It's often argued that The Lord of the Rings owes much to Tolkien's experiences in the First World War. In many ways that's kind of a no-brainer.
Gilson and Smith both died on the Somme. Tolkien was invalided home with trench fever (Wiseman, who was in the navy, survived the war; although his friendship with Tolkien was never the same again). Garth makes a compelling case for lasting importance of the TCBS for Tolkien's writing, and he finds in this bond, rather than any more facile translation of real-world warmaking into pseudo-medieval magical conflict, the crucial carry-over from the Somme to Sauron, from the Western Front to Westernesse. Tolkien and the Great War ends by quoting C.S. Lewis on the accuracy and realism of Tolkien's portrayal of the psychology of wartime, something concerning which Lewis himself (of course) had first-hand experience.
Perhaps there's a tendency, nowadays, to think of war primarily in terms of its hardware: technologies of transportation surveillance and destruction—to think of it, in other words, as spectacle. We can certainly argue that Fantasy and especially TV/Cinematic Fantasy is largely rendered today in terms of an aesthetics of the spectacular: vast armies, huge special effects, gigantic budgets. But that's not particularly true of Tolkien's mythographic reworking of the war, or at least, not in the novels (the films are a different matter). The foci of the Lord of the Rings as war-novel are much more about fellowship, bravery and determination, and especially about the first of those three, than about the large-scale set-piece battle. In terms of the creative decisions Tolkien took adapting his experiences into myth that speaks to his priorities.
It's true that some of Tolkien's earlier fantastical re-imaginations engaged with the specifically mechanised-industrial aspect of World War 1. Here, from the 1920s, is one of Tolkien's early goes at transmuting his experience of war to Fantasy: a draft of the Fall of Gondolin material in which Melkor attacks the city with mechanical dragons, some made iron, some of bronze:
Melko assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears. [Fall of Gondonlin, 69]These sorts of (as we might now say) steampunk accroutrements are purged from Tolkien's later, published stories, and the mythological reimagining of war retreats that much further from industrial modernity to a intricately stylised medieval world. Unlike much of the commercial Fantasy that followed in LotR's wake, it's not the materiel of war that fascinates Tolkien so much as its spirit. And in many ways the spirit of the War of the Ring is a photographic negative of the actual war. Helm's Deep aside, Tolkien's war is very mobile where the actual war was trench-bound and static. Tolkien's war is waged between separate species, where the war between England and Germany can be thought of as a battle between two wings of the same tribe (the German and British royal families are the same family; Tolkien himself was an Englishman of German familial extraction and so on). Like a heavyweight boxer with a glass jaw, Sauron's attack is large-scale but comically vulnerable; once the one ring is destroyed it entirely unravels. I'm not sure any national military has ever been unknitted so simply in actual war.
Robert Eagleston quotes Paul Fussell on how Tolkien stressed both the heroism and the horror of war (when war-poets like Owen, Sassoon and Graves tended only to stress the latter). Fussell is also good on the way the discourse of war as such was subject to a specific kind of heroising elevation:
Eaglestone explores how this ‘inflationary’ rhetoric is only one of several in the novel; to read LotR is to realise it is written such that these sorts of ‘conscious heroic archaisms’ are intermixed with a different, more deflationary idiom, and as well a third, more laconic or practical one: he locates ‘one of Tolkien’s greatest strength as a novelist’ in the way he ‘mixes and plays’ these ‘usually very separate rhetorics.’ The blend of registers tracks a mixture in cross-hatching of representational translation. The ways war in Europe becomes war in Eriador are not straightforward.
Tolkien's allies fight because they volunteer, or are honouring an oath they have taken, not because they have been press-ganged. The situation was different in WW1: October 1915 saw the promulgation of Lord Derby’s ‘scheme’—that is, conscription—and the Military Service Act was passed at the beginning of 1916. At this point, in Fussell’s phrase, ‘England began to train her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world’ [Fussell, 11]. If we look in LotR for conscription then the closest thing (the analogy is not, I suppose, exact) is found amongst the orcs, few of whom (one presumes) have actively chosen to join this army. Likewise it is the orcs that command the air, with their flying Nazgûl; there is no Royal Flying Corps equivalent for the armies of men and of elves, a point the (famously) late arrival of the Eagles rather reinforces I feel.
And it is the orcs who actively poison their enemy: Eaglestone notes how Tolkien’s description of Merry after his attack on the Nazgûl (‘Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick’; Return of the King 5.6.128]) contains ‘shades of the gas attack casualty’ in Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (‘what nazzing gûls for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the orcs’). It's true, of course, that the Germans were the first to use poison gas, but the Allies quickly copied them: releasing 140 tons of chlorine gas at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. This was a military disaster: the wind changed, blowing some of the gas back onto British troops; and more gas was released into British trenches when German artillery hit unopened barrels of the stuff (these barrels were unopened because the wrong sort of key had been supplied). But although there was a good deal of propaganda about gas being a wicked Germanic horror in fact the Allies used gas rather more than did the Germans. Overall some 12,000 German and Austrian troops died from gas, as against 8000 British and British Imperial troops.
