Papers on Tolkien in English
Eulogy of Finitude
Eschatology and Philosophy of History in Tolkien
undeclared love and a latent polemic
not a philosopher, but an experimenter”
his works Tolkien never refers to philosophers by name,
neither classical figures such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St.
Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer or Marx,
nor his contemporaries such as Freud, Bergson, Croce, Dewey, Wittgenstein,
Husserl, Popper or Ryle. However, although he does not cite Kant, he does
make use of the Kantian neologism “noumenon”;
the ideas of perennis philosophia (a syncretic compound of ancient
and medieval traditions) are also frequently employed, but without
reference to sources. Tom Shippey thinks that Tolkien did not
mention philosophers like Plato, Boethius and others – in spite
of his knowledge of them – because of his anticlassicistic bias, and,
moreover because – since he wanted
to bring the native English literature out – he could not find
English philosophers before Chaucer's timesA
clear example may be found in Note 8 of the self-commentary Tolkien
made on Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (The Debate of Finrod and
Andreth); the note discusses “desire” and distinguishes three
kinds: “natural” desire which is shared by all members of a species,
“personal” desire (“the feeling of the lack of something, the force
of which primarily concerns oneself, and which may have little or no
reference to the general fitness of things”) and “illusionary”
desire, which obstructs the understanding that things are not as they
should be and leads to the delusion that they are as one would wish them
distinction is the same made by Thomas Aquinas in an article
a work which Carpenter says was present on Lewis’s bookshelf during the
Inklings’ evening meetings
and which Claudio Testi tells me that he knows Tolkien to have possessed.
undeclared thomistic point: the difference between the two kinds of “Hope”,
“Admir” and “Estel”. In the Athrabeth Andreth reflects
about the nature of Hope: «'What
which though uncertain
known? Then we have
none.' 'That is
one thing that
Men call "hope",'
said Finrod. 'Amdir we
call it, "looking
up". But there is
another which is
founded deeper. Estel we call it, that is "trust". It is not
defeated by the ways
not come from
experience, but from our nature and first
being. If we are
indeed the Eruhin, the
to be deprived
by any Enemy,
not even by ourselves.
Estel'./.../Among the Atani
/.../ it is
believed that healing
may yet be
found, or that there
is some way of
escape. But is this
not Amdir rather but
without reason: mere flight
dream from what waking
they know: that there
is no escape from darkness and death?'».
In the Summa
Aquinas distinguishes ”spes”
as a pre-moral “passio”
(feeling) - which belongs even to drunk people and brute animals and whose
content is “bonum
futurum arduum possibile adipisci”
as a theological virtue, of which he writes: “spes
non innititur principaliter gratiae iam habitae, sed divinae omnipotentiae
et misericordiae, per quam etiam qui gratiam non habet eam consequi
potest, ut sic ad vitam aeternam perveniat. De omnipotentia autem
Dei et eius misericordia certus est
quicumque fidem habet./.../quod aliqui
habentes spem deficiant a consecutione beatitudinis, contingit ex defectu
liberi arbitrii ponentis obstaculum peccati, non autem ex defectu divinae
omnipotentiae vel misericordiae,
cui spes innititur. Unde
hoc non praeiudicat certitudini spei.”
Tolkien never uses the word “philosophy” in his fiction, and amongst
other published works only thrice in the lecture On Fairy Stories
and thrice in the lecture on Beowulf. Thereafter this lexical
ostracism – consciously wished for, I think -
continues into Tolkien's scholars: in the two massive, erudite and
up-to-date “Tolkien encyclopedias” by Drout and by Scull & Hammond
there is no place - in the midst of hundreds of others -
for the entry Philosophy.
regard to writings not intended for publication, this word appears a few
times in his Letters, usually as a synonym for “religion”
or with the meaning of generalized “theory”,
but also at times in more strict sense, such as when he writes that the
word “Ent” has slightly philosophical overtones, or that he does not
believe that there can be philosophers able to deny the possibility of
or when he explains the significance of the Ring of Power or speaks of the
moral corruption present in Eddison’s novels.
Sometimes though, philosophy as rational knowledge is explicitly
distinguished from religion, e.g. when he says that the Hobbits might have
misunderstood Aragorn’s miraculous healings because of their lack of
philosophical and scientific knowledge, or when he makes it clear that
although religion had a minor role among the Faithful of Númenor the same
could not be said regarding philosophy and metaphysics, or when he
observed that in The Lord of the Rings (LotR)
evil and falsity are represented mythically whereas good and truth are
represented in a fashion more “historical and philosophical” than “religious”.
The “home” of philosophy is, according to him, “in ancient Greece”
(and not in Germany, which he considered “home” of philology),
for the reason that “southern” mythology rests on deeper foundations
than that from the north, and so must lead “either to philosophy or
In the aborted The Notion Club Papers the word appears twice: once
in reference to the character Rupert Dolbear (who is also interested in
psychoanalysis and often falls asleep during discussions) and once in
reference to the character Michael Ramer (a philologist alter-ego of
Tolkien), who says that he is not
a philosopher, but rather an “experimenter”.
occurrences (or, better, non-occurrences) of the names of philosophers
or the word “philosophy” bring to mind Carpenter’s reconstruction of
a typical Inklings’ session:
when they are together, the friends talk of many things: the war under
way, LotR, the philosophy of
history, literary criticism, Shakespeare, religion, ethics. But when they
refer to thinkers by name, they do so polemically, disparaging
They also make me think of Tom Shippey – an intellectual often
identified with his hero Tolkien – who says he knows nothing of
philosophy, but also demonstrates a certain (latent) polemical attitude
towards it, calling philologists “tough minded” and philosophers
Perhaps both Tolkien and Shippey were thinking of, on one hand, the
abstruse and often essentially empty philosophy of 19th-century
German idealism and 20th-century French and German
existentialism and, on the other, the differently abstruse and differently
empty “Oxbridge Analytical Philosophy” which was already strong before
the Second World War and afterwards dominant in the English-speaking
In Tolkien we find respect (though not declared
love) for ancient and medieval philosophy, together with scepticism or at
least lack of interest regarding modern and contemporary philosophy.
maybe this happened – as we hinted to – because of rather extrinsic
circumstances, I mean of social context e interpersonal relations, as
Shippey thinks: “philosophy
- why does Tolkien not mention it? I suppose I can only say that unlike
Lewis he never took the philosophy part of the Oxford Classics course, so
maybe he felt that he was professionally ill-equipped - Oxford is always
full of philosophers. Maybe he felt that that was Lewis's business. Or he
could just have decided to keep his thoughts to himself.”
And also Ross
Smith (Inside Language. Linguistic
and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien, Walking Tree Publishers, 2007, pp.
140-141) writes that even if there are
no mentions of Tolkien on analytical philosophy, Tolkien was
nevertheless close friend of C. S. Lewis who opposed it and especially A.
– as we already saw and shall see below - we find
in Tolkien an attraction towards themes which are central to the
philosophical tradition: ethics, aesthetics, anthropology, history and
up: a strong concern for philosophical themes,
combined with a latent polemical attitude towards the way in which these
are treated by recent and contemporary philosophers!
themes, then? Verlyn Flieger agrees with Tolkien’s assertion: the
principal theme is death; Charles Nelson considers other subjects to be
W. A. Senior thinks that the central concern is the “sense of loss” of
which death is but one form;
Tom Shippey observes that although to Tolkien it “seemed that the
central theme was death”,
he himself sees the “ideological” and “philosophical” nucleus of
Tolkien’s work as being about providence.
is of course a great storyteller and – for example on the subject of
death – presents us with expressive images such as that of Gildor
Inglorion and the other High Elves, who in the woods of the Shire are
aware they are meeting “mortals” (Hobbits), but he also loves to
philosophize “behind the scenes”, for example in the Letters
and other writings not intended for publication, such as Laws and
Customs among the Eldar and Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth
and in his various explanatory comments on these fictional writings.
And here he discusses traditional anthropological and theological themes
of body and soul and God’s plan for these; death for him is always the
“severance” of the two “components”, which should remain united.
The Elf Finrod says to Wisewoman Andreth: do you not think that the
separation of soul and body could be experienced as a liberation, as a
returning home?; and Andreth replies: no, we do not think so because this
would be to disparage the body and is a thought of Darkness, for in the
incarnate it is unnatural.
Ralph C. Wood writes, this is a “radical non-Platonic
And Claudio Testi, too, writes: philosophically “approximately one could
say that it seems to be an Aristotelian element in a Platonic context”.
Damien Casey as well: theologically Tolkien is aware that the heart of
Christianity is the incarnation, notwithstanding the atrophy of this
heritage in the Platonic tradition.
“non-Platonic turn”, Wood acutely explains, is also an implicit -
but interesting and well-founded – explanation of the motivations
behind Platonic dualism: it would seem that Men, or rather their “souls”,
possess the memory of “another world” from which they have become
estranged and to which they seek to return (the Platonic soul which tends
towards its original Hyperuranic homeland), but Andreth denies this,
for her soul and body are each essential to the other, and thus their
“severance” is a calamity caused by Melkor. So the “nostalgia”
that the Elves have noticed in Men is not the desire for a world
different to this one, but rather an effort to return to the harmony and
unity between body and spirit which were lost by Men in the rebellion at
Ilùvatar, and remain lost in corrupt Arda. Plato, that is, confuses the
moral and theological problem with the anthropological and metaphysical,
indicating “another world” for the “soul” when he should have
indicated moral conversion for Men.
