look around us at the forest, from the coldly glinting water of the Withywindle, clearly visible in the crystal-clear air, to the ranks of bare branches that bordered the green downs. I had been in the Old Forest twice before during visits to Buckland, one time at night. I was disturbed by the new silence and light far more than I had been by the groaning of trees invisible in the dark.

“I had thought that the spirit of the Old Forest was akin to the spirit of Mordor,” I said. “Before today, I would have said that the trees would delight in the victory of the Shadow. Now I see otherwise.”

Arwen replied, “So it is. The ancient dark before the Sun rose was innocent; the dark of Mordor is mere nothing. The victory of the Dark Tower was a disaster for everything that lives, but most of all for the dumb things close to the earth. With the return of the Ring, the Great Eye had only to blink to wither the forests”.

The sun just touched the horizon as we completed this sad exchange.

“You know, “I said, “if we don’t start to run right now, I am quite sure I am going to go insane myself.”

So run we did, faster and faster, as the light of the setting sun made the trunks of each of the mad trees into a harlequin pillar of gold and velvet. Overhead, nothing shielded us from the reddening twilight sky that cruelly refused to become dark. I would have given anything for a bit of cover.

We had a bad moment when we reached the hedge. As I said, I had been there twice before, but never alone, and never at this time of day. We almost became lost as we searched for the entrance to the tunnel that led to the gate. The Elves were beginning to panic, something I had never seen an Elf do in the face of the supernatural.

Finally, we did find the gate, and we descended into the blessed dark. I had the key to hand. We passed through the gate without difficulty and closed it carefully. I walked a little ahead of Arwen and Glorfindel to the western end of the tunnel and turned to address them.

“Now you two better wait here for a few hours until I can spy out the lay of the land. Hobbits have always been leery of Big People in the Shire, even Elves, I am afraid, so let….”

An arrow thwanged firmly into the rear of my backpack. I reflected that I had not even reached the Brandywine yet.

(5) Buckland

“I can see plainly enough who you are, Master Baggins,” said Rorimac Brandybuck, the Master of Buckland, “but that does not mean I like what I see.”

The interview was held in what had been the largest parlor in Brandybuck Hall. Now, aside from the Master’s chair at one end of the room, it held racks on which weapons were stored. Maps covered much of the walls. There were also 20 Hobbits in arms. My friends were being held in the Hall’s newly improvised dungeon.

“But Rory, I am so glad to see you after all these years! And I had so many fine times here in Brandybuck Hall!”

Both those statements were true, more or less, but I did not mention how shocked I was when I saw that the Hall had been turned into a network of trenches and gated tunnels. Moreover, those defenses had obviously been tried in the recent past. By and by, I was sure, Rory would tell me what had happened, assuming he did not hang me and my friends first.

“If you liked it the Shire so much, Bilbo, then why did you run off into the blue like that? And now you come back, not much the worse for wear, and at an age when decent folk are long dead.” I was stunned to see how much Rory had aged since he attended my last birthday party in the Shire; evidently he was stunned to see how much I hadn’t. “But that’s not the worst of it: you took poor Frodo to Bag End and made him as cracked as yourself. He ran off too, you know. Now he’s the one I’d like to get news of. Strange folk were asking about him before those devils came from the South, and I’d like to know why.”

I was reasonably sure that Frodo had died horribly, and I knew for a fact why strange folk had been asking about him. Explaining all that would require explaining about the Ring. The Ring was no longer a secret, but I was disinclined to tell the Master of Buckland about it. The tale might raise the suspicion in his mind that the invasion of the Shire had been ultimately my fault; because, after all, it had been.

“What’s done is done, Rory, and I don’t know the half of it, not even about Frodo. Look, I am not even asking for hospitality. All I ask is that I and my two friends be allowed to make our way west. They are Elves on their way to the Gray Havens, Rory. No master of this Hall since the founding of Buckland would have interfered with such a journey.”

“In my time, Bilbo, in these past few years, I have had to things that no earlier Master of Buckland had ever had to do; or I hope will ever have to do in the days to come, if there are any more Masters after me. The Elves have failed, Bilbo, and we no longer think of them as friends. A great crowd of them came up the Greenway just a few days before that army of monsters. They came through Sarn Ford, broad as daylight, and hadn’t a word for anyone. They sure enough did not warn us of what was right behind them.”

“It’s possible they did not know,” I said. “Elves don’t really know everything. You can trust me on this.”

“They also don’t pay for everything they take,” Rory countered, “not anymore, if they ever did. Some of our folk west of the Brandywine have been robbed blind at night. In a few cases, not just the food and gear are gone: the Hobbits are, too. Anyway, we don’t want any more strangers of any sort in the Shire. If you don’t know why yet, you will soon enough.”

That was encouraging. He meant to keep me alive long enough to tell me all the bad news. These days, that could take a month. He considered a moment and then spoke again.

“For old times’ sake, Bilbo, I will make an exception for, and your friends. I would think better of you if you gave a better account of your movement, though, because I can see there are things you are hiding. Anyway, maybe you know that your nephew Frodo bought a house at Crickhollow before he left? Well, that neighborhood is safe again, or as safe as anyplace in the Shire is these day. You and your two Elves can stay there for a few days. And then you can go.”

I thanked him effusively. The guards showed me to the door.

The stay at Crickhollow was the most painful time for me since March 25. It was not just the Shire; it was Bag End, or close enough. It was still filled with the things that Frodo had brought from home. I wanted to stay forever, and I wanted to leave immediately. Glorfindel and Arwen favored the latter option, since grown Elves don’t really fit into a Hobbit house. They spent most of the time in a tent outside that the guard Rory set on us helped to improvise.

At Rivendell, I had heard fragmentary reports from the Rangers about what had been happening in the Shire, but the rumors had had not prepared me for the full story. Apparently, that nitwit Lotho Sackville-Baggins had made himself Tyrant of the Shire, or some such nonsense. At any rate, he tried to: his petty empire did not extend to Buckland, or away in the Tookland around Great Smials. In a way, Lotho’s presumptions had been a blessing in disguise, at least for Buckland. Rory had armed and fortified the country to keep out Lotho’s thieving men and weasely sheriffs. So, when the army of the Eye arrived, not all the Shire was unprepared. Great Smials had been sacked and burned, but it held out for several days. Thereafter the army razed the center of the Shire, and particularly the neighborhood of Hobbiton. No Hobbits had escaped from that farthing, as far as anyone knew. In contrast, the Enemy was not much interested in Buckland. They raided once east across the Brandywine and once south from Bridge, but soon turned back. Lately, most of the Enemy force had dispersed east and west. There was still an Enemy fort of some kind near the center of the Shire, though. There was no peace in the Shire; it was no longer the Hobbits’ country.

After several days, Arwen, Glorfindel, and I consulted at a picnic in the garden of the house. There was actually room for them in the parlor of the house, but it seemed polite to invite Rory’s guards, too.

“We know that some of the army of the Eye went west,” Glorfindel said as we started on the last of the tarts. “That can mean only that they were headed for the Havens. I want to see the Havens as much as the next Elf, but there would be little purpose in pursuing our journey if at the end we find Orcs sitting on the wharf.”

“I don’t think you would find Orcs there, Master,” said one of the guards. “There are still some Orcs at Michel Delving and Bag End, not that we see much of them anymore, even at night. Most went east, though, just a few days before you arrived. There would be Men at the Elf harbor. They are just as bad Orcs, if you ask me.”

“It is not news that the Enemy uses Orcs and Men for different things,” Arwen observed. “But just because the Men went west does not mean that they took the Havens. There has been word of the return of that part of the army of the Eye, has there?”

The guards shook their heads no. The Hobbits might not control what happened in the Shire any longer, but they still knew exactly what was happening in it.

Arwen continued, “That could mean that the Havens are besieged, or even that the Enemy was destroyed. The Havens are far easier to defend than Imladris, remember.”

“It could also mean that the Enemy is simply holding the Havens until they can be relieved,” Glorfindel countered. “And the Havens may have been strong, but they were built and preserved with the aid of Narya, the Ring of Fire. How do we know that what happened to Imladris did not also happen to the Havens?”

“Maybe because Narya has not been at the Havens for centuries,” I interjected. “Poor Gandalf has been wearing it all these years, you know. He did not seem to know that I knew, but of course I had worn the Great Ring, so I could see all the others.”

My skin crawled with rage as I again thought I would never see my precious again: never, never.

Arwen said, “We must find out what happened at the Havens, and the sooner we do the better. The Enemy might not have taken the Havens yet, but he will surely do so soon. We must find out now whether the Elves can still escape.”

None of us had really thought otherwise. The problem now was how to cross the Enemy’s Shire.

(6) The Conquered Shire

Two days later, we stood on the west bank of the Brandywine with new provisions and a plan, if not quite a solution. The provisions came from the Master of Buckland, who did not like his new role as warlord; he had actually offered us as much Hobbit hospitality as he judged the safety of his people would allow. The plan was mostly of our own devising, but with lots of advice from the Master’s scouts and spies about the lay of the land. The fastest way to the Havens was, of course, the Great Road, but to take the Road was out of the question when the Men of the Eye used it every day. Instead, we would take the country road that led through the Woody End to Tuckborough. We would not rejoin the Road until we were well into the West March. The Shire was not such a wilderness that we could not make good time away from the major thoroughfares.

The Buckleberry Ferry was no longer in service, obviously, but we had gotten a lift across the river in the small, swift boats that the Bucklanders still used for trade with the Marish. We waved goodbye to boatman and took a route that would take us around the town of Stock, which had been damaged by the same force that entered Buckland from east. Even more than the Bucklanders, the people of Stock would be inclined to shoot on sight anyone who was not a Hobbit. We set off west.

The walk through the Marish was unreal to me because it was ordinary. Many homesteads along the road had been pillaged, but the neighborhood was still intact, with its tidy Hobbit farm buildings and small fields like the squares of a quilt. (Why was it that people who positively disliked organization would marshal every landscape they farmed like an army camp of the Big People?) I very much wanted to walk up one of the paths to the door of a farmhouse and introduce myself. I knew some of these Hobbits, or at least I had known their fathers and mothers. I was sure they would offer me lunch. As it was, though, my friends and I had to skulk along behind hedges and across the edges of fields, as if we were Gollums of various sizes.

Eventually, we did stop for lunch at a farm house, though it had no roof. It had been overgrown by the neighboring wood, except for a stone path to the door, and seemed to have been abandoned for years. A fire was out of the question, but we were quite secure from prying eyes.

“Bilbo, you’re casting a good, solid shadow today,” Arwen complimented me.

“Fank umb bury mulk,” I say around a bite of one of Rory’s sandwiches. “As I said, it comes and goes. My spirits affect the fading; so do my surroundings. Few surrounding are as solid as the Shire. Please forgive me if I say now that Rivendell may have been a bit too ethereal for my good.”

“Or maybe for its own good, too,” she allowed.

The Shire seemed only to sadden Glorfindel. “The little people do not know what the age has in store for them. They think a storm or a plague has passed over them, but that they will be able to rebuild the lives they knew. They will be hunted like prey at the Enemy’s whim, so that first one and them another polite custom will fall from them. If they survive at all, they will be like badgers in their burrows. Alas.”

I was about to suggest to Glorfindel that it might be better to live like a badger in a burrow than to disappear in a puff of smoke, which seemed to have happened lately to some Elves I could mention, but instead we just finished lunch. When it was time to go, I said:

“Again, I better do any talking that needs to be done. I will walk a little ahead. If you two hear anything on the road, get undercover until I can sort things out. I won’t reveal your presence unless I absolutely have to.”

So we left the ruin, and walked up the short path that led to the road. It was exactly the way we had come a half-hour ago. I was gingerly looking up and down the road from the head of the path when I heard something large behind me fall.

Glorfindel and Arwen were struggling in a net that looked very much like the natural foliage. They were being held down by a dozen Hobbits in hunting clothes with quivers of arrows on their backs. Everyone knew that Hobbits were better in a wood than an Elf. Since these Hobbits had managed to approach the ruined farmhouse and set a trap without being noticed, they must have been very good indeed. Even I was impressed.

“Did these sneaking Elves hurt you, master?” asked a Hobbit. He was betrayed by a feather in his cap as the leader. “We could have just shot them, but we need something to trade to the Prefect. They’ve got another six of our folk at Bag End. The devils are particularly in the market Elves, I hear.”

“Well done, captain,” I said. “May I go along for the exchange? I think that one of those six could be one of my cousins.”

* * *

I was 129 years old, and I had once outsmarted a dragon, but I never lied so frequently, or so well, as I did over the next day and a half. I explained that I was a refugee from the West Farthing (which was true, after a fashion) and that these Elves had kidnapped me and forced me to show them the way across the Shire. I said they were particularly interested in knowing which farmsteads would be worth robbing. Indeed, I painted such a picture of Elvish turpitude that Glorfindel and Arwen would have been hanged if they were not about to be turned over to the Enemy to be tortured to death. The only plan I could make was to stay with the prisoners as they were moved from camp to camp of Hobbit irregulars. Twice I was left alone with them and almost succeeded in cutting their bonds; both times I was discovered. After the second time, the Hobbits would not let me alone with the prisoners again. The Hobbits thought I had been poking them with my penknife (which was also true, but it was an accident).

The upshot was, early one bright and warm day, I found myself peering from the cover of hedges at a flat stone in the midst of a field near Bag End. Arwen and Glorfindel were tied up on the stone. This was one of the locations where the Hobbits sometimes traded with the Enemy’s Men. The commanders of the army of the Eye had not condescended to treat with any of the Hobbits. Once the Enemy was established, however, his forces became notably less aggressive. Here and there, the Men began trading with the natives. They found they could also make a nice little pile for themselves for themselves by collecting ransom for Hobbits who had been enslaved, or sometimes simply taken hostage so they could be ransomed. The kidnappers were paid in food and trinkets. Enough Hobbits were saved this way that it was in no one’s interest to break off the contacts. Very recently, however, the Prefect had discovered the arrangement, and had begun to use it himself to police the Shire for travelers. At any rate, that seemed to be what was happening.

“Here they come,” said the local Hobbit captain, feather and all.

They were six Men, each dressed in a badly maintained version of the livery that had been worn by the Men whom Glorfindel had killed on the Last Bridge. Each led a Hobbit. The Hobbits were in even worse condition than the Men. One, whose head was bandaged to cover the eyes, was barely able to stand. The Men determined that the prisoners on the rock were alive, and apparently were Elves. Then some of our party, including me, stepped out into the clearing.

“This is a fine catch, little folk,” said one of the men, kicking Glorfindel lightly with his boot, “thank you kindly. And here are your kittens in return.” He signaled to the Men to release their prisoners.

The freed Hobbits stumbled into the arms of the Hobbits from the bush, some of whom were obviously kinsmen. “Griffo, Pearl, Saradoc, you’re alive, you’re alive!” they said amidst many hugs. I was glad to see the Hobbits released, too, but I was no closer to saving the Elves. It looked as if I would have to sneak into Enemy headquarters somehow: hard to do, without a magic ring. In the meanwhile, I had picked out one of the released Hobbits whom I could comfort without saying anything too specific about our relationship. Then one of the other prisoners said, “Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins: how dare you show your face here!” I could barely recognize the Hobbit, who of course was much older than the last time I saw him. Finally I placed him. It was Olo, Olo Proudfoot: my cousin.

The Hobbits all looked at me. So did several of the Men. “Why, Olo,” I began, “how delighted…”

“It’s Mad Baggins!” cried one of the Hobbits I had come with.

“Yes,” said Olo, “the one with all the stolen treasure! The one who started the trouble all those years ago. And the one…”

“Baggins!?! Stolen treasure!?!” aid the leader of the Men. My fame had preceded me, evidently. “Take this one, too, boys, and don’t take an argument from the rest!”

It was not actually much of a fight. Some of the Hobbits drew their knives, but only to make sure that the released prisoners got away. All the Hobbits soon scurried into the bushes. They did not stage an ambush on my behalf. Perhaps they thought I could disappear if I needed to.

(7) The Prefect of Bag End

Bag End looked much less like Bag End than the house at Crick Hollow had looked like Bag End. The diggings had been extended and the roof raised to allow for larger occupants. The old hole had become Mordor’s capital in the Shire because Lotho had used it for that purpose, and Lotho had been the first thing in the Shire that the Enemy sought. I never found out exactly what had happened to Lotho, but his family and most of his hired Men had met grisly ends, some of them in public, usually while protesting that they did not have information that the Great Eye urgently wished to have.

