Saturday 1 November 2014

Frodo in the Trenches

First a small confession, I am a massive Lord of the Rings fan, I realise this is hardly a confession, pretty much anyone who actually knows me, even if we only met online, knows this. Especially since a lot of the people I only know from the web, know me from a Tolkien Forum I used to moderate 10 years ago. And my house is called Moordoor (quality pun). I make no apologies for the fact that I have read the Lord of the Rings every year since I first read it, and am still finding new stuff in it now, on probably the twentieth read through. A second confession would be to those other Tolkien obsessives I know out there, and admit I liked the movies as well. Although the Hobbit ones are stretching my patience a bit at times. I own 4 different editions of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and the Silmarillion, and pretty much all of the History of Middle Earth series, and have read all of them, more than once. So there, there's your background for this dear-god-is-he-going-to-go-on-about-war-again rant.

In the two towers (second book/movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) Gimli and Legolas have a little competition to see who manages to kill the most Orcs, they continually shout head counts at each other as the battle of Helms Deep rages around them. A friend of mine, who I went to see the first movie with, said it was his favourite bit of the books, and I agreed that it was a pretty good device, and shows how the two of them go from being bitter enemies to the very best of friends, in the finest literary traditions, and gives a bleak part of the book some necessary giggles. So far so, yawny right?

Now when I first read these books, it was vaguely in the back of my mind that old JRR fought in world war one, but I probably put it to the back of my mind, and left it there for a long time. Obviously, Tolkien's real life experience in both world wars would inspire all the struggles of good and evil that he wrote about, but I didn't think so much about specifics, despite the fact that I know full well that the dead marshes on the borders of Mordor were directly inspired by the shell holes filled with floating bodies of the Somme in autumn rain. However, while inflicting the movies on my wife (again) it occurred to me that the counting game might have been something that Tolkien picked up from real life, while he was serving at the Somme, actual soldiers, keeping score of the Germans they had killed and making a game of it. Which takes a lot of the comedy out of the scene. I realise that it would have been used as a way of coping with the sheer awfulness of what was happening, and to help with dehumanising the enemy, but after all these years, it took me a bit by surprise to consider it had been a reality. I am clearly still incredibly naïve about these things.

In fact, you can take pretty much all of Tolkien's work as a way to cope with the awfulness of war, and a way to help you carry on killing. He dehumanises his enemies and ensures they remain proper evil, which makes it easier to hate them. Orcs and goblins are manufactured by Morgoth and Sauron, and thus can be slain like machines without any pang of conscience. I realise that Tolkien also throws in some wildcards, and shows that not all enemies are enemies, and not all friends are friends, with Gollum and Boromir (although they are both merely affected by the Ring, which is a lump of pure evil, twisting all around it). But mostly, his bad guys are proper bad guys, and you can slice them up with no guilt whatsoever. The very thing that George RR Martin (who's very pen name betrays him as a fan) is trying to stop with his Song of Ice and Fire series (I am not calling it Game of Thrones, that was just the first book, ok?) and his one day good, one day bad, suddenly sympathetic, suddenly murderously evil cast of characters (Jaime Lannister being a fine example of this). Tolkien's Saruman is supposedly a fallen good guy, but he is depicted as being filled with pride and his own cleverness before this, and thus ripe for the falling anyway.

Of course it is perfectly well known that the themes of modern machinery taking over from the old green world of nature that run through Tolkien's works are directly inspired by his experiences of the industrialisation of war. The new and deadlier killing machines of World War one would lead to flying Nazgul, Fire Belching Balrogs and Morgul Blades that leave a deadly poison behind to kill you slowly. Equally, Frodo's inability to stay in the shire is a clear allegory for shell shock, despite Tolkien's many protestations to “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations” he certainly employs it whether consciously or subconsciously. And I suspect he protested too much at those who read things into his fantasy, as he wanted to keep his influences and personal life just that, personal. Which is no bad thing.

It is hard to look at art such as Otto Dix's (which is supposedly a fairly true depiction of how an ordinary soldier would have seen the trenches, and not imagine Nazgul swooping through it, while the Hobbits hide terrified under their cloaks. This paticular picture makes me think of Sam and Frodo hiding there way through Mordor to Mount Doom.

Since it is once again the season of conspicuous grief and respect for fallen soldiers, I thought this might be worth looking at, and bringing our attention to bear on. The most important fantasy epic ever written was directly inspired by one of the most terrible chapters in human history. When I embark upon this years journey through middle earth, I will be drawing every parallel I can find, hopefully I won't feel the need to write an endless and dull blog on the subject every time I find one, but if I do, I apologise in advance. I will leave my usual anti-war pacifist rhetoric for another time, continue to wonder whether I should wear a poppy or not, and try and find a sensible way to remember the fallen without glorifying the awful machinations and pointless land grabbing that they were murdered for.

If you wanted some of my pacifist ramblings, here's a couple I did earlier.

1 comment:

  1. This was a wonderful post. Great job on it. I don't know enough about Tolkien's personal life to add anything to what you wrote, but it does make sense to me that his experiences in World War I would have bubbled up again in the stories he wrote many years later.