Following Demons–Or Trying to Exorcise Them?

Last year I bought Ozzy Osbourne’s newest album Ordinary Man, listened to the title track sung by him and Elton John–then promptly left the CD in my truck and forgot about it. Last week I found it, played the whole album–and decided it would make a good topic for a Halloween week blogpost.

The liner artwork from the album. Did Ozzy have secret info about Covid?

I never listened to Black Sabbath or any of that ilk in high school (I graduated in 1978). My tastes ran more to Wings, Boston, George Harrison, Elton and–to the mystification of my friends–Gordon Lightfoot. (I did later like 90s Ozzy, but never bought any of his albums.) Like many of my peers, I simply assumed that metal bands were mediocre musicians who substituted volume for musical ability. And that they were pushing Satan.

A few years ago I did a very long and deeply-researched post on eschatological music, “Six Rock Songs about the End of the World.” Therein I examined songs by the usual suspects–Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica–but also Wishbone Ash and U2. Reading up on those metal songs (and the albums whence they came), as well as of course actually hearing them for a change, was enlightening. (Ditto for Wishbone Ash, which–as I point out rather humorously in that aforementioned post–I had long since dismissed as a mere hippie band. As for U2: I am a huge fan, and have listened to their music repeatedly, for decades.) It turns out that Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Metallica lyrics reference cosmic matters, particularly God v. Satan, death, the Last Judgement and of course the end of the world, quite often. Far more than any other genre of music, it’s clear. (I know something of country music, too, as my wife listens to it constantly. Further affiant sayeth not.) And, if you actually listen to their lyrics, they usually come down on the side of Heaven, not Hell.

In fact, Black Sabbath in particular has been called “the world’s first Christian metal band.” And if you think that’s a claim too far, at least consider the overtly Christian content of some of their biggest songs.

The band’s former lead singer does much the same on Ordinary Man. The opening track, “Straight to Hell,” seems to be an anti-drug anthem, and not a travel recommendation. “All My Life” is about regrets for having wasted years, marked by a particularly poignant retrospective look at himself as a child. “Goodbye” finds the former “Prince of Darkness” also lamenting past sins and thinking about death. On this third track Ozzy claims that he’s “not afraid to burn in Hell,” but shortly thereafter sings “Mother Mary, Jesus Christ/I wish you heard me crying out for help.” The title track with Elton is the best on the album, musically, but also lacks any references to God; rather, it’s a lament that he not be judged as merely ordinary. “Under the Graveyard” is the most appropriate for Halloween, and in fact rather bleak in lines like “today I woke up and hate myself” and “under the graveyard/we’re all rotting bones/everything you are/can’t take it when you go.” “Eat Me” is Ozzy’s sardonic, and actually hilarious, take on the decidedly un-humorous early-21st century German cannibal. He waxes overtly eschatological, and Biblical, in “Today is the End:” “the road to hell isn’t paved/not every soul can be saved/you reap what you sow.” “Scary Little Green Men” seems very relevant in light of the recent admissions by the US government that UFOs/UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) are very real. But it also evokes the Simpsons and The Twilight Zone takes on topic: “they want us/they need us/they might just try and eat us.” And Ozzy warns that we should be careful what we wish for: “everybody wants them/until they meet them.” “Holy for Tonight” sounds like it’s about a guy (or gal) on death row, but it could just as well be about anyone struggling with sin and facing death: “pray for me Father/for I know now that I do/I am the monster/yea you must have read the news,” as well as “when I speak my final words/what will it feel like/and I wonder if it hurts.” All of us, not just criminals sentenced to execution, face that fate. As the Orthodox Morning Prayers say, “suddenly the Judge will come, and the deeds of each will be laid bare.” Ozzy’s finishes his latest album with two collaborations: “It’s a Raid,” and “Take What You Want.” Both feature eclectic rapper Post Malone, but the final cut also includes rapper/singer Travis Scott. The former seems to be about a drug dealer waiting for the police to come for him, while the last song on the album–also released as a single–is about either a woman or drugs (perhaps both). The ultimate and penultimate tracks are more about marketing Ozzy to the younger generation than about the traditional Black Sabbath-esqe obsession with death, judgement and the afterlife, however.

According to an early 1990s interview, Ozzy, far from being a devotee of the devil, is a practicing Anglican. Whether that remains so decades later is unknown. But based on his latest album, the former “Prince of Darkness” is more of a poor, penitent, Christian sinner than a recruiter for Satan. And he probably always has been.

Although a certain bat might disagree.

Sauron, Meet Wallerstein: Middle-earth as a World-System

This semester I am teaching college geography for the first time. After looking at a number of different textbooks, I finally settled on one that uses the (in)famous world-systems approach of neo-Marxist scholar Immanuel Wallerstein as a template to examine political geography. For those unfamiliar with world-systems theory, here’s a brief primer.