In any case, Bag End had become a clerical office, and a prison, and a torture chamber, but most of all it was now a hospital. The new tunnels were occupied by moaning Orcs who looked as if they had been burned. This puzzled me mightily. I had had more to do with Orcs in my time than I care to say, and I knew they did not like the sunlight, but I had never seen anything like this.

The guards and the workers were Men. There were surprisingly few. Four of then led us, with our hands tied, to the Audience Chamber of the Prefect of Ecstasy.

The Audience Chamber was in fact my three best bedrooms, with the walls knocked down and the walls painted sable. Skillfully wrought scenes of mayhem and misery were worked into the darkly stained glass of the windows. The culture of Mordor was irredeemably depraved, but it was also helplessly exquisite; that was one of its insistences, like the tidiness of the Shire.

At Man height, at the narrow north end of the room, a strangely glinting mural of the Great Eye floated in the blackness of the wall. Large iron stands stood at intervals about the room, burning huge candles that had been made from the fat of some fell beast. They produced considerably more smoke than light. It took my eyes a moment to take in the room.

The Prefect himself was unmistakable. All in black, with a high black headdress, he had the look of perpetual, dismayed surprise that characterized all the Men who had knowingly submitted to Sauron. He sat on a low-backed chair (not one of mine, I could see) on a circular dais under the Eye. Before his feet, there seemed to be a little cup in which an ember glowed redly. To his left another figure, dressed in dark brown, sat on the edge of the dais.

The figure in brown was Gelmir.

“Where is he?” the Prefect demanded. He had a surprisingly fine tenor voice, but it rasped with impatience. In fact, he sounded very close to desperate.

“This is the traitor of whom I spoke, Prefect, the Hobbit who stole the Great Ring of the Eye many years ago.”

The Prefect scarcely glanced at me; he glared at Gelmir.

“You know perfectly well, elven fool, that the Eye seeks just one thing in this land of imps. I don’t need another imp, no matter what he has done. I don’t need any more Elves, either, or to hear what they say, unless they know where the traitor is. Do you, Elf Bitch?”

I was shocked to hear Arwen Elvenstar addressed in this fashion. Glorfindel was struck dumb, or perhaps dumber. Arwen herself, however, had not lived to be upwards of 3000 years old without learning a measure of composure.

“I see that victory has not made Mordor forget its accustomed courtesy,” she said. “I normally do not address persons who have not introduced themselves to me, but in this case I will say that I do not know what the Servant of the Eye is talking about. I will further suggest that the Servant does not know, either.”

The Prefect took no further notice of them and turned his attention back to Gelmir:

“We need to find him now, today. I have already had to send most of our Orcs to the Misty Mountains to preserve them from sun poisoning. My Men I have sent west. Then, at your counsel, I sent more west to find what became of the army. The imps will realize our position any day now. Do you not know how cruel they are? But I hear nothing from the Ministry of Peace about relief. The Dark Throne is silent, or its messengers are waylaid by bandits.”

Gelmir said in a reasonable tone, “Perhaps, Prefect, it was a mistake to advise the Throne to send its messages through the eastern route rather than the southern. The imps were not that great a peril to communication.”

“Do not forget, Gelmir, that the span of you life is no longer than the span of your usefulness. If we cannot complete our mission here…”

“But Prefect, have I not brought a great gift?” Gelmir indicated the ember in the cup.

“Gelmir, you flatter yourself, and most of all you flatter your wit. You have brought a useless bauble that the Eye could have whenever it desired.” The Prefect kicked the cup away. “The Eye is sick of rings.”

The cup clattered off the dais, sending the ember skittering across the slate floor. It did not actually come to a stop very close to my feet, but no one was paying much attention to me as the exchange between Gelmir and the Prefect continued. I bent down and picked it up. It was very hot, I knew. I could even feel some of the heat. However, in the unreal darkness of this outpost of the kingdom of nothingness, I was as faded as I had ever been. One of the advantages to that was a degree of immunity to physical forces: such as heat, for instance. I picked up Vilya (Gelmir really had retrieved it; had he been fool enough to bring it here voluntarily, or had he been picked up by one of the Prefect’s sunburned Orcs?) and applied it to the cords on my wrists. No one noticed the small amount of smoke. Then no one noticed that I was free.

Well, my hands were no longer tied: I was still being kept under guard by four large men while the slithery Gelmir seemed to be losing an argument with the viceroy of darkness about whether to just kill the lot of us.

“First, Gelmir,” the Prefect was saying, “I will personally induce the ecstasy of the Eye in all three of them, to see whether they do know anything. And then, Gelmir, before we leave this place, the time will come for you; so much for your ‘offer of negotiation.’”

I took a certain degree of satisfaction in that last bit, but not so much that I did not run from the Chamber.

One of the guards did follow, but no one seemed terribly put out about my escape attempt. After all, where could I go?

Where I did go was into the largest Orc ward (made from my kitchen and my principal larder, the devils!) and tore down the curtains over the south-facing windows. Beautiful bright sunlight streamed into the room, a fair amount of it straight through me. No matter. The Orcs erupted like disturbed bees and ran screaming into the hall. Then I exited a window and walked on my lawn for the first time since my eleventy-first birthday party. When I came to the deliciously horrible stained glass of the Chamber of Audience, I used a rock to clear away the glass before jumping through. I was never a hero.

Inside, I found the situation better than I had hoped. The guards had gone to attend to the riot in the hall, and Gelmir was wrestling with the Prefect. I did to Arwen and Glorfindel’s bonds much what I had done with mine, which hurt the prisoners but not as much as the Ecstasy of Mordor would have. We were hopping through the window when Gelmir yelled, “Wait, take me!” This gave the Elves pause, but I responded immediately with the only weapon we had. The Prefect, whom Gelmir did not quite have in neck hold, could scarcely see me, what with the sudden access of sunlight and the fact I was half invisible anyway. So, he was not prepared to stop me from popping the Ring into his mouth and making him swallow it. Then he ran into the hall, too, but not to call the guards after us.

(8) North & West

Outside on the lawn of Bag End, there was nothing to do but run. There were some Men about, but none had horses, and the Men seemed disinclined to challenge us on foot: three High Elves, even unarmed, are pretty formidable. In any case, the guard concentrated on the chaos in Bag End, which seemed to taking on the aspect of an Orkish uprising. When it was just a matter of speed, Glorfindel carried me. The landscape was one of gently rolling hills, with occasional patches of trees: it lent itself to flight. Long before sunset, we were many miles away.

We had run all the way to the North Farthing. Indeed, we were not far from Bindbale Wood. I had visited here in my younger days, and I knew the people for hospitable folk. Still, the whole Shire had been brutalized, so I did not know how much the rules of hospitality still applied. In any case, I suspected that a little harmless dissimulation about my identity would be prudent.

“We might just spend the evening in the woods,” Arwen suggested.

“And we might miss lunch and dinner and breakfast and cast ourselves into the Encircling Ocean,” I said crossly. “Whatever may suit the Elves, however, I am a Hobbit. I will knock on the first door we see.”

The first door actually took a little finding, but finally we came across a farm just outside the border of the wood, a farm that looked as prosperous as any Hobbit farm ever had. Leaving the Elves at a discreet distance, I knocked on the door just as the sun was about to set.

“Good evening, madam,” I said to the farmer’s wife who answered the door. “My name is Boffo Feathertoes. Would it be possible for you to put up my friends and me for the night?”

“You’re not Boffo Feathertoes.” She answered evenly. “You’re Mad Baggins.”

“Why do you say that, madam?”

“I can see the sun setting through your stomach.”

They put us up anyway, but we had to stay in the barn. Gelmir, who had picked up a few other things besides the Ring Vilya during his expedition to Rivendell, paid quite a lot of coin for our lodging. The story that circulated afterward was that I had appeared at the door with a bang and a sack of gold. I had joined the immortals.

Gelmir was penitent. He had lost his little band of followers to Orkish stragglers or to desertion. Possibly that was just as well: if a band of Elves had approached the garrison of Men at the Brandywine Bridge, they would probably have just been shot with arrows from a distance. As it was, he had no trouble gaining an audience with the Prefect. The Prefect had no interest in Gelmir’s offer of surrender on terms, but he did seem really desperate for information about the outside world.

Mordor was not paying attention to his mission. In fact, Mordor did not seem to be paying attention to anything. The Eye had not been surprised by victory. Mordor had been planning for centuries about the course it would take when Gondor fell. Those plans had not included the recovery of the Ring; that had been pure luck. Something about the recovery of the Ring, however, had deranged even the most straightforward schemes over which the Eye had gloated for so long. Mordor could and did still overawe its near neighbors, but more and more, when the claw of Mordor reached out afar, it closed on nothing. No one at the Ministry of Peace was sure what was happening, except that anything that miscarried in Eriador was certainly the Prefect’s fault. At any rate, that was their attitude the last time he had heard from them.

Gelmir also learned what had happened at Mount Doom on March 25. Two palantiri were found at Minas Tirith, and one came into the possession of the Prefect’s Ministry. They can see through time as well as space, and stories about what they revealed spread like lightening among the Dark Lord’s principal servants.

The Ring-bearer had almost fallen to the temptation of the Ring, but in the end he rallied. He had been about to destroy the Ring when he heard a struggle behind him between his servant and the Gollum-creature. He left the Sammath Naur to help his friend, who was rolling down the path with Gollum at his throat. As the Ring-bearer stood at the entrance to the cave, however, he became aware of the approach of the Nazgul. He raised to rebuke them the hand that wore the Ring; they fell from the sky like sparks from a fire. He followed the wrestling figures down the path. When he reached them, before he speak a word of command, Gollum sprang up and ripped his throat out. The Ring-bearer’s servant eventually slew Gollum, but not before he had himself been mortally wounded. He died clutching the Ring a few yards from the entrance to the Sammath Naur. The Ring was on the Dark Lord’s hand within a few hours.

“Perhaps if he had claimed the Ring for his own, matters would have turned out differently,” Gelmir concluded.

“That is exactly the kind of thing I would expect someone like you to say,” Glorfindel sneered.

I said nothing, but I was not sure I disagreed with Gelmir. Poor, honest, doomed Frodo: if he had understood that he could not possibly achieve the Quest by his own virtue, then maybe, just maybe, a way would have been found that no one could have predicted.

* * *

The last stage of our journey to the West was not without incident. We went northwest to Needlehole, thinking to travel through Little Delving rather than through Michel Delving, which for all we knew was still in the hands of the Prefect’s Men. We discovered, though, that the Hobbits of the northern border of the Shire were no happier to see strangers than the Bucklanders had been. The northerners had not been troubled by Men or Orcs, however: their problem was the Things that Live in the Woods. Wags and trolls and nightwalkers had long haunted Hobbit mythology, for the excellent reason that they also haunted the wastelands to the north of the Shire. All that had kept them from haunting the Shire, too, were the Rangers, and to a lesser extent the sheriffs. Now both were gone. We heard a lot of sentiment that things were better when Lotho was in charge: he at least had kept up the border patrol.

We met some of the Things, on the one night when we unwisely attempted to make camp. After that, we took lodging where we could get it, sometimes without informing the owners of the barns and sheds where we took refuge. Quite often, we also made off with their goods and smaller livestock. (Yes, Elves do steal: I know this because I helped them do it. They don’t kidnap Hobbits, though: Rory had been listening to rumors.) We barely escaped from the neighborhood of Little Delving with our lives. In contrast, we were well enough received in Michel Delving to use the inn. Yes, the Prefect’s Men had been there, but had done no damage beyond some ordinary thievery. Nothing more was heard from them; no one and nothing had come from the West.

While we were at Michel Delving, however, we did hear that the remnants of the army of the Eye had left the Shire through the southward roads. It had not been defeated. When Hobbits cautiously entered Bag End and the other headquarters, they found that most of the army had died.

We stayed on the Road thereafter. We passed through the lightly people White Downs, and the Far Downs, of which I had so often heard but which I had never visited. The Elves told me that the tang in the air and the high haze in the sky were signs of the proximity of the sea. I could just detect these things, but in truth my senses were failing me, or at least my senses for natural things. It was getting so that I had to concentrate to see the ordinary world. I was beginning to be able to see another world all about me, even in the daytime. Some of it was quite alarming. I mentioned it to the Elves. They said yes, they could see that world, if they needed to do so. Usually they preferred to ignore it. I could understand why, but I was having less and less choice about seeing it.

(9) The Tower Hills

I had seen a fair amount of Middle Earth, but the White Tower was by far the most striking building I have ever seen. It rose up like a chalk continuation of the highest of the rolling green hills. It almost glowed against the sky behind it, a sky so blue it was almost black. And the Tower was perfect; no harm had come to this place.

Arwen said, “Bilbo, as you know, we three Elves have been here before. Now come up with us, and you will what you have never seen before.”

The great oaken doors of the Tower were open. No one was inside at ground level. Around the walls of the great tower was a wide stairway, punctuated by small glassed windows. The stairs wound to an aperture in the roof far above us. We climbed.

We were able to see the sea long before we reached the top. It was not the sea’s apparent infinity that astonished me. I was astonished because the sea was the one thing that looked the same in both worlds.

The top of the tower was large. A central chamber took up most of it; doors led off that circular space to other rooms. In the middle of the chamber there was stone pedestal. On the pedestal was a softly glowing white sphere.

“Look, Bilbo,” said Arwen, “here is the great palantir that looks to the uttermost West. The Elves come here in pilgrimage, so that we do not forget our true home. You are worthy to see this vision, too. Come.”

I stood up on the shallow step on which the pedestal stood and gazed into the sphere. The milky glow became clouds. The clouds thinned. And then opaque glow returned.

“I am sorry,” I said, “perhaps I am not worthy enough.”

“I see nothing but clouds and light,” said Gelmir.

“That, too, is all I see,” Glorfindel said.

We were silent for several confused moments. Then we heard a door opening behind us.

The Elves stepped back and drew their knives, but there was no need. Two young Men in gray uniforms stood politely by the head of the stairs. On their right breasts they bore a white emblem with which I was not familiar.

“Lady Arwen, my Elf Lords, Master Halfling, we greet you in the name of Warden Cirdan and his allies. With your permission, we have been sent to escort you to the Gray Havens.”

“Well met, fair-spoken strangers, for the havens are indeed our destination,” said Gelmir. “But can you tell us why the stone no longer looks beyond the sea?”

“I can merely confirm that the stone is as you say for all who try to use it. Why this should be I do not know. However, my master may know. In any case, he desires urgently to speak to you. Will you come down and take some refreshment? We have mounts for you all. We can be at the Havens by sundown tomorrow.”

We looked at each other. There nothing else we could have asked for. The two Men in gray preceded us down the stairs. I kept hopping up to the westward-facing windows to get one more look at the reassuringly solid sea.

(10) The End of the World

In the fine weather, we made better time even than we had hoped. On the journey, our hosts answered direct questions but volunteered no information. We arrived at the Havens by mid-afternoon. The Havens were a small and ancient town of square towers and substantial houses, all built entirely of basalt. The town was almost an island. It was located at the end of a long, narrow peninsula that defined the inner harbor. The Havens were easily defended and impossible to truly besiege without a formidable armada to flank its seaward side. No ships but the town’s own were in evidence when we arrived, however. The town was a perfect as the White Tower had been. Its folk were busy and undisturbed.

In former days, I would have complained that I was not offered a meal after such a long journey, but food was becoming one of those earthly things that meant less and less to me. My horror at this development grew daily, but it did allow me to be as eager as the rest to be led to the quarters of Cirdan the Shipwright, the Warden of the Havens. We came to a long room with windows of leaded glass that overlooked both the inner and the seaward harbors. Long tables along the sides of the room held maps, scrolls, and instrument of observation, as well some products of elvish ingenuity whose function eluded me.

“Arwen, Glorfindel, welcome, welcome!” he said. He gave me a wry look and said, “And welcome to you, Master Baggins, the little fellow who started this big war.” I made a similarly ambiguous expression and bowed low, wishing that I were not just faded but completely invisible already. Then Cirdan addressed the last member of our party.

“Oh, Gelmir, it’s you. You survived, I see.”

Gelmir made much the same sort of bow I had.

