Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tolkien and the Great War: A review

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 in 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 was dead.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, foreward to The Lord of the Rings

In the years since the publication of The Lord of the Rings, numerous critical studies have followed in an attempt to decipher its meanings and origins. The most famous of these are Tom Shippey's acclaimed (and highly recommended) pair of works, The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

But never have Tolkien's wartime years been so thoroughly excavated and illuminated as author John Garth did in his 2003 study Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. Using letters written between Tolkien and his friends roughly from 1910-1917, as well as battlefield records and unit histories, Garth lays out a solid case that Tolkien's grim experiences during World War I played an enormous role in shaping his mythology of Middle-earth, delivering heft and emotional impact to the tale of the War of the Ring.

Although I knew going into Garth's book that Tolkien lost two of his best friends during the war--Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith, who along with Christopher Wiseman and Tolkien formed a quartet of bright Oxford undergraduates that dubbed themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), until Tolkien and the Great War I never understood how close this group was, or felt the profound sense of loss that Tolkien experienced when these two bright young lives were snuffed out in the senseless carnage of the Somme.

Central to LOTR is the departure of the elves for the Grey Havens and the sense that magic is leaving along with them, to be replaced by the prosaic age of men. In Tolkien and the Great War Garth says that this tenet parallels Tolkien's own experiences in 1915, when the Oxford campus was emptied of its undergraduates due to the call of war. Melancholy pervades LOTR, the sense that something has been lost: a simpler, more idyllic time. In Tolkien's own case there is nostaglia for his lost childhood (his parents were both dead by the time Tolkien was 12), and later, for his glorious days spent with the TCBS.

According to Garth the TCBS was more than a tight-knit group of friends with common interests of literature and spirited discussion. Rather, they shared an earnest belief that they could change the world for the better. After entering the service they continued to write to each other, believing that their wartime experiences would make them stronger and propel them to something greater. Wrote Wiseman, "Fortunately we are not entirely masters of our fate, so that what we do now will make us the better for uniting in the great work that is to come, whatever it may be."

But the reality of war greatly dimmed that optimism, leaving the TCBS wondering whether they would ever have that chance. Smith foresaw his end in the fields of France, as described in a poignant letter to Tolkien:

My God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.

It is heartbreaking to think what came next: Gilson died in one of the many suicidal advances across the mud-choked Somme battlefield, straight into German machine-gun fire; Smith suffered shrapnel wounds from an exploding artillery shell and later died of gangrene infection. That left only Wiseman and Tolkien to carry on the TCBS' promised great work. Tolkien developed trench fever and had to be evacuated back to England, which in all likelihood saved his life (his unit was later decimated in combat), but he and Wiseman held up their end of the bargain: Wiseman would go on to become a school headmaster, while Tolkien of course would go on to become an Oxford professor and write the greatest fantasy the world has ever known. Writes Garth: "The Lord of the Rings ... stands as the fruition of the TCBSian dream, a light drawn from ancient sources to illuminate a darkening world."

Unlike many of the famous WWI combat veterans whose experience resulted in poems and stories of disillusionment and disenchantment (Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth," Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms), Tolkien refused to believe that the sacrifice of brave young men was a waste. Says Garth: "In contrast, Tolkien's protagonists are heroes not because of their successes, which are often limited, but because of their courage and tenacity in trying. By implication, worth cannot be measured by results alone, but is intrinsic." This is Frodo's lot in a nutshell: Thrust into a larger war beyond his control, his selfless heroism in carrying the ring to Mount Doom--a tiny, insignificant role in the great sweep of combat at Minas Tirith and elsewhere--mirrors the great acts of unrecorded bravery on the battlefields of World War I. Even though Frodo "fails" in his quest (he gives in to the Ring's power, and "succeeds" only when Gollum tries to wrest it from his finger), his courage and tenacity in carrying the Ring to the lip of Mount Doom makes possible final victory.

Tolkien is no fool who believes that war is glorious--rather, LOTR "examines how the individual's experience of war relates to those grand old abstractions; for example, it puts glory, honour, majesty, as well as courage, under such stress that they often fracture, but are not utterly destroyed," Garth writes.

In summation, if you are a fan of Tolkiens' works and wish to achieve a greater appreciation of both the author and the real-world events that helped shape the making of Middle-earth, Garth's book is highly recommended.

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