In order to keep their citizens occupied (read: pacified) so they won’t continue to protest the contested election results, the Iranian government has been running a Lord of the Rings marathon on TV.
Lots of people, adults and kids, are watching in the room with me. On the screen, Gandalf the Grey returns to the Fellowship as Gandalf the White. He casts a blinding white light, his face hidden behind a halo. Someone blurts out, “Imam zaman e?!” (Is it the Imam?!) It is a reference, of course, to the white-bearded Ayatullah Khomeini, who is respectfully called Imam Khomeini. But “Imam” is at the same time a title of the Mahdi, a messianic figure that Muslims believe will come to save true believers from powerful evildoers at the time of the apocalypse. Isn’t that our predicament?
I wonder which official picked this film, starting to suspect, even hope, that there is a subversive soul manning the controls at seda va sima, central broadcasting. It is way too easy to find political meaning in the film, to draw comparisons to what is happening in real life. There are themes that seem to allude to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the candidate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims to have defeated: the unwanted quest and the risking of life in pursuit of an unanticipated destiny. Could he be Boromir, the imperfect warrior who is heroic at the end, dying to defend humanity? Didn’t Mousavi talk about being ready for martyrdom?
And listen: there is the sly reference to Ahmadinejad. Iranian films are dubbed very expertly. So listen to the Farsi word they use for hobbit and dwarf: kootoole, little person. Kootoole, of course, was and is the term used in many of the chants out on the street against the diminutive President.
In the eye of the beholder in Tehran, the movie is transformed into an Iranian epic. When Gandalf’s white steed strides into the frame, local viewers see Rakhsh, the mythical horse of the Rostam, the great champion of the Shahnameh, the thousand-year-old national epic. “Bah, bah … Rakhsh! Rakhsham amad!” someone says in awe.
At the moment, the ancient Treebeard bears Pippin through the forest, and the hobbit asks, “And whose side are you on?” Those of us watching already know the answer: Mousavi! Treebeard is decked in green, after all.
I think the Iranian officials might have picked different films had they known some of the themes that Tolkien wove into his story. Which isn’t to say that Lord of the Rings can or should be reduced to a mere political or social allegory; Tolkien, after all, hated allegory and resisted any attempts to frame the novels as such. Even so, the themes of sacrifice, of rising up against a cruel and unjust power, and of great things being done by the unlikeliest of persons will surely resonate with protesters.