Arwen said, “It is good to see again, Cirdan, my friend, and good beyond hope to see your city safe and whole. Many terrible things have happened, and we must discuss them soon enough. But tell me first, if you will, why the palantir of the Hills no longer has the Straight Sight.”

“All in good time, Arwen. Indeed, may mysteries will be made clear before the sun sets. I had asked several other persons with an interest in these matters to be here, but you are a little earlier than we planned, so it will take a few moments to alert them. Ah, here are two now!”

Erestor and Faramir had entered the room. Warm greetings were exchanged. Faramir and Arwen actually embraced; they did not entirely disentangle from each other when they were finished. Erestor seemed a little concerned that there was less to me than when we last met. Gelmir smiled and nodded and overlooked the fact nobody met his eye.

“There were monsters to fight in the Hills of Evendim,” Faramir was explaining, “but no Men, fortunately. The Breelanders think they can make a go of it there. Some of us then continued west and met the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains. They are eager to help us. They were beginning to wonder how they would support themselves in a world without farmers to trade with.

“After that, I came south with Erestor and most of the other Elves. When I arrived here and learned the state of things in the Eriador, I was about to head east into the Shire to search for you. Then we heard you were on your way.”

“Yes, better monsters than Men. Would that I had taken that advice earlier.”

Someone unknown to me had joined us, a tall bearded figure in a gray uniform. Like the uniform of the men who had brought us, his bore the symbol of a white hand.

“Saruman!” said Arwen and Glorfindel in dismay. Gelmir said nothing. Perhaps he was struck dumb with happiness at there being someone in the room who was even less popular than he was.

“At your service,” he said with a small bow. “And yours, Master Halfling,” he said, turning to me. “The famous Bilbo Baggins, Esquire, if I am not mistaken?”

I bowed back. “The very same; and my service to you.” I knew enough about Saruman not to like him one bit, but I also knew enough about villains to be polite to them until the last possible moment.

“Cirdan, you know well that Saruman was cast from the White Council,” said Arwen, “and that he was long in secret league with the Enemy. How comes he here, your ally and apparent friend?”

“Lady Arwen, I have done many foolish and wicked things,” Saruman said to Arwen before Cirdan could reply, “yet now I have learned a little wisdom, at an immense price. Cirdan has heard my tale, and has become reconciled with me. I ask that you, too, hear me out.”

It was quite a story. We had heard that Gandalf had imprisoned Saruman with Grima at Orthanc, and set the Ents to guard them. On the Day of Doom, however, the Ents were terrified quite as much as the trees of the Old Forest had been. Unlike those trees, the Ents were mobile. They ran away. Saruman and Grima simply walked out of Orthanc and parted company, with slight expressions of mutual esteem.

I had not heard that Saruman had had dealings with the Shire. Now that he mentioned the matter, I began to understand how someone as clueless as Lotho Sackville-Baggins could cow the country into submission. In any case, Saruman fled to the Shire. He believed he had done so in secret, but the secret was apparently not as tightly kept as he had hoped.

Then something clicked in my head.

“The traitor: you are the traitor that Sauron was seeking in the Shire!” I said. “You were the reason for the invasion!”

“Yes Master Baggins, I was the proximate cause, and I deeply regret the great harm that was done to your beautiful country in the search for me. May I remind you, however, that the Dark Tower had business with the Shire that had nothing to do with me? There were more remote causes for the invasion. How regrettable that your own noble self was among them.”

He was better at innuendo than Gelmir was, I thought. Much better.

In any case, Saruman did not remain long in the Shire, but fled westward when he realized that the hand of Mordor was reaching out for him. Before many days had passed, he was at the Gray Havens. He had an awkward interview with Cirdan, who detained him at first. However, Cirdan was growing desperate. He knew that an army of Mordor was on its way to Havens. He could not defend the Havens indefinitely. He did not have the ships to evacuate its people, either to the West or to some remote place on the shores of Middle Earth. Saruman reminded him of his power of the Voice, and asked Cirdan to let him meet the army marching from the Shire.

“It was the best display of the great Art in my very long career,” Saruman said in a voice that failed to convey modesty. “With an hour’s talk, I stopped their advance. Within a day, I had turned their allegiance. In a week, most of them were reformed characters. Many now choose to continue to serve with me here, though of course now I have little extraordinary power of persuasion: other than reason, of course.”

“And how can that be,” asked Gelmir, “if that is a power that is native to you?”

“This can be, Councilor Gelmir, because what mortals call ‘magic’ is ending.”

This was food for thought for everyone. I thought of an objection.

I stood up on a chair in front of a window that looked out on golden afternoon light falling on the inner harbor. “If that is the case, wizard, than how is it you can see the white sails through my body, and in a week you will be able to see the masts?”

“Bilbo, let us consider your strange case. May we take it as proved that you are indeed fading, as the Nazgul did of old?”

“Just follow my voice if you can’t see me when I climb off the chair. Yes, Saruman, I am fading.”

“But when the Nazgul faded, the disappearance of their bodies was the least grievous matter. Their wills faded, too, Bilbo, until their minds became only puppets of the mind of Sauron. Has anything like that happened to you?”

I considered a moment, but I had already given the matter much thought. “I saw the Eye just once, on the Day of Doom. I am aware of it, like a stove across a room, but no, it does oppress me. The Eye is silent. I had, frankly, been hoping to leave Middle Earth before it began to speak.”

“It will not speak to you, Bilbo. Indeed, even in his bodily form the Dark Lord no longer speaks to his own servants. You may have noticed some of the effects of this silence on the government of his kingdom.”

“Is he then dead?” asked Gelmir.

“By no means. Sauron cannot die. He observes all that passes in Middle Earth. No doubt he sees us here now. He shouts and struggles and tries to affect the course of events, but he is like a man at the bottom of a waterfall who cannot make himself heard. The power of Sauron was Nothing, or rather the control of the flow of power and substance from this world to the absolute void that is not Arda. That is why every exercise of Sauron’s will was always a loss of some kind. His towers rose to the sky, but at the cost of realms that had held much greater substance. The Rings were only valves to give Sauron greater access to the void. When he acquired the Great Ring, the hole he had drilled through the world of substance became too great, a chasm not even he could control. All the magic in the world is flowing through it, and at an ever faster pace.

“I tried once to warn him that this could happen. He would not listen.”

Glorfindel became alarmed. “But what about the Elves?” he asked. “Is even the West safe, and can we still go there? Was the palantir clouded because the West is no more?”

Cirdan reassured him. “The palantir is clouded because Those Beyond the Sea obscured it when they realized the magnitude of Sauron’s victory. They do not wish their secrets spied out, and they know Sauron might well acquire the stone. Perhaps they did wisely, though now they have no way to see what is happening here. In any case, the very fact the palantir is still obscure is proof that the West still exists. The magic will not flow out of all creation, Glorfindel: only Middle Earth.”

“The Elves can still leave Middle Earth,” Erestor said, “but the time is short. The Straight Road to the West is a special grace between two worlds, but it cannot long endure now. As Cirdan can tell you, his ships have ever more trouble traversing the Gulf. I judge that no ship will be able to reach the West after the end of this year.”

“But what will happen to Middle Earth? What will happen to the race of Men?” asked Faramir.

“Some part of the effect you have already seen, Steward of Gondor,” answered Saruman gravely. “The creatures of this Middle Earth that belonged to the elder days are passing away. That would have happened anyway, but what would otherwise have taken centuries will now require only a few months. All of them: Trolls, Orcs, Ents, the good creatures and the bad, all will simply fall apart under the inflexible laws that will order nature in this Fourth Age.”

“So you are saying that Men will have the world to themselves?”

“For the most part. I tried very hard to tell Gandalf this. I tried too hard, and in the wrong way, and maybe I did not deserve to be listened to. In any case, I thought to use my knowledge of the new age for my own benefit. I started as a fool, and I became a tyrant.”

“Yes, you did,” said Arwen.

“O wise persons,” I broke in, “a mere Hobbit is unworthy to learn such great secrets as I have heard in this room. But may I point out that I am still disappearing?”

“You are no longer disappearing for quite for the reasons the Nazgul did, Bilbo,” Saruman said. Gently. “You are disappearing because, in your long and remarkable life, you have become magical. You are one of the immortals, my friend.”

“In that case,” I said, “this is no longer the world for me.”

* * *

Arwen chose to remain with Faramir: no surprise there. He was still calling himself the Steward of Gondor when our ship left, and talking about reconstituting the kingdom. I suspect that is wishful thinking. By and by, Arwen will persuade him to declare himself king of someplace new. Is he is as good a Man as Strider was? Maybe not, but he is willing to try.

Saruman had the option to stay, but chose to submit himself to the judgment that awaited him in the West. Perhaps, in light of what happened to Sauron, he considers that the worst the Valar would do to him is better than the best he would have devised for himself. I still don’t trust him, but he is quite a conversationalist.

Erestor will be coming in one of the last ships, if he comes at all. He was taking about staying in Middle Earth. He would be satisfied with mortality, he says. The fact is that none of the Wise know whether the Elves can long endure in the Fourth Age. The Wisest Wise are not taking any chances.

Gelmir was supposed to come on this ship. I got Cirdan to change the passenger list.

The sea journey itself has been one continuous storm. I really thought we would capsize in the first few days. The winds have quieted a little, but since then there has been rain and more rain.

And as for me, I keep to my small cabin and do what I have done for many years: write an account of my adventures. My first diary is still at Rivendell, probably, unless someone has used it to start a fire already. So much happened between the end of that book and the beginning of this one. Whole lifetimes passed: Merry, Pippin, Sam, Strider, and of course Frodo. They are all gone now, fallen in a crack that opened between one world and the next.

Only I am left to tell the tale, but who will care to hear it? Do they even have memoirs in the uttermost West? We’ll find out. At least, as I write this, I have the satisfaction of seeing that my fist once again casts a shadow.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Dream of the Iron Dragon Book Review

cover.jpg

by Robert Kroese
Kindle edition, 338 pages
St. Culain Press, January 8, 2018
ASIN: B078WLB2CR

I received this book for free from the author, Robert Kroese, in exchange for a review.

I'm a sucker for the premise of this series: stranded spacemen teach Vikings to build spaceships. Rebuilding civilization from scratch is a venerable conceit in science fiction. This is usually fun, and it overlaps nicely with the method of good hard science fiction, which leaves the reader usefully instructed in certain principles of physics or biology after reading a story that otherwise closely resembles a Western.

The motives of the protagonists vary quite a bit. As do their specialties. Calvin Morrison was an ex-military State Trooper with an interest in history. In the interest of survival, and love, he sets himself up as a warlord. Martin Padway was an archaeologist, and lacking the technical skills common to men in his situation, he uses his excellent memory of pithy quotes and knowledge of distillation to become a kingmaker.

In this case, our protagonists are the doomed crew of the exploration vessel Andrea Luhman. They are doomed because humanity is in the process of slowly losing a war against the only other sentient species humans have encountered, the Cho-ta’an. In desperation, the Andrea Luhman is looking for a refugium against the militarily superior Cho-ta'an.

Human vessel. This is your last warning. We will fire on you.

Mallick managed a chuckle. “If you were going to fire, you’d have done it already, you motherfuckers.” He paused a moment. “Don’t send that.”

The Dream of the Iron Dragon, p 68

What they find is something else entirely, a McGuffin of lost technology that promises hope for the human race, if only they can somehow return it to what is left of human civilization. This is a bit of a problem, since they find themselves stuck in the 9th century AD in northern Europe. 

O’Brien, the wiry, sandy-haired geologist, nodded. “We’re landing on Earth during the Middle Ages to build a forge to fabricate a spaceship part so we can carry an alien doomsday weapon across the galaxy to save humanity.” Chuckles went up from the group. Slater frowned. “Well, it sounds ridiculous when you say it like that.”

The Dream of the Iron Dragon, p 88

I admire the setup of this series. We get a collection of scientists and technologists with the crew of the Andrea Luhman, who are actually on a scientific mission when they stumble upon an artifact of great importance to the war effort. Thus, they really do possess the knowledge that will end up being useful in their quest. We also get a nice look at Viking society in the ninth century, which is a subject of interest.

Rollo of Normandy  By Imars: Michael Shea. - Own work; transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:MARKELLOS using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9553228

Rollo of Normandy

By Imars: Michael Shea. - Own work; transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:MARKELLOS using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9553228

This is mostly where the "usefully instructed" part comes in for me. As a fan of hard sci-fi, I like learning something new from the books I read. For this series, it is the life of the ninth century. For example, despite my interest in the Normans, frenchified Vikings, I hadn't heard of Rollo, Duke of Normandy.

I had heard of Harald Fairhair, but I didn't know much about his campaign to rule Norway. Not fun, at least for the people on the receiving end, is the answer. This isn't particularly surprising, but Kroese makes it real for me. This is an alternate history, but now I feel like I have a better sense of what our actual history was like.

The descendants of Rollo, and the other Vikings who raided France, would eventually go on to conquer England, as well as Sicily, and parts of the Levant. They still own a large fraction of the United Kingdom. All in all, we should probably consider them one of the most successful ethnic groups in all of history. 

Of course, this is of little importance to the crew of the Andrea Luhman, who are preoccupied with matters of greater importance, like the survival of the human race, and their own. For them, finding a way to return their discovery to the remnants of human civilization in their own time is the only way to prevent extinction at the hands of the Cho-ta'an. The odds are long, but the payoff is enormous. They judge it a risk worth taking, which makes for a fun book for me. I look forward to their future adventures.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-02-24: Future Teeth; The Golden Mosque; The Two Wicked Cities

Lind in 2016

Lind in 2016

John Reilly mentions William S. Lind in this post, because Lind repeatedly predicted defeat for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. John predicted victory, and some kind of friendly democratic government in both countries. What actually happened is somewhere in-between. Lind's predictions of defeat were too dire, but what we got wasn't exactly victory either.


Future Teeth; The Golden Mosque; The Two Wicked Cities

 

This science story got a remarkable amount of attention:

By making a few changes to the expression of certain molecules in the pathway, the researchers were able to induce tooth growth in normal developing chickens. These teeth also looked like reptilian teeth and shared many of the same genetic traits, supporting the scientists' hypothesis. None of these chickens were allowed to hatch.

The moral of the story is that the genes to guide the formation of the features of an organism remain in the genome even after the features are no longer expressed in the organism's lineage. Thus, for instance, snakes could be made to sprout legs like those of their ancestors, if we felt sufficiently strongly about it. Ah, but you ask: what about genes for future evolution? Are they there too, waiting to be switched on?

Some readers will no doubt recall the episode from the Outer Limits series of the 1960s, entitled The Sixth Finger. The sixth finger, of course, was what grew from the hand of the experimental subject after he was put in the Infernal Machine that advanced his evolution. His head also became photogenically distended as his brain expanded.

That was a very good episode. Actually, the whole series was so much better than the recent revival that the principle of historical progress is put in doubt, at least with regard to television. Nonetheless, the idea that later-evolving features are implicit in earlier features is one of the tenets of the model of evolution in Simon Conway Morris's Life's Solution.

* * *

Most of Congress and every elected official on the East Coast have denounced the plan by a company owned by the government of Dubai to acquire the British company that, among other things, manages much of the Port of New York. At this writing, the deal looks as if it will be delayed, and then probably scrapped. Still, I noted this item yesterday:

The Bush administration secretly required a company in the United Arab Emirates to cooperate with future U.S. investigations before approving its takeover of operations at six American ports, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. It chose not to impose other, routine restrictions.

I have no information about this deal. Still, I might note, simply as food for speculation, that the Middle East is where Western governments base activities that they would not dare do at home. A government-owned company would make a better front than a private one, but there is also a long history of using nominally private enterprises for these purposes. Does no one remember Air America?

* * *

Here is a culture clash where the clash is between European church-state relations and those of the United States:

DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - A German court on Thursday convicted a businessman of insulting Islam by printing the word "Koran" on toilet paper and offering it to mosques.

The 61-year-old man, identified only as Manfred van H., was given a one-year jail sentence, suspended for five years, and ordered to complete 300 hours of community service, a district court in the western German town of Luedinghausen ruled.

I would prefer to think that the court was just pandering to Muslim sentiment, but I have the disturbing feeling that this is how the legal system always works there. Look, religion is like the American flag: if you can't burn it, it is not worth saluting. Faith, like patriotism, thrives on invective.

