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Tolkien as war-novelist: another way of dealing with trauma through writing
J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916

A pale, drawn man sits in a convalescent bed of a wartime hospital. He takes up a school exercise book and writes on its cover, with calligraphic flourish: ‘Tuor and the Exiles of Gondolin’. Then he pauses, lets out a long sigh between the teeth clenched around his pipe, and mutters, ‘No, that won’t do anymore.’ He crosses out the title and writes (without the flourish): ‘A Subaltern on the Somme’.

This is not what happened, of course. Tolkien produced a mythology, not a trench memoir. […] Tolkien’s writing reflects the impact of the war; furthermore, […] his maverick voice expresses aspects of the war experience neglected by his contemporaries. […] they represent widely divergent responses to the same traumatic epoch. (Garth: 287)

When we are talking about war novelists, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is usually not the first name to pop up. This despite the fact that Tolkien – like other writers that are considered war novelists, like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – has fought in the First World War and has witnessed terrible things there. This image, of Tolkien who doesn’t seem to be considered a war novelist, becomes even more thorough when we turn our gaze to The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War. Tolkien isn’t mentioned once. He is included in The Cambridge Companion to War Writing. But, though it would seem fitted that Tolkien – a British writer who fought in the First World War – be mentioned in the chapter entitled The First World War: British Writing, this is not the case. Tolkien’s name surfaces only in the chapter linked to the Bible, in association with the apocalyptical last battle. This while, according to Farah Mendlesohn, the popularity of The Lord of the Rings – Tolkien’s biggest and best known work – lies in particularly that supposed linkage between the novel and the Second World War: “Although Tolkien was very keen to deny it, part of the popularity of the books is almost certainly down to many contemporary readers’ assumptions that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War.” (Mendlesohn: 47-48) So the connection between Tolkien’s work and the Word Wars has certainly been made. But this connection doesn’t seem to have been picked up by researchers in the domain of war literature. Not enough, in any case, to be present in both Cambridge Companions on this topic. In this article, I would like to take up the connection between Tolkien’s work and the World Wars, focusing on the First World War because it seems likely that Tolkien was formed by this war in a far bigger way than by the Second World War. A notion he seems to share. In reaction to the interpretation of his The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the Second World War, he wrote in the preface to his second edition:

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully it’s 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. (Rings, “foreword”: 9)

The bigger part of the myth about Middle-earth that was created by Tolkien originated before the beginning of World War Two. We should not forget in this context, that this myth doesn’t exist solely of The Lord of the Rings – which was indeed only published after the Second World War in 1954 and 1955 – but that the foundations for this story were already formed in The Hobbit (1937) and The Silmarillion, published posthumously but commenced immediately after the end of WWI and dealing with the history of Middle-earth and its races. I started this article with a quote from John Garth because he captures exactly what makes Tolkien interesting as a war novelist. He didn’t choose to follow the example of war poets like Wilfred Owen, but instead he situated his stories in a world that seems to be completely detached from our own. Because of this distance between our world and Middle-earth it is difficult to prove certain influences of the war on Tolkien and his work. But, we can certainly look for elements that show a connection to the events of the First World War. It seems rather unlikely indeed that Tolkien, who fought in the battle of the Somme and lost almost all of his close friends there, would have been able to free himself entirely of these experiences while writing his stories. Or, to put it in Tolkien’s own words:

An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous. (Rings, “foreword”: 9)

This is, then, no attempt to reconstruct the influence of the First World War – and in extension of that the years of peace between the two World Wars – on Tolkien and his work. Rather, this is an attempt to create an image of Tolkien as a war novelist, apart from the question whether it was his intention to be one and if he was striving to write a war novel. This entails the consideration of Tolkien’s work as war literature. Can we find, in novels that are set in another world entirely, elements that can be seen as a remembrance of Tolkien’s experiences during the First World War?

Method and framework

Before it is possible to say something about The Lord of the Rings as a war novel, it is important to establish a clear frame in which the would-be memories on the First World War can be placed and interpreted as war writing. This frame is being offered by the theory of Astrid Erll on war writing. Erll distinguishes four different modes of war writing: “the experiential, the mythical, the antagonistic, and the reflexive mode.” (Erll: 390) She coins the works of Sassoon and Graves as examples of the experiential mode, which she describes as “literary forms which represent the past as a recent, lived-through experience.” (Erll: 390) Novels in this mode are further characterized by their reflecting on personal experience during the war and the thoughts and feelings one had in the trenches. About the reflexive mode, Erll says:

It gives us the illusion of glimpsing the past (in an experiential, mythical, or antagonistic way) and is – often at the same time – a major medium of critical reflection upon these very processes of representation. Literature is a medium that simultaneously builds and observes memory. Prominent reflexive modes are constituted by forms which draw attention to processes and problems of remembering. (Erll: 391)

