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.