Public commentary on politics often relies on metaphors from works of fiction. At the same time, the set of books that journalists, politicians and the general public commonly refer to has been extremely limited recently. It is based on two multi-volume fantasy epics, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Comparisons with “The Boy Who Lived”, “Voldemort”, “Sauron” and “Mordor” now seem pretty boring. Therefore, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase “read another book” in response to yet another reference to the world of Hogwarts or Middle-Earth.
A story about everybody and for everybody
Why are fairy tale themes so popular? First, they are simple in their core and therefore universal. If we compare fantasy with other fiction genres, we will see that there is much less of a specific national and regional context that people from other places may not understand. Fighting against the absolute evil (as in The Lord of the Rings) or a hero’s rise (as in Harry Potter) are stories that people from any culture can identify themselves with. It doesn’t matter whether a boy grew up in a cubbyhole under the stairs or in the jungle under a banana leaf as anyone can emotionally get in touch with him to a greater or lesser degree.
It should be noted, however, that Harry Potter is based on the classic fairy tale story of an orphan who, after going through a series of trials, literally goes from zero to hero. You could even compare him to Cinderella, another humiliated and abused person who finds herself chosen. Similar plots abound in all of the world’s folklores, including the Russian one. Harry Potter also has magical aides, a classic fairy tale attribute. And his confrontation with Voldemort may well be compared to a battle with Koshchei, the serpent, or the dragon.
While The Lord of the Rings is a more layered novel, it has many elements that make it akin to classic epics and fairy tales. For example, in the elvish cities, time is of a magical static nature. A number of characters, such as the wizard Gandalf, are also plain fabulous. Typical of folklore is the very plot of outsider Frodo being victorious over the all-powerful villain Sauron.
While halftones can certainly be discerned in both fantasy works mentioned, there is a very clear line between good and evil, which makes it easier to use images from them to elevate like-minded people and stigmatize ideological opponents. Tellingly enough, other popular fantasy epics are hardly ever used as sources of political metaphors. For example, statesmen are rarely compared to characters from A Song of Ice and Fire (made popular by the Game of Thrones series), such as Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, or Jon Snow. This can partly be explained by the fact that the world of Westeros is a lot more sophisticated and somber.
Fairy-tale in the digital age
Literary metaphors have been widespread for centuries, at least since the emergence of political pamphlets and mass periodicals. Nevertheless, until recently, the works of fiction used for these purposes were quite numerous, depending on the commentator’s taste in the first place. This is still true for journalism that does not fit into 280 Tweeter characters, but we witness an almost scorched earth in social media, with Joan Rowling and John R.R. Tolkien hovering over it as they enjoy the smell of napalm. The reason for this phenomenon seemingly lies in the peculiarities of the media space where they have thrived during the last couple of decades.
On the one hand, mass culture has truly become global. Today, people all over the world can read the same books, play games based on their plotlines, watch their screen adaptations, and, what is most important, exchange opinions in real time. In this way, a consolidated discourse is shaped, where intraverbal memes such as Platform 9 ¾ or, for example, Nazgûls are recognizable markers of belonging to the same subculture. There are not many books that have been able to globally capture the minds of young people—essentially, only the Harry Potter novels and The Lord of the Rings. That said, it is worth noting that Harry Potter has, for a variety of reasons, become perhaps the number one book for millennials and zoomers. What makes the saga even more relevant is that many of the issues it raises are aligned with the modern liberal agenda—the inadmissibility of violence, the equality of people regardless of their background, the possibility of choosing one’s own destiny, the need for mutual assistance, anti-bureaucratism, etc.
Concurrently, with the development of high-speed Internet, people’s involvement in both national and international politics has grown significantly. That said, the speed at which the news agenda is changing leaves us almost no time for nuances or reflection. An indifferent reader or blogger is required to react instantly, usually in black and white. It is somewhat reminiscent of media Tinder, where there are two options only—good or bad—with no place for shades or halftones.
Of course, metaphors from fairy tales, that is, those very fantasy epics repeatedly mentioned, can be best-suited to separate the lambs from the goats. Scathing images from books often replace commentators’ own opinions. One has only to call someone Sauron or Voldemort, and it immediately becomes clear that this person is all evil, which means that there is no need to justify your negative attitude towards him or her. Interestingly enough, another popular source of metaphors, George Orwell’s 1984, is another kind of fairy tale, much more straightforward and unambiguous than other anti-utopias, such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Us or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
In turn, journalists covering politics and international relations are interested in extending the reach of their releases. With young people being the driving force of the Internet, metaphors that can attract this audience are needed. This is where Orcs, Mordor, Dementors, Horcruxes, and the like come to the journalist’s aid. It is worth noting that authors often add such comparisons to their texts without any deliberate calculus, simply because they belong to this reading subculture due to their age and personal preferences.