The argument, here, though is not about national affiliation so much as how Tolkien restages the First World War as a conflict between modernity as such (the orcs, and the machine-making Saruman) and an older, more elevated vision of comradeship, sacrifice and heroism. And I suppose the reason for this is that Tolkien thought of this specific war as, in one crucial sense, not the real war. This is what I said a few weeks ago:
This is why Tolkien writes a war novel. It’s not because he was himself a soldier—or perhaps we should say: it’s not only because he was himself a soldier. It’s because he believes life is war. I don't mean that he knowingly adopted a Nietzschean, post-Darwinian homus homini lupus view of things. Perhaps he did believe that was the logic of the world; but, if so, he also saw that circumstance as a symptom of a more profound struggle, something going on behind the scenes of which man’s wolfishness was a secondary expression. For Tolkien the universe was a great, spiritual war, and art ought not only to reflect that, it ought to encourage to take our proper place in the struggle.One of the things Fussell argues in his Great War and Modern Memory book is that the war, and literary responses to the war, effected a change in the idiom of literature itself. Literary Modernism was (make-it-new, fractured, ironised and so on) a response to the trauma of the war, just as it was also an attempt to get beyond the war. It's not just the fact that Tolkien wrote his fantasy in a traditionalist idiom, but the fact that it has (manifestly) connected with so many people that reflects a reaction against that impulse. This in turn has to do by what we mean when we talk about ‘war literature’ as such.
One context for all this is the opposition, as critics frame things, between the literary traditions of avant-garde Modernism on the one hand and popular fiction like Fantasy on the other. It has become something of a cliché to oppose Ulysses and Lord of the Rings as two candidates for ‘novel of the [20th] century’: the stuffy ‘high culture’ text and the popular culture fan-favourite. This has always struck me as a bit ... well, crazy actually. How can we oppose them when they're basically the same novel? They’re two big Catholic novels full of invention and power and fascinated by the same things—legends and their relationship to the ordinary (the bourgeois, the mundane), language and the play of language. They're both novels about ordinary people, wandering about. But I understand that people don’t tend to think of them as the same. To some extent I sympathise, because I admire Ulysses but I love Lord of the Rings. And I don't mean to pretend to denseness on the manifest differences between the two: Ulysses certainly is experimental and difficult, fractured and tricky to apprehend; Lord of the Rings of course tells a fantastical story in a traditional way: a linear narrative, likeable rounded characters, a prose style that aims for clarity and comprehensibility, and above all a coherent, holistic world-building vision. But there is, perhaps, more consonance than dissonance between these two things.
James Gifford's recent A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (2018) sets out to complexify this too-facile opposition, triangulating High Modernism and its notional not-a Other, mass media genre fantasy, via traditions of anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought. One of the bugbears in Gifford's account is Marxist Literary Theory (especially Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin) and its habit of situating Fantasy as inferior to Science Fiction: as reactionary rather than subversive, conservative rather than experimental and fundamentally counter-revolutionary: ‘an archaic and enslaving ancestor to the aesthetics of modernism and a symptom of the inertia of a dead social system to progressive politics.’ Gifford quotes Jameson's argument that Fantasy essentially manifests an ahistorical and ‘oneric’ obsession with an individuated ethical realm, characterised by novels in which the ‘antagonistic religious ideologies of the Middle Ages’ are ‘harmoniously combined into a contemporary anti-Enlightenment spiritualism.’ [Gifford, 2] As against this Gifford sets out to explore the ways in which a more radical reading of Fantasy can grow, although his aim is not to rescue Tolkien, but rather to shift the centre of the genre's gravity away from Tolkien and Lewis and towards William Morris, Hope Mirrlees, Mervyn Peake, John Cowper Powys, Henry Treece, Michael Moorcock, Samuel Delany and especially Ursula le Guin.
One salient, not really discussed by Gifford, is memory. The intermittencies and sinuous complexities of memory are at the heart of Proust's Recherche, one of High Modernism's holy books; and Woolf, Eliot and Richardson are all, in their various ways, obsessed with memory and committed to finding new ways of representing its action in art. Paul Fussell's book is called ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ but, as Leonard Smith says, surprisingly, ‘“memory” is a wonderfully unproblematic and self-evident concept in Fussell's book’, taken as in effect ‘always a clear window on the nature of reality’ [Smith, 242]. This is striking, not least since one might assume war reverses the polarities where memory is concerned. In peacetime our general problem is precisely remembering things, if only in the trivial ‘where did I leave my keys?’ sense. Coming out of war the problem can be forgetting them. Those occasions when Fussell talked of his own military service during WW2 ('marines sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery shit into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing [Fusell, Thank God For The Atom Bomb (1988), 36]) rather reinforce this. PTSD is an inability to forget certain traumatic events, of being trapped in a cycle of recalling them over and over.