Casey comments with similar perception that the Platonic “salvation”
to “another world” is
merely an escape from evil and pain, but which does not in fact save
Man’s history, his identity, his own unique and unrepeatable human
reality (which accords with God’s will); in order to save these things
the salvation of this world
must be included.
Although the original Jewish/Christian message is both non-Platonic
and in some respects anti-Platonic, it has for many centuries been spread
widely by means of Platonic categories. Tolkien is, however, a Christian
of the 20th century,
a century in which theology and Christian spirituality have strongly
criticized the fundamental category of Platonism, so-called “dualism”
(a category which had already been philosophically opposed, in different
ways, by both Hegelianism and 19th-century Marxist and
positivist materialism), and he follows the debate which for him was
contemporary, observing explicitly, for example, that his friend Lewis was
not philosophically a dualist, but had a “dualist” imagination.
And this was because, notes Christopher Garbowski, “a general
philosophical movement” had influenced Tolkien: in this the value
accorded to psychosomatic phenomena had made obsolete a material
conception of the separate “soul”, thus permitting a return to
“this” world Happiness is arduous and - in practice – experimented
only as “salvation”. Shippey recalls an old Scottish tale – that
Tolkien knew – in which an Elf asks an aged human if salvation is
possible for a being such as she, and he replies: no, salvation is only
for the sinful sons of Adam.
Why only for the sinners? One might say: by definition, as Jesus said
(“I have not come to save the righteous, but the sinners”, in other
words everyone) and remember that for many centuries Christianity
considered the “second death” central: the death of the soul, psychic
death, and not the first (“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall
fact mankind can think of death only as quia
est, not as quod est, for
we know that it exists, but not what it is, because we cannot form an idea
based on experience, neither a conscious idea nor an unconscious one.
Sigmund Freud – in all phases of his thought -
was convinced of this. Summarizing and commenting upon Freud’s
notions about death, the Freudian psychoanalyst Franco De Masi writes that
the “idea” we have of death we can construct only on the basis of
experiences from life, for example on the basis of experiences of
relationships which are all ultimately marked by separation or mourning:
this leads us to imagine death as a sort of life in which we perceive
ourselves to be isolated from all other human beings, or in other words
the idea we have of death is that of “psychic death”, since our
psychic life is formed, develops and is maintained through interpersonal
relationships. Many psychoanalysts have observed in relation to their
clinical cases that such an “idea” of death may assume a devastating
concreteness in psychotic patients; in these people physical death becomes
a terrible prospect, because for them it constitutes the limit which puts
an end to the possibility of correcting their psychic death – the notion
that they are inconsistent and without significance for others.
Vincent Ferré, in the section L'Aliénation et la Folie of his
book rightly observes that in LotR
the Ring either drives people mad or attempts to do so (Boromir, Gandalf,
Galadriel, Aragorn, Bilbo, Frodo, Gollum).
the psychotics to be found in Tolkien's stories are the kings of Numenor
such as Ar-Pharazon and the Nazgûl (ex-Kings), who have in common the
search for power and the search for immortality; in both groups the latter
seems connected to the former. The evasion of death is sought for the
personal and unconscious motive that the striving after power has led to
an empty life, without meaning, and the character then tries to find more
time because unable to accept his own “completion”, unable to reach an
end. Whereas, as Tolkien wrote in a letter, “Death is not an Enemy!/.../the
message was the hideous peril of confusing true 'immortality' with
limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The
confusion is the work of the Enemy and one of the chief causes of human
disaster. Compare the death of Aragorn with a Ringwraith.”
. The paradoxical logical implication of this step is that “true
immortality” coincides with death.
afterwards, Tolkien adds: “The Elves call 'death' the Gift of God (to
Men). Their temptation is different: towards a fainéant
melancholy, burdened with Memory, leading to an attempt to halt Time”.
For the Elves the temptation is not to seek to have more time, as
Ar-Pharazon and the Nazgûl try to do, but to stop time. There are hence
two different “escapes” from that “Death” which coincides with
“true Immortality”: “serial longevity” (that of power-thirsty
human kings) and the “hoarding memory” of the Elves.
Despite the pompous title of “Immortals” which other less long-lived
Middle-earth peoples accord to the Elves, this is not strictly true, for
theirs is “ strictly longevity co-extensive with the life of Arda”.
two “escapes” from Death/Immortality – via either “serial” or
“natural” longevity – have different aims: for the Slaves of Power,
the wish to have “more future” (albeit a future which is not unknown,
open to change, but “serial”) in order to increase power (and thus
unconsciously deceive oneself
that in this way one’s life will acquire meaning). The Elves, on the
contrary, desire to have “less future”
due to their idealization of the past, since their memory of the
past is not an instrument which serves for the future, but rather a “hoarding”,
an avid treasuring. The Slaves of Power have no memory of the past; the
Elves have a “burdened” memory. The common feature between the two
groups is that neither believe in or hope for an unknown future, open and
new. And both are attracted to power! The Elves too seek a form of power,
that of being able to stop change, which specifically means ageing,
because they would like to keep things “fresh and fair”. And this
lesser power of theirs is tied to the greater power of Sauron and the
Slaves, and in fact when the latter fall, the Elves’ power is finished .
It is as if when the power which tends always to dominate others’ wills
(and needs longevity to succeed) collapses, the idealization of the past
and refusal of change (ageing) also come to an end.
summary, we can say that remembering the past is a good thing only if it
serves to clarify future moral action (“historia
as Nietzsche and Croce emphasized in their criticism of antiquarian
Since the Elves in Tolkien’s fiction represent an aspect of real
we might say that by means of the Elves’ natural and the Slaves’
serial longevity he wishes to portray (amongst other things!) a
pathological aspect of human nature (the “psychotic limit”),
the distortions that
life which lasts “too long”, avoiding contact with Death (which is the
only “true immortality”), may provoke.
This observation concerning the distortions caused by “too long” is
also supported, I think, by features of Tolkien’s own life, as I will
try to demonstrate below. Now, though, I will discuss the philosophical
consequences of this anthropology, for example on the eschatology – the
reflection on “final things”
– or, as is also said, on the “ultimate purpose”
of human life.
of death we all live in a city without walls”
take life seriously means to accept resolutely,
as serenely as possible, its finiteness”
De Masi rightly comments that it is not easy to discern to what extent the
thought of death is an obstacle
to life and how much, on the contrary, it aids reflection on the value and
meaning of life.
It seems clearer that the negation of death leads to blindness to
the real experience of the passage of time. This negation does not
coincide with religious belief in “immortality”; it is in fact
necessary to understand exactly what is meant by this concept.
The great historical religions have at least two aspects: one profound and
authentic, and one superficial and escapist. Garbowski observes ,with good
reason, that “a very simplistic vision of afterlife in the common
religious imagination causes many to think of immortality in terms of what
Tolkien called serial living: a continuation of life as we know it, even
if at a higher plane. This might be why instead of dealing directly with
the problem of an afterlife in his mythology, the author proposes the
artistic construction of the Elf Beings themselves who demonstrate the
shortcomings of immortality as simple deathlessness/.../ This might
partially be understood as death being a rest from a world full of
suffering and a life that ultimately does not offer full answers”.
Shippey notes that whereas in Paradise Lost Milton considers death
to be a just punishment for sin, “the Silmarillion seems to want
to persuade us to see death as a potential gift or reward”.
Paradox! For Tolkien the “reward” is not a sort of
“reawakening” followed by a sort of continuation of life, surrounded
by lights, celestial music and in the embrace of loved ones, as in popular
fantasies of immortality, but it is
death (“true immortality”)!
we should remember that trough the philosophical tradition – even in the
Christian one, as in Aquinas
- the so-called “eternity”is quite different from “endless time”:
Time concerns Change, while instead Eternity concerns Immutability, “tota
and therefore, if immortality is meant as “eternal life”, it is not
a life lasting for an endless time. Rightly Renée Vink observes: “Just
like true immortality has often been confused with serial longevity, there
is a related concept that has often been confused with neverending time. I
am referring to eternity. Though Tolkien does not use the word, I would
venture to say that 'eternity' is the state of existence where what he
calls true immortality has its proper place. Death may not be the enemy,
but Time surely is.”
writes that death is not
punishment for sin, but inherent to human nature (biological and
psychological), and attempting to avoid it is both wicked
(because in conflict with nature) and stupid
“because Death is a release from the weariness of Time”.
Indeed, these two causes of escapism seem more likely to come to mind to
those who are “getting on in years”: a young person might well
disapprove of both, and particularly the second. And yet the young also
die. John Garth commented
that the poem Kortirion, which Tolkien wrote in 1915 at the age of
23, possessed typically Tolkienian melancholy for a world that was
drifting away; the summer he regards with nostalgia could be seen as his
childhood or the pre-war past, and the winter as the only (lethal) future
offered to young people like himself.
know, though, that Tolkien’s future was not to be war-time death, but
marriage to Edith, children, philology at Oxford, writing novels and
worldwide literary success. What we may imagine about the future is one
thing; what it turns out to be is quite another. Two philosophers who were
Tolkien’s contemporaries, Croce (born in 1866) and Popper (born in
1902), have strongly
emphasized that the future is completely unknowable, not a field to be
studied, but for the application of our will, of our programme of action.