* * *

Is the bombing of the Golden Mosque actually good news? That would seem to be the implication of Syed Saleem Shahzad's analysis at Asia Times:

Spring is only a month away, and preparations for Nauroz (the Persian new year) are well under way. In Iran this year, however, Nauroz was due to come with a deadly dimension: the start of a new phase of a broad-based anti-US resistance movement stretching from Afghanistan to Jerusalem.

Wednesday's attack on a revered shrine in Iraq could change all this.

There has been quite a lot of contact between Iran and al-Qaeda in recent years. Indeed, important al-Qaeda organizers are in Iran today:

The aim of these people in Iran is to establish a chain of anti-US resistance groups that will take the offensive before the West makes its expected move against Tehran.

Their mission, however, has now become nearly hopeless:

The anti-US resistance movement had wanted to use Shi'ite Iran as the final base to link the resistance groups of this whole region. If the current volatile situation results in Shi'ites sitting on one side, and Sunnis and al-Qaeda-linked groups on the other, this is unlikely to happen.

Instead, Iraq could become a new battlefield, not only against US-led forces, but between different factions. Iran, meanwhile, would be left to deal with the West on its own...

Some Sunnis are saying that it was the Iranians themselves who blew up the mosque, to unite all Shia factions behind Moqtada al-Sadr, or possibly al-Sadr himself ordered the explosion. Or it might have been the Americans, to put pressure on the Sunnis to reach a deal about forming the new government. Or maybe it was the Israelis in order to...well, just because. The most economical explanation is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates realize that if a workable government forms, they will have essentially lost the war, and not just in Iraq. The mosque was blown up to delay that awful day.

Sometimes I think that these people learned the art of government in New Orleans.

* * *

Defeat is editorial policy for American Conservative. Consider this piece, War of the Worlds, by William S. Lind, who argues that there are two great evils today, the Jihad of Fourth Generation warfare and the Brave New World of the West:

The Fourth Generation of Modern War, warfare since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, is the greatest change in armed conflict since the modern era began. It is marked by the state’s loss of the monopoly on war it established with Westphalia and the rise of non-state elements that can fight states and win...Fourth Generation war is giving rise to new forms of social organization. It should not surprise us that al-Qaeda’s goal is not taking power within states but abolishing the state altogether and replacing it with an ummah...

The march toward Brave New World is led by the United States. The main characteristics of Huxley’s dystopia are all too evident in post-1960s America (and Europe). They include a culture where the summary of the law is “you must be happy,” happiness coming from a combination of materialism, consumerism, electronic entertainment, and sexual pleasure; globalism, the elites’ “one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them” under de facto if not de jure world government; and endless psychological conditioning, especially through the government schools and the video-screen media. Religion is already relegated to the eccentric margins, at least among the elites, if not yet quite forbidden

Readers may amuse themselves by searching through Lind's writings to see how many times he has predicted, indeed reported, the defeat of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past few years.

When Brave New World’s walls come a tumblin’ down—and they will—men of the West may have their opportunity. Bewildered, shocked, sometimes panicked societies will seek alternatives but not know where to turn.

They will, of course, turn to American Conservative's brand of tradition. It worked for Marshal Petain, didn't it?

There are confusions here. Yes, there is a Brave New World faction in the West, whose chief representatives are, perhaps, the transnationalists of the Davos type. It has little or nothing to do with the neocons. The Brave New Worlders have not prospered in recent years. Part of the story is the foundering of the European Union project; part of it is the defenestration of cultural and media elites in the US. The Brave New World is not fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Brave New World not only could not fight a war; it could not survive in a world where war were possible.

Someone should write an AH story in which the the Draka invade Brave New World. That will teach them.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Years of Rice and Salt

N = 1

N = 1

This book review is the source of one of my favorite cocktail party theories: a number of seemingly well-established sciences are built upon an n of 1. In a grand sense, geology and biology fall into this category, since the big theories like plate tectonics and evolution depend on one big sequence of inter-related events. In a micro-sense, you can see if similar things happen in different times and places, but the overall development of life on earth, or the development of the earth itself, only happened once, and we lack the capacity to conduct meaningful experiments about such things. Of course, the universe itself, the subject of the grandest of all theories in science, also falls in this category. Perhaps that explains the need to invoke the multiverse.

I don't have any complaints about the way these sciences have been pursuing, it just strikes me as funny that some really big scientific ideas aren't actually amenable to experiment. We can conduct experimental programs that build up the foundations of such ideas, but we can't wind the universe back up and set it down and see what happens the second time, which is the foundation of all experimental philosophies of science. Maybe that is why I like alternative history and science fiction: this is how we try to acknowledge our weaknesses here.


The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Paperback 2003
(Hardcover 2002)
763 Pages, US$7.99

 

This review appeared in the
Spring 2006 issue of
Comparative Civilizations Review

 

Once upon a time, a course in science-fiction writing was offered at Rutgers University. The grade was based on stories written by the students, but the instructor offered an exam option as a joke. It included this memorable question: “Describe the influence of the papacy on medieval Europe.” The question posed by this novel is actually more ambitious: what was the effect of post-medieval Europe on world history; or more precisely, what would the world be like if there had never been a European modernity? In the course of answering this question, Kim Stanley Robinson has written what may be the finest example thus far of Alternative History: historiographically sophisticated, with plausible characters, the book is essentially world history made readable as a series of biographies. Best of all, at least from the prospective of an admiring reviewer, the book presents a model of history that is both demonstrably and instructively false.

The premise of the story is that the outbreaks of plague in 14th century Europe were far more deadly than they historically were. The whole continent, from Britain to Constantinople, and from Gibraltar to Moscovy, is wholly depopulated. The action starts around 1400, when a deserter from the horde of Timur the Lame gets an inkling of the disaster as he wanders through the deserted landscapes of Hungary and the Balkans. He is enslaved by Turks; he is sold to the treasure fleet of Zheng He, who happened to be in East Africa on one of his famous oceanic expeditions. Eventually, the deserter dies as an innocent bystander at a court intrigue of the early Ming Dynasty.

In the course of this man’s adventures we meet pretty much all the people we will be meeting for the next 700 years. The conceit that holds the book together is that people are reincarnated, in much the way contemplated by Tibetan Buddhism, and that they normally progress through time with the same companions. In “The Years of Rice and Salt,” the principal companions are the Revolutionary, the Pious Man, and the Scientist; the Idiot Sultan puts in several appearances, too. Some of the most interesting passages in the book are set in the bardo state, between incarnations. Depending on the period in which they most recently lived, the companions take these interludes more or less seriously. During one such incident, the Revolutionary becomes exasperated with the Pious Man’s spiritual and historical optimism: “We may be in a hallucination here, but that is no excuse for being delusional.”

Macrohistory in this scenario differs from that of the real world more in detail than in broad outline. The 15th century discovery of the Americas is cancelled, for obvious reasons. Less than a century later, however, a Chinese fleet sent out to establish a base in Japan discovers the Inca Empire. Not long thereafter, the oceanic explorers from Firanja, a Europe resettled from North Africa, discover the east coast of the western continents. These penetrations from Eurasia are slow enough, however, to allow the politically ingenious people around the northern continent’s great freshwater lakes to adapt to the new diseases and to organize defenses. In later years, their model of democratically representative federal government would become the best hope of mankind.

The parallels continue. In Samarqand, in what would have been the late 17th century if anyone were using that reckoning, an alchemist notes that different weights of the same material fall at the same speed; soon there is a mathematics to express acceleration. Move forward another century, and we see scholars in the fracture area between China and Islam trying to reconcile the intellectual traditions of the two. The result is the beginning of a secular, enlightened science of humanity. A noble passage from their work runs thus:

“History can be seen as a series of collisions of civilizations, and it is these collisions that create progress and new things. It may not happen at the actual point of contact, which is often wracked by disruption and war, but behind the lines of conflict, where the two cultures are most trying to define themselves and prevail, great progress is often made very swiftly, with works of permanent distinction in arts and technique. Ideas flourish as people try to cope, and over time the competition yields to the stronger ideas, the more flexible, more generous ideas. Thus Fulan, India, and Yinzhou are prospering in their disarray, while China grows weak from its monolithic nature, despite the enormous infusion of gold from across the Dahai. No single civilization could ever progress; it is always a matter of two or more colliding. Thus the waves on the shore never rise higher than when the backwash of some earlier wave falls back into the next one incoming, and a white line of water jets to a startling height. History may not resemble so much the seasons of the year, as waves in the sea, running this way and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes to a triple peak, a very Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time.”

The hopes of this period for universal reconciliation are shattered by power politics; the power in this case coming from the steam engines of the trains and warships of southern India, whose Hindu regions were the first to master mechanical industrialization. These techniques soon spread universally, however. In the earlier parts of the book, it sometimes seemed to the characters that China would take over the world. This fear performed the minor miracle of uniting the huge and fractious Islamic world, which in turn posed a threat to China and India. Thus, in the closing decades of the decrepit Qing Dynasty, the Long War began, which essentially pitted eastern and southern Asia against the Middle East, Firanja, and northern Africa. It went on for 67 years, killing perhaps a billion people all told. Even in the middle of what would have been the 21st century, the world had still not recovered from it psychologically, however much social and technological progress had occurred.

In some ways, the postwar parts of the book are the most fun. In western Firanja, disgruntled intellectuals chatter in cafes about the history of everyday life and the perennial oppression of women. A musician takes the name “Tristan” and becomes a sort of one-man Solesmes, resurrecting the plainchant of the vanished Franks. There is a subplot about how physicists collude to avoid building an atomic bomb. There are conferences of historians in which the author gets to critique his own devices. A panel on the nature of the plague that destroyed Europe comes no closer to explaining what happened, perhaps for the excellent reason that the real Black Death was probably the worst that could have happened. We get a discussion of reincarnation as a narrative device and, better still, of narrative structures in historical writing, particularly in narratives of historical progress.

The book ends peacefully, with an elderly historian, the Pious Man, settling into semi-retirement at a small college in a region that is not called California. In a way, he had achieved the era of perpetual Light that people like him had always hoped for, but the eschaton is more like that of Francis Fukuyama than of any of the great religions. There was really only one way that history could go, we are led to believe. In the closing sections, children in his campus village hunt for Easter eggs in springtime, but of course they don’t call them Easter eggs.

The speculation in "The Years of Rice and Salt” presents the same sort of issue that Stephen Jay Gould addressed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the latter work, Gould considered what would happen if biological history were begun again. Would it follow the course of the history we know, and arrive at something like our world? Gould answered “no.” His principal evidence, an interpretation of the Burgess Shales, collapsed a few years later when better preserved fossils from the same period were discovered. His larger contention is still open to debate; the matter can be decided only when we can compare the evolutionary history of Earth to that of another earth-like planet. At this point, it seems to me that Gould was probably wrong: evolution does tend toward certain solutions. I would say the same about human history, and so, apparently, would Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel, however, the most remarkable effect of the deletion of the West is that there is no effect. This is almost surely wrong.

Consider a few of the notable figures in this alternative history: a Chinese Columbus, an Uzbek Newton, an Indian Florence Nightingale. They not only perform roughly the same historical functions as their real-world counterparts; except for the Columbus figure, they each do so at roughly the same time as each of their real-world counterparts. It is hard to see why this should be. The West did not decisively influence the internal affairs of the two greatest non-Western imperia, China and the Ottoman Empire, until well into the 19th century. There is no particular reason why sailors from Ming China could not have discovered America. For all we know, maybe a few did. Even if that discovery had become well-known, however, it would have made little difference. For internal reasons of cultural evolution, China was no longer looking for adventures. Similarly, there is no reason why the physics of Galileo and Newton could not have been discovered in Central Asia in the 17th century, if all that was necessary was cultural cross-fertilization and a frustrated interest in alchemy.

There are in fact good reasons for making India the site of an alternative industrial revolution. Its patchwork of states, so reminiscent of Baroque Europe, might well have offered both the intellectual sophistication and the political license to develop a machine economy. The problem is that no such thing seems to have been happening when the English acquired control over most of the subcontinent in the 18th century. There was considerable Indian industry, of course, but it was not progressive in the way that European industry was in the same period. It was not just a question of technique; industrial development requires financial sophistication and acceptable political risk quite as much as it requires engineering. India was kept from developing by the government of the Idiot Sultan, and he was wholly indigenous.

Toynbee defined civilization to be a class of society that affords an intelligible unit of historical study. The nations or other units that comprise a civilization could not be understood in isolation from each other; the larger ensembles to which a civilization might belong are accidental or not constant in their effects. Toynbee modified his ideas in later life, but this definition is helpful here.

We see even in the dates in this book that something literally does not compute. Most numerical dates are given in the Muslim reckoning; actually, it is easiest to find your way around if you keep a chronological list of Chinese emperors handy. Even though there is a very sketchy timeline at the beginning of the book, there are still occasions for confusion. Because of the difference between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, a Muslim century is (if memory serves) only about 97 Gregorian years. The omission of the Christian calendar, however necessary because of the book’s premise, makes the world history the book seeks to describe almost inconceivable.

There is a sense in which Columbus, and Newton, and Florence Nightingale were world-historical figures, but if we are to discuss them as a group, we must start with the fact they were all products, indeed characteristic products, of Western civilization. The line of development that led from one to the other (or from the social milieu that produced one to the social milieu that produced the other) was a process within Western civilization. There had, perhaps, been figures parallel to these great names during the pasts of other civilizations, but the parallels were not chronologically simultaneous.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as world history. Another of Toynbee’s notions is helpful: the idea that civilizations appear in generations. The most ancient civilizations, those of the river valleys, were local affairs, however widely their influence spread. The “classical” civilizations of the next generation, of Rome and the Han and the Gupta, were regional. The third generation, including the Islamic cultures, post-Tang China, and the West after the Dark Age, are all third generation, as indeed are other societies, notably Japan and Hindu India. What Islam, the West, and China, have in common is that they are all, in principle, universal. During their great ages, Islam and China both reached just shy of global influence before consolidating their activities to certain broad regions. The West finally did achieve global scale, in the 15th century, and so created the possibility of a genuinely ecumenical society.

This is the gospel according to Toynbee, and you can take it or leave it; as we have noted, “The Years of Rice and Salt” includes a quite sophisticated discussion of metahistory. Nonetheless, the incontestable fact is that, whatever malign influence you might want to ascribe to European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the other great civilizations during early modern times were simply not efflorescent in the way the West was. Without too much speculation, we can make a good estimate of the course of the world’s major civilizations in the absence of the West.

China was winding down from its Song climax; the Ming and Qing Dynasties would have followed much the same course with or without Western influence. The result would have been another minor dark age in the 20th century, as after the Latter Han in antiquity. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, the greatest of Islamic states, was losing control of North Africa and the hinterland of the Middle East before the Europeans ever became a factor. The empire would probably have unraveled in pretty much the way it did in our timeline, perhaps with the exception that the caliphate might have survived as a venerable anachronism. As for India, it is a commonplace that the English stepped into a vacuum left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. Doubtless other forces would have stepped in if the English had not been available, but there is no particular reason to suppose that the new situation would have been discontinuous with earlier Indian history.

There would still have been dynamic societies in the world, of course. Japan’s social evolution has its own internal logic; Western contact in the mid-19th century was an opportunity that Japanese elites chose to exploit. During the same period, Burma was literate, mechanically ingenious, and of an imperial turn of mind; only annexation by the British Empire prevented what might have been a new Buddhist civilization from forming. Anything at all might have happened in the Americas, but for the time being, it would have been of only local significance. The “classical” generation of American civilizations would still have been in the future.

On the whole, Earth by the middle of the 20th century might have seemed like a planet with a great future behind it. However, there have been general breakdowns of civilization before, notably at the end of the Bronze Age. Even in the barbarous early Iron Age that followed, however, techniques and ideas spread from land to land. Similarly, in the third millennium, it would have been just a matter of time before one or more societies wove the new ideas into a civilization with universal potential.

That history would have taken another 500 to 1000 years to reach the state of things that we see from the college in the land that is not Calfornia. A book about it would have to be very good indeed to compare to “The Years of Rice and Salt.”

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson

Conquistador Book Review

by S. M. Stirling
Roc Books, 2003
ISBN 0-451-45908-3

This book continues the tradition that Stirling never writes sequels to the books of his I like best. Ah well.

