Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Tolkien and the Great War, by John GarthIn The Wand in the Word, a collection of interviews with fantasy writers published in 2006, one of the questions Leonard S Marcus asks (of those writers who are old enough) is how they were affected by living through the Second World War. “Several, it seemed, had turned to fantasy both as readers and writers,” he says, “not to ‘escape’ reality, but as the truest way of coming to terms with wartime terrors that for them lay almost beyond words.” Lloyd Alexander’s response to the question is: “For the first time in my life, I had come up against real power.” And Diana Wynne Jones’s “…from the time I was five years old until the time I was getting on to twelve, the entirety of the world as far as I was concerned was stark-staring crazy in a most menacing way. It left me with the feeling that the most appalling and peculiar things are liable to happen at any time.” J R R Tolkien, of course, spent a certain amount of effort denying that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, with Sauron as Hitler and the Ring of Power as the atom bomb, but John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth explores how the First World War — the conflict Tolkien himself served in — shaped “the legendarium” of Tolkien’s writings.

An essential element of Tolkien’s wartime experience was rooted in the close friendship he had with Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson and G B Smith. Together, they formed the TCBS — the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (referring to the tea room at Barrow’s Stores where they’d meet) — a fellowship that dated back to their school days. The TCBS seemed to be a sort of furnace for the forging of these four young men’s ideals and goals. “Tolkien,” Garth says, “had told them that they had a ‘world-shaking power’, and… they all believed it.”

After the start of the Great War, but before any of them had seen any action, the four met for what they dubbed “the Council of London”:

“For Tolkien, the weekend was a revelation, and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life. It was, he said eighteen months later, the moment when he first became conscious of ‘the hope and ambitions (inchoate and cloudy I know)’ that had driven him ever since, and were to drive him for the rest of his life.”

Which made it all the more difficult when the war killed first Gilson, then Smith. It’s impossible to read about the TCBS without remembering that the first book of The Lord of the Rings is called The Fellowship of the Ring, and how important the fellowship is within the narrative — the most surprising part of which, to me, has always been Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo and Sam into Mordor, but to try to save Merry and Pippin from the orcs, something which has much less strategic value, but which nevertheless embodies the core of what the Fellowship is fighting for. Throughout the First World War, the surviving members of the TCBS continued to write to each other, and Tolkien’s early poems did the rounds. It’s often said that writers need a “perfect reader” in mind when they write, and the TCBS seems to have been Tolkien’s. Certainly their encouragement, and sometimes their forthright criticism, were an essential part of his development as a writer.

J R R Tolkien, 1916One criticism that’s often raised against fantasy of the sort Tolkien wrote is that, by telling tales of battles between good and evil, they reduce the moral complexity of the real world to something childish. Susan Cooper, also interviewed in The Wand in the Word, says: “I think the whole Light and Dark thing in The Dark is Rising goes back to my being a child during the war”, but adds that this, at the time, was probably a prejudice that boiled down to “goodies” and “baddies”, and that “after the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans, I realised that the good guys could do bad things too”. But the most surprising thing, for me, that John Garth has to say, is the fact that although Tolkien had been playing with his “legendarium” (which Garth describes as “a vast complex of interwoven histories, sagas, and genealogies, of phonologies, grammars, and vocabularies, and of philological and philosophical disquisitions”) before he saw action, not only did his direct involvement in the war focus his creative efforts, but also, because of it, “Tolkien’s mythology becomes, for the first time, what it would remain: a mythology of the conflict between good and evil.” Although:

“The idea that the conflict must be perpetual arose directly from a long-held scepticism about the blandly optimistic prognoses prevailing during the Great War, as Tolkien recalled in an interview nearly half a century later: ‘That, I suppose, was an actual conscious reaction from the War – from the stuff I was brought up on in the “War to end wars” – that kind of stuff, which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.'”