Between Mordor and Rivendell
With global affairs being one of the key newsmakers, it is not surprising that literary images are hectically sized up by commentators who apply them to various statesmen or even entire nations. For instance, the shopworn comparison of Russia with Mordor has become sickeningly common. This image was first used in the mid-1980s by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan in his address. Yet, in those days The Lord of the Rings was known to just a few sci-fi fans in the USSR. In the Russian-speaking media space this metaphor gained traction after the release of Peter Jackson’s screen adaptation in 2001–2003. Interestingly enough, J.R.R. Tolkien repeatedly denied any links between The Lord of the Rings and any events in global affairs, but, as is often the case, the author’s opinion turned out to be secondary for the book fans.
If Russia is Mordor, then Russians are respectively the Orcs. This comparison was picked up and adopted in Ukraine after the coup of 2014, referendum in Crimea, and onset of the conflict in the Donbass. After the special military operation commenced in 2022, this image became exploited even more widely by the Ukrainian media and politicians, including President Volodymyr Zelensky. For example, the head of Ukraine thus commented on his country awarded the EU candidate status:
“It is officially recognized: Ukraine is not a bridge, not a cushion between the West and Russia, not a buffer state between Europe and Asia, not a sphere of influence, not a grey zone, not a transit country or some borderland between the Orcs and the Elves. Ukraine is a future equal partner for at least 27 EU nations. Ukraine is an EU accession candidate,” he said.
Indeed, the comparison with Orcs is ideal for military propaganda dehumanizing the enemy. We can remember that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium suggests orcs were elves once upon a time, but they later lost their stature due to the impact of dark forces. That is, if Europeans are elves, then Russians should be excluded from this “elite club”. Such an image perfectly fits Ukraine’s modern political mythology. It is remarkable that Ukrainians compare themselves, among other entities, with a race of animate Ente trees (who were attacked by the Orcs of Isengard).
Russians themselves do not mind being occasionally identified with the Orcs, a force inspiring fear and crushing everything in its path. Thus, a popular song by Mikhail Yelizarov laments the fact that “we are no longer the Orcs.” In turn, some columnists and bloggers ironically refer to their opponents in the West and inside Russia as “fair-faced elves,” alluding to their duplicity.
While The Lord of the Rings is convenient for labeling nations and states, the Harry Potter series is perfectly suited for “name calling.” Indeed, it is rather difficult to refer to any nation as Muggles (i.e., ordinary people, not wizards), because, strictly speaking, Muggles are the entire population of the globe. Still, comparing statesmen with characters from the saga is appropriate, from general public perspectives.
The dystopian nature of the final books, where Voldemort de facto comes to power, nudge many commentators (both in Russia and abroad) into associating You-Know-Who with politicians who fail to comply with the Western standards of liberal democracy. Over the years, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, for example, have been compared to the dark wizard. Accordingly, their opponents are automatically associated with Harry Potter. The Boy Who Lived moniker has already been applied to American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The latter has also been compared to Voldemort and Prisoner of Azkaban.
Journalists and commentators use other images from Harry Potter as well. These include Dementors, Patronuses, Horcruxes, spells, and the Time-Turner or flywheel of time. As for politicians, they can also be associated with minor characters in the saga—e.g., U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was compared to Hogwarts Rector Professor Albus Dumbledore; likewise former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama was compared to Hermione Granger. Nevertheless, the main divide certainly runs along the Harry Potter versus Voldemort lines. As a result, like in the case of analogies from the world of Middle-earth, comparisons with the characters of Joan Rowling’s novel oversimplify the picture, dividing politicians into unequivocally good or bad figures.
While the metaphors from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are used somewhat excessively and have already become threadbare, there is nothing criminal about them. It could have been any other book villain in place of Sauron and any other fairytale hero in place of Harry Potter; the depth of analogies would not have suffered in the slightest. The images created by J.R.R. Tolkien and J.R. Rowling are much more interesting and complex than their public interpretation, but the modern-day global media are capable of eviscerating any of the most exciting characters to being a two-dimensional PR stunt. Thus, one should not expect that the quality of mass interpretation of international and political realities will somehow alter with a change of the literary fashion. As long as one is required to disseminate rather than reflect, the public will continue to be endlessly fascinated and disappointed by public figures, comparing them to Harry Potter, Gandalf, or, should we say, Alice Selezneva
See The Morphology of a Fairy Tale, a classical work by V.Y. Propp (published by Labyrinth in 2001)
Archetypal male antagonist in Russian folklore.
Characteristically enough, Ronald Reagan also compared the Soviet Union with the “evil empire”, which was a reference to Star Wars – an extremely popular screen adaptation.
See Reagan’s address about the “evil empire” / Diletant magazine, 08.03.2017.
Main character of a popular late-Soviet science fiction “One Hundred Years Ahead” authored by K. Bulychev