I especially like the acknowledgments to this volume:

To Jerry Pournelle, for help and assistance; Giovanni Spinella and Mario Panzanelli, for help with Sicilian dialect; Steve Brady, for Afrikaans, Greg Saunders, for local knowledge of LA; to the Critical Mass, for continuing massively helpful criticism; and any others on the list.
All faults, errors, infelicities and lapses are my own.
And a special acknowledgement to the author of Niven's Law:
"There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of an author.
"The term is 'idiot.'"

I suspect the last entry was necessary because all of the major players in this book are 'deplorables', to use an anachronistic term for a book written in 2003. Un-reconstructed Southerners. Former Waffen-SS. Pied noirs, white Rhodesians, and Boers. As a high concept, this book seems to be about: what would happen if all of the losers of Western Civilization's great internal conflicts got together and created a new society free from the influence of history's winners, but the losers could take any knowledge [cultural or technological] they wished into extra-dimensional exile?

Stirling's answer turns out to be pretty interesting. For example, the Commonwealth of New Virginia, is an environmentalists paradise: completely sustainable, driven largely by renewable energy, with strict limits on urban sprawl and massive reserves of untouched wilderness. The alternate history California of Conquistador is a prose poem to Nature along the lines of Steve Nichols' Paradise Found. Or perhaps I should say it would be an environmentalist's paradise, if you could separate environmentalism from the political Left. There is plenty of mining and hunting, because the New Virginians are conservationists of the strict observance. They preserve the wilderness because it is pretty, and because animals taste good and look nice as rugs.

The social arrangements of the Commonwealth are similarly perplexing, if you insist on maintaining the alliances of convenience that characterize current American politics. Political power is concentrated in the Thirty Families, the descendants of those who settled the New World. The head of each family sits on a council, and their word is law. Yet, laborers have a great deal of power, due to a short supply of labor due to an extremely strict guest-worker program. The entreaties of beleaguered businessmen are dismissed with contempt.

Fertility is high, as is religious observance. Free-thinkers exist, they just aren't paid much heed. Which isn't to say the state, such as it is, is theocratic. For historical reasons, the settlers largely brought Christianity with them into exile, but it seems to have been shorn of its universalizing tendencies. That may be because we mostly see the Commonwealth through the eyes of its masters, who are hard and unsentimental men.

While there are some references to "missions", there doesn't seem to be anything like the Franciscan order that accompanied our world's conquistadors. Which makes sense, since the ruling elite wouldn't want anyone with real allegiance to a completely autonomous center of power, and largely come from places with strong traditions of political control of religion.  

Stirling's presentation of all this strikes me as bold and interesting, because he gives the impression that the Commonwealth of New Virginia isn't a terrible place to live. In fact, it is rather nice in many ways. It is sometimes unjust, as all states are, but it has more virtues than you might expect. Unlike his Draka series, this state founded by horrible people isn't a living nightmare. It is simply another place in the realm of possibility, that represents a slightly different mix of the features that make up the West.

I want sequels because I would like to explore the future evolution of this society. I suspect that a Western polity that amputated the radical and universalizing features of Christianity would eventually turn into something quite different than what we see today. I doubt the result would be good, but I would say that. I'd like to see what Stirling's answer to that question is, but I suspect I won't get it. Which is a pity.

My other book reviews

Conquistador
By S. M. Stirling

The Long View: The Domination

By Carlo Bossoli - Альбом. «Пейзажи и достопримечательности Крыма» - http://allday.ru/2008/12/06/karlo-bossoli.albom.pejjzazhi-i.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6509469

By Carlo Bossoli - Альбом. «Пейзажи и достопримечательности Крыма» - http://allday.ru/2008/12/06/karlo-bossoli.albom.pejjzazhi-i.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6509469

I consider Stirling one of my favorite authors, but I could never get into this one. The premise is pretty interesting, it was the execution that put me off. The Draka society is truly horrible, and described in detail, but also this series of novels, like the Island in the Sea of Time series, seems to have been an excuse for writing sex scenes that crossed the line of what I'm willing to see in print. The final nail in the coffin was when Stirling included mixed-sex highly effective infantry units. If you want to write a fantasy about that, go ahead, but since Stirling is known for highly realistic military sci-fi, that broke the suspension of disbelief completely, since it doesn't match up with anything that happens in real world combat. Similarly, for the Island in the Sea of time, it was the bit about the peace-loving matriarchal agrarians who practiced free love [who never have gone through the formality of existing] that broke my willingness to entertain the fantasy.


The Domination
By S.M. Stirling
An Abridgment and Revision of
--Marching Through Georgia
--Under the Yoke
--The Stone Dogs
Baen Publishing Enterprises, 1999
778 Pages, US$24.00
ISBN 0-671-57794-8
For more information on the Draka timeline, go to here.

 

Slavery & Sustainable Development

 

In our world, President Lincoln had this to say at the dedication of the new military cemetery at Gettysburg:

"[O]ur fathers brought forth…a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. [W]e…highly resolve that…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

In the world of the Draka series, of which the trilogy in “The Domination” is the core, Lincoln is only vice president during the war, and 140 years later that nation does indeed perish from the earth. So do all other nations so conceived, along with the hope of any more ever arising. I am inclined to take this book as a deliberate parody of Francis Fukuyama's “end of history” thesis. The end of this alternative history also comes just before the end of the 20th century, but the victor is not liberal democracy. Rather, it is the Final Society, a global anti-America with a slave-based economy and an ideology compounded of Nietzsche and Classicism. Alternative history does not get any better than this. Though it would be going too far to call the scenario plausible, nonetheless Draka society is so well thought out that it merits an explanation of why it would not work.

S.M. Stirling is best known as a writer of military science fiction. He chose a notably elegant way to launch his horrible history: it was all the fault of the Dutch. It seems that, during the American Revolution, the Dutch sided with the French as allies of the insurgents. One effect was that the Revolution was so successful that Canada was not a secure haven for Loyalist refugees after the war. However, another effect was that the British acquired the Dutch outposts at the southern tip of Africa. The Loyalists went there; since many of them were southerners, they took along their slaves. The Hessian mercenaries who fought for the British went, too. Land grants in a hostile and inhabited wilderness were the best London could do for them at the time. Other early immigrants included refugees from Iceland, which had been plagued by volcanic eruptions. (I might remark that the Icelanders did indeed consider abandoning their country in the 18th century.) The early Dutch settlers and their language were simply absorbed.

All these people were incorporated into the new Dominion of Drakia, named after Sir Francis Drake. “Draka” was a corruption, but the association with dragons was embraced by the new society's iconography. Their enemies in later years called them Snakes.

The 19th century world of the Draka timeline is not so different from our own, though its geopolitics does somewhat resemble a game of Risk. For instance, the US absorbs not only the whole of British North America, but also Mexico. Technology progresses somewhat faster and in somewhat different directions. Military dirigibles begin to appear in the late 1860s, for instance. Armored steam-cars play a role in the US Civil War, which otherwise occurs at about the same time as in our world and proceeds to the same conclusion. However, the Confederacy does receive aid from the Dominion of Drakia, and large numbers of Confederate refugees flee to the Dominion in the final stage of the war.

In Africa, things are very different indeed. The Draka are nominally a part of the British Empire. They even go through the motions of abolishing slavery, but without appreciable improvement in the status of their subject peoples, who are eventually simply redesignated “serfs.” In any case, London is quite unable to inhibit the expansion of its colony. The process is facilitated by the development of a “Janissary” corps of slave-soldiers on the Turkish model. They normally constitute two-thirds of the Draka military; one conquest provides the manpower to make another. By the end of the 19th century, the Draka have overrun the whole continent, including Egypt and the rest of Islamic northern Africa.

Meanwhile, Draka society developed a sophisticated ideological underpinning. Immigrants from Europe helped. Carlyle was one; Nietzsche was another. So, for that matter, was Oscar Wilde. Stirling is to be congratulated for suggesting a genuinely alien aesthetic. Draka landholders were particularly fond of heroic murals in the long common rooms of their manor houses. Their walls depicted the sort of gory scenes of conquest the Maya might have painted, had the Maya had a bent toward Impressionism.

I gather that Draka political theory has gained the series an audience in some fascist circles. (There is also a lot of gross physical abuse and dominatrix-style sex.) The meaning of the Draka state is not the well-being of the people. Neither is it a divine mandate: the Draka become increasingly agnostic, though there is a faddish pagan revival around 1900. Strictly speaking, it is not even racial chauvinism. Though the Draka are characteristically Nordic and take a keen interest in eugenics, they eventually drop their prejudices and extend the institution of slavery to everyone. For the Draka, the state exists explicitly for the elite. In this case, the elite is the caste of Citizens, less than 10% of the population. Internally, the Citizen caste is an egalitarian “Greek democracy.” A minority can practice the ideal of a landed aristocracy living on self–sufficient plantations. The urban Draka are professionals or civil servants, whose private lives are made luxurious by the attendance of personal serfs. Eventually, the better to distance themselves psychologically from their human property, they stop thinking of themselves as human beings.

There is a private sector in the Draka economy, but it seems to serve little besides small luxury-markets. There is no mass market; slaves do not touch money. Thus, the Draka economy is not fundamentally dynamic. The anti-America also wholly lacks a sense of Manifest Destiny. However, Draka culture does have dynamic features. Principally, they have a cult of the Will. They embrace the idea that to accept a goal is to accept the means necessary to achieve it, no matter what the means might be. One might say that they equate the desirable, the possible, and the mandatory.

This is not to say that they lack a sense of their own vulnerability. The Draka realize that their society cannot co-exist indefinitely with other social systems. Thus, on the one hand, conquest by the Draka is a more radical event than conquest by even the most predatory empires of history. Communities are not taxed or exploited; they are atomized and the individuals are fed into the slave distribution system. On the other hand, the borders of the Draka state have to be continually expanded in order to prevent foreign corruption. The Draka can never be really safe as long as there is an outside.

This problem is solved in the course of the 20th century. The Draka loyally do their bit in the First World War by attacking Turkey. (Again, the war starts at about the same time as in our world, and seems to follow much the same course.) After the war ends, however, the Draka declare their total independence from Britain. They rename their state the Domination of Draka. They also take advantage of the collapse of Czarist Russia to expand their control far into Central Asia, up to western China. However, history only really runs off the rails with the Second World War.

The need of the Soviet Union to defend against the Domination on its southern border is an adequate explanation for why the forces were not available to stop the Germans from taking Moscow in 1941. Rather more explanation is needed for why the Draka were able to defeat the Germans in the Caucasus and go on to conquer Europe by 1945. (The first novel in the series, “Marching through Georgia,” is about an offensive in the Georgia in the eastern hemisphere.) The near invincibility of the Draka has to do with a tradition of physical training and with careful preparation for a Eurasian War. In comparison, even the SS is not quite good enough.

Hitler is assassinated in 1942, and the Germans become briefly what they had sometimes claimed to be, the leaders of the defense of Europe. It does not help. The war ends when the Draka bring nuclear weapons to bear against the Ruhr. Then the whole of Europe is open to settlement by the Domination.

This is the subject of the second book, “Under the Yoke.” By far the most harrowing of the three, it deals with a new plantation in central France. There we see that the Draka system has its bucolic features. The slave “Quarters” of the new plantation, for instance, is not much different from an old-fashioned village. By design, it uses low-level agricultural technology. The forests are gradually returned to their primitive state, including ecologically appropriate fauna. On the other hand, the Draka have decapitated France. The Draka are willing to tolerate some religion; even a bishop is mentioned. However, all the institutions of the country disappear. What remains of the war-era Resistance is hunted down as “bushmen.” When caught, they die degrading deaths by impalement. The Draka are also content that French should disappear as a written language. Education for serfs is highly restricted, and all of it is in the Drakas' slurred version of English. (The author's attempt to represent their imaginary dialect is not the most attractive feature of the book.)

In the Pacific, the war followed a course that was rather more extreme than in our world, but again with a similar outcome. The Japanese occupied not only the Philippines, but also Hawaii. They made landings in Central America. They conquered northern Australia. Still, their position collapsed when the US surface fleet returned to the Pacific. Japan surrenders after a US nuclear attack, though some historians later argued that the dread of a Draka invasion would have brought surrender anyway.

Then the world settled down to the Protracted Struggle between the Domination and the Democratic Alliance. The course and end of that struggle is the context for “The Stone Dogs.” That book is not without interest; there is something to be said for any alternative-history novel in which the capital of the US is New York City, and the exiled pope regularly attends presidential inaugurations. Still, the scenario's technological acceleration is a little unnerving. There are manned scramjets in the 1940s, and substantial bases on the moon by the end of the '60s. The precocious appearance of biotechnology is perhaps appropriate: it would make sense that the Draka would try to become a new species biologically as well as culturally. Still, I for one found the colonies in the asteroid belt to be a bit much. There is good, hard science-fiction in the third book, but I wonder whether deep space really belongs in this story.

The sad course of the standoff with the Draka need not detain us long. The Domination consisted of two-thirds of the world, both in population and land area. No doubt because of Draka demographic policy, the world's population was just shy of three billion before the end of the standoff. Outside the Domination there was only the Alliance, which consisted of the Americas, Japan and Australasia. At first it also included India. However, in 1975, as in our world, there was a major setback for the cause of democracy.

The Draka did not win a guerilla war. Rather, a US intelligence operation backfired that had been intended to keep India in the Alliance. A new government came to power, and India sought neutrality. The Draka took advantage of the confusion to launch a successful invasion. After that, it was all over, bar the shouting. The final conflict came in 1998. A strategy using computer viruses was set against a strategy using biological viruses. Biology won.

There is more to the Draka series than these three books. A wrap-around story in this volume, set in the near future of a world very like ours, alludes to an incursion from the Draka timeline. That is the premise of a fourth novel. There is also a collection of stories.

* * *

The interesting thing about Draka society is that it is simply an exaggeration of societies that have really existed. The political culture of the Domination was not so different from that of some southern states in the United States before the Civil War. In places like South Carolina, the state was little more than a police force. Militias led by local notables controlled the large servile population. The state was also an engine of war; it was always the southern states that were so eager to invade Canada and Mexico. Otherwise, the state did very little.

This style of government achieved sophisticated expression in the work of people like John C. Calhoun. Some unusually foolish southerners sometimes expressed interest in a monarchy when secession from the Union became a real possibility. (The Romanticism of Walter Scott's historical novels has sometimes been cited as a contributing cause of the Civil War.) However, serious southerners did endorse the idea of a highly restricted “Greek democracy,” and not without effect.

The thing to keep in mind is that the no-tax, no-services state proved to be singularly incompetent. The states of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy itself, had been designed not to function. They had grotesquely inadequate fiscal systems, spotty transportation and a dearth of educated citizens. More important, they also had a large population of non-citizens who could not be trusted. Like the Domination, the Confederacy was a callous, Romantic society. It was quite capable of producing dramatic geniuses. What it could not produce was stable administration. To the extent that the Confederacy worked at all, it worked through extra-legal emergency measures.

Of course, the Domination is also supposed to recall the Union of South Africa during the apartheid era. That regime had a tradition of competent administration and some experience of economic management. As with the Domination, there was a market sector, but a surprisingly large fraction of the South African economy was always state-owned. The large enterprises that were not directly owned by the state were monopolies, which were not much different from the parastatal entities familiar to developing countries. The tight rein on the market may have given the apartheid regime a measure of stability. However, the price of stability was a lack of dynamism.

Planned economies don't work any better in Africa than they do in Asia or Europe. It is hard to see how a formidable modern power could have been built from scratch, by government fiat, without even the head start that the Czars gave the Bolsheviks. Egypt in the 19th century also had a partially servile economy, which underwent notable expansion under the direction of a dirigist monarchy. It showed no sign of turning into a world power, however.

On a more general level, one might note that a strong state is the enemy of aristocracy. Feudal aristocracies arise in situations where there is no effective central government. The lords must therefore rely on a measure of local legitimacy. That is not the case in the Domination. All the Draka we see on their estates are terrified of possible uprisings. By the middle of the 20th century, there is a huge police and military infrastructure across Africa and Eurasia, ready to spring to the assistance of even the most isolated landowner. Worst of all, there is an appalling secret police. It keeps close watch on the serfs, but an even closer watch on the Citizens, lest they show signs of weakened resolve.