Shippey, commenting upon the development of LotR
with respect to the Mirror of Galadriel and the Palantìrs, notes that
Tolkien wants to warn us of a great danger: “too much looking into the
future can erode the will to action in the present”; one should not
“speculate”, but rather “get on with one’s work” with decision
and perseverance, and “this
mental attitude may be rewarded beyond hope”
“final things” are Death (the end of life), Judgement (of the
significance of one’s life), Hell (if it had none), Heaven (if it had
meaning) and all the four of them always
(and only) look to the future. And this is true both for the old and for
the young. In the song that Frodo (who was a young Hobbit, “just out of
his tweens”) sings in the Old Forest it is said – to encourage
the wayfarer, not to deter him! - that “to east and west every forest
ends”; Shippey comments that it is difficult not to see a reference to
life and death (the “end” of the forest) in these words;
the travellers will set off towards the light of the sun.
In fact every life has not always existed and does not exist forever, but
is de-fined by its limits. And why, according to Tolkien, does this
finiteness serve to create hope? If it was only because our present ills
will cease with death, this would be merely the Epicurean idea of ataraxia
and would not be applicable to a young person in good physical and mental
condition. Bill Davis suggests a more interesting motivation: life’s
finiteness can be considered good because it holds out the prospect of
escaping the repetition of things already known, whether far off (for the
young) or nearby (for the old).
profoundly, it may contain the message that non-transience itself would be
a bad thing, because it would involve a necessary fixation of pride:
anything which we believe to keep “forever” is a source of pride or at
least leads us to forget our limits,
our defects, and blinds us to seeing other
things and new things. Other
and new things turn up every day, but it is difficult to see them or- once
noticed – to take them in; various fears and aspects of pride block us.
At the end of his book on philosophers and death (their thoughts on death
and their actual deaths!), Simon Critchley observes that it is as though
the life of each one was held in the grip of pre-existing structures: the
evolution of the species, the historical situation, the personal Freudian
“family story”; and the desires which such structures provoke in us
threaten to suffocate us. We cannot refuse these unasked-for gifts of
nature and culture, but we can transform the way in which we accept them
and we can stand more fully in the light that throws the shadow of our
mortality: “it is my wager that if we can begin to accept our
limitedness, then we might be able to give up certain of the fantasies of
infantile omnipotence; to be e creature is to accept our limitedness in a
way that does not result in disaffection and despair; it is rather the
condition for courage and endurance”.
sense of humility could therefore open us to “final things” (to see
different and new things), and an awareness of death could encourage such
humility, as Christian and Buddhist traditions of asceticism have
emphasized for centuries. With respect to two episodes in LotR,
Shippey writes: what does it mean that Frodo in the Dead Marshes sees the
faces of Elves and Orcs similarly covered in algae and dirt? And what does
it mean that Merry in the Barrow sees the face of the dead Nobleman
overlying that of the Barrow-wight? Perhaps this: that all glory
It would seem so, at least for Tolkien, who wrote in a letter that the
victors cannot enjoy the victory as they had imagined, for the more they
struggle to achieve it, the more victory will be a delusion.
in death there is not only the humility (and relief) of finiteness.
Bearing in mind Tolkien’s Christian ideology, Shippey sees a connection
between the theme of the Resurrection and a moment in the LotR:
when Gandalf is about to be struck by the Lord of the Ringwraiths (who
calls himself “Death”), at that precise moment a cock crows and, as
though in reply, the sound of war horns is heard. It is a reference to the
New Testament account of the cock’s crow which Peter heard and wept
bitterly, immediately recalling Jesus’ words: this sound means that the
Resurrection has occurred and from that moment Peter’s desperation and
his fear of death have been overcome, that day follows night, that life
conquers death, that a larger cycle exists above the smaller, that he who
fears for his life will lose it and that dying fearlessly is not a defeat.
Shippey suggests that the Resurrection coincides – in personal reality,
not mythical fantasy – with the choice of death (the future martyr Peter)
for love (of Jesus). Bill Davis notes that Arwen prefers finiteness with
love to infinity without, almost as though Tolkien were saying that it is
impossible to have love without having death, and that even if death is
not chosen for its own sake, then love is, and death accepted as the
Sam, says Shippey, returns to his home in the Shire not out of necessity,
but having another option which he refuses – that of going with Frodo to
the Undying Lands. He, just like Arwen, chooses mortality for love (love
for Rosie, Elanor and the Hobbits of the Shire); this choice – according
to Shippey – makes the ending of LotR
sad, “but while on the one hand Sam has come to Death, for love, he has
also come back to life, for he has his long and successful life ahead of
Arwen could have gone to the Undying Lands taking with her the memory
of her love for Aragorn, but – writes Richard C. West – chooses to
live this love and accept death that will take her beyond the
“boundaries of the world”.
These Undying Lands seem, then, to offer rest and escape from pain, but
lacking in “finiteness” because they are within, not outside, the
“boundaries of the world”; Death, on the other hand,
seems tied to both “finiteness” (beyond the “boundaries of
the world”) and love.
word “love” has many meanings, generally not incompatible but various.
In philosophical and religious traditions it is often emphasized that
love is not only a sentiment, but also a concrete action for good,
that it has both a content and a purpose: love for one’s family, for
one’s country or for science are
linked by the idea of having a task to perform, a mission. If “God so
loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16),
then the Platonic idea of life as “exile” is mistaken; life is
rather a “mission”. Damien Casey observes: “The difficulty with the
Platonic flight from the world that is the more traditional path of
sanctity is that it leaves Morgoth's Ring intact. The salvation of the
world entails that the ring of the world must also be taken up into God.
And it is we who are to be the agents of the world's divinisation.”
Shippey – commenting on the
“walking songs” which appear throughout LotR
up until when Frodo sings one
before leaving Middle-earth – notes that they express a pain that is
ancient, although soothed by the earth’s beauty.
But why this suffering? For a world which does not die? And what world
would that be? For Plato, it is something “other” from that in which
we live. But, if we take our distance from Plato, perhaps we can manage to
see that the “world which does not die” – for which we experience
this nostalgic pain – is none other than this one, but rather something
in this one: the moral values which should be followed in this world,
values for which we feel nostalgia since we live far from them as a result
of our various defects. Our mission is to pursue them for love of
themselves and of the world which needs them.
Robert Gilson, a friend during adolescence of his and Tolkien’s, was
killed in the war, Geoffrey Smith wrote to Tolkien that he did not care
whether their friendly and intellectual fellowship had social success or
received explicit recognition, because it was spiritual in nature and as
such transcended mortality and was “as permanently inseparable as Thor
and his hammer”; the influence to be exerted on the world was “a
tradition which fourty years from now will still be as strong to us (if we
are alive, and if we are not) as it is today”.
On the other hand, the truth is that we all have a mission, even those
considered “bad”: Tolkien wrote in a letter than there are people who appear
“damnable”, but their “damnability” is not measurable on a
macrocosmic scale (and in fact could be a force for good).
If even those who appear wicked to us have a mission, how can we visualize
or understand our mission in
life? Tolkien wrote, in a letter to his niece, “Why did God include us
in his plan? We can only say that he has done, and therefore we cannot
reply to the question of what is the meaning of life”.
sentence of Tolkien’s is full of humility, limpidly Socratic and open to
“last things” and “ultimate purpose”. Anna Mathie observes that
“the closing chapters of LotR
are a portrait of mortality”; the Fellowship of the Ring has achieved
its mission, Gandalf and the High Elves have won the war, Frodo has saved
the world, and now they are leaving Middle-earth and many good things will
Thus the “missionary” leaves, but the effects of the mission remain in
the world. Shippey writes about the brooklet which runs in Mordor,
seemingly for no purpose, but which is actually as useful as any water
could be (to Frodo, Sam and Middle-earth): apparent failure, but success
That which seems to be the death of the streamlet becomes instead a cause
of life; the death of each of us -
Tolkien perhaps implies here – might seem to render useless the life of
each of us, whereas a grain of wheat that does not die does not bear fruit.
Our personal, individual life is finished, bounded by many things,
especially death; but it is – perhaps! – part of a plan which includes
it but extends beyond.
the great tales never end? ', 'No, they never end as tales,' said Frodo.
the people in them come, and go when their part's ended.
part will end later – or sooner.' ”
e Frodo, The
Stairs of Cirith Ungol
am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world.”
reference to TCBS, their intellectual friendship club, Geoffrey Smith
wrote to his friend Tolkien shortly before his death in the war: “the
death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS
/.../ Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it
cannot put an end to the immortal four! /.../ May God bless you, my dear
John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long
after I am not there, if such be my lot ”.
Similarly, after the death of their friend Rob Gilson, Christopher Weisman
wrote to Smith: “I believe we are not now getting on without Rob; we are
getting on with Rob. It is by no means nonsense, though we have no reason
to suppose, that Rob is still of the TCBS”.