Wallerstein was a sociologist specializing in Africa. While teaching at SUNY-Binghamton he published, between 1974 and 1989, the three volumes of The Modern World-System. A fourth volume came out in 2011, and before he died in 2019 Wallerstein had published several dozen more works, almost all on the same broad topic: that the planet is dominated, at least economically, by a capitalist “world-system” created by the Europeans–specifically the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English/British–starting in the 15th century AD. These countries formed the first “core” which economically exploited the rest of the world, which was divided into “periphery” and “semi-periphery.” The biggest difference between the latter two is that nation-states in the semi-periphery are striving enter the core. whereas those in the periphery will not, or cannot, do so–at least without great effort and time.

Wallerstein’s world-system is different from a “world-empire,” which would control the whole world politically–and which has never existed in human history. At least not yet. It posits a world-economy, instead.

The core of todays world-system consists of the Anglosphere, most of of western Europe, and Japan–the only non-Western or former Western colony to make it into that club so far. The semi-periphery is led by the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Argentina and Iran are also in this grouping. The periphery is most of the rest of the planet, mostly what we used to call the “Third World.” Some of these are debatable, of course. We have talked much in my classes this term about whether China should be included in the core now. Ditto for Israel and South Korea. And where do you fit Turkey?

At this point let me add that I am about as far from a Marxist, neo or not, as one can get. I agree with Wallerstein that his world-system theory does accurately lay out how the global capitalist system was created. Yet I strongly disagree that global capitalism is always and forever a zero-sum, exploitative regime benefitting only the core powers. If that were so, then how to explain the massive reduction in global poverty over the past few centuries? Capitalism may be a poor system–but, as Churchill observed about democracy in a political sense, it’s the best economic system humans have yet devised. Global socialism would not be able to feed a population of 8 billion people.

But what has Wallerstein to do with Sauron? Well, as some readers of this blog may know, I published a book a few years ago on the political history of Middle-earth. So teaching political geography using world-systems theory led me to start thinking whether the template would work for Tolkien’s world–specifically, the Third Age thereof. After all, for decades scholars have fine-tuned Wallerstein’s theorizing to include world-systems even in the ancient world. So why not extend it back to Middle-earth? Tolkien himself stated that “this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (Humphrey Carter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220).

I attempted to apply the core/semi-periphery/periphery paradigm to Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring, assuming that the Free Peoples had a form of agrarian or oligarchic capitalism.

I put Gondor, as the most populous and powerful kingdom, in the core–along with its close (both geographically and politically) ally Rohan. Core powers have the strongest central governments and militaries, sufficient tax base, a complementary bourgeoise and working class, and are free from outside control.

In the semi-periphery I placed the Elven and Dwarven polities, the Shire, and the lands of the Beornings and Woodmen. Why? They have relatively weak governments, are not very industrialized (in fact, the Elves avoid it!), and by-and-large depend upon the core states for military protection. (Yes, this is a bit unfair because virtually everyone in late-Third Age Middle-earth depends on Gondor in this regard–which is why Boromir was correct to point out that out [starting at 2:16 in this clip from The Fellowship of the Ring].)

The periphery consists of the the areas controlled by Sauron, and those allied with him: Mordor, Harad, the lands of the Easterlings; but also Dol Guldur and the Orc fortress of Mount Gundabad in the far north of the Misty Mountains. Peripheries are poor, little industrialized, tend to depend on only one type of economic activity (slaving and slavery?), contain large numbers of poorly educated, and possess weak or nonexistent government institutions.

I was tempted to place these in another category entirely, one which Wallerstein created, but which is rarely used anymore: “external area,” a region totally cut off from the world-system. Antarctica was originally typologized as such by him. But it’s hard to believe that the Men of Harad and those in the lands to the east of Dorwinion engaged in absolutely no trade with their fellow humans in the northwest of Middle-earth–as much as their god-king might have tried to prevent their doing so. His Orcs, on the other hand, were a different matter. He could, and did, control them to an extent far beyond that of the Haradrim and Easterlings. In that regard, it might make sense to posit Mordor, Dol Guldur and Mount Gundabad as either external to the rest of Middle-earth–OR as aspiring, Sauronic alternative core areas. I wasn’t sure what to do with Moria, but eventually I lumped it into the semi-periphery.

There you have it. My first pass at a Wallersteinian, world-systems analysis of Middle-earth. What say you? Let me know in comments!

Special thanks to my old friend Tony Arrasmith, artist and photographer extraordinaire, who turned my crude scrawls on a map of Middle-earth into those professional shaded areas.