A sophisticated slave society is almost a contradiction in terms, which is not to say that they have not existed. Slaves ran the government of the Ottoman Empire, and to a lesser extent of China in some periods. The Janissary slave corps was the backbone of Ottoman power. The problem is that slavery to the state is actually a kind of immunity, at least as far as free subjects are concerned. We are told that serfs in the Domination might be killed by their owners with complete impunity; a Citizen who killed another's serf was civilly liable to the owner. However, the bulk of the military and civil service is staffed by government-owned serfs. In the ordinary course of things, the serfs would have more control over the Citizens than the Citizens over the serfs. The Ottoman sultans notoriously became the prisoners of their slave Janissaries. Finally, in order to give the sultans the freedom to begin modernization, the corps had to be abolished.

Finally, we should take note of some of the reasons that Francis Fukuyama gave for the success of liberal democracy. Modern, democratic, capitalist societies give people recognition as human beings. Subjectively, people are given the opportunity to act as moral agents, which is a capacity humans want to exercise. Objectively, everyone is acknowledged to be a moral actor. This has nothing to do with equality of talent or achievement. People may behave badly or stupidly, but their choices matter. That is why they can deserve to be punished or rewarded. A society that does not extend this recognition will suffer from tensions that will always threaten to tear it apart.

The Draka deal with the tension by being insane, as some of the Draka themselves are aware. The normal Draka personality requires a degree of sadism. Though the author does not dwell on this, part of the reason they are called “Snakes” is their oddly affectless demeanor. They do not move a muscle unless they intend to do so. People outside the Domination often have a physical revulsion to Draka, probably with good reason.

The economy of the Domination makes it inherently stable, but the Draka understand that their society is also highly artificial. It takes a great deal of energy, continuously applied, to maintain the fundamentally inhuman slave system. By the end of the last book, the Draka have developed a way to segue seamlessly into the inherently stable Final Society. Using viruses to modify the germ cells of human adults, they create two new species, homo drakensis and homo servus. The two species are not interfertile. Homo drakensis really are superior to natural human beings by most objective measures. Homo servus, though healthier and even slightly more intelligent than their ancestors, have a natural predilection to serve. Secret police and attack helicopters are no longer necessary to maintain the system. The system is natural for both species.

This is just the solution that Francis Fukuyama has been worrying about in recent years. In Our Posthuman Future, he observes that the conclusions he reached in “The End of History and the Last Man” apply only to human beings as we have known them historically. Genetic engineering does create at least the possibility of intelligent life, perhaps of human lineage, that would not be human in the way he had previously defined. Liberal democracy might mean nothing to such creatures.

For myself, I am skeptical about the danger. There is much less to genetic engineering than meets the eye. In any case, fans of alternative history may flatter themselves that they were ahead of the curve on this question.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Domination
By S.M. Stirling

The Long View: The Plot Against America

A good apocalyptic novel never gets old.


The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
391 Pages, US$26.00
ISBN 0-618-50928-3

 

It's always interesting when a major novelist turns his hand to genre fiction, and especially when he does it well. Philip Roth has done just that: with The Plot Against America, he has made a significant contribution to the canon of the apocalyptic novel. Since they first began to appear about 70 years ago, novels of this type have usually been painfully didactic (and often, as in the case the Left Behind series, just painful). Roth's book is almost unique in the genre in combining a believable human story with the creeping menace of a disguised dystopia. He succeeds while following the conventions of the genre almost step by step.

Before we get to the latter days, however, we must note that The Plot Against America has attracted attention chiefly as an exercise in “counterfactual” or “alternate” history. (I prefer “alternative history”; “alternate” implies just two possibilities.) The divergence from our timeline is made with conceptual economy; Charles Lindbergh accepts the invitations to run for president in 1940 on the Republican ticket that he rejected in our world. He wins. Though he does not then set about establishing a fascist state, he does conclude nonagression pacts with Germany and Japan. His government also launches programs to promote the assimilation of ethnic minorities. The programs are neutral in their terms, but obviously directed at the Jews.

Rather less economically, Walter Winchell, the radio commentator, determines to run for president after his opposition to Lindbergh's policies gets him thrown off the air. He begins his campaign in 1942 with a nationwide speaking tour that sparks antisemitic riots. In some places, the police keep order, but in others hostile local authorities let the disturbances turn into pogroms. After a belated attempt to reassure the nation, President Lindbergh disappears. His vice president, Burton K. Wheeler (an actual figure in Montana politics, by the way) then does attempt to stage a fascist coup. He declares martial law, arrests prominent figures from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Fiorella LaGuardia, and apparently moves toward war with Canada. Thanks to the leadership of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the missing president's presumptive widow, the coup collapses. Congress authorizes a special presidential election for 1942, and Roosevelt becomes president again. Next month, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. History as we know it returns, just one year late.

I know from experience not to argue too strenuously with someone else's counterfactual, so I will raise just two points. It seems unlikely to me that Charles Lindbergh could have translated his celebrity into votes, though Roth's description of Lindbergh's unconventional campaign, consisting of flights in "The Spirit of St. Louis" from city to city, does have a certain dramatic appeal. (Whether by accident or design, Lindbergh's campaign resembles the airborne "Hitler Over Germany" tour that the Nazis conducted in their unsuccessful electoral challenge to President Hindenberg.) Also, if America had withdrawn from the North Atlantic and avoided engagement with Japan in 1941, then Great Britain and the Soviet Union might well have been forced to seek terms. This is the kind of thing that alternative history buffs love to talk about, but it's usually not worth discussing at greater length than I have done here.

What makes it possible to spin this premise to novel length is that Roth has translated these events into the terms of his own childhood. In this book, Roth reconstructs the working-class Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, where he was born and raised. There is too much projection from later experience here to say that he describes these events from the perspective of his eight-year-old self, but he tells us pretty much what a child would see as the darkening of the times affects his own family.

Young Roth's parents are ferociously patriotic, but so culturally timid that Roth's father turns down a promotion that would have required the family to move to a neighboring Gentile town. Not long afterward, these same people have to decide whether to accept a virtual relocation order under the federal "Homestead 42" program, under which the elder Roth's company would transfer him to a small town in Kentucky. A foolish aunt marries a windbag of a collaborationist rabbi and gets to dance with visiting German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the White House, only to see the rabbi arrested during the attempted coup. There is a cousin who goes to Canada to fight in Europe; he comes home with one leg and joins Jewish organized crime, of whose existence the author never ceases to remind us. A brother is a Lindbergh supporter, because he enjoyed a summer on a farm under another federal program. The experience does him little harm, except that the guileless farm family feeds him pig's meat, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This domestication of uncannily trying times is one of the marks of the apocalyptic novel. Such tales usually start with the daily life of a few ordinary families. They live in more or less the world we know, but through their eyes we see how an extra budget of bad news brings society as a whole to crisis. The trouble appears to be resolved through the unexpected intervention of a charismatic public figure. However, some of the ordinary people are suspicious of the new order from the start. Their fears seem groundless, but evidence accumulates that the great mass of people is being deceived. Those who understand the reality of the situation become a spiritual elite (apocalyptic novels take care to reveal ordinary people as heroes). In the final stage of the time of tribulation, the mask comes off the new regime, and those who sought to collaborate with it are destroyed. Very soon, though, the nightmare comes to an end, through events as unexpected as those with which it began.

There are no openly supernatural elements in this story. As for organized religion, the Roths and their neighbors are only minimally observant, while the term “church-going Christian” is merely a term of dread. However, the course of history in the alternative world has the character of a malign providence. Lindbergh's early-morning nomination by the Republican National Convention in 1940, which really starts the story, is experienced by the Roths' neighborhood as a cosmic disaster: "Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake." The Lindbergh Administration is experienced, not as an unfortunate political situation, but like a delusion projected by some dark archon. As the father of the family puts it after a not altogether happy trip to Washington: "They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare."

The author has insisted that his tale of the Lindbergh Administration is not an allegory of the Bush Administration, though one can't help but suspect that Roth's description of the bug-eyed hostility toward Lindbergh is informed, at least in part, by Roth's own observation of so-called "Bush Derangement Syndrome." Be that as it may, The Plot Against America surely reflects its times by recalling another generation when tribulation had begun and further crises loomed.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: C. S. Lewis: An Alternative Obituary

A young C. S. Lewis

A young C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis is now famous for having written the Chronicles of Narnia and a number of popular works of Christian apologetics, but as a young man he was involved in some dubious circles. This is an alternative account of his life had he not decided to seek the light.


This article is Alternative History. It is not true. Do not cite it except as fiction.

From the Obituaries of The New York Times, November 26, 1963

 

Argentine police officials today confirmed that the remains of Clive Staples Lewis were among those found in the ashes of a bungalow on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The building burned to the ground on November 22, just as Mr. Lewis, a long-time international fugitive, was about to be apprehended by agents of the CIA and MI5. Allegations of his involvement with this week's tragic events in Dallas are continuing to stir worldwide controversy [See Page A1]. Mr. Lewis is believed to have committed suicide by self-immolation. The exact number of his companions and the cause of their deaths are still under investigation.

With the death of Mr. Lewis, the hunt for the major war criminals of the Second World War can be said to be over.

C.S. Lewis was born on November 29, 1898, to an ordinary professional-class household of Belfast in the north of Ireland. His father, Albert, was a successful police prosecutor. His mother, born Flora Hamilton, died while he and his only sibling, an older brother named Warren, were still young. (Warren Lewis, a career army officer, died of liver disease in 1936.) According to C.S. Lewis's own memoirs, he endured a singularly unhappy childhood in the British public (i.e., private) schools of the period. He was the object of repeated beatings by other boys, and his academic performance was marginal. The young Lewis took refuge in bizarre fantasies involving animals, and also began a fascination with the occult that would greatly affect his later career.

Lewis served as a junior officer in the British Army in the First World War, during which he was wounded. Like many other figures who would later become important on the Right, Lewis wrote positively of his military service. He remarked of his time in the trenches that "this is what Homer wrote of," though he dismissed the war as a whole as merely an occasion "to meet the great goddess Nonsense." It is certainly true that Lewis benefited from the experience. Although before the war Lewis had repeatedly failed to pass the admission test for Oxford, the requirement was waived for veterans and Lewis was able to attend.

Lewis's time at Oxford is the most shadowy of his life. Although his only major works during the 1920s were two semi-pornographic verse novels published under a pseudonym, he is acknowledged to have developed a fetching style that could have won him a conventional academic career. However, rumors of sado-masochistic relations with students and faculty soon put a question mark by his hopes for university advancement. Additionally, his active involvement with ritual magic during this period seems to have occasioned a conspicuous decline in his mental equilibrium.

Writing long afterward, Lewis reports, in all seriousness, that he attended a ceremony in which a participant was literally dragged down to Hell. For whatever reason, Lewis clearly became increasingly paranoid about the powers he believed he had invoked. "You must picture me," he wrote, "alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet." Some final crisis occurred in 1929 which left Lewis unable to function. He was dismissed from Oxford, and later spent some months in Belbury Mental Hospital, during which he wrote an account of his conversion to Typhonianism entitled "The Pilgrim's Regress" (1933).

After his release from the hospital, Lewis used his contacts in the occult underground to meet Oswald Mosley, soon joining what came to be called Mosley's "Inner Ring." Lewis was instrumental in organizing the publicity strategy for Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Indeed, Lewis regarded this period as the happiest of his life. As he put it, he wrote successful propaganda "with his tongue in his cheek and the printer's devil by the door, and no one able to call him a nonentity ever again." Lewis is also believed to have been the real author of Mosley's "Allegory of Love" (1936), a provocative book that applied Georges Sorel's ideas about the manipulation of political myth to a "revolution of elites" in a parliamentary democracy.

Although active in the peace movement throughout the later 1930s, Lewis volunteered for military service when Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939. Nonetheless, Lewis was interned in Blackmoor Prison with Mosley and other prominent Fascists in the early days of the war. Mosley and many of his colleagues were killed in the assault on the prison by German Special Forces during the invasion, leaving Lewis the highest-ranking British Fascist to survive. Lewis was Minister of Education (1940-43) and Home Secretary (1941-43) in the quisling government of Lloyd George. In the period of direct German rule under the Protectorate, he served as Deputy Director of the Nordic Institute for the Civilization of England (1943-44).

During the occupation, Lewis was chiefly responsible for the cultural policy of the new order, a position for which he insisted that plenary police powers were necessary. Among his most notorious policies were the persecution of all manifestations of historical religious orthodoxy, and his use of the Anglican Church to promote a neo-pagan cult of his own devising. Lewis's voice became well-known to short-wave radio listeners during the war years through his weekly talks on this "British Christianity." Lewis is best remembered in England, however, for his treatment of intellectuals believed to be hostile to the regime, many of whom at been interned in the month just after the invasion. His orders regarding the faculty of Magdalen College, "Beat them, bite them, throw them into pits with snakes and never let them see the sun again!," secured his death sentence in absentia during the War Crimes trials at Portsmouth in 1946. A selected anthology of the directives issuing from his office during the war, published as "The Screwtape Memoranda," became one of the chief primary sources for understanding the workings of totalitarian bureaucracies.

Lewis was not in London on "Prince Caspian's Day," so called for the famous codeword that triggered the British uprising. It was later learned that, moved by some intuition when communications were cut, Lewis fled secretly to the Republic of Ireland to await events. Remaining in Ireland after the liberation of Britain and the Continent, Lewis wrote an enormous thesis describing the Neo-Nazi empire which he believed was the inevitable future of western civilization. Privately published as Imperium in 1948 under the pseudonym "Ulick Varange," the book has functioned ever since as the "bible" of postwar international fascism.

In the 15 years between the publication of "Imperium" and his apparent death on November 22, Lewis is believed to have been a major figure in the international fascist underground, and particularly in the mysterious "Odessa" organization. Though staunchly opposed to Communism, Odessa's tactical opposition to American influence in Europe has led it to cooperate with the Eastern Block security services. Lewis was known to have been operating in Latin America for some time, and American security officials had been hinting that an arrest could be imminent. None would confirm the rumors that Odessa cells operating in the western hemisphere had threatening retaliation if Lewis were taken.

"What can we say?" said the FBI's Assistant Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs, L. H. Oswald. "He was the wickedest man in the world."

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-10-28: The Last Scandal; Good Usage; Little People

Homo floresiensis    from ATOR  (Arc-Team Open Research)

Homo floresiensis from ATOR (Arc-Team Open Research)

It is a little unclear where the small hominins on Flores Island came from, but the speculation is fascinating.


The Last Scandal; Good Usage; Little People

 

There are four things to keep in mind about the Al Qaqaa Explosives Scandal:

(1) The site was interfered with before the first US units arrived in the area, so there is no way to tell when the explosives were moved;

(2) As a defense of the Administration, point (1) is irrelevant; the Coalition should have determined the status of all IAEA sites from the beginning, even if it could not secure them;

(3) The story seems to be making the electorate's gorge rise; Bush's poll numbers have actually firmed up since Kerry started to talk about it;

(4) Next time, could we please invade a country with prettier place names?

* * *

Speaking of language, Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log has some remarks about the evolution of the generic "they" in English:

But the fact is that singular they is becoming completely standard, at least among younger Americans, whenever the antecedent is of a sort that could in some contexts refer to either sex. I heard a radio piece about pregnant high-schoolers in which a girl said something like I think if someone in my class was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them. In such cases it's not the inability to assign sex to the referent that drives the selection of singular they, it's the mere fact of the antecedent being quantified or headed by a noun like person that can in other contexts be used of either sex.

If it was good enough for Chaucer, it should be good enough for us.

* * *

And here is a further point of usage: what do you call a Westerner who makes common cause with Islamofascists to discredit his domestic political opponents? Consider using the term "Catilinarian," after L. Sergius Catilina, the scuzzy politician of the late Roman Republic. After losing several elections for the consulship to Cicero in the 60s BC, he tried to ally his urban supporters with a Gaulish tribe to overthrow the state. Cicero, of course, was an insufferable windbag, and since we know about Catiline (sometimes spelled "Cataline" in English) mostly through what Cicero had to say about him, he may not have been quite the demon we remember. Still, he was certainly a bad enough fellow that we may use his name for invective.

