Tolkien as Post World War I Novelist
Nevertheless, Friedman feels confidant in stating "it seems apparent that what his generation knew as the Great War has left a discernible imprint on the encounters of his soldiers in the War of the Ring." As evidence, both Friedman and Brogan discusses the similarities between passages within LotR and the works of Tolkien's contemporaries.
Friedman discusses Tolkien's landscapes. Frodo and Gollum's passages of the Dead Marshes within "The Two Towers" ("For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry 'There are dead things, dead faces in the water,' he said with horror. 'Dead faces!'" (8)) is likened against descriptions by British soldiers on the Somme, such as Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer ("Floating on the surface of the flooded trench . . . the mask of a human face . . . detached . . . from the skull."(9), Max Plowman's A Subaltern on the Somme ("as I look upon these evil pools I half expect to see a head appearing from each one." (10)), and John Masefield's The Old Front Line ("liquid gathers in holes near the bottom, and is greenish and foul and has the look of dead eyes staring upward."(11)).(12)
There are also comparisons to be made between Masefield's no man's land ("crested and scabbed with yellowish tetter, trickling and oozing like sores discharging pus"(13)), Willfred Owen's description ("pockmarked like a body of foulest disease . . . its odour the breath of cancer") and Tolkien's approach to Mordor (partially called "Noman-Lands" (14) --"Mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hung stifling in the still air."(15))
Tolkien was not entirely oblivious to this debt from his experience. He wrote "Personally I do not think that either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence on either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps landscape. The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme."(16)
The terrain was not the only aspect of the wars to which comparisons can be made. Considerations of the technology are herein relevant. Tolkien's Nazgûl(17) ("Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek" (18)) is not unlike David Jones' description of incoming rounds In Parenthesis ("Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came - bright, brass shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo's up-piling snapt" (19)) or Fredrick Manning's description of the rounds in Her Privates We ("Something rushed downward on them with a scream of exultation, increasing to a roar before it blasted the air asunder and sent splinters of steel shrieking over their heads. . . ."(20)).
The effects on the men between the Nazgûls (". . . its defenders throw themselves to the ground, or stand, 'letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands'" (21)) and the incoming rounds ("Private Ball stands fixed, letting his mess-tin spill at his feet, or as Manning's Tommies cringe like 'men seeking shelter from a storm." and "he had lived like a hunted animal . . . hiding in holes from the monstrous birds of prey screeching and roaring overhead in search of human flesh." (22)) were not so far different either(23).
Brogan demonstrates, in similar manner, Tolkien's downfall of Sauron (". . . as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent; for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell" (24)) can be likened to a Sassoon's shell burst ("Against the clear morning sky a cloud of dark smoke expands and drifts away. Slowly its dingy wrestling vapors take the form of a hooded giant with clumsy expostulating arms. Then, with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over into the attitude of a swimmer on his side. And so it dissolves into nothingness." (25))(26)
Tolkien's goblins are largely based on the goblins of George MacDonald.(27) Because of this William H. Green feels it is important we should look to where they differ. On this Green notes, "Tolkien's [goblins] are nevertheless gifted in the design and use of tools of destruction. They are blamed for the destructive inventions of the machine age, especially weapons of mass destruction, "for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them" (60). Here Tolkien is projecting on MacDonald's goblins his own vision of twentieth-century evil, the tanks, explosives, and machine guns that made their devastating appearance in the Great War, where he saw action at the battle of the Somme. Though Tolkien disliked mainstream modern authors such as D. H. Lawrence, he shared with many of them a demonizing of technology."(28)
We find an open confession that at least one of Tolkien's characters was born of his wartime experience, despite Tolkien's frequent denials that current or recent history had any influence on LotR: "Discussing one of the principal characters in The Lord of the Rings he wrote many years later: 'My "Sam Gamgee" is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.'" (29) This is not insignificant when one considers his growing importance throughout LotR and Tolkien's comment to his son Christopher "Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit."(30)
Tolkien has an orc snarl "Don't you know we're at war?"(31). This is obviously the same as the common "Don't you know there's a war on?"(32)
There is also a matter of "the polarization of consciousness - what [Fussell] calls 'the gross dichotomizing' - imposed by the war - the habit of reading the world and all experience as a struggle between our side and 'the enemy'"(33) Fussell writes "'We' are all here on this side: 'the enemy' is over there. 'We' are individuals with names and personal identities; 'he' is a mere collective entity. We are visible; he is invisible. We are normal; he is grotesque. Our appurtenances are natural; his, bizarre. He is not as good as we are . . . Nevertheless, he threatens us and must be destroyed . . ."(34) Brogan points out "'He', the reader of Tolkien must reflect, is Sauron, who never loses his name or his title 'the Dark Lord', but is nevertheless alluded to, more and more frequently, as 'the Enemy' as The Lord of the Rings proceeds."(35)
Fussell "remarks that in this world of trenches, day and night are reversed: it is the night which is filled with busy activity"(36) This recalls Mordor (". . . the most easterly of the roads followed them . . . Neither man nor orc moved along its flat grey stretches; for the Dark Lord had almost completed the movement of his forces, and even in the fastness of his own realm he sought the secrecy of night." (37) ).
Even 'the Road' has significance. T. E. Hulme wrote "You unconsciously orient things in reference to it. In peacetime, each direction on the road is as it were indifferent, it all goes on ad infinitum. But now you know that certain roads lead, as it were, up to an abyss." (38) Brogan comments "It can need no stressing that the road taken by Sam and Frodo leads them, precisely, to an abyss."(39)
firstname.lastname@example.org | 10 December 1998