Just in case you’re a hobbit holed up in your burrow and don’t know J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), he was an English poet, philologist (studier of language), soldier in WWI and codebreaker in WWII, professor, husband, father, and writer. He’s most famous for his epic ‘The Lord of the Rings’ but translated and wrote more than can be mentioned here. With all that said, he has been, and will most likely always be, my favorite author.
In LOTR Tolkien often points out some of the downfalls of war and industrialism, but they’re usually buried deep in metaphor and are rarely just sitting on the surface.
So it is with his critique on social media, which clearly didn’t exist when he wrote LOTR, so…please grant me the freedom to make some serious stretches here.
After the war of the ring, as the hobbits are departing from Aragorn, their guide and friend, Pippin says this:
‘I wish we could have a Stone that we could see all our friends in, and that we could speak to them from far away.’ The stone alluded to is the Palantír, a crystal ball which was used to see things far away as well as to communicate between distant places (ie. Social Media). Pippin had a very dangerous experience with one earlier in their journeys wherein he was drawn to look into it as an addict is drawn to his cups. This nearly ended in disaster, but was turned to their good fortune by many things at work outside of themselves.
To this request, Aragorn replies ‘Only one now remains that you could use, for you would not wish to see what the Stone of Minas Tirith would show you.’ Aragorn is referring to the Palantír which was held by Sauron, their enemy, which he used to show distortions of the truth, or maybe just the truths that he wished for others to see. Aragorn, the King, would keep the Palantír of Orthanc, which had not been distorted towards evil purposes, in order to look out over his realm.
Which brings us to Tokien’s views on Social Media.
Here are a few tips for using social media that I believe Tolkien’s work affirms.
It’s not for the immature
Earlier in the story, Pippin (a naïve and immature hobbit) picked up the Palantír that was thrown out of an upper window of Orthanc. One touch and he was addicted, for lack of a better term. Later, as everyone was sleeping, Pippin was “Driven by some impulse that he did not understand” and snuck over and took a long look into the Palantír. Sauron held him on the other end, nearly upsetting the entire work of the Fellowship. Pippin later told Gandalf that ‘[Sauron] seemed to see me, and he laughed at me. It was cruel. It was like being stabbed with knives.’
If someone tries to handle social media without the maturity and discernment to navigate it, harmful things can happen. They can get seduced into all sorts of destructive behavior, as well as see all kinds of harmful distortions of reality, not to mention being bullied by internet trolls.
It’s not always showing you reality
Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, had found a Palantír and began using it to keep track of his land and his people. However, what he thought was reality was only a filtered down version which Sauron was dictating him to see. This did not end well. Eventually, Denethor ‘saw’ a black fleet of ships coming towards Gondor, which he perceived to be reinforcements for Sauron’s army. Spoiler, they weren’t. Denethor handled this whole thing pretty poorly, to say the least.
If what we see on social media dictates how we see reality, then we might be prone to believe that everyone is in much better shape than we are (physically, relationally, emotionally, etc…) We also might become grim and depressed, as research suggests to be common among extensive social media use.
Use it wisely, and with purpose
As the hobbits headed south towards Mordor with the mission to destroy the ring, Aragorn and others were forced to make a play at Sauron. They chose to be a distraction and to utilize the Palantír in doing so. Aragorn took the Stone of Orthanc and revealed himself as the King of Gondor, the heir of Isildur, in order to challenge Sauron with the belief that he was going to use the One Ring to challenge Sauron’s rule. It worked.
When you get on social media, it’s essential that you do so with purpose. Connect with friends, promote your business, talk politics, whatever floats your boat…just so long as you’re not wandering aimlessly down the endless halls of social media. Learn how to block people, filter out negativity and keep your use precise. Otherwise, it’s likely that you’ll be sucked into all sorts of harmful, negative or otherwise wasteful garbage.
Parents, be in the know
After Pippin snuck the Palantír from Gandalf’s keeping, looked into it, and nearly derailed the entire mission of the Fellowship, Gandalf questioned him. At first, Pippin gave a pretty vague answer and then said he ‘didn’t remember’ what else had happened. Gandalf held him to it though, “'That won't do,' said Gandalf sternly. 'What did you see, and what did you say?' Pippin shut his eyes and shivered, but said nothing. They all stared at him in silence, except Merry who turned away. But Gandalf's face was still hard. 'Speak!' he said.”
Most kids don’t want to tell their parents what’s going on. Possibly because they’re scared of getting in trouble, you’ve reacted poorly before, the thrill of secrets, or a host of other more and less insidious reasons, they tend to just ‘forget’ a lot of what’s going on in their lives. As their parent, it’s on you to be in the know. That doesn’t mean you should be a detective sleuthing around behind their back. What it does mean is that you should frequently check in with your kids, get them talking, monitor their internet usage, and just know what’s going on.
You might be better off not using it
Denethor eventually went mad with despair and had himself burned in his future grave while holding the Palantír of Anárion (alongside his sick son no less). Later, if you went to look into this stone, unless you were extraordinarily strong of mind and will, all you could see was two burning hands clutching the stone. Quite disturbing stuff.
Honestly, there’s some social media that’s just no good. If you use it, its outcome is almost solely the ruin of your mind and heart. I’m not going to presume to tell you what you’re capable of handling, but I can say that if the app’s purpose is towards secrecy, a double life, or ideals that go against your values, you’re best not even giving it a try.