In the words of these young men it is as if their aspirations and
experiences of friendship were an immortal “X” over and above the
lives of human individuals.
idea is transferred by Tolkien to LotR,
with his sense of the profound, drawing on a continuing memory of people
and episodes from the past, which structured and contributed to the events
lived through as present happenings by the characters, as Shippey has
his intention is to consign to future generations (the 'Red Book of
Westmarch'!) the memory of present happenings which will become the past,
as Ferré says.
And it is not merely remembering: the plot of the story and the
characters’ interpersonal relationships continually communicate and
demonstrate to us how individual destinies are closely and necessarily
interwoven, in life as in death; the relationship between Frodo and Sam
(and Gollum!) is a good example of this.
This idea of the interpersonal quality of salvation, typical of
twentieth-century Christian theology – it is not a coincidence that in
the letter quoted above Weisman mentioned the “Communion of Saints”
– which strongly emphasized throughout the 20th century the
biblical and patristic message of “collective eschatology”.
Shippey notes that the entire story of Middle-earth is bound by a
condition of interpersonality: it is like a Limbo in which the un-baptised
dead await the Day of Judgement (for Tolkien, the events he narrated were
set in pre-Christian times) when they will be reunited with their baptised
and saved descendants.
during the course of the 20th century, outside of the visible
churches (perhaps earlier than inside them), the widespread sensitivity of
the century for “interpersonality” was manifested in many fields: in
political movements, pedagogy, clinical psychology, historiographical
research and philosophy. Though he made no explicit references, Tolkien
probably knew the philosopher Robin G. Collingwood;
they were in the same places at similar times (both Fellows at Pembroke
College), and the latter was well known in academia and outside for his
writings on the philosophy of history and
his specific historical research regarding Roman Britain.
Collingwood’s most important work 
is The Idea of History (1946); its central idea is that of “re-enactment”:
historical thought (not only on the part of professional historians, but
everyone) consists of re-living the thoughts of people from the
This idea of re-living inspired the two “time travel” novels which
Tolkien left unfinished: The Lost Road and The Notion Club
Verlyn Flieger has discovered that in these Tolkien was directly inspired
by a 1927 book, An Experiment with Time, by the non-academic
philosopher J. W. Dunne.
The idea of “immortality” which it contains – which Tolkien
abandoned in his novels – features people who, in dreamlike or excited
mental states, cause the reincarnation of persons or repetition of events
from the past, however remote. The probable influence of Collingwood on
Tolkien – if it should ever be proved – would have been different to
that of Dunne, because he makes reference not to excited or dreamlike
states, but to fully conscious and rational – critical – thought:
Aragorn and Arwen “re-live” the stories of Beren and Luthien inasmuch
as they remember them and think about them, but
they also judge them, and thus add to them in an original and
the root of the philosophy of history, several fundamental choices must be
made: one must decide, for example, if history is cyclic and thus “nihil
sub sole novum”
as – more than Qohèlet – the ancient Gentiles thought (for example,
with great clarity, the emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius); or, as
the ancient Jews held and subsequently our Western Christian civilization
maintained, that history proceeds in a direction – perhaps unknown –
and does not return and return again, so that there is
something new under the sun.
second option positions makes the theme of immortality relevant not so
much to reincarnation or “re-enactment”, but rather to the idea of the
relay-race of generations: every person and each generation leaves a
unique and unrepeatable mark which irreversibly changes what will follow,
included within the new that – in any case – emerges.
wrote that every event had at least two aspects: one regarded the history
of the individual, the other the history of the world.
Tolkien was concerned, at least in his fiction, with the “history of the
world”. In the aftermath of the powerful historical philosophies of the
19th century (Hegelian, Marxist, Positivist), Tolkien found
himself living in a period – the first half of the 20th
century – in which the 19th-century lesson was repeated and
over-abundantly varied: several classical and highly influential
philosophies of history
such as those of Oswald Spengler
and Arnold Toynbee,
together with others, intellectualist and extravagant such as that of
or terrible and obscure such as that of Alfred Rosenberg.
All somewhat pessimistic, perhaps not surprisingly given what was
happening and was about to happen in Europe and the rest of the world.
After the Second World War, this surfeit of philosophies of history
contracted and disappeared. The appalling drama proved to be a decisive
factor in the selection from and development of the 19th-century
inheritance, which (like many others) was no longer considered and events
took a different turn.
Tolkien was a fully pre-war man and his Silmarillion and LotR are
– amongst other things – stories about the philosophy of history. And
in his letters he made explicit several of the links between this and
actual world history.
Shippey writes that one might have thought that Tolkien, with parents and
friends dead and in the midst of the Great War, might have wanted to
construct a myth to justify a dream of escaping death, but he had
“motives that were much more than personal” for doing this: to
elaborate a myth of England (for England).
Meaning, I think, that this myth would have given nobility to the England
of his time (as the Aeneid did to Rome at the critical moment of
the end of the Republic), that of Churchill’s “finest hour”, in
which the problem of personal life and death are grafted onto, and seek
meaning from, the function of peoples in history.
Tolkien’s “philosophy of history” is not pessimistic as were those
in fashion at the time
that I referred to above: in the Age of Men Tolkien does express
melancholy for the disappearance of Elvish Beauty, but not moral or other
kinds of decadence! When he speaks of the fading of Elvish Beauty (or the
Ents) and the coming of the Age of Men, Tolkien – unlike Spengler,
Rosenberg or Husserl – does not give us message of “decadence”, but
instead one of “finiteness”: his refusal to add to the already
numerous “twilights of the West” then in vogue is made explicit, for
example, in the dialogue between Gimli and Legolas at Minas Tirith.
has been noted, the death of an individual for the preservation of his
people is felt by many to be tolerable and just, and as a young soldier
Tolkien saw the European nations’ uncertain fate in the war through the
lens of the Early Medieval period, when the destiny of small barbarian
populations – like the Geats in Beowulf – hung from a thread,
and he began to think that the extinction of peoples in history was the
rule rather than the exception, and in Middle-earth, as in the European
Great War, the principal theme is not individuals’ mortality (and desire
for immortality) – as in Goethe’s Faust
– but that of peoples; in the first half of the 20th century
the nations of Europe, forgetting the idea of a universal empire of
Christendom, sought “immortality in the mortal realm” with Wagnerian
nationalism, just like Feanor, Galadriel and the rebel Eldars in the First
comment on this opinion is as follows: all nations behaved thus during the
First World War, but during the second only some. England, for example,
did not: it defended itself and in doing so defended the world, and
afterwards accepted with good grace to lose, in this now changed world,
its worldwide Empire. W. A. Senior shares this view: in Tolkien’s
“history of the world” we witness the destruction of Beleriand,
Gondolin, Nargothrond and Doriath; Morgoth’s slaughter of the Noldor,
survived only by Galadriel, recalls the decimation of two generations of
British men in two world wars, a loss which bled dry the British Empire
and led to its gradual disintegration.
A disintegration of which of Tolkien (like many other Britons) did not
The finite nature of the histories of peoples, like that of the lives of
individuals, is viewed with sadness, but not with disapproval: “true
immortality” (it must be remembered!) coincides with finiteness, with
meaning of “immortality”, as a unique – and finite! – contribution
that peoples and persons make to the history of the world, is applied in
Tolkien’s fiction to both Elves and Men. But there is another meaning of
“immortality”, which regards only the Elves. As I have tried to show
in detail elsewhere,
in Tolkien’s world many events (wars, the fall of kings, cases of
treachery etc.) occur without producing changes: a “generalized Medieval
period” lasts for thousands of years, devoid of the profound dynamics (Christianization,
Renaissance, scientific revolution, birth of nation states, Enlightenment,
political and industrial revolutions etc.) which make our actual history a
true process of development. But Tolkien’s world is that of the three
Ages dominated by “immortal” (or rather, long-lived) Elves: in fact,
Tolkien’s fiction tells us nothing about the Age of Men.
I wonder. The historical
immobility makes sense, I believe, because it refers to the Time of the
Elves. A history of Men without cultural and social change would be
meaningless and would lead to theological scepticism and desperation: why
would innumerable generations of individuals be born and die if it served
no purpose for future generations, if it was part of no development, if it
fulfilled no “mission”? Real antiquity certainly did experience
historical changes, but ancient historiography (that of the Gentiles, not
the Jews) was not aware of it, for it held human nature to be unchangeable
and time cyclical; hence the profound scepticism of the traditional gods
and the sense of desperation which – like a karstic river – re-emerges,
despite their best intentions, in Polybius and Tacitus.
Elves, on the other hand, live for thousands of years, so they can easily
get a sense of the passage of time from their individual
experiences: experiences of persons who, during
the course of their lives, learn slowly and with effort, leave behind
past errors, and mature morally. Through the Elves’ “immortality”
Tolkien wants to talk about an aspect of human experience.
Not human collective experience, that which we call history, but
the single experience of the individual, that which we call life.