* * *

Someone else with a cavalier attitude toward Classical allusions is that Other Spengler, the one who writes for the Asia Times. Speaking in praise of the principle of preemptive military action, he recently produced this exercise in alternative history:

If Kaiser Wilhelm II had had the nerve to declare war on France during the 1905 Morocco Crisis, Count Alfred von Schlieffen's invasion plan would have crushed the French within weeks. Russia's Romanov dynasty, humiliated by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and beset by popular revolt, likely would have fallen under more benign circumstances than prevailed in 1917. England had not decided upon an alliance with the Franco-Russian coalition in 1905. The naval arms race between Germany and England, a major source of tension, was yet to emerge. War in 1905 would have left Wilhelmine Germany the sole hegemon in Europe, with no prospective challenger for some time to come.

I don't think you can run an international system on that basis, but it may be the only way to run a postnational one.

* * *

One of the many interesting points about the discovery of homo floresiensis is how often the term "hobbit" occurs in the press reports:

Not only did anthropologists find the skeletal remains of a hobbit-sized, 30-year-old adult female, in this fairy-tale-like discovery they also uncovered in the same limestone cave the remains of a Komodo dragon, stone tools and dwarf elephants..Subsequent finds of other similarly sized, 3-foot-tall humans with brains the size of grapefruits in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores suggest these 18,000-year-old specimens weren't a quirk of an ancient hominin, but part of an entire species of miniature people whose existence overlapped with that of modern Homo sapiens.

I have often wondered what would have happened to the hobbits, if The Lord of the Rings were the real past. Nothing good, I fear. It is sad to think of Samwise's remote descendants being harried into increasingly marginal savagery. On the other hand, the florensiens used to hunt komodo dragons. As with hobbits, it may have been wise for any big people in the neighborhood to stay on their good side.

It is not clear when the florensiens became extinct. They may have been destroyed in a volcanic eruption about 12k years ago. They may have blended into modern populations, though that is questionable: the florensiens were descended directly from homo erectus; they were not eccentric homo sapiens. Inevitably, we are told that they may have survived into historic times, since modern people on Flores have stories about the little people who used to live in the caves.

The same argument has been made for the faery folk of northwestern Europe: maybe there was a race of small aborigines whose memory was preserved in folklore. Perhaps, but the fact is that people in Europe still see the damn things. Such apparitions could have other explanations.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: What If the Second Temple Had Survived AD 70?

A fun bit of alternative history exploring the likely impact of the survival of the Second Temple upon the religion and politics of the Middle East.


What If the Second Temple Had Survived AD 70?

 

This note takes issue with Donald Harman Akenson's recent book, "Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds." You can find my review of the book by clicking here

--John J. Reilly

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Akenson's governing assumption is that the key event that created Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism was the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70. Actually, he holds that there never was such a thing as non-rabbinical Judaism. Akenson uses the words "Judahism" to refer to the religion of Yahweh that existed in Palestine between the end of the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BC and the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans. This was a religion of very many sects, which often had little in common and sometimes were mutually hostile.

One growing sect after about AD 30 was the Jesus Faith. Another was the closely related (and therefore antagonistic) movement known to us as the Pharisaism. (Akenson makes the interesting observation that we know of just two self-proclaimed Pharisees. One was St. Paul, the other was Flavius Josephus, the turncoat author of "The Jewish War.") Like the rest of Judahism, these two groups greatly revered the Temple, and their religious practice was closely connected with it. According to Akenson, it was only the destruction of the Temple that made it possible for them to become separate religions. They then set themselves to replace the physical temple with mental temples. Thus, the Christian scriptures came to refer to Jesus as the Temple, while the rabbis came to equate studying the rituals that had been performed in the Temple with actually conducting them.

The year AD 70 (well, the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-73) is a comforting landmark to historians of religion. God alone knows precisely when Jesus was born or what the Sadducees really believed. For scholars of religion to study the first century, they must interpret and reinterpret partisan texts of ambiguous provenance, all while living in terror that someone will blow their beautiful theories to smithereens. (As, indeed, they themselves plan to do to the theories of their colleagues.) For the Jewish War, in contrast, they have vivid first person accounts and sober descriptions by the standard historians of the second century. Scholars are greatly tempted to attribute decisive significance to this event for the perfectly understandable reason that they happen to know a lot about it.

The problem is that the fall of the Temple need not have been decisive for the history of either Christianity or Judaism.

The case of Christianity need not detain us. It is possible that the whole of the "Jesus Faith" was reconfigured after AD 70 to show that it had always been independent of its homeland. Maybe all that the earliest Jesus People wanted was to add a little filigree about the Messiah to their Temple-based religious practice. Perhaps the entire canon of the New Testament grossly misrepresents both the life of Jesus and the careers of the Apostles, particularly that of St. Paul. Well, maybe. The problem with this sort of argument is like the problem with the argument that God created the world in 4004 BC, fossils and all, to look as if it were billions of years old. The fact is that the texts of the New Testament say what they say. They do not suggest that the Temple was central to the concerns of the earliest Christians, or even to Jesus himself. If the New Testament is judged to be wholly misleading on this matter, then fancy can wander freely. However, the result will have nothing to do with history.

With Judaism, the matter is more complicated. The Mishnah, the code of the "oral law," does consist in large part of loving recollection of the structure of the Temple and the rites performed there. Prayers for the reconstruction of the Temple featured in public and private devotions for centuries. These observations, however, do not address the question of whether this preoccupation could not have developed had the Temple not been destroyed.

The obvious analogy is Islam. Like Judaism before AD 70, Islam has a ritual center, in Mecca. It has a legal tradition, the Sharia, which resembles the Babylonian Talmud in seeking to be completely comprehensive both of secular life and religious practice. It has a Book, the Koran, which like the Torah is held to be a special, textual revelation from God. If anything, the Koran is even more insistent on the importance of the ritual center at Mecca than is the Jewish canon about Jerusalem, since the Koran enjoins Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca if they possibly can.

Something else that Judaism and Islam have in common is that their adherents have been spread out all over the world for a very long time. This was true of Judaism (let us forget this "Judahism" hypothesis) even during the period of the Second Temple. This is not the kind of thing you would normally expect of a cult tied to a particular place, which is what is usually meant by a "temple religion." The religion of the Classical world, like that of much of the Far East today, is built around the particular shrines of local gods. Grand abstractions like "Zeus" or "Shiva" are really for poets. The piety of the practitioners of these cults is always local. They worship the god of one temple because he is the god of where they live. If they travel, then naturally they worship the gods of the places through which they pass. To do otherwise would seem nonsensical.

In contrast, what Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity and some forms of Buddhism, have in common is that they are fairly portable. You can find God wherever you are, and if a holy book directs your attention to a sacred site on the far side of the world, then the site's sacredness comes from the book and not the other way around. This is true today in the case of Islam, even though a ritual center is an important part of its theology. It also has been true of Judaism since the Babylonian Captivity. The term for this is monotheism, and it has more to do with how a religion works than do the details of its ritual dimension.

That said, though, it is hard to imagine that the destruction of the Second Temple did not have some effect on the evolution of Judaism. Here is what might have happened if the Angel of Death had passed over the Temple in AD 70.

It is not difficult to imagine a history in which the Temple survives. The Roman-Jewish War was also a civil war. The contenders actually held different parts of the Second Temple and fought each other as the Romans invested the place. Supposedly, the Pharisees were not really very keen on rebelling against Rome in the first place. That is why many of them were expelled from Jerusalem by the zealots. One of their leaders, Yohanan ben Zakkai, then made a deal with the Emperor Vespasian to allow Yohanan to found the academy at Jamnia, where the Mishnah began to be composed. Suppose that, instead of abandoning Jerusalem, the Pharisees had contrived to gain control of the Temple complex, or some large fraction of it. They might then have negotiated with the Romans to, in effect, trade Jerusalem for the Temple by holding the later against the rebels. Though much of the city might have been destroyed in the Roman assault, still the Temple would have been spared.

Thereafter, the Temple would have continued to function as a ritual center as before, but with some differences. For instance, immediately after the rebellion was put down, the Temple would have found itself in the odd position of being a huge religious center without much of a surrounding population. The Temple would have been in small danger of being abandoned: Jews from all over the world came to visit and sent donations. Doubtless Jerusalem would have been rebuilt, as it had been before. Still, activity in the Temple would have begun to shift away from ritual and toward scholarship, particularly if the Pharisees were running the place. This would have accelerated trends that had long existed in Judaism.

Even before Babylonian Captivity, the prophets complained that God was less impressed by offerings in the Temple than by, say, the fair treatment of tenant farmers and the even administration of justice. The ethical dimension to Judaism would certainly have continued to develop, whether there was a temple or not. There is also some reason to suppose that the ritual practiced at the Temple might have begun to change dramatically.

We have to remember that, when we talk about ritual in this context, was are talking about animal sacrifice. This, of course, was typical of temples throughout the ancient world: they were abattoirs. The difference was that the Jerusalem Temple was huge, one of the wonders of the world, and to some extent it must have been a terrifying place. While this assessment may seem to be the projection of modern delicacies onto ancient people, there is some evidence otherwise. Noted Jewish authorities, including Maimonides himself, have argued that animal sacrifice was a brutal practice that God sought first to restrict and then to eliminate. Also, for what it is worth, we should remember that the other major religious survivor of first-century Palestine, Christianity, dropped the practice of animal sacrifice from the first. (This was the case even though Christianity, too, retained the basic texts on the subject in its Old Testament.)

Ironically, the emphasis given to the old rituals in the Mishnah and the Talmuds was due precisely to the abruptness with which they were cut off. In the normal course of events, one suspects, temple sacrifice would have become rarer and more symbolic, until eventually no actual animals were killed at all. As it was, though, all the early rabbis were left with were memories to record, which they did with great thoroughness.

We must therefore imagine the Temple continuing to function through late antiquity, becoming all the while less like a Classical temple and more like an academy. There was one more major Jewish revolt in Palestine, the Bar Kochba rebellion of the 130s. It is entirely possible that the continued existence of the Temple would have defused this uprising. That rebellion is famous in the study of Messianic millenarianism. (Bar Kochba was called the Messiah, though he may not have claimed the title for himself.) However, richly endowed religious foundations usually take a dim view of militant endtime movements, as the history of the Catholic Church illustrates.

Even if the influence of the conservative Temple failed to prevent the outbreak, the existence of the Temple would still have altered matters. It is likely that the Temple authorities would have stood aloof from the rebellion. Jerusalem might have been declared an open city, or it might actually have resisted Bar Kochba in the name of Rome. Even if the insurgents gained control of Jerusalem for a period, in this case the Romans would have had no reason to destroy the city or the temple when they reconquered the country. Unlike the situation in AD 70, there would have been a normative form of Judaism, one more concerned with the affairs of the spirit than with those of this world. The Romans would have made haste to reestablish this orthodoxy in its chief center as soon as they could. This would have been the quickest way to restore peace. After all, this was pretty much what the Emperor Vespasian did with Rabbi Yohanan.

By the time Christianity became the Imperial religion in the fourth century, it is quite likely that Jerusalem would have been a university town, like Athens or Alexandria. Like them, it would have had increasing trouble with the Imperial government's wildly gyrating religious policies. In the fifth century, these resulted in the closing of the academies in Palestine in which the Jerusalem Talmud was composed. In 529, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed even the Academy at Athens. It would thus be reasonable to suppose that, sometime in those centuries, the Temple would have been converted into a church, and the associated schools into seminaries.

In the seventh century, with the appearance of Islam, the role of Jerusalem in world history would have become considerably different. It is conceivable that the attraction of Jerusalem, with the Temple intact, might have preempted the choice of Mecca as the center of Muslim worship. (Mohammed prayed to Jerusalem for a time, even without the Temple.) This would have had considerable consequences for the development of later Islamic civilization. Neither Mecca nor Medina are suitable points from which to administer a great empire. They are too isolated, too small, and they depend on local resources that are too thin. To a lesser extent, the same is also true of Jerusalem. As the Ummayid and Abbasid Dynasties realized, Damascus or Baghdad was far preferable. However, if Jerusalem had been the goal of the Haj, with the Temple now the holiest of Mosques, it was close enough to the Mediterranean's major trade routes that it could have continued its role as a center of learning. Jerusalem is wrongly placed to be a large city. With the Temple, however, it would never have become a backwater.

In later centuries, Jerusalem would have been captured and lost by the Crusaders, patronized and abused by the Turks. Its political history might not have been dramatically different from that in our own world. The biggest difference would have come in the 20th century. In 1900, Palestine was a relatively lightly populated country. Its cities, including Jerusalem, were of mainly historical interest. Had the Temple been the center of Islam, however, these things would not have been the case. Certainly the enterprise of Zionism would have been inconceivable. Jews might well have had easy access to the Temple by the second half of the 20th century. Christians have been able to hold services in the Hagia Sofia under the Turkish Republic, to take a comparable case. Nevertheless, we must consider the possibility that one consequence of the preservation of the Temple in the first century might have been the non-existence of Israel in the twentieth.

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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Ice, Iron, and Gold Book Review

Vice President Pancho Villa

Vice President Pancho Villa

Ice, Iron, and Gold
by S. M. Stirling
Nightshade Books, 2007
ISBN: 9781597801157
$6.70; 256 pages

Stirling has written some of my favorite books. He co-authored The Prince with Jerry Pournelle, and also wrote some short fiction in the War World series. I tried to read the Draka series, but I just couldn't get into it. The less we speak of Nantucket the better. This volume I picked up in the public library on a whim.

To my surprise, I discovered that this collection of short stories only contained one I had read before. A treat! Of those, three stand out in my mind. The Apotheosis of Martin PadwayCompadres, and The Charge of Lee's Brigade. All three are alternative history, with the mix of soldiering and politics that Stirling is so good at. I also love the way that Stirling can see people with an entirely different set of eyes, and capture their essence in such a way that you can imagine things really could have happened just a little bit differently.

The best example of that is Compadres. Somehow, I feel like it almost could have been, but I don't want to spoil the fun. All I will say is ¡Viva Theodore! ¡Viva America!

My other book reviews

Ice, Iron and Gold
By S. M. Stirling

The Long View: President John McCain

Here is a bit of alternative history John wrote in 2008. My favorite line:

Russian-American relations went from frosty to arctic after the first meeting between President McCain and President Vladimir Putin, when McCain made his notorious “evil ice dwarf” comment to reporters on the flight home.

I'm not sure whether it would have been better or worse to have such a bellicose man as president during Putin's reign, but it wouldn't have been dull.

We may yet see the spectacle of a Presidential election destroying one or both of the current American parties. Unfortunately, personal politics will not turn out well for anyone, but it seems to be an inevitable historical development.

The most prescient paragraph is this one, but it ended up being the Germans that instantiated it instead of the Americans. With models of history, big picture events can be easy to predict, but the details are elusive:

The Administration was not so lucky with an immigration measure that, in effect, granted provisional legal status to everyone in the United States, and this without first ensuring that the federal government had physical control of the borders. The immigration enforcement agencies had to stand down at the borders (including airports) and internally; the chance of apprehending someone whom it might have been proper to detain under the new rules was too small to justify the expense of acting. The immigration bureaucracy was deluged with millions of applications in the space of a few weeks and soon ceased functioning at all. Visas to the United States became unobtainable. Meanwhile, television images showed a steady passage of persons crossing the borders, as well as the appearance of new, impromptu municipalities at the edges of cities and sometimes in public parks. For the most part, these settlements were not, as was incorrectly reported at the time, “colonies” of new immigrants, but associations of longterm undocumented persons who took advantage of the relaxed enforcement regime to move from cramped and often dangerous accommodations. There were notable outbreaks of civil disorder in several places. 

Unlike Angela Merkel, President McCain apologized.


President John McCain
January 2001 to January 2009

The presidency of John McCain is likely to prove as great a favorite of popular historians as that of Theodore Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, his presidency was prefaced by a heroic earlier life. Like Roosevelt, McCain was renowned, if not precisely for his wit, then for a reliably dramatic and articulate temper. Both presidents, throughout their careers, were keenly interested in administrative structures per se. However, while these presidents were unusually knowledgeable about foreign and military issues, the circumstances of McCain’s administration gave him far greater opportunity to work in these areas; indeed, McCain has been called “Theodore Roosevelt with Woodrow Wilson’s problems.”

