tolkien, war, and religion -- 1/6/23

Today's selection -- from Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was deeply influenced by his experience in one of the most terrible battles in all of human history, the Battle of the Somme:
"The trilogy is centered on an epochal world war, and though Tolkien always rather implausibly denied that his story had anything to do with World War I he did admit a connection to his traumatic experiences during World War I. He fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and all but one of his close friends were killed in the trenches by the war's end. He began elaborating his vast fantasy world in 1917, after being invalided back to England, starting with a manuscript resonantly titled The Book of Lost Tales. The Dead Marshes in between Gondor and Mordor echo the killing fields of Flanders, and whereas in Peter Jackson's film version the orcs are horror-movie creatures with overtones of some Oriental Yellow Peril, Tolkien's orcs are more complicated, and more realistic. Crude and violent though they are, they can sound like enlisted men in the trenches, sent to die in droves by their incompetent commanders. As one ore snarls to another, as the tide of the War of the Ring begins to turn, 'Whose blame is that? ... Not mine. That comes from Higher Up.' His companion agrees:

'Ar!' said the tracker. 'They've lost their heads, that's what it is. And some of the bosses are going to lose their skins too, I guess, if what I hear is true:
Tower raided and all, and hundreds of your lads done in, and prisoner got away. If that's the way your fighters go on, small wonder there's bad news from the battles.'
'Who says there's bad news?' shouted the soldier. 'Ar! Who says there isn't?'

Mametz, Western Front, a winter scene, painting by Frank Crozier

"Shaped by Tolkien's wartime experience, The Lord of the Rings is also a deeply religious work. Unlike Madeleine L'Engle, Tolkien didn't try to trans­plant Christianity into his alternative world, but you really can't throw a piece of elvish lembas without hitting a Christ figure: the man of sorrows, Aragorn; Gandalf the Grey, who dies and comes back to life transfigured as Gandalf the White; and young Frodo, who prepares to sacrifice himself to save the world. Crucially, he succeeds because he avoids the prideful temptation of power, and because he is merciful when Gollum tries to murder him to steal back the ring that he'd lost to Bilbo in The Hobbit. This theme is already signaled at the very outset, when Gandalf tells Frodo that Sauron's henchmen are now seeking the Ring in the Shire.

'But this is terrible!' cried Frodo. 'Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!'

'Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.'

"Gandalf is an archetypal figure of wisdom and leader of the interspecies  -- I almost said interdenominational -- Fellowship of the Ring, but he is also an oblique self-portrait of his creator."



David Damrosch


Around the World in 80 Books


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by David Damrosch


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