On a Quest For a Tribe: A Companion Piece to Episode 9 and 9B of The Midnight Myth Podcast
What is it about us and tribes?
When I say "us" I mean humans, people, society writ large. According to Merriam-Webster, tribalism is defined by “tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially the exaltation of the tribe over other groups.” In simple terms, any time we think “our team is better than your team” we are engaging in some form of tribalism. Sometimes I wonder if the paradigms of tribalism are inherent in humanity, like a ghost in our genetic make up that whispers, "it's us and them, never forget that." We encounter this in every aspect of our lives. We, humans, siphon off the world and delineate between the collective and the other. I can remember a time when a coworker of a different ethnicity humorously reminded me that I was an outsider to them, despite literally being on the same team. Have you ever been to a major sporting event in a sports town? Ever see a fan of the local sports team booing the rival fan who gloats when his/her team wins? Right or wrong, it is normal and never feels out of place when one reminds another of their tribe. In other words, we all know what tribe we are on at all times, our tribes constitute the partition between what walls "us" and "them" into "we" and "other".
The question around tribalism came to me while doing research for the companion blog to episode 9 and 9B of The Midnight Myth podcast. I was doing some reading about the history of Rohan. In case you aren't familiar with Rohan, it's a major kingdom in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga. The people of Rohan live in the grassy plains between the Shire, home of the Hobbits, and Mordor, home of Sauron, Orcs and pretty much all things evil. If you want to get an appreciation of JRR Tolkien, google the history of something, anything, in his books. The amount of literature, depth, and density to his world is staggering. Every ruler of Rohan, where they came from, what they did, and why they did it, was documented by Tolkien as if it were the genealogy of a real place. The reason for this depth of history makes sense. It brings Rohan and the Rohirrim (which I learned means "people of Rohan") to life. The saga of King Theodan of Rohan is part of a longer saga, in which Theodan is simply the recent installment. Rohan matters because people, albeit imaginary people, lived and died within its borders for thousands of years establishing an identity that is Rohan. The people have long blond hair, fair skin, and have used the grassy fields to master horse ridding. This has made them formidable warriors and a force to be reckoned with in Middle Earth.
While reading this history, I started reflecting about the world and saga of Lord of the Rings. It was clear that Tolkien organized this world into tribes. Different types of races lived in different areas which took on different traits, and all tribes were inherently mistrusting of the other tribes. Dwarves dislike Elves and Elves don't trust Men, and the Men of Gondor look down on the Men of Rohan, and all pretty much don't care or have forgotten about Hobbits. I think Tolkien is telling us something about ourselves when he created a world so divided. It reflected the world he knew, a world in which mechanization and nationalism brought about the largest wars in the history of humanity. In World War I & II, humanity was forced to tear down the partitions between us and unite, only to kill each other in more horrible ways. Fear of destruction united us, however, only to become better at war. In World War II, the Allied and Axis forces were capable of being one, of truly overcoming our tribal nature, to become a bigger, more capable killing tribe.
The choices of the Allied and Axis powers of World War II are mimicked by the main powers of Middle Earth. Faced with the resurgence of Sauron, Mordor looms to be the power of the world. Mordor can only rule Middle Earth if all the other races are destroyed or enslaved. The inhabitants of Middle Earth are faced with the choice, they can tear down their tribal nature and unite to face off against this threat or join the threat and assist in ending the free kingdoms. Sitting out and letting other tribes deal with Mordor is not an option. Every race of Middle Earth is represented, either by sending delegates to decide the fate of the one ring of power or by sending their armies into the fight. The heroes create a Fellowship, a symbol of multi-racial politics working out their cultural antagonism to protect the world from evil. From this symbolic unity, Dwarves can become best friends with Elves, the people of Rohan can come to the aid of the people or Gondor, and Hobbits, the forgotten people, can save the world.
But this unity is not pan-Middle-Earth. It is not a unity of ideals, nor is it a world order based on principle. It is a reflection of-- and part and parcel of-- tribalism. Why is it so easy for Aaragorn, Gimlie, and Legolas to massacre Orcs? More importantly, why is it so easy for the audience to cheer this violence on? The rise of Sauron forces Middle Earth into two tribes, those with Mordor and those against. The Orcs are the manifestation of othering, a race outside the good races, one whose very existence embodies the rise of evil. Consequently, the life of an Orc is worth less than the life of all the heroic races. I am not trying to say that the audience of the Lord of the Rings should be more sympathetic to the Orcs. To the contrary, the Orcs have to be evil for the narrative to work and we must believe them to be. But it is the precise tribal nature implicit in all of us that allows us to view the Orcs as bad. If we were to sympathize with Orcs, the entire structure of the story melts like a ring of power in the under belly of Mount Doom.
Does Lord of the Rings reinforce tribalism? I'm not so certain. I think Tolkien was holding up a mirror and using his vast insight into the human condition to create a counter factual reality. In Tolkien's world, evil is easy to spot, but every bit as difficult to overcome. I think that fellowship, a true break between the behavior that seeks to divide humans, is as difficult in Tolkien's world as it is in our own. It takes extraordinary circumstances for a Dwarf and an Elf to become best friends. But it can happen. For example, look at the civil rights movement in American history. People banded together, despite their tribes and in a time of relative peace, to end laws that discriminated people on the basis of race. Our tribal nature isn't a ghost in our genetic make up. We are not forced to live our lives in constant reminder of who we are at the expense of the other. And if we all overcome our tribal nature, we can keep our own symbolic Mordor at bay.