In fact, just as cultural and social change does not occur with the Elves
collectively during the Three Ages, thus it is in the lifetime of each
single man: his character does not alter, because the cultural and social
characteristics of the world that formed it cannot be changed: a 13th-century
man, be he Dante Alighieri or the most humble servant of the manor,
could never think, feel or act like one of the 18th or
20th centuries, as the historians of "mentality" are
character does not change, the life of a man has meaning because he can
modify his own response to it. “Free will” does not involve trying to
be another person and to live an external and internal reality different
from that decreed by destiny, but instead consists of trying to understand
it ("know thyself") and hence regard it critically
– which are the good points and which the bad? – and adapt
appropriately. The clearest example is Galadriel: in the First Age she is
a proud Noldor princess who goes to Middle-earth against the wishes of the
Valar, not to recover the Silmarils like Feanor, but neither to moderate
their leadership over the people like Fingolfin. In Middle-earth she
sought "a realm at her own will".
Galadriel at the end of the Third Age is a woman who no longer leaves the
side of husband Celeborn,
who secretly conserves the ring Nenya, surveys the movements of the enemy,
gives hospitality and encouragement to the Fellowship of the Ring, refuses
– in a memorable scene with Frodo – every prospect of dominion, goes
with Elrond and Gandalf to the Grey Havens and leaves Middle-earth forever.
this is moral maturation, which for Tolkien is the only change recorded
during the history of the Elves, for this story – it seems to me –
does not recount history (at least not most importantly), but life. And
since the life of Men is much briefer than that of Elves, the former are
much more “restless”, because they are more urgently called by the
conscious and unconscious demand for the achievement of moral maturity
prior to death. Christopher Garbowski emphasizes that in Athrabeth,
Andreth interprets human restlessness negatively: unlike the Ainulindalë,
for this woman death, which is not a gift of Iluvatar, is the cause of
this agitation; all human resources including reason cannot penetrate
death and only obscurity remains.
But – says Tolkien - Andreth is wrong! As Matthew Dickerson observes,
Men have a freedom which in some ways is more significant than that of the
Elves, for whom the music of the Ainur is Fate; Men have the power to
“give form to their lives” beyond music. In fact, for Tolkien free
will is associated with mortality: “It is one with the gift of freedom
that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive”.
as well then, we find the theme of “finitude”: the lifetime of
individuals is finite, the life of peoples is also finite, and finite too
(though not equal to nought) is the capacity of a person to deal with his
own destiny (or character).
moment in the life of Tolkien
days seem blank, and I cannot concentrate on
find life such a bore in this imprisonment”
is the moment to exit from the world? To be a philosopher is to learn to
writer’s sources and inspirational themes may – justifiably – be
studied for their intrinsic value, although Tolkien – who in fact
foresaw to what length academics would have gone with regard to his own
works – thought that “it is the particular use in a particular
situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or
unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider”.
Let us try, then, to examine more closely the “particular situation”
from which Tolkien drew most of his motives for death and immortality.
Testi calls the years 1956-1960 “the apex of Tolkien’s reflection”;
and in fact both in the works of fiction unpublished at the time (now
published in the volume The Morgoth's Ring) and in his letters
- especially those of 1957-58 -
we see a Tolkien who is more than ever a “philosopher”. The
“fictional” writings of this period are in reality largely discussions
and philosophical analyses of themes such as the nature of evil, love and
hope, sexuality and faithfulness, death and immortality. On the last of
these subjects, the apex is reached in Athrabeth in 1959, the year
Tolkien retired. Humphrey Carpenter writes in his biography that from the
Mid-Fifties he ceased to meet his friends regularly: the Inklings’ last
years had revolved above all around reading LotR,
by then finished, published and enjoying increasing international success.
Now he passed his time mainly at home and wanted to dedicate himself to
his beloved Silmarillion. But he was depressed and found his life
tedious, almost a prison.
his young friend Rob Gilson died in the war, Tolkien wrote to his other
friend Smith that the “destiny” of their TCBS was “greatness”, to
be an instrument in the hands of God, to be “a mover, a doer, even an
achiever of great things”; now that Rob was dead, his “greatness”
was revealed to have been that of a friend towards his companions; Tolkien
still had those hopes and ambitions, but now felt
himself to be an individual, not a member of that group, which was
In this letter written by Tolkien at age 24 we see a person sensitive and
capable of affection, but not nostalgic, looking towards the future rather
than the past of his adolescence.
At the end of the Fifties the almost seventy-year-old Tolkien had been a
“mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things”: his LotR
had been received with enthusiasm by many people and would be by many
more. He had wedded Edith, his “Luthien”, had the family to which he
had ardently aspired, met new and congenial friends, in first place C. S.
Lewis, and had been able to express his philologist’s vocation as
professor at the University of Oxford. Why then the boredom, the prison?
try looking at things from another perspective: now his magnum opus,
LotR, was finished
and Tolkien had taken his leave of it; he was now retired and no longer a
teacher, his children had grown up and left home, he but rarely saw Lewis
and his other friends, he and Edith now began to experience directly the
problems of old age. In his philosophical writings from those years he
takes up again his thoughts on immortality; there are three sorts: 1) the
“true” variety which coincides with the death of those, like Men, who
have a “short span of life”; 2) the “mad” sort of those who are
long-lived but become Slaves of Power, such as the Nazgûl; 3) the
“melancholic” type of the long-lived who become progressively less
interested in the future and more in the past, such as the Elves.
was thinking of three kinds of lives, one brief and two long. What had he
in mind? Did the brief life remind him of his own parents and his TCBS
friends who died young, with respect to whom he felt some guilt at having
survived for so long? Did the long and
mad life face him with the temptation to congratulate himself for
the success of LotR and to try
and increase his popularity (although this temptation seems to have been
weak)? Did the long and melancholic life remind him of the important
things in his life that were now in the past, now that he faced old age
and increasing solitude?
was not a narcissist like Heidegger (who made precise provisions in his
will for the posthumous issue at regular intervals of his unpublished
writings, so that he would continue to be talked about, a
culture-infesting “Serial Spectre”!)
and in fact referred to the popularity he gained through LotR
as a “deplorable cultus”. He probably felt himself most at risk from
the third sort of life – melancholic Elvish longevity – that life of
which he wrote in a letter of this period: Elvish immortality too has a
weakness, because the Elves yearn for the past and have no wish face
change, so they also seek a (limited) power, that to preserve things from
underlines that Tolkien had always tried to prevent an important change in
his own field of interest and activity: the academic extinction of the
Venerable Comparative Philology.
But in the letter cited previously Tolkien wrote that with the fall of
Sauron’s Power the Elves’ efforts to preserve the past also fell to
pieces! What does this idea mean? It occurs to me that with the fall of
Hitlerian nationalism the efforts of philologists to preserve the academic
and effective status of philology – which had been born and cultivated
in its golden years for nationalistic purposes
– also disintegrated, or at least started to.
also comes to mind that Tolkien, in that he was an Elf (i.e. an artist and
would have considered his own longevity to be “natural”: and Carpenter
tells us that during these years and after, right up to the end, Tolkien
continued to work indefatigably at fiction and philology. But as a Man,
did he also see it as “natural” (or, rather, as “serial”?) that he
survived his long-lost TCBS friends, together with the multitude who died
in the Second World War (including the greatest medieval scholar of
the 20th century, Marc Bloch, murdered by the Gestapo because
he belonged to the French Resistance)? It is difficult to reply to these
questions, but it seems to me necessary at least to ask them in the
context of a serious consideration of Tolkien’s “artistic experiments”
and “philosophical reflections” on Death and Immortality (that is,
a 1958 letter, Tolkien makes clear that the Elvish so-called immortality
is not “true immortality”, but “strictly longevity coextensive with
the life of Arda”.
Arda: in other words, this World! And – we know - the World
continued to exist throughout the Sixties and early Seventies of the 20th
Century: Tolkien was of course “coextensive” at least to those
decades, but did he perhaps feel himself “disappearing” or
“fading” as he speculated about the Elves during the Age of Men?
feeling, a temptation, probably. But – I believe – this was not
dominant in his life: Carpenter narrates that the later years of
Tolkien’s life were full, if not of interpersonal relations, at least
the desire for contacts with
his wife, children, fans, ex-colleagues, even with passing guests at the
Miramar Hotel.... I am sure that he, as a Man, was able until the end to
come out of himself and his “hoarding memories” and – through
others’ love for him and his for them
– to live in the present!
concluding, I must briefly turn also to Tolkien’s “Elvish” side, as
a scholar of the human sciences and – especially – a great artist.
Although he yearned to compose a “mythology for England”, as John
Rateliff points out, the result was a “mythology for our times”,
because LotR has been
translated into 38 languages. The majority of his readers have never been
to England, and those in Germany – England’s mortal enemy of
sixty-five years ago – prefer this book to the Bible and the books of
their fellow-German writer Thomas Mann.
Tolkien was able to witness this great public appreciation and he was
amazed: after all, he had written LotR
primarily for his own pleasure and as an “experiment” in the induction
of “secondary beliefs”.
did Tolkien mean by “experiment”? Carpenter has Tolkien say, on a
typical Inklings’ Thursday evening: certain books reawaken desires that
should not be reawakened, such as pornographic books, but the desires
reawakened by books about fairies are of a different kind; he who reads
pornography would like to live in reality situations similar to those
described in print (and is disappointed when he does), whereas he who
reads the chapter on Moria in LotR
does not want to really “experiment” the dangers of that mine. Lewis
replies: the pornographic imagination empties reality and renders it less
appetizing, whilst the story of an enchanted forest has the effect that a
child can then appreciate real forests more.