Both modes are dealing with a direct account about the acts of war and a reflection upon them. The Lord of the Rings does not fulfill these criteria, or the description coined by Erll. Two modes then remain, and indeed the mythical and antagonistic mode seem to look a lot more promising in finding a starting point to perceive Tolkien as a war novelist. The mythical mode is characterized through “the remembrance of foundational events which are situated in a faraway, mythical past” (Erll: 391). About the antagonistic mode, she says: “Negative stereotyping (such as calling the Germans ‘the Hun’ or ‘beasts’ in early English poetry of the Great War) is the most obvious technique of establishing an antagonistic mode.” (Erll: 391) I find the examples that Erll chooses for these two modes striking and typical for the seemingly closed nature of what is considered as war writing and what not. The description that is given of both the mythical and the antagonistic mode open up the way for also considering Tolkien, but Erll chooses for conservative titles. For the mythicizing mode she mentions Ernst Jünger’s The Storm of Steel, while All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque functions as example of the antagonistic mode. While I endorse Erll’s division in four modes – although it seems almost impossible to create a perfect set of categories where every novel can without trouble be classified in one of the offered modes – I think it a missed chance that she does not use these modes to explore the boundaries of the object of war literature and to also consider books that were never part of this object before. As I will show, there are elements in The Lord of the Rings that might put this novel in either Erll’s mythicizing, or her antagonistic mode. Middle-earth, where The Lord of the Rings takes place, seems to be an excellent “faraway mythical past” and it would be difficult to find a more beastly rendering of the enemy than Tolkien has done with his Orcs. Nevertheless, Erll ignores Tolkien as a war novelist, joining the trend we have already distinguished Cambridge Companions about war literature. In the remainder of this paper both the mythicizing and the antagonistic mode will be discussed as possible frameworks to test The Lord of the Rings as a war novel. To do this, I will look for elements in the novel that seem to remember Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War. The Lord of the Rings has main focus, but can – as has been said before – not be seen apart from in particular The Silmarillion. Tolkien began writing on this book immediately after the end of the war, and continued to do so for the rest of his life. It tells us much of the history of Middle-earth and thus can offer vital information for the interpretation of certain events in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien has also left a huge collection of personal letters. Many of those he wrote to his son Christopher while the latter was serving in the British army during the Second World War. It is remarkable that Tolkien uses a lot of terminology from his own prose to describe his experience during the war to his son. Therefore, I deem this letters essential in the considering of Tolkien as a war novelist, because they give an impression of his personal perception of the war, how it still haunts him after all these years and how he has coped with his trauma. I likewise consider it impossible to focus on one of the two World Wars solely in the considering of Tolkien as a war novelist. Tolkien wrote an important part of his legacy in the years in between the two wars. The newly rising threat and the eventual beginning of a new war must have been a devastating experience, placing his memory of the First World War in another perspective. That is the reason why, although the focus in this paper will be on The Lord of the Rings and the First World War, other writings and the developments in the interbellum years will also be taken into account.

England’s own myth: the mythicizing mode

The mythicizing mode is the first of Erll’s frameworks that makes it plausible to consider Tolkien as a war novelist. As said, this mode is characterized by the situation of the acts of war in “a faraway, mythical past”. In the case of The Lord of the Rings this would mean that Middle-earth is a mythical rendering of Western Europe in a distant past. When we consider that the war in The Lord of the Rings isn’t being fought with rifles, planes and tanks but instead with swords, horses and bow and arrow, it is clear that this latter part of the definition holds ground: the story is set in the past. We might even say a distant past, because the war is being fought at the ending of the old era and the dawn of the era of man. Through this medieval setting and the rise of man as the dominant species, this story is far detached from us in time. The question is, then, if we are dealing here with a mythical faraway past of the countries that took part in the First World War. Are there reasons to recognize in Middle-earth a mythical representation of Western Europe during the First World War? The presumption of this connection is indeed nourished by the fact that it was Tolkien’s goal to create a very own myth for England. Something which he felt the country lacked:

But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogenic to the level of romantic fairy-story […] which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country. (Letters: 144)

Tolkien loved England, the countryside in particular. This countryside is recognizable in the depiction of the Shire, the home of Hobbits that has at the beginning of the novel been untouched by the threat that is rising in the East. This parallel is one of the reasons that led Farah Mendlesohn to believe that many readers would have read The Lord of the Rings as at least in part an allegory of the First World War:

This allowed him to shift the perspective of fantasy; instead of writing about great wizards and warriors whose motives are hard to understand, he introduced us into Middle-earth through the eyes of a very ordinary ‘little man’ from a kind of England still recognizable to most of his readers. (Mendlesohn: 45)