How does memory figure in Lord of the Rings? It's more complicated than one might think. In one sense, the whole book addresses the question of historical memory: styled (as per the prologue) as the ‘deep’ history of our own world, although one which we have forgotten, and rehearsed in the body of the story as an inset level of ‘deep’ history (the First and Second Ages, preceding the latter days of the Third in which LotR is set), retold as song and story by characters in the text. In the ‘Council of Elrond’ chapter, Elrond relates events from the Second Age from memory, since elves are immortal and he was there. Tolkien at no point hints at any Funes-the-Memorious downside to living forever and remembering everything. The individuals in Middle Earth all seem to have more or less functioning memories. And yet the past is slipping into a realm of forgetting. How, we might wonder, can that be?
It's linked, for Tolkien, to mortality, and there are intimations of the problematic of memory as a function of deathlessness as such. As the fellowship leaves Lothlórien, and Gimli bids his sorrowful adieu, Legolas attempts to console him: ‘the memory of Lothlórien,’ he says, ‘shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.’ Gimli, though, declines to be reassured:
‘Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram. Or so says the heart of Gimli the Dwarf. Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves.’ [Fellowship of the Ring, 2.8 ‘Farewell to Lórien’]Memory is not what the heart desires is really quite a striking thing to say, I think. What might Gimli mean? Obviously in one sense he means: I'd rather have the actual thing than a memory of that thing. But I think he means something more. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, life-extending treatments have the unintended consequence of overloading and collapsing people's memories, as finite brain-space struggles to remember more and more life-events. Borges' ‘Funes’ story positions its omnimemorious protagonist as unable to get out of bed in the morning, so overwhelming and debilitating is his perfect memory. Tolkien takes a view entirely opposite to this: an immortal being, with flawless memory, would find themselves in a situation in which memory outweighed reality, when the balance between the happily remembered and the suffering now became so disproportionate that they would live much more in memory than in life. For dwarfs, as for all mortal beings, that sort of life would be merely delusive; but maybe immortality alters the case. I can't claim competence to discuss the theological implications of this: but doesn't it rather imply Tolkien believed eternal life would be lived much more in memory than in the actuality (whatever that might be) of heaven?
Its hard not to read Frodo's sufferings at the end of Return of the King as a form of PTSD. He has been shell-shocked (‘shelob-shocked’) so severely he can never again find peace. His problem is memory, and it afflicts him despite the fact that Queen Arwen has prescribed a magical panacea precisely for memory:
‘A gift I will give you ... Wear this now in memory of Elfstone and Evenstar with whom your life has been woven!’ And she took a white gem like a star that lay upon her breast hanging upon a silver chain, and she set the chain about Frodo’s neck. ‘When the memory of the fear and darkness troubles you,’ she said, ‘this will bring you aid.’ [Return of the King 6:6: ‘Many Partings’]We can see how a veteran, troubled by horrific memories of combat, might yearn for a magic gem to take the pain away; but Tolkien is too honest to allow Frodo release from that pain in this life. When the memory of the fear and darkness troubles you this will bring you aid: is ambiguous between ‘this will erase the memories’ and ‘this will address the fear and darkness’. The first of these is an ostrich move, where the second is not the kind of problem that can be addressed by drugging one individual's recall.
Memory is not an unalloyed good, certainly. Treebeard has had a long life, and struggles to remember his song of naming (‘Hoom, hmm: hoom, hm, how did it go? Room tum, room tum, roomty toom tum. It was a long list’ [Two Towers 3:4 ‘Treebeard’]) but perhaps that's for the best: Tom Bombadil warns the hobbits that the trees of the Old Forest, survivors of ‘a vast forgotten wood’, spend their time ‘remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice’ [Fellowship 1:7 ‘In the House of Tom Bombadil’]. Does this imply that malice tends to ferment where memory endures? Better, perhaps, forgetting: although best of all would be for that evil itself to vanish so comprehensively that it is forgotten. An anticipation for the chill trauma of Frodo's final PTSD is his imprisonment by the Barrow Wight in Fellowship:
Cold be hand and heart and bone,A vision of death as, in effect, incapable of letting go life; of memory as ontological refrigeration. Tom's counter-charm, freeing the hobbit, is interesting:
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts up his hand
over dead sea and withered land.
Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness. Fussell talks about the First World War as rendering battle a troglodytic experience, and I wonder if something of that is behind Tolkien's tendency to render his imaginary land a Deleuzian holey-space—the mountains all interpenetrated by vast networks of corridor and cave, hobbits living in holes and getting trapped inside barrows. Memory is an underground phenomenon, as Freud, in effect, said: subterranean. Memory for the elves is a vertical orientation, a kind of starlight (‘A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!/We still remember, we who dwell/In this far land beneath the trees/The starlight on the Western Seas’). For the dwarfs, though, who delve under the ground memory is a more opaque, buried and potentially dangerous matter. When they go digging for the starlight-coloured mithril of memory they instead unearth something ghastly: ‘they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane’ says Gandalf, sternly [Fellowship, 2.4‘A Journey in the Dark’]. The dwarfs, we are told, never speak of it. Trauma personified in flame and punitive whips and a warrior's sword: war as such.
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.