Shippey writes a most interesting thing about philology in his historical
itinerary: the flourishing of this discipline in the 19th
century led to the discovery of the Goths, Huns and other Northern
cultures, and to the philologists of the time (and to Tolkien) it seemed
possible to at least get close to reconstructing the “Lost Worlds” of
these peoples. The philological technique of “reconstructing” inspired
in them a romantic desire of this sort, whereas the philologists of today,
including Shippey, consider it to be impossible to achieve: too few
documents survive. If a reconstruction may be made of these Dark Ages, it
is only by means of a novelist’s imagination, as William Morris and then
Tolkien himself tried.
I personally suspect that when philology’s limits became apparent to
Tolkien, not only in connection with its declining academic and social
role which was mentioned above, but also for the structural and intrinsic
reasons recounted in this paragraph, he increasingly sought another path
for the “re-enactment” which he wanted in his fiction, the writing
that at times he called “my real work”.
things are not quite that simple: on the one hand, in 1961 he still worked
as a philologist for the critical edition of Ancrene
Wisse, and on the other, the continual additions and changes made to
the endless Silmarillion no
longer had for Tolkien the same meaning that the composition
of the LotR and the Silmarillion
itself had had when, years previously, he had wanted to publish it
together with LotR. Youth is
not like old age! All thing change (and pass): Tolkien was continually
more aware – and he expressed this – that things had also changed in
himself as a novelist, and his resources were not infinite. Tom Shippey,
in his analysis of the 1965 allegorical fable The
Smith of Wootton Major, emphasizes that Tolkien identifies with the
blacksmith protagonist and adds that at that time Tolkien perceived that
both philology and the World of Faerie (fiction, artistic creation) had by
now finished to make their contribution to Tolkien the individual,
although not to the others who would cultivate and develop them in their
In other words – with respect to the Nineteen-Thirties when Tolkien, in
his lectures and writings on Beowulf and On Fairy-stories,
self-confidently proclaimed the power of philology and creative fiction (respectively)
– now, in 1965, although continuing to praise their benefits, he also
pointed out limits, both intrinsic and as redeeming resources for
too is, I believe, a Tolkienian “Eulogy of Finitude”: either Philology
and Fiction are good things, but finite, certainly to be appreciated, but
conclude with the consideration that this conviction, at which Tolkien
arrived only after due philosophical reflection, in old age, he
nevertheless “acted out” or lived without explicit awareness
throughout his entire life. In Tolkien fantastic invention was never
a substitute for real life (a form of “pornography for intellectuals”):
not with respect to interpersonal relationships, nor responsibilities in
work, nor the seriousness of his academic research. Luthien did not
substitute Edith, Middle-earth was not a substitute for that Europe which
he lived through and the Annals of the Silmarillion
did not take the place of considered hypotheses based on medieval
texts. But the creations (“subcreations”!) of fantasy helped him to
achieve a greater involvement in these experiences of his life. This
process continued during the last stage of his life – that of old age
and solitude - when Tolkien however continued to philosophize and write
about the Elves’ longevity and the mortality of Men. De
te fabula docet!
translation by Jimmy Bishop]
Not in those published during his lifetime; among posthumous
works, Plato appears once in The Notion Club Papers in the
context of the myth of Atlantis, which is connected with that of Nùmenor
(Sauron Defeated, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1993, p.
249), and there is also a passing reference to the little-known German
philosopher Theodore Haecker (Letters, George Allen & Unwin
Ltd., London, 1981, p. 419), but the context of the quotation - where
Haecker is associated to the philologist Bazell and the
“normativeness” of Latin language is recalled - makes me think that
Tolkien was referring to Haecker's book on Virgil, a literary essay, not
a philosophical one (Virgil, Father of the West, translated by
Arthur Wesley Wheen, Sheed & Ward, London, 1934 )..
cit, n. 131, p. 151.
 Email to me, 21.08.09.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The
Morgoth's Ring, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1994, p.
Summa Theologiae, pars prima secundae partis, quaestio
34, art. 2.Aquinas distinguishes three kinds of “pleasure” (“pleasure”
is the feeling which follows a fulfilled desire of a “good thing”[bonum]!)
based on three kinds of “bonum”: a) “bonum per se”, id est
“per suam naturam”; b) “bonum convenisens secundum dispositionem”
(not universally, always) but in relation with some “not natural”
circumstances, for example for a ill man some plants are
medicines for him while are poisonous for healthy men; c)
“apparens bonum”, when a man is wrong in his thought and thinks good
what is evil instead. For
me is evident the parallelism between Tolkien's “natural desire” and
Aquinas's “bonum per se” , between Tolkien's “personal desire”
and Aquinas's “bonum secundum dispositionem”, between Tolkien's
“illusionary desire” and Aquinas's “apparens (false) bonum”.
See Chapter 3 in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, George
Allen & Unwin, London, 1978.
Claudio Testi has purchased Tolkien’s copy on the collectors’
market and received a positive expertise
by Carl Hostetter.
 The Morgoth's Ring, cit, p. 320.
 Summa Theologiae, pars prima secundae partis, quaestio 40, artt. 1,3,6.
Summa Theologiae, pars secunda secundae partis, quaestio 18,
art, 4, ad secundum et ad tertium. On Aquinas as a Tolkien's source see
by Bredley J. Birzer, Aquinas,
in Michael Drout (editor), J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Scholarship
and Critical Assessment, Routledge, New York and London, 2007, p.
See Gergely Nagy, Plato, in
J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, cit, p. 513. And
Gregory Bassham: “Tolkien's
repeated use of the term "demi-urgic" (e.g., Morgoth's Ring
332) to describe the creative/shaping activity of the Valar (borrowed
from Plato's Timaeus); Numenor as based on Plato's story of
Atlantis in Critias; the Ring as based on Gyges's ring in Republic,
Book 2; reincarnation of the elves (likely borrowed from Plato, esp. the
Phaedo).” (from an email to me, 15th June 2009)
John Willim Houghton, Augustine in the Cottage of the Lost
Play. The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmogony, in Jane Chance
(editor), Tolkien the Medievalist, Routledge, new York
London,2003, pp.171-182. And also by the same:
Augustine of Hippo, in
J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, cit, p. 43.
Tom Shippey, Tolkien, Author
of the Century,
Publishers, London, 2000, pp. 128-142. And Gregory Bassham: “The
question of how much philosophy Tolkien read is probably unanswerable.
However, two philosophical works he almost certainly would have had in
his library are (1) Alfred's translation of of Boethius's Consolatio
and (2) Chaucer's translation of the same. In fact, Boethius seems to
have influenced Tolkien fairly heavily. His solution to the freewill/divine
foreknowledge problem in Osanwe-kenta and elsewhere is identical
to Boethius's (God is outside time, so strictly there is no
foreknowledge). Also, Tolkien's use of the term "consolation"
for one of the three benefits of fantasy-reading (escape, recovery,
consolation) likely derives from Boethius. Also, Tolkien's insistence
that evil is a privatio is likely due mainly to Boethius (though
Boethius himself borrowed the idea from Plotinus and Augustine). Some of
Tolkien's ideas on "chance" and "luck" may also be
indebted to Boethius's Consolatio. Tolkien certainly had
Chaucer's translation of Boethius' Consolatio in his personal
library. For many years Tolkien served as co-editor of the Clarendon
Chaucer, but eventually had to bow out prior to publication. (See Scull
and Hammond, Chronology, p. 121f.) He wanted to produce a new
text of Chaucer but was obliged by the Press to use Skeat's Chaucer's Poetical
Works. That edition includes the whole of Chaucer's translation. As
for Alfred's translation: as one of the world's leading Anglo-Saxon
scholars, Tolkien surely would have had essentially every surviving
Anglo-Saxon text in his personal library ” (from an his email to me ,
June 15th 2009).
Michael Drout (editor), J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.
Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Routledge, New York and London,
2007. Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull, J. R. R. Tolkien Companion
and Guide. Reader's Guide, HarperCollins, London, 2006.
cit., , n. 26, n. 49, n. 153, n. 156, n. 183.
Ibidem, n. 15, n. 49, n. 52,
Ibidem, n. 153, p. 189 (implicitly showing, it seems to me, that
he knew some of them!).
ibidem, n. 157, n. 211, n. 199
ibidem, n.155, n. 84, n. 156: in the latter, it is interesting to
note that “religion” is equivalent to “myth” (“story”, in
Greek) and to tangible “representativeness”, as he also says more
than once in his work On Fairy-stories (but without ever giving
ibidem, n. 84.
Cf. Tom Shippey Goths and Huns in Roots and Branches.
Selected Papers in Tolkien, Walking Tree Publisher, Zollikofen (Switzerland),
Monsters and the Critics,
in The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays, George Allen
and Unwin, London, 1983
J.R.R. Tolkien, Sauron Defeated, cit.,
pp. 159, 178.