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

The Lord of the Rings cover by Pauline Baynes

War, in The Lord of the Rings, is always more complex than the simple good versus evil it is sometimes accused of — particularly as we readers get to see it, that is, through the eyes of the minor players who don’t always grasp the whole power play behind the conflict, but are merely caught between its cogs. Mostly, this complexity is in the potential for once-good people (Saruman, Denethor) to be corrupted either by the enemy, or by hopelessness and despair. Nevertheless, the presence of that background struggle between archetypal good and evil is there, and, according to Garth, it is there because of Tolkien’s experience with the horrors of real war.

Another thing Tolkien has been criticised for, Garth says, is for not adopting the tone of those poets and writers whose reaction to war became the culturally accepted one, which Garth refers to as one of “disenchantment” with heroism and its ideals:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Tolkien wrote in an epic, heroic, and archaic mode that most of his contemporaries thought had been fatally undermined by the realities of the First World War. But in doing so, he not only managed to capture the horrors of war — the terror of being an individual caught in the clash of awful forces, to be snuffed out at any moment, and the relentless onslaught of despair and hopelessness alongside the physical attacks of the enemy — but also the fact that people could fight for worthwhile ideals, and that there was still a place for heroism, even in a world apparently given over to nothing but the “animal horror” (as Tolkien put it) of the trenches.

Comments (8)

  1. This is an interesting argument, and of course makes sense that Tolkein should have been more affected by the war he fought and lost friends in. The First World War came after a quite long period of peace for Europe, so it did have a shock effect upon our culture.

    However, if I was to argue against this, I’d say something like…

    One of the most bizarre and compelling things about the First World War was the hopeless static-ness of it. The trenches were pretty much in the same place when it ended as when they started. While I wouldn’t want to argue the book’s epic travels are some allegorical equivalent of the Second World War, (with Minas Tirith the equivalent of some real European city or something) it would seem odd to strike out one of the First World War’s most unique features. The Owen poem you quote, for example, reflects the hopelessness of the situation.

    Also, I’ve always thought the main theme of ‘Lord of the Rings’ to be corruptibility – how can you fight evil without yourself becoming evil? Which seems slightly different to the standard lesson drawn from the First World War, that war is hell and countries should get on better. Then the combating countries were pretty much mirror images of each other, while the Second World War had the undeniably pressing question of how do you counter Nazism? All of which seems embodied in the Ring itself. The familiar argument the Ring is the Bomb may be a little reductive. But I can’t quite see how it fits into the First World War.

  2. Sorry, forgot to mention something! ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ seems a more typical view of the First World War from an SF/fantasy perspective, two sides locked in a perpetual conflict going back years and years, which is not-so-slowly destroying both of them.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    This was fascinating, Murray. I know very little about Tolkien’s war-time experiences and never even heard of the TCBS! Re-reading the Hobbit over Christmas, I was wondering about how big a role the Great War played in his work too, mainly because of the somewhat anomolous presence of the goblins.

    Assume ‘The Hobbit’ is a parable about greed. Supposedly the other famous ‘Ring’ cycle (Wagner’s) is also an allegory exploring similar themes. The nibelungs are the working classes, the giants the middle-classes and Siegfried himself is the Nietzschean SuperMan, the individual who transcends all classes. Thus when one giant becomes a dragon he is making the transition from a member of the middle-classes to successful capitalist. It’s very easy to see ‘The Hobbit’ as a diluted version of the same allegory, but what to make of the goblins? They are ingenious and cruel rather than greedy. I’m afraid I found myself wondering if they were meant to represent the Germans.

    Susan Cooper wrote a very good book called ‘Dawn of Fear’, which is largely plotless because it is largely anecdotal (and I’m guessing autobiographical) and captures exactly what it must have felt like to be a child and to discover that the war was real and that it touched everybody, including those closest to you.

