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Tolkien’s World and the Motherboard of Father Lode

Carol L. Robinson
June 20, 2014

There is a long-held bond between J. R. R. Tolkien’s world and Information Technology (IT) culture. As Brent Moberly noted in a previously posted blog, Google Venture’s Silicon Valley facility bear names from Middle Earth, including a conference room named Mordor. Moberly explained in his blog that, “as engineers (software or otherwise), we do things like this to suggest, ever so subtly, our mastery over the task at hand, as a hedge against all of the bad things that are likely happen three days after we release our project to an unsuspecting user-base, and to prove that that at least one of us read a book once, even if it was just something by Anne McCaffrey or the Kama Sutra.”  Indeed, Tolkien’s World has become the mother lode of imperialist ideals for the computer culture; actually it is the motherboard of father lode.

For one thing, this is not the first time Middle Earth has found landmarks in the physical-real world of computer engineers. Indeed, many of the rooms at Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL, Stanford University) “were given whimsical names that fit into a Lord of the Rings theme. Printers at the lab were even programmed with an optional “Elvish” font derived from the writing system listed by Tolkien in the appendices to the fantasy series” (Rick Adams, “The Crowther and Woods ‘Colossal Cave Adventure’ Game”). By the way, one of the first computer games, Colossal Cave Adventure, was inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game, which was inspired by Tolkien’s world.

For another thing, there is a wealth of medievalist computer games (text, video, online, . . .): Lord of the Rings games (both online and off-line), World of [Warcrack], Medieval Total War I, Medieval Total War II, . . . to name just a few of the older, more established, games.  However, in addition to these “serious” games (for seriously devoted players) there are numerous medieval game apps, including for playing via Facebook: Stormfall; Age of War, Knights: Clash of Heroes, Vikings Gone Wild, Castle Clash, and Kingdoms of Camelot are among the most popular at the moment of this post.  Not all of these games cost money: the Linux Game Database, for example, lists several free medieval games that have been either developed or converted (from proprietary software) into Free and/or Open Source software.  “Ahh the middle ages,” Ian Miles Cheon wrote recently for his Gameranx list of  Best Medieval Games, “Knights in shining armor,” he continued, “swordplay, jousting, intrigue and superstition. What’s not to like? It’s a fan favorite backdrop for many video games. Most of them pepper the boring reality of history with much sought after special ingredients like Orcs and Elves and Magic and Dragons. Thank JRR Tolkien.”

However, as with Tolkien’s world, the IT culture (from computer/video game players to game designers, engineers, programers, and other computer/software lions, tigers, and bears) is dominated by diversity issues: if a character or person isn’t male and white, imaginary or real, then that individual has little chance of existence in either fictional or real locations.  Now, before any computer professionals starts to feel hairs raising on the back of the neck (and decide to get medieval on me), let me point out that broad-sweeping generalizations about any group of people is well beyond the realm of bad taste and weak logic.  Indeed, the same group that provides the (above linked) definition for what it means to get medieval are, as Moberly observed, “the droll misogynists of urban dictionary.com”  –the sexism (and racism) permeates American culture, including American computer culture, not at all exclusively nor totally.

And IT IS OUT THERE: the white male domination of the computer world, and some of the larger corporations are rather apologetic about the situation.  InformationWeek recently reported, “About 37% of Yahoo’s 12,000 global workers are women, Yahoo said in a blog post, and just 23% of leadership — defined as vice presidents and above — are women. Yahoo did not provide commentary on its breakdowns, saying only that it is committed to attracting, developing, and retaining a diverse workforce.” Yahoo! is only the recent addition to the Diversity-Bandwagon-of-Apologies.  In its release of demographics of workforce statistics, Google made a similar declaration of commitment: “We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity. And it is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.” In response to Google’s release of information and expressed concerns, LinkedIn also posted demographics of workforce statistics, stating, “Reflecting on the imbalance among women and minorities in the overall tech industry, along with Google’s recent decision to publish their workforce diversity numbers, we at LinkedIn felt that we also wanted to be transparent with regard to our employee demographics.”

Let’s face it: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is virtually female free.   The treehouse sign read, “No girls (or grrls) allowed!”  And yet, enough girls and women celebrated these novels.  As Jack M. Downs recently observed, “Critics and reviewers often hone in on a perceived dearth of female characters as a failing in Tolkien’s conceptualization of Middle-earth,” and he further acknowledges that, “in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Tolkien assigns the bulk of the action to male characters, and women are primarily present in secondary and background roles.”  Yet his thesis is that “careful analysis of Tokien’s entire mythos reveals that women are neither absent, nor entirely confined to secondary roles within Middle-earth.”*  Are you kidding me?!  That’s almost like pointing to Barack Obama as proof that the United States has had presidents other than white, heterosexual, men.

It is arguable that many people (not just women) celebrated Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings (not so much of The Hobbit) for the significantly further development of Tolkien’s marginalized female characters.  Consider, for example, Princess Éowyn, a shieldmaiden of Rohan.  When I saw The Return of the King for the first time, in a movie theatre, the audience cheered, whooped, and clapped at Princess Éowyn‘s declaration, “I am no man!”

In Tolkien’s book, Princess Éowyn‘s words are more regal, if not also wordy and antiquated: “”But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”  While the film shows that she must join the battle disguised as a warrior, in the book, the details are much more explicit in the cross-dressing: in the film, everyone looks the same (like a warrior), so gender is less important, but in the book, the need to appear like a warrior correctly includes actually disguising herself as a man named Dernhelm. In both film and book, she is celebrated as a strong woman, but one who must live as a man in a “man’s” world in order to be the complete human being she truly is.  Moreover, Tolkien soundly closes the door after he has her fall in love with Faramir: “”Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it… …’I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.'”  Jackson, on the other hand,  leaves the rest of her life open to interpretation: we see her standing with Faramir, but can only surmise (if we haven’t read the books) that they are interested in each other, and there is no suggestion (of any kind) that she will be putting down her sword any time soon.  Indeed, in the Lord of the Rings Online, she continues to thrive as a shieldmaiden of Rohan (over and over again).

Thus, while the fundamental rules of medieval hierarchy remain strong in the books, the films show a little light of hope for change.  (The only female character arguably with any real power, Galadriel, is also greatly feared as a witch-elf, though less so in the movies than in the novels.)

Hierarchy also consistently permeates the contemporary real world.  To the company’s credit, Google, Inc. attempted to function without managers in its engineer operations, and this did not last more than a few months.  “Hierarchies are a ubiquitous form of human social organization,” argue Justin P. Friesen, Aaron C. Kay, Richard P. Eibach, and Adam D. Galinsky, and they further hypothesize that one reason “for the prevalence of hierarchies is that they offer structure and therefore satisfy the core motivational needs for order and control relative to less structured forms of social organization.”**  Still, the noble battle continues.  In his New York Times article, “Espousing Equality, but Embracing a Hierarchy,” Matthew Hutson observes, “Increasingly, companies are valuing diverse input and turning to flatter structures. But even companies that supposedly deplore the value of hierarchy have status and power differentials, formally or informally.”

The One True Ring of Power exists, it seems, in many forms and many places.  Perhaps it is time, then, for another type of medievalist-fantasy setting in the computer lab, some form of medievalism or neomedievalism from tales after Tokien, or perhaps even before?



* Jack M. Downs. “‘Radiant and terrible’: Tolkien’s Heroic Women as Correctives to the Romance and Epic Traditions.” In A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy.  Ed. Lori M. Campbell. McFarland, September 2014: 55.

** Friesen, Justin P., Aaron C. Kay, Richard P. Eibach, and Adam D. Galinsky. “Seeking Structure in Social Organization: Compensatory Control and the Psychological Advantages of Hierarchy.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 106.4 (Apr. 2014): Abstract.

*** The above image is a t-shirt design, using Tux, the penguin logo for Linux (a free, open source, alternative computer operating system).


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