Wholly deliberate, I think: for example, in the preparatory
versions of the lecture On the Fairy Stories Tolkien
writes the name of Carl Gustav Jung, while in the definitive one
he only quotes the word 'archetype'
but omits the name of the psychiatrist (see
Tolkien on Fairy Stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger e
Douglas A. Anderson, HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2008, pp. 129,
Set in Magdalene College in the evening at a date between autumn
1940 and December 1941; see Chapter 3 in
Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, George Allen & Unwin
Publishers, London, 1978
They are against Karl Marx and the theologian Karl Barth., ibidem.
Several personal communications with Shippey .
See Shippey’s (I think rightly) critical comment concerning the
father of Anglo-American analytical philosophy G. E. Moore in his Tolkien,
Author of the Century, cit, p. 158, and also this personal
intervened in an interview among philosophers at Oxford once, querying a
point about language - the thesis was about the distinction in Augustine
between 'God' and 'a god', and I said 'but Augustine wrote in Latin,
where there is no such distinction. How can you tell?' - and this caused
a most violent inter-college and inter-disciplinary dispute. WH Auden,
Tolkien's friend, wrote a sarcastic verse about Oxford philosophers”,
(from an email to me, 14th july 2009).
Patrick Curry’s opinion is similar (though not identical) to
mine: “I have never heard from anyone that Tolkien ever read any
philosophy, I'm afraid; and that is my subjective impression too. If you
are looking for a direct connection, I think you will be disappointed.
(Of course, his work has deeply philosophical implications, but that's
another matter!)” : from an email to me dated 21st March
2009. John Garth said: “I've seen none of these names in Tolkien's
writings, published or unpublished; I've never seen a philosophical
title among lists of his books; and I can't think of any of his papers
at the Bodleian which have a philosophical bent. The closest, I suppose,
is On Fairy-stories”. (from an email to me dated 26th
March 2009). Either John Garth: “I've
seen none of these names in Tolkien's writings, published or unpublished;
I've never seen a philosophical title among lists of his books; and I
can't think of any of his papers at the Bodleian which have a
philosophical bent. The closest, I suppose, is On Fairy-stories”(from
an email to me, 26th March 2009). Either Dimitra Fimi: “I
am afraid I do not know enough to help you. I have looked at Tolkien's
books in the Bodleian and in the English Faculty at Oxford, but I cannot
remember any philosophy books within them (although I was looking for
different things so I might have overlooked them)”, (from an email to
me, 5th April 2009). And the same I could see by myself,
since last August I went to consult manuscripts and books in both those
As noted by W. A. Senior, Loss Eternal in Tolkien's Middle-earth,
in George Clark and Daniel Timmons (editors), J.R.R. Tolkien and His
Literary Resonances, Greenwood Press, Westport – Connecticut,
2000, p. 173.
Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, HarperCollins
Publishers, London, 2005, p. 301.
Tom Shippey, Roots and Branches. Selected Papers in Tolkien,
Walking Tree Publisher, Zollikofen (Switzerland), 2007, pp. 317, 383.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Morgoth's Ring, cit.
Ibidem, p. 317.
Ralph C. Wood. The Gospel According to Tolkien. Visions of the
Kingdom in Middle-earth, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, p. 159.
Anne Mathie (Tolkien and the Gift of Mortality in www.firstthings.com
, November 2003) comments: “The body and the world of matter are not
something to be escaped or transcended as such. To separate the body
from the spirit, the dweller from the house, is considered to be a
See Claudio Testi, Il Legendarium tolkieniano come meditatio
The Gift of Ilùvatar,
in “The Australian Journal of Theology”, Feb. 2004, issue 2, online:“Here
we touch upon what I believe one of the most important challenges for
Christian theology; our Platonic heritage has meant that the radically
incarnational insight that is at the heart of Christianity has remained
underdeveloped or atrophied. The incarnation's radical affirmation of
the material world, however, lies at the very heart of Tolkien's
theological anthropology.” And Shippey observes: “the theology of
“body and soul” took some time to develop, but it was a favourite
theme for Anglo-Saxon poets and homilists, and there is one mystery
there. One of the most popular sermon collections of the Middle Ages is
known as the “sermones ad fratres in eremo”,
there are hundreds of manuscripts of it, but it is very poor both
theologically and linguistically (the Latin is not distinguished).
No-one knows where it came from, and the Patrologia
editors suggest it must be Belgian, because it often mentions beer! But
it is older than they think (because Anglo-Saxon homilists used it) and
beer does not have to be Belgian (except to a French editor, perhaps).
The point is, though, that by Aquinas’s time the theology is clear:
one should NOT say that the body is evil and the soul is good. But this
terrible simplifying view is what sermons, and poems, creep back to.
Good poets, like Andrew Marvell, are careful to keep the balance. Poor
ones, or thoughtless ones, are likely to make it a fight between good
and evil. I’m sure Tolkien knew the theology of this and was careful
to give full value to the Incarnation, perhaps the more so because he
had read works like the two Anglo-Saxon “Soul and Body” poems.” (from
an email to me,l 27th June
2009). I verified
that among the books formerly owned by Tolkien (and now readable at the
English Faculty Library in Oxford) there is an Old English Homilies (edited
by R. Morris), London, N. Trübner & Co, 1868, and among those
homilies there is one entitled Hic
Dicendum est de Quadragesima where
the author underlines the idea “the
body loves what the soul hates”,
Wood, The Gospel, cit, pp. 158-160
Casey, The Gift, cit. : “Salvation makes no sense unless
it includes the world. Salvation from the world is no salvation as much
as an attempted flight from the disease. But the healing of the world
will not simply restore the world to what it was in some imagined
prelapsarian dawn, but will be something genuinely new. As Saint Paul
explained in his epistle to the Romans: 'It is not for its own purposes
that creation had frustration imposed on it, but for the purposes of him
who imposed it – with the intention that the whole creation itself
might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the same
glorious freedom as the children of God.' The difficulty with the
Platonic flight from the world that is the more traditional path of
sanctity is that it leaves Morgoth's ring intact. The salvation of the
world entails that the ring of the world must also be taken up into God.
And it is we who are to be the agents of the world's divinisation.”
cit., n. 291, p.371.
Christopher Garbowski, Recovery
and Transcendence for the Contemporary Mythmaker, Maria Curie –
Sklodowska University Press, Lublin, 2000, p. 168.
The Road to Middle-earth, cit.,
Cf. Franco De Masi, Making
Death Thinkable. A Psychoanalytic Contribution to the Problem of the
Transience of Life,
Free Association Books, 2004, p. 21.
W. A. Senior writes (Loss
Eternal, cit., p. 173):“I would like to propose one concept that
subsumes many of the others and that concomitantly provides Tolkien with
his most pervasive and unifying component of atmosphere and mood; the
sustained and grieved sense of loss, of which death is but one form,
that floods through the history of Middle-earth”
Franco De Masi, op. cit., pp. 116-118, 137, 105
Vincent Ferré, La Mort
dans Le Seigneur des Anneaux, « seconde partie » in Tolkien:
sur les rivages de la terre du milieu, Christian Bourgois Éditeur,
cit., n. 208, p. 267.
n. 211, p. 284. With regard to this point, see also Peter Kreeft (although,
in my opinion, there is some confusion here): in Tolkien there are two
Immortalities: the false “serial longevity” and the true, a natural
desire to escape death and this is the eucatastrophe described in Leaf
by Niggle; true immortality is a self-purification, self-sacrifice.
There are also two Deaths; the good is the death of selfishness and is
associated with true immortality. Tolkien writes that the greatest acts
of the human spirit are acts of self-denial ( The
Philosophy of Tolkien, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2005, p.
n. 212, p. 285.
n. 181, p.236
John D. Rateliff (“And
All the Days of her Life are Forgotten”, in
Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull [editors], The
Lord of the Rings 1954-2004, Marquette University Press, Milwaukee,
2006, pp. 87-88) summarizes this point: the common property shared by
all the Rings of Power is their ability to slow down the decay of that
which is loved and Tolkien judges this to be a fundamental error of the
Elves: the Numenoreans want to live forever in an infinite present and
the Elves want the past to last forever. Both errors seek to frustrate
the capacity of the future to make its own contributions...but Iluvatar
gives time and death to Men which allow them to create;
the present is not a blank slate, but a freshly cleaned slate (because
the past must give way to the present). The Elves, who cling to the past,
are forced to fade away with it.
See: Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe
translation: Untimely Meditations]
(1873-1876) and Croce, La
storia come pensiero e come azione
[English translation: History as the Story of Liberty] (1938).
cit., n. 153, p.189: “ Elves are certain aspects of Men and their
talents and desires, incarnated in my little world”.
In the Panel Discussion on
Mortality and Immortality held in Birmingham in 2005, to the
question of why the righteous Men (such as Aragorn and the first kings
of Nùmenor) are long-lived, Harm Scelhaas replied that the more a
person “can sustain the life, the more he appreciates the gift of
Mortality at the end” (Tolkien
2005.The Ring Goes Ever On. Proceedings, The Tolkien Society,
Coventry, 2008, p. 46). I do not agree, and offer the following reply:
the idea of longevity as a “reward” is an Old-Testament residue in
Tolkien (the patriarchs) that is perhaps also present in the idea of the
longevity of the Elves, a race which never forms an alliance with Melkor
or Sauron; but it is an anodyne and aborted idea. In fact in many of
Tolkien’s stories righteous Men (and Elves) die prematurely, and
Tolkien could not have forgotten the lives of many Christian believers
and New Testament protagonists, first and foremost that of Jesus: it is
clearly not necessary to be long-lived in order to appreciate the gift
In the Christian tradition the “final things” are: Death,
Judgement, Hell and Heaven.
