Once again, Editor in Chief Isabel Sepúlveda is correct and once again, she will elaborate.
Just to get this out of the way: this was inspired by a Tumblr post. I could pretend that this was something I saw many years ago, during my middle school Tumblr phase, but that would be a lie. Tumblr is an okay website, as much as any social media platform can be okay in the dark days of 2020. I still use it regularly, usually when I’m avoiding the garbage fire that is Twitter. You may use this to question the validity of my claim, and that’s your prerogative, just as it’s my prerogative to ignore anything that then comes out of your mouth.
So, to begin the story proper: there I was, sitting in Art Hum, only vaguely paying attention to the Very Interesting And Important facts about Parthenon that most definitely showed up on my midterm as a penalty for my hubris. It wasn’t until the final few minutes of class that my professor finally mentioned something that drew my attention away from doodling my own Masterpieces of Western Art in the margins of my notebook. The Parthenon, he noted, was built on the ruins of another Older Parthenon that was destroyed by the Persians. So not only were the Greeks trying to assert their martial domination over their enemies to citizens of Athens, but they were also harkening back to an earlier might, an earlier age to bestow legitimacy unto their empire.
And in that moment, I was reminded of two things. The first was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy and the (Academy Award-winning!) Peter Jackson movies that were adapted from it. The Hobbit, and its accompanying films, will not be considered because 1) I have not read The Hobbit, and 2) The Hobbit movies are terrible and I’d like to forget that I’ve ever seen them (in theaters on opening day…yes, all three. So, I’m an optimist. Sue me.)
The second was, of course, the Core as a concept in and of itself, because what else could it be?
I wish this was funny like my previous, entirely correct comparison of Columbia University and Cats (2019)—a movie you should under no circumstances watch—but I’m not feeling particularly funny in the particular climate. What I do have is a lot of complicated feelings about the Core that I feel are best expressed through a lengthy blog post about one of my favorite book series. And before you say “If you didn’t want to take the Core, Isabel, you shouldn’t have come to Columbia” consider that I actually didn’t know about the Core before I paid my enrollment deposit. I was, and always will be, a fool of a Took. Anyway.
The more I thought about it, the more the commonalities between the Core and Lord of the Rings make this comparison seem even more apt. They share a common history. The Core essentially emerged from the ashes of the first World War, with CC in particular often being seen as a class used to promote US entrance into the war by promoting the heck out of Western civilization (and the imperialism et al. that comes with it.) Good old JRR wrote LotR after his return from that same war, where he fought in the Battle of the Somme—a battle famous enough that even I’ve heard of it.
The lessons taken away from this experience couldn’t be more different of course. Like the Parthenon, the Core, and indeed Columbia itself, it built to emulate and honor the Classical Western tradition on the ruins of the pre-WWI world order. Students drill themselves on the finer points of Aristotlean virtue ethics, complain about any disruption to the clean, neo-Classical sightlines between Butler and Low, and grab either Karl Marx or Adam Smith by the horns and refuse to let him go unto death. The very concept of a well-rounded liberal arts education can be traced back to Plato’s Republic for God’s sake. The Core is part of Columbia’s identity and plenty of people come here specifically for that. I understand, and even respect that. I have read so many things in my classes that have enriched my life that I wouldn’t have read outside of CC and Lit Hum. However, you also have to consider how proclaiming the total inheritance of the West shapes the Core, both for good and for ill.
Now, Lord of the Rings looks back to a literal Golden Age, where empires of men and elves stood strong against the forces of darkness and vaguely phallic but also somehow vaginal tower demons who make evil jewelry. This brings us back to the Tumblr post (written by user wufflesvetinari) I was talking about earlier. I’m including it in its entirety because it’s short, it says everything I want to better and more succinctly than I can, and also because I’m writing this post so I’m the boss.
the thing about lotr that the movies don’t convey so fully is how the story is set in an age heavily overshadowed by all the ages before. they’re constantly traveling through ruins, discussing the glory of days gone by, the empires of men are much diminished, the elves (especially galadriel) are described as seeming incongruent, frozen in time….some of the imagery is even near-apocalyptic, like the ruins of moria and of course the landscape surrounding mordor
this is a strange thought to me, somehow: that the archetypal “high fantasy” story is set at the point where the…fantasy…used to be much higher? this is not the golden age; this is a remnant
I know claiming that “Western Civilization” is crumbling just like the Golden Age of Middle Earth makes me sound like a fearmongering Fox news host. That’s not my intention. Tolkien shows his Golden Age to be a gilded one, and any careful scrutiny of “the West” lets most people come to a similar conclusion. In LotR, there was basically constant war and division. The elves and the dwarves despise each other to the point of bloodshed. There’s frankly too many wars and tragic lovers to keep them all straight, not to mention the straight-up indefensible racialization and systematic eradication of the orcs (which itself doesn’t go away even after everything is hunky-dory in LotR because they basically all die. These books are far from perfect but they’re way more helpful in making my point than Narnia. Don’t get me started on that asshole Jesus-lion.) TL;DR: it sucks, just like Earth for the past…basically forever has sucked.
Frodo and his fellowship friends are shown to yearn for that shitty past that some of them (namely the baby boom—I mean elves and shit) actually lived. But they can only capture it through the series’ constant interruption with songs and epic poems. These songs paint a pretty picture, one that many a middle school fantasy nerd has skimmed with glazed eyes until they got really into the Silmarillion three years later, but they cannot distract from Middle Earth’s gruesome present. Unlike us mere earth Men, they never really try to recreate it. Sure, most Columbia students are skeptical of “Make America Great Again” type rhetoric but we all indulge in using history to declare the kind of world we’d like to see, whether it’s saying “the highest taxes were in the 70s when we had the most equality” or“we’re going to bring these jobs back” or “remember when people were civil to one another.”
Turning back to the past for our stories isn’t a bad thing. Spoiler alert: Frodo succeeds and he gets a ton of help from Legolas and Gandalf who are as old as dirt and that takeout in your fridge respectively. Aragorn becomes king and he’s literally descended from the Golden Age rulers. Western ideals did a lot of great things. Democracy is pretty cool. You can read The Iliad in your first semester and proceed to cite in every essay you write until graduation, because it honestly kind of works. You can’t have the good without the bad though and sometimes that bad is caused by embracing these ideals. Sometimes, that manifests as weird, sexual towers of pure evil. Sometimes, that’s rampant inequality, arguments that old people should die to fix our economy instead of actually dealing with our current public health crisis, and an obsession with putting ugly-ass columns everywhere)
The quest to destroy the One Ring doesn’t just look back to the Golden Age to build a new Middle Earth. In fact, it wouldn’t have been successful at all if an elf and a dwarf hadn’t put aside their differences and fallen in love—I mean, become besties forever. Everyone would have definitely died if a woman hadn’t absolutely fucked up the Witch King of Angmar while screaming “I am no man” which is really sexy of her for many reasons. If hobbits, a creature literally no one else in Middle Earth had seen before, had been told to just stay in the Shire, the humans probably would have stolen the ring and wrecked everyone’s shit. Heck, even the elves get it and they basically built the place from the ground up. When it’s time, all of them (except Arwen because she’s in love and Legolas, because he is Gay) yeet across the sea, to the accompaniment of an absolute banger.
But you know what? The Core is only 100! If Jolkien Rolkien Rolkien Tolkien is actually prophetic (jury is still out), we’ll have to wait for its eleventy-first birthday party before things really start popping off. I hope PrezBo can use his weather machine to make some wizard fireworks, because I’m sure the rest of the Columbia student body will have the pipe-weed covered.
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