Contemporary political commentators have sometimes suggested McCain would not have received the Republican nomination in 2000, had it not been for the publication at a critical time in the primary election process of an old scandal involving his principal opponent. (The irony is that the information was Democratic opposition research intended for the general election but apparently leaked early to the press by accident.) Though no serious misbehavior was involved, the issue managed to depress his opponent’s appeal in the early southern primaries. McCain’s bid thus survived until the nominating process moved to the Midwest and Mountain states, where he enjoyed greater natural advantages. Still, the delegate vote at the Republican Convention that year was the closest in living memory. The nomination would have gone differently if a single state delegation had been on the other side. The general election, in contrast, was a popular vote and Electoral College landslide for the Republicans. 

Several reasons have been adduced to explain this result. The candidates seemed to differ only in degree except on social issues; these were muted in the election. However, the Democratic nominee was generally regarded as a continuation of the prior Administration, which had fallen under an ethical cloud. In any case, the popular dissatisfaction with the Democrats did not extend to Congress; McCain’s party actually lost control of the Senate by a single seat.

The McCain Administration was the first since that of Richard Nixon to focus from the outset primarily on foreign affairs. These president’s early efforts did not invariably appear to improve matters. In his first meeting in Paris with the heads of the NATO countries, for instance, President McCain publicly engaged in a multilingual shouting match with President Jacques Chirac about who was more serious about controlling carbon emissions. Russian-American relations went from frosty to arctic after the first meeting between President McCain and President Vladimir Putin, when McCain made his notorious “evil ice dwarf” comment to reporters on the flight home.

On some critical issues, the Administration does not seem to have been very well served by the terrorism experts retained from the prior Administration. These officials pushed their own pet projects and gave advice that almost invariably turned out to be misdirections. In any case, though the Administration came into office with a raft of proposed reforms for health care, education, infrastructure, and so on, these were shelved until the second term by the events of September 11: even the small, temporary, stimulative tax reduction that the Congress had enacted to deal with a mild recession was revoked to help pay for the subsequent unplanned military expenditures.

The president was in Washington at the time of the attacks in 2001. He was widely criticized for foolhardiness in rejecting Secret Service advice to leave the city, but his extemporaneous address from the Oval Office that evening has been classed as model of modern rhetoric. His national security team quickly determined that the base for the attacks was in Afghanistan: the existing regime and the terrorist leadership it had been hosting had been removed by the end of the year. This by no means ended the war, since Islamist factions quickly regrouped across the Pakistani border and instituted a cult of the martyrdom of their former leaders. Nonetheless, the speed and the success of the invasion bought the president the prestige to go ahead six months later with a decapitating raid against the Baathist regime in Iraq. There followed a systematic peace-keeping and nation-building program on which the president was accused of lavishing more attention than on the government of the United States.

The president was also criticized for confining the legal justification for the Iraq invasion to the UN resolutions of 1990 and 1991. His public case for the war was a set of sophisticated variations on the theme that the Baathist regime had never complied with the terms of the ceasefire of 1991 and could not be trusted to do so after the UN restrictions were removed. The president coined a phrase, “field of peace,” to describe what he was trying to “generate” in the Middle East. The concept was widely ridiculed, until the post-Iraq-invasion revelation by Libya of its enormous WMD programs and the new willingness of Iran to talk. These developments, and the fact that the nation-building strategy enabled the beginning of substantial troop reductions by the spring of 2004, silenced whatever criticism remained about the justification and conduct of the war.

Emboldened by the personal popularity which these successes accorded him, President McCain made one of the most daring moves in American political history: he ran for reelection as an independent. To some extent, this move was forced on him: the Republican Party had broken up. The president politely accepted the nomination of the convention with the greatest claim to institutional continuity, but he appeared on most ballots as the nominee of the “Rally for the Republic,” essentially a privately organized network of publicists, financial backers, and key constituency groups. The disintegration of the parties at the national level was a foreseeable instance of the general trend toward “disintermediation” between producers and consumers in all areas of life. In 2004, his principal opponent in the general election was still a “Democrat,” though the nature of that group had changed profoundly since 1992. Thereafter, the movement toward increasingly personalized politics seemed irresistible.

The Administration’s predilection for comprehensive, systematic treatment of domestic issues had mixed results. The new strategy of replacing employer-provided health insurance with privately owned policies had the primary effect of imposing a paperwork burden on the population comparable to that imposed by the (unreformed) federal tax code. There might have been a political crisis, had not the legalization of pharmaceutical imports caused a temporary but noticeable decrease in costs.

President’s McCain’s chief domestic accomplishment was technical and procedural: the Tax Efficiency and Reform Act of 2005. This comprehensive tax-code reform lowered the top marginal individual tax rate to 28%, as well as abolishing the Alternative Minimum Tax; the reform paid for these features by abolishing almost all the deductions in the existing code. The reform was revenue neutral. Small federal budget surpluses had begun to reappear in 2004, the maintenance of which became the Administration’s chief fiscal priority. The reform of the Social Security system disappeared as an issue during the McCain Administration: experience showed that the projected insolvency point for the system retreated by a year for every year the budget balanced or showed a surplus.

Other enthusiasms of President McCain proved less happy. His insistence on a complicated campaign-finance scheme alienated the ad hoc majority in Congress on which he relied for support. The measure was of doubtful constitutionality, and the Administration was probably saved an embarrassment when it failed.

The Administration was not so lucky with an immigration measure that, in effect, granted provisional legal status to everyone in the United States, and this without first ensuring that the federal government had physical control of the borders. The immigration enforcement agencies had to stand down at the borders (including airports) and internally; the chance of apprehending someone whom it might have been proper to detain under the new rules was too small to justify the expense of acting. The immigration bureaucracy was deluged with millions of applications in the space of a few weeks and soon ceased functioning at all. Visas to the United States became unobtainable. Meanwhile, television images showed a steady passage of persons crossing the borders, as well as the appearance of new, impromptu municipalities at the edges of cities and sometimes in public parks. For the most part, these settlements were not, as was incorrectly reported at the time, “colonies” of new immigrants, but associations of longterm undocumented persons who took advantage of the relaxed enforcement regime to move from cramped and often dangerous accommodations. There were notable outbreaks of civil disorder in several places.

The episode lasted a month. The emergency was ended when the president was prevailed upon to invoke the emergency power granted to him in the immigration bill to regulate immigration in extraordinary circumstances. No permanent harm was done, but the country was badly shaken. The president’s speech of apology, in which he took responsibility for the bill and pledged to restore order, was almost unprecedented and highly effective.

One of the ironies of the McCain Administration was that a man so interested in bureaucratic order enhanced his reputation chiefly through his ability to handle unpredictable disasters. The submersion of New Orleans may not, perhaps, quite count as “unpredictable”: few such events have ever been foretold with so much expert specificity so long beforehand. Nonetheless, the event occurred on McCain’s watch, and he understood the importance of what was happening as soon as it was certain the hurricane would make landfall near the city. He ordered his disaster managers and, more important, the Secretary of Defense to the city to monitor events. Before the lower parts of the city were completely flooded, he had invoked questionable but legally colorable authority to use the federal military as rescue forces and police. Perhaps the most famous scene of his presidency occurred the next day when he visited the city, personally “fired” the mayor, and ordered the detention of the entire city police force. His later refusal to sign any reconstruction legislation that applied outside the highland areas of the city remains controversial.

President McCain is remembered for many other things, from his directive to NASA after the Columbia disaster to build an Earth-to-LEO manned spacecraft within a year to the creation of the League of Democracies. He is not always remembered with universal fondness. Nonetheless, his paradoxical presidency did not have the dispiriting effect that several other administrations of the past 50 years had had. His many opponents loved to hate him; his even more numerous admirers were frequently exasperated but never bored. A rare national consensus prevailed as he left office: the Republic had not been altogether badly served. 
    
Copyright 2008 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: After the Eighth Day

When I think about the transition to Empire, this is the story that gives me nightmares.


It is usually a bad sign when a very short story needs an introduction. Nonetheless, here are some links that might make this piece slightly less obscure.

The general historical scenario for this story is that of Spengler's Future. The Contents page for that book is here.

The politics and theology of the story are based, very loosely, on Hardt & Negri's cosmo-anarchist rhapsody, Empire. A review of that book is here

Another short story using the Spengler's Future scenario, but set 170 years later, is Ecumenical Twilight. You can find here

Alternatively, you can just read the text and make up your own background for it. I dare you.

 

After the Eighth Day

"Board of Lustration, Hearing No. D5647, Greater Chicago Western District. Is the applicant present?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Mr. Smith, you have requested this hearing in order to dispose of any suspicions regarding your behavior prior to the Liberation. If your application is granted, you will have unimpeded access to all the privileges of citizenship. As you know, this is not an investigative body. We are limited to the material in the public record and to your own testimony, which is not even sworn. However, you must answer fully any question that the Board may ask. Do you understand?

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Please state your name and place of residence for the record."

"My name is Winston Smith. Since the firestorm last May, I have been living in a hostel at my place of work."

"You are a supervisor at the Ecumenical Dictionary Foundation, are you not, Mr. Smith?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman. In the Orthographic Reform Section. Abstract nouns, mostly."

"What is your date of birth?"

"2 June 2065. In the Year of the Lord."

"So you were just 15 years old at the beginning of the Day. Did you move with the Rave before then?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"But soon afterwards?"

"Yes, Mr. Chairman."

"Were you a regular participant?"

"Once or twice a month, before the Militia, I mean."

"Were you coerced to join the Rave in any way?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"Then why?

"Everyone I knew moved."

"Did you ever see a miracle?"

"Yes."

"How many and when, Mr. Smith?"

"Just twice, Mr. Chairman. The first time was at the beginning of Fourth Month, Year 2 of the Eighth Day."

"That was a local event?"

"Yes, sir. The city returned to normal by the next morning. Of course, I also saw Sixth Month, Year 4. Almost everyone did. By then people expected it."

"What did you think the first time?"

"I believed the First President. I thought reality was changing."

"Some people still think that way, Mr. Smith. That is why we have to hold these hearings for senior civil servants. What do you think of the First President now?"

"He lied, Mr. Chairman."

"Do you think he lied about everything?"

"Well, he certainly lied about the Eighth Day being eternity. He also lied when he said the only real democracy was direct democracy, with no bureaucracy or hierarchy. What he meant was that he did not want anything to be between him and us."

"Do you think he lied about the angels?"

"I don't know, Mr. Chairman. I do know that I don't want to see any more angels."

"The Board sees that you have several unusual notations in your permanent file. Let's start with the earliest one. Can you explain the entry about the principal at your senior high school?"

[Pause.]

"Mr. Smith?"

"We didn't hurt him, Mr. Chairman."

"As far as we know, but his neighborhood Rave moved against him and the body was never found. You were on the student council that called the student strike. Would you care to explain the circumstances?"

"He just was not enthusiastic about the City of Man. He took down all the American flags after the Day began, but the only City flag he put up was in the lobby. He always referred to the First President as 'Mister.' We just did not see what his problem was. Most of the world belonged to the City of Man; why not our high school?"

"Did it occur to you he might get in trouble?"

"No, I can honestly say it didn't. Besides, he capitulated immediately. The news hardly mentioned it."

"And nobody ever saw him after a week later. Did it occur to you there might be a connection?"

"Well, yes."

"Did it bother you?"

"No, I'm ashamed to say."

"How did it make you feel?"

"It was another miracle. That was what the Day was like. People just seemed to organize spontaneously. There was flow, not structure. Nobody gave orders."

"You sound almost nostalgic."

"I'm not."

"Let's move on a bit. You served for 11 months in the Militia of the City of Man during year Four of the Eighth Day. Why not the standard eighteen months?"

"I was a communications-technician during the Caspian campaign, Mr. Chairman. That was about the time the standards began to disappear, even in the military. After the campaign ended, my unit just dissolved."

"You were discharged early?"

"It was more informal than that. The City of Man was everywhere, except for a few caves and jungles. The City was supposed to be self-similar, without a standing army separate from the people. That never applied to the elite units, but it did apply to support units and local auxiliaries. Most of us just made our way home."

"You stayed in the area for a while, though, did you not?"

"Well, not quite the same area. I studied descriptive linguistics in Jerusalem. That is what got me my present job."

"Did you take a degree?"

"I did the course work, but I decided against a degree."

"Why did you do that?"

"I was warned that advanced degrees might soon be regarded as marks of hierarchy."

"That was good advice, Mr. Smith. Do you recall who gave it to you?"

"No, Mr. Chairman."

"Did you move with the Rave at Jerusalem?"

"The Rave was prohibited in Jerusalem at that time."

"That's not quite what I asked."

"Mr. Chairman, not only did I not participate in the Rave, but I was already beginning to doubt the Day. I have given the Board documentation..."

"One thing at a time, Mr. Smith. Were you in Jerusalem during the incident at the Temple?"

"No, I came home to Chicago just a month before. Like most people, I did not even hear about the incident until 2096, when the Years of the Lord began again."

"In your application, you allege that you offered some aid to the Ecumenical underground during your stay in the Levant. A few purchases using your personal characteristic continued to be made in Jerusalem until the end of Year Five of the Eighth Day, months after you returned home."

"Yes, Mr. Chairman. I had made some friends in the underground; I saw no reason not to give them limited use of my credit."

"The Board notes, Mr. Smith, that all the Ecumenicals who might have used your characteristic disappeared during the Desolation, and are presumed dead. We also note that you filed a police complaint alleging identity theft in connection with those purchases."

"I had to maintain a cover story, Mr. Chairman. I don't claim to have been a hero. It was the least I could do."

"I see. Well, moving on, after you returned to the Midwest, you worked as a technical editor for the Chicago Tribune. Your records were destroyed during the firestorm. However, we do have a copy of the resume you submitted in Year 7 to the Word Collective, as your current employer was then called. In the resume, you make special mention of your movement with the Rave at the Tribune. You even give a list of persons against whom the Rave moved. Would you care to comment?"

"As you know, Mr. Chairman, the Rave by then was not really voluntary, especially not at a prominent media outlet. You will note that I never called a gathering. Certainly I never informed on anyone."

"It's a one-page resume, Mr. Smith. You don't give any specifics but the names. In any event, the list could not be complete. The Rave there moved frequently."

"It moved back and forth, Mr. Chairman. One month it moved to stamp out discrimination between all forms of life. Not long thereafter, it moved to support the 'single species' principle against food processors who took non-discrimination too literally. The names I listed were of people who seemed unlikely ever to be rehabilitated."

"Why did that seem unlikely?"

"They were guilty, of ordinary corruption and things like that."

"Very prudent, Mr. Smith. There is just one item about your time in the dictionary division that the Board has a question about. According to the office journal for 6 Second Month Year 14, the First President visited your office and spoke to you personally. Would you care to elaborate?"

[Long Pause]

"We're waiting, Mr. Smith."

"The Board cannot be serious. That was a dream. Lots of people imagined things like that, all through the Day. In any case, the Collective often did visualizations; the journal might just have noted the theme of one."

"Some people still have these dreams, Mr. Smith. Sometimes there is still independent corroboration, five years after the First President's death. It is the policy of the Ecumenical government to investigate all sitings with any corroboration that occurred during his lifetime, however improbable. So, what did you say to him, Mr. Smith? And what did he say to you?"

"The Board is asking me to remember a hallucination."

"Yes."

"The recollection isn't very clear, Mr. Chairman."

"Did he just say hello? Did he ask about your family? Did he talk about your work?"

"I can't even say whether the exchange was short or long. Most of what I remember was just friendly-boss stuff: How do you like the department, that kind of thing. Some of it was very specific, though."

"Such as?"

"Well, he seemed to know everything I knew about lexicography. That's how I know it could not have been real."

"Did he say anything to you about the Day, Mr. Smith?"

"Nothing unusual, just typical City of Man propaganda from late in the Eighth Day, when things were starting to come apart."

"Please tell us exactly, Mr. Smith."

"He said there was no need to worry anymore, that I would always be with him in the City of Man. He said that, in the end, I would see nothing but the Eighth Day. What happened in ordinary time could no longer change that."

"And what did you think of that, Mr. Smith?"

"I thought it didn't happen. Even then."

"And if it did happen?"

"Then it was a lie. It was a lie whether it happened or not."

"I think that is all we need to hear about the matter."

[A pause; the Chairman continues.]

"We have no documentation at all about you between 2096 and the filing of your lustration application at the beginning of this year. That's not unusual; lots of things were lost during those three years. Do you have any comment about the period, Mr. Smith?"

"I think there are some things about the last 20 years we all want to lose, Mr. Chairman."

"The Board will probably concur, Mr. Smith. We'll let you know. This hearing is adjourned."

 

End 

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site