The “ultimate purpose” is also (from a different standpoint)
known as the “greatest good”: the subject is always Happiness, seen
either as a principle (final cause) of human actions or as a criterion
of preference for comparison between various “goods” when these are
in conflict and a choice must be made.
cit,. p. 23
Recovery and Transcendence,
cit., p. 168, italics added.
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., p. 237. But Gregory
Bassham doesn't agree: “I must disagree with your claim that for
Tolkien "death is not punishment for sin, but inherent to human
nature." Rather, Tolkien presents men as originally immortal (Morgoth's
Ring, p. 332) who, like elves, could die at will, but unlike the
elves, could leave the walls of Arda by means of a bodily assumption (Morgoth's
Ring, p. 333). This power was lost (taken away by Eru) when the
primeval humans "fell" and worshipped Morgoth in the depths of
time. Thus, Tolkien's view is essentially the same as Paul's: "the
wages of sin is death." Contra Shippey, there is no contradiction
in seeing death as both a "gift" (because a healing of
world-weariness) and a punishment for sin (because a deprivation of the
natural felicity that would have been the fate of unfallen man).”,
from an email to me 15th june 2009.In my reply I remembered
him the Letter n. 156 and added: “But
I agree with you that there is no contradiction in thinking that Death
is either a gift and a punishment. It is a classic
Augustinian and Thomistic
doctrine the saying that “poena curat culpam”. And moreover, leaving
aside Augustine and Aquinas, I think that this is what really happens in
human life: the right punishment is a necessary (even if not sufficient)
factor of the healing of the human sin.”
Summa Theologiae, pars prima , quaestio 10, articulus 1.
Immortality and the Death of Love: Tolkien and Simone de Beauvoir,
2005. The Ring Goes Ever On. Proceedings,
cit., p. 127.
cit., n. 156, p. 205.
John Garth,Tolkien and the Great War, Houghton Mifflin
Company, Boston-New York, 2003, p. 109. This must be compared with a
poetic note written by Sigmund Freud, also in 1915, for which he won the
prestigious German literary prize named after Goethe, which was entitled
On Transience. Freud
wrote of a walk in the mountains on the company of a young poet who,
whilst he admired the natural beauty which surrounded them, expressed a
deep sadness at the thought of its impermanence
(The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud , ed. J. Strachey et al., vol. 14, pp. 305-307).
Benedetto Croce, Zur
Theorie und Geschichte der Historiographie,
Mohr, Tübingen, 1915 ; Karl R. Popper,
The Poverty of Historicism (1957); Popper writes
that he arrived at this conviction in the impossibility of predicting
the future in the winter of 1919-1920 “through disappointment with the
mythic, urgent advent of the worldwide Communist revolution”, p. 7.
Another Road to Middle-earth,
in Roots and Branches, cit.,
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., p. 190
Bill Davis , Choosing to
Die: the Gift of Mortality in Middle-earth, in
Gregory Bassham (editor), The
Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, Open Court, Chicago and La Salle,
2003, p. 127: Davis uses the metaphor of a house with no exit (the
Elves’ lives) and another house with an exit (Men’s lives), and asks
where this door leads to – to a good place? To nothing? And he
concludes : “Feeling trapped in a world with no escape, Elves envy
even the possibility of annihilation. In uncertainty and despair most
Men in Middle-earth fear that their fate is annihilation”.
Towards the end of his long life, Norberto Bobbio wrote:
“Everything that had a beginning has an end. Why should my life not
have one? Should the end of
my life, unlike that of other events, both natural and historical, be a
new beginning? Only that which did not have a beginning has no end. But
that which has neither a beginning nor an end is eternal” (De
e altri scritti
Einaudi, Torino, 1996, p. 41).
Simon Critchley, The Book
of the Dead Philosophers, Granta Books, London, 2008, pp. 280-281
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., p. 217.
cit., n. 181, p. 235.
Shippey, The Road to
Middle-earth, cit , pp. 214-215.
Davis, Choosing to Die,
cit., p. 135
Tom Shippey, email dated 5th
October 2008 : “Turning
to the other issue of sadness, why is 'Well, I'm back'
so sad? I would say: 1) first,
it is formally meaningless, in that it says nothing that needs to be
said. Of course he's back. otherwise he would not be there to say "well,
I'm back." So what he says demands another interpretation. This is
what linguists call an "implicature". 2) What is meant to be
implied is, perhaps, that he has come back when he had another option.
And that option was to go with Frodo to the Undying Lands. 3) So he has
come back to the land of mortality, and made, so to speak, il
just like Arwen. This is in a way heroic of him, but taking that choice,
as Elrond says, is a bitter one.
4) But while on the one hand he has come back to Death, for love, he has
also come back to life, for he has his long and successful life ahead of
him, Rose, children, grandchildren, Mayor of Michel Delving etc. 5) So
it is also a very ambiguous moment. (And I think Tolkien perhaps should
not have modified it by stating in the Appendices that Sam in the end
takes the other choice and goes to the Grey Havens, once Rose has died.
Better to leave it as he left the poem on St Brendan, with the person
who has seen the Undying Lands nevertheless returning to and dying in
Middle-earth. But Tolkien was always ambiguous about the voyage over the
Sundering Sea. Some of his characters go, some refuse to go, some come
back...) But I agree with Swanwick, or Swanwick's small son, that it is
a very unexpected and non-Hollywood sort of ending, which Jackson did
well to keep.”
Richard C. West, “Her
Choice was Made and her Doom was Appointed”, in
Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull [editors], The
Lord of the Rings 1954-2004, cit., pp. 326-327.
Casey, The Gift of Ilùvatar,
cit. Either Amaranth (Death in
Tolkien's Legendarium, website of the Valar Guild, 2007) underlines
how the reincarnated Elves normally remain in Aman, returning to
Middle-earth only if they have a particular mission to carry out.
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., pp. 188-189.
I should like to recall here the views of Benedetto Croce (from Frammenti
di etica 
Laterza, Bari, 1981, pp. 23, 25) concerning the themes of death,
immortality and the individual and his mission.
John Garth, Tolkien and the Great
War, cit., p. 180
cit., n. 181, p. 234.
n. 310, pp. 399-400.
happily a story ends, it must end, and that itself is our great sorrow.
All that is beautiful and beloved dies. The Fellowship of the Ring
accomplishes its quest, but with the end of its troubles comes the
separation of its members. Gandalf and the High Elves win the war, but
their own victory banishes them from Middle Earth. With them “many
fair things will fade and be forgotten.” Frodo has saved the world but
now longs to leave it. This has to be one of literature’s saddest
happy endings”: ( Tolkien and
the Gift of Mortality by Anna Mathie, www.firstthings.com,
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., p. 219.
Letter of 3rd February 1916 quoted in Garth, Tolkien
and the Great War, cit., pp. 118-119, 177.
Letter of 30th August 1916 that Smith later sent to
Tolkien, ibidem, p. 185.
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., pp. 308-317.
Vincent Ferré, Tolkien, sur
le rivages de la Terre du Milieu,
cit., p. 274: “Tombeau,
monument, le texte de Tolkien perpétue la mémoire des victimes de la
Guerre de l'Anneau, du passage à l'Histoire et du passage du temps,
comme la chanson qui égrène le nom des disparus ».
pp. 197-199: alliances and groups are necessities of
life, couples survive and those alone die, because individuals
are overcome by hubris, “la
solitude conduit avec certitude à la mort”.
Anna Mathie (The Gift of Mortality, cit.) observes: « This
fertility, this willingness to pass life on to a new generation rather
than grasping for 'endless life unchanging' is the Hobbits’ great
strength, as it should likewise be mankind’s proper strength. It makes
them at once humbler than immortals, since they place less confidence in
their own individual abilities, and more hopeful, since their own
individual defeats are not the end of everything .”
For a synthesis of this development – which in Catholic
teaching culminated with Chapter VII (The Eschatological Nature of
the Pilgrim Church) of the Lumen Gentium
Constitution of the Vatican Council II on “God’s People”
– see the excellent book on historical and systematic theology by
Father Ruiz de la Peña, La
otra dimensiòn. Escatologìa cristiana,
EAPSA, Madrid, 1981, chapters 5- 8 and 11.
See Alex Lewis, The Ogre in the Dungeon, “Mallorn”
issue 47, Spring 2009, p. 15, where the author suggests that the 1939
Andrew Lang Lecture (Tolkien's On Fairy Tales) was provided to
Tolkien by Collingwood himself. And also Tom Shippey: “I know
little or nothing about philosophy, but one philosopher (of history)
whom Tolkien must have known and may have taken an interest in
was Robin G. Collingwood. I think they were both at Pembroke College,
and Collingwood certainly took close interest in fairy-tales, while
Tolkien probably knew and respected his father, the Icelandicist (and
writer of historical novels) W. G. Collingwood”,
(from an email of Tom Shippey to me, 7th February
2009). And also Dimitra Fimi: “Tolkien certainly knew R. G.
Collingwood. In p. 264, