Liveblogging World War I: January 6, 2016: Tolkien and the Great Wars

Tolkien and the Great Wars: On the car into Manhattan with my brother one morning last year, we got to talking, as brothers do, about J.R.R. Tolkien, his Lord of the Rings, and World War II…

As you may or may not have thought: as of the end of the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, the Lord of the Rings is GrimDark indeed.

  • Gandalf is gone at the hands of the Balrog in Moria.
  • Two members of the party, the elf the dwarf, are at deadly racial feud.
  • Nobody in the party except the now-gone Gandalf knows even half of the full story.
  • The one in the party who seems to know most — but less than half — is the PTSD-suffering Aragorn.
  • Boromir, the only human with any significant following or authority anywhere, has just been killed.
  • Hoped-for allies — first Saruman, then the Riders of Rohan, then the dwarves of Moria — have either turned their coats or been massacred.
  • Galadriel and the elves of Lorien are creepy and ambiguous.
  • The fellowship is split into three groups — and there seems little chance, given the logic of narrative, that the other characters will see both of the younger hobbits with all their limbs attached again, at least not alive.
  • And Gollum is clearly on Frodo’s trail.

This is not a lighthearted Hobbit (that is, The Hobbit the book) we have here.

This is dark dark dark. This is smelling much like The Silmarillion, where disaster follows disaster, ending with the fall of the last two elven kingdoms to treason from inside and the greed of the Jews dwarves. All that the deus ex machina at the end of The Silmarillion does is stop the bleeding. And the only thing that can be said for good is:

At that last word of Feanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song forever, [Manwe] raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said:
So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Ea, and evil yet be good to have been.
But Mandos said: ‘And yet remain evil. To me shall Feanor come soon.’

So what did Tolkien say about people who saw The Lord of the Rings as marked by the time of its writing, by the catastrophe that was the genocidal war that was World War II? He is rather evasive:

(1) He says that WWII delayed the writing of the book:

The delay was, of course, also increased by the outbreak of war in 1939, by the end of which year the tale had not yet reached the end of Book One. In spite of the darkness of the next five years I found that the story could not now be wholly abandoned…

(2) He says that by late 1940 — after the fall of France to the Nazis — he had written up to the discovery of the massacre of the dwarves of Moria. And then he stopped for nearly a year:

I plodded on, mostly by night, till I stood by Balin’s tomb in Moria. There I halted for a long while. It was almost a year later when I went on and so came to Lothlórien and the Great River late in 1941…

(3) The war of Rohan vs. Saruman was first drafted in 1942:

In the next year I wrote the first drafts of the matter that now stands as Book Three, and the beginnings of chapters I and III of Book Five; and there as the beacons flared in Anórien and Théoden came to Harrowdale I stopped. Foresight had failed and there was no time for thought…

(4) And he picked it up again in the year of D-Day, sending the story of Frodo’s journey to Mordor to entertain his son Christopher, fortunately out of harm’s way with the RAF in South Africa:

It was during 1944 that, leaving the loose ends and perplexities of a war which it was my task to conduct, or at least to report, I forced myself to tackle the journey of Frodo to Mordor. These chapters, eventually to become Book Four, were written and sent out as a serial to my son, Christopher, then in South Africa with the RAF. Nonetheless it took another five years before the tale was brought to its present end; in that time I changed my house, my chair, and my college, and the days though less dark were no less laborious…

(5) Yet he claims the WWII little had little affect on the plot:

‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels…

(6) And then there is a British don’s dig at Eisenhower, FDR, Truman, and Hiroshima:

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves…

(7) There follows a wise aside that the application of truths about human hearts found in good novels should be in the hands of readers rather than authors:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author…

(8) And then, at last, comes the declaration that people have been looking at the wrong war:

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead…

(9) And a denial that Saruman = Stalin and that the Sackville-Bagginses are Clement Attlee and his ministers:

It has been supposed by some that ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever…

(10) Followed by another aside about what he perceived as the decline of rural life in the incorporation of the countryside into Birmingham sprawl:

It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman…

Originally published at