  4. Murray says:

    Interesting comments from both of you. The main conclusions were John Garth’s, of course, not mine, and his book painted a far better picture of what it felt like to be in the Great War, particularly, as you put it Gavin, the static-ness of it – expending many lives just to gain a few hundred feet of no-man’s land. I can’t recall how true it is of the book of LOTR, but isn’t the front between Gondor and Mordor pretty static? Or maybe I’m just remembering the film (so much more immediate in my mind — I must re-read the book soon). But Tolkien-the-soldier had a longish journey to the front, with several long stops on the way waiting for orders. Perhaps the Mines of Moria are the English Channel! Anyway, I don’t think I’d like to try too much of a point-for-point comparison between the War of the Ring and either World War, having not enough knowledge about either. Tolkien was probably as much influenced by the Battle of Maldon, or The Iliad, or the consequences of his own invented geography & cultures, as he was by his experiences.

    John Garth does make a point about how Tolkien came up with the word for goblin in the language he was working on at the time, and tied it somehow to Germans, though doesn’t make it very convincing. Tolkien being interested in Germanic culture, and having a German name himself, could only have been aware that the people he was fighting were just as human as himself, however much they were the enemy.

    I have to say, I know very little about Wagner’s Ring cycle!

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I know very little about it either! My dad had a book called ‘Wagner Nights’* (with Frank Frazetta cover no less – which is probably how it caught my eye in the first place)which I used to dip into as a teenager. The theory of the cycle as a Socialist parable is George Bernard Shaw’s.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wagner-Nights-Picador-Ernest-Newman/dp/0330250701

  6. ”Or maybe I’m just remembering the film (so much more immediate in my mind — I must re-read the book soon).”

    I haven’t read the book since the start of the Eighties! When I saw the first film I was adamant they’d introduced a lot of the battle stuff to win audiences as I remembered the first book as more of a travel story. But others have since convinced me it was merely that the travel parts most imprinted themselves on my mind. ’War and Travel’ might make for an alternate title.

    ”Anyway, I don’t think I’d like to try too much of a point-for-point comparison between the War of the Ring and either World War”

    That would definitely be the wrong approach. Tolkien always insisted he wasn’t writing an allegory and I’m tempted to take him at his word. ’Lord of the Rings’ doesn’t resemble ’Animal Farm’ all that much. But he went on to refuse application of any but the most high-level, universal themes to the book (mortality, heroism, corruptibility and so on) which seems to me a fairly sizeable middle to be excluding. I’d look for stuff which felt like either World War, not some schematic duplicate of them. And Nazguls as Nazis probably does work better for me.

    It’s an interesting theory that ’The Hobbit’ is about greed. Some reviews railed against the nobler motives the film gave the Dwarves, and all that staring moodily at the skyline which ensued.

    ”The theory of the cycle as a Socialist parable is George Bernard Shaw’s.”

    I hadn’t heard Shaw’s theory of ’The Ring Cycle’ before. It’s interesting because the standard-model theory of ’Lord of the Rings’ contrasts it to Wagner. While Wagner created a Ring as a functional power totem, Tolkien later came along to critique that with conception of power as corrupting and debilitating. (Wikipedia attributes this to Tom Shippey.) Though I’d have to confess I know as little about ’The Ring Cycle’ as the rest of you. Or probably less. Opera’s pretty much a blind spot for me…

  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I don’t think Tolkien consciously modelled his books on WWI and WWII but I think what was going on around him at the time would have inevitably coloured his imaginative approach. How could it not?

    On the other hand, I think the theme of greed (or more accurately, covetousness) in ‘The Hobbit’ was quite deliberate and I think Tolkien was influenced to some extent by GBS’s theories. Everything has something worth holding onto it – Bilbo has Bag-end*, Gollum his ‘precious’, Smaug his hoard and even the trolls have some treasure stashed away in a cave. And if they don’t, it was stolen from them and they’re trying to get it back (the dwarves). The exceptions are Gandalf, a wanderer on the road, and Beorn who lives by himself in a log cabin, exemplars of a lifestyle not dependent on the acquisition of goods.

    * if you really wanted to stretch the analogy you could consider the fact that Bilbo lives inside a hill while Smaug lives inside a mountain, along with everything they value.

  8. “I don’t think Tolkien consciously modelled his books on WWI and WWII but I think what was going on around him at the time would have inevitably coloured his imaginative approach. How could it not?”

    Oh yes, I’m definitely agreeing there!

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