The Hobbits are – not in the last place owing to the geographical placement and isolation of the Shire – mostly oblivious about the war that is developing in the East and South. This geographic isolation is another indication to regard the Shire as England, even if in this case it is mountains and huge forests instead of a sea that do the separating of the rest of the continent. The innocent and sweet representation of the Shire stands in stark contrast to the dark, industrial looking lands of Mordor and Isengard, the strongholds of the two main bad-guys Sauron and Saruman. The character Treebeard – an Ent, or shepherd of the forest – could be considered as a personification of this opposition between war industry and nature, as guardian of the forest that has been destroyed as a result of the industrial mind of Saruman: “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.” (Rings: 494) In this manner, the industrial and warlike lands of Sauron and Saruman are placed in direct opposition to the Shire, where the inhabitants hold the nature in high regard. This interpretation of the strongholds of evil as representing the regions where the war was fought, is strengthened by Tolkien himself:

Personally I do not think that either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape. The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. (Letters: 303)

The Hobbits are forced to leave their beloved Shire, to fight in a war against an ever growing threat out of the East that they know nothing about, in lands they never even heard of. This is, according to Mendlesohn, comparable to the artisans and middle class that were torn from their homes to fight in a war that was the result of the decision of “great men” (Mendlesohn: 45). I deem the notion of ‘great men’ to be applicable here in both its literal and its figurative meaning, because it not only points towards the power these men had, but – in the case of the Hobbits – also their being taller. Because the Hobbits, though small of body, are great in their deeds, and in the end no less important (if not, far more important) for the winning of the war than these “great men”. This is perhaps most clear in the character of Sam Gamgee. When Frodo (a ‘little man’) is sent by Gandalf (a ‘great man’) to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, Sam tags along as Frodo’s personal assistant. He fulfills the role that in the British army is labeled the ‘batman’: a soldier appointed to an officer for protection and daily chores. Sam grew out to be one of the most popular characters among the readers of The Lord of the Rings, and in many ways he is the real hero of the story and the actual savior of Middle-earth. Without his support and affection, Frodo would have never made it through the desolation of Mordor to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring in the fires whence it was ones made. Nevertheless, Frodo – being Sam’s superior – is afterwards hailed as the destroyer of the Ring, although Sam gets his fair share of praise. It seems that Tolkien based his Sam Gamgee on the nameless soldiers without rank: “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.” (Carpenter: 81)

The face of evil: the antagonistic mode

Negative stereotyping is one of the main characteristics of what Erll describes as the antagonistic mode, and it seems to be playing an important role in The Lord of the Rings. The line seems rather easy and straightforward to draw here: the Orcs, the hideous servants of Sauron (the Lord of Mordor, where the shadows lie) are an exaggerated depiction for the Germans. Looking at it this way, however, we are already assuming that the war in The Lord of the Rings is at least in part based on the First World War, a link that we are in fact trying to prove. Orcs are a very efficient and stereotypical symbol of ‘the enemy’ in general – like in the ancient depiction of the battle of good (white) versus evil (black) – and therefore applicable to any war. To regard Tolkien as a war novelist in the frame of the antagonistic mode, more evidence is needed that the Orcs are indeed a negative stereotyping of the German enemy. And there are pointers to consider the Orcs as specifically the German enemy in both World Wars I and II. First, it is interesting what Tolkien says about the origin of the Orcs as a race in The Silmarillion:

[…] that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the elves […] (Silmarillion: 58)

The Quendi are the first of the elves and thus the first inhabitants of Middle-earth. Melkor was the original Dark Lord and Utumno was his stronghold. This origination of the Orcs shows a striking resemblance with the manner in which Tolkien writes about Adolf Hitler:

Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge – which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramous Adolf Hitler […]. Ruining, perverting, misapplying and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. (Letters: 55-56)

Here arises an interesting similarity between the backgrounds of the enemy: once good and honest citizens of Middle-earth respectively Europe, but corrupted by their leaders. I hold this to be a substantial section of Tolkien as war novelist, even though the citation above points towards the Second instead of the First World War. Tolkien, who created his myth mostly in the interbellum years, was confronted with the rise of a new ‘Dark Lord’ in the person of Adolf Hitler. This must have had a considerable impact on him, reviving many of the horrors he had witnessed firsthand in the battle of the Somme in the First World War, in which he had fought himself. The Lord of the Rings features two enemies as well: Sauron – the Dark Lord and successor of Melkor – and Saruman, master of Isengard, traitor to the Istari (Wise Ones) order and striving to become a power comparable to Sauron. The treason of Saruman and his rise as second enemy to the alliance of the West (the races and countries in Middle-earth that are resisting the rise of Sauron) only comes to light after the Fellowship – on its way to destroy The One Ring – has passed Bree. According to one of Tolkien’s letters, this means that Tolkien did not make Saruman into a traitor before the threat of a new war was beginning to show: “The Lord of the Rings was actually begun, as a separate thing, about 1937, and had reached the inn at Bree, before the shadow of the second war.” (Letters: 303) It seems plausible, then, to suggest that Saruman only turned to evil once this new threat was rising, and regard him as a reference to Hitler. Might we say that Tolkien saw the new rise of an evil German emperor as a detour in the quest to purify the name of the German race? Or, a detour in defeating all evil inherent in humans, just as the battle against Saruman is a detour in the quest for destroying Sauron? This assumption gains a stronger foothold once we realize that Saruman is creating a sort of upper class in the race of the Orcs, stripped of their inherent weakness:

It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil! (Rings: 494-495)

This brings me back to the First World War. Because if Saruman and his attempts to create a kind of ‘Uber-Orc’ are to be a reference to Hitler and his racial politics, Sauron would be the personification of the ever returning enemy – in this case perhaps referring to ‘the’ German enemy in both World Wars – and the inherent evil of mankind. Sauron is, as has been said, a successor of Melkor, the original Dark Lord. This, in combination with the rise of Hitler/Saruman, is comparable to the notion of inconsumable evil where Tolkien seemed to be getting aware of because of the First World War and the developments in the interbellum years:

However it is, humans being what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short Universal Conversion) is not to have wars – nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation. For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs. (Letters: 78)

Conclusion

It has been shown that The Lord of the Rings features a lot of elements that make it defendable to place the novel in at least two of the modes that Astrid Erll distinguishes in her categorization of war novels. Middle-earth as a mythical representation of Europe is the most evident in the contrasting of the Shire/England and Middle-earth/the mainland of Europe. A central role in this contrast is played by the Hobbits, the small, brave, ‘common’ folk, who have played a decisive role in the final victory (both in the war for Middle-earth and the one for Europe). Especially on the part of the depiction of the enemy, a lot more research can be done. The suspicion that has only been touched upon in this paper – Saruman showing a strong connection to the historical person of Adolf Hitler – deserves a much more rigorous investigation than has been done so far. Aside from a thorough study of both Saruman and Hitler, it might be interesting to look for other similarities in the histories of Middle-earth and Europe. Perhaps it is possible to link other wars that have been fought in Middle-earth to wars in the history of Europe, and thus connect both worlds at other places as well. Of course, it might be possible that this leads to the conclusion that the comparison between the First World War and the war in The Lord of the Rings cannot be maintained. Nevertheless, on the basis of the elements that have been discussed, it seems fruitful to at least qualify Tolkien to be considered as a war novelist. A one on one comparison between his work and the ‘real world’ cannot be made and should not be the goal when dealing with a writer in the fantastical genre. But it has been shown that in the works of Tolkien certain elements can be found that seem to be referencing the First World War and the interbellum years. As John Garth pointed out in the quotation that started this article, Tolkien has dealt with the experiences that he gathered during the First World War and the following years in a very different way compared to other war novelists. Instead of a trench memoir, he wrote a myth. I have tried to connect this myth to in particular the First World War, in which the author concerned has fought, but in the case of a fantastical setting it will always remain to be guesses and assumptions because of the lack of hard data such as dates or names. It would have been so easy if the Witchking, leader of the Nazgul and one of Sauron’s most important henchmen, would have been named Himmler. Then again, this personal way of dealing with the traumatic experiences of the First World War are mainly characterized by the ‘escaping’ in a non-existent world:

So I took to ‘escapism’: or really transforming experience into another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalie (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on; and it has stood me in good stead in many hard years since and I still draw on the conceptions then hammered out. (Letters: 85)

This is possibly the essence of why Tolkien is generally not considered to be a war novelist: the fact that he never wrote about the war in a direct manner but instead took to escapism to process what he had experienced. What I hope to have demonstrated is that indeed, even in a fantasy novel that is set in an entirely different world than our own, elements can be found that could be regarded as memorizing Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War. It just this tendency for escapism and the processing of traumatic experiences by placing them in a totally different context – a ‘mythical, far away past’ par excellence – that makes Tolkien such an interesting case as a war novelist.

About

I wrote this article, just like the one on maps in The Lord of the Rings during my masters. A Dutch version – De wereld van Tolkien: een nieuw soort oorlogsroman – was recently published on my personal blog.

About the Author: Tim Lommerse

Tim has a research masters degree in “Literary Sciences” at VU University. In this two year curriculum, he specialized in fantasy literature. He presented two papers, both on Tolkien, on international conferences. Today he is working as an online marketeer and trying to make it as a writer in his sparetime.