Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tolkien's Unique View of the War

We recently re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy at home thanks to Netflix. It was a most rewarding experience and it reminded me of a piece that O'Brien Browne contributed to the journal Relevance when I was editing it back then. Here is the pertinent section:

The popular image of WWI "war literature" is exemplified by the sarcastic irony of writers like Siegfried Sassoon, or the tragic compassion of Wilfred Owen. Paul Fussell's powerful and immensely influential, brilliantly crystallized these themes. Fussell's subtle, multi-layered arguments have been grossly misconstrued by academics, modern novelists, and even film makers, but his ultimate point is that the romantic epic suffered a fatal wound in the "stupid" and "senseless" First World War.

J.R.R. Tolkien During the War
Tolkien, however, shows us that this is a misconception. In stark contrast to the disillusionment and anti-war sentiment of the post-war period, Tolkien unabashedly kept alive the tradition of war as a noble and romantic ideal. He not only rejected modernism but also revived the heroic epic along with concepts of Faërie and pastoral romanticism in English literature. In so doing, Tolkien—one of the most interesting and influential writers of the 20th century—has sold millions of copies of his books around the world, and he is easily the most widely read writer to emerge from the inferno of WWI. Despite what the poets and academics tell us, the romantic epic lives on with vigor and dash in Tolkien's cavalry charges, beautiful princesses, lush green vistas, and shimmering enchanted forests.

But creativity has its costs. Like many ex-soldiers, Tolkien downplayed, suppressed, ignored, and even outright denied the effects of the war on him. "One War is enough for any man," he told his son. Yet its affects stayed with him all his long life. In 1940, writing to his son Michael, who had volunteered to fight in WWII, Tolkien hinted at the things he had lost in the First War, "I was pitched into it all, just when I was full of stuff to write, and of things to learn; and never picked it all up again." There is no real happy ending in Tolkien. His characters are put to great ordeals from which they emerge transformed. Frodo, for instance, is physically and mentally scarred, his life forever altered by what he has gone through, the things he has lost. 

He is one of the walking wounded. By not killing off Frodo, ex-soldier Tolkien is telling us that the pain of death is momentary, but the pain of life is long-lasting and cuts deep. The trick is not merely survival, then, but how one survives. Tolkien had experienced pain all his life—the early deaths of his parents, financial hardships, the war; his memories must have been awful at times. Thus, like many of us, he retreated into his mind and found there a land of heroes, beauty and great deeds. And when war came to his four Hobbit heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, Tolkien could not bring himself to let them die; he had lost friends in a real war and he wasn't about to lose any more in a fictional one. But still, the memories remained. "I can see clearly now in my mind's eye," Tolkien recalled as an old man, "the old trenches and the squalid houses and the long roads of Artois, and I would visit them again if I could…" He never did, except in his books.

The war changed Tolkien. It injected loss and sadness and pain into his writing. It made his descriptions more poignant, more real. Mordor could not have existed had Tolkien not experienced it firsthand on the Somme. But the war taught him to value positive things as well, such as pity, heroism, loyalty, and the meaning of friendship—themes which run throughout all of his works. "May God bless you, my dear John Ronald," Rob Gilson had written Tolkien from the trenches shortly before he was killed, "and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them." Tolkien said them, and through his memories and through his words he paid homage to his little group of dreamy, ambitious friends who had gone off to fight in the Great War of their times. And his books have enriched all of our lives.

Source:  Relevance, Fall 2009


  1. Bravo. I liked the article in 2009 and I find it just as insightful now. Perhaps I can add a note: Tolkien also gave his merry band of hobbits, wizards, and men a purpose for their endeavours. Veterans, no matter what war, like to know that there was a purpose in the blood shed. To read Tolkien's books is to relive battle and know that the death of a hero was an means to an end. His characters may continue to live because he did not want them to die but those characters can smoke a pipe and remember at the fire side with an unconfused pride.

  2. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien described "The Dead Marshes." Frodo says- "In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead."

    The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien speculated that the description of the Dead Marshes may have been based on his personal experience in World War I, specifically, the Battle of the Somme."When it rained, blast craters in no-man's land would become a series of pools or lakes with bodies of dead soldiers, from both sides, floating in them."

    This link to an illustration by Paul Monteagle is recommended:

  3. Interesting article. And Tolkien was not the only WWI veteran and writer of his age famous for romantic epics. C. S. Lewis said his whole generation would recognize WWI in Tolkien's descriptions of battle. Lewis' books showed battle as life-changing, but not necessarily for the worse. Interesting that 100 years later, the WWI generation is remembered for sarcastic irony or tragic compassion, yet Tolkien and Lewis were from that generation and their writing (thanks partly to Hollywood) is far better known now than the "war literature."

  4. Tolkien truly was one of the, if not the absolute, best writers of all time. His books continue to enchant audiences worldwide. Thank you for publishing this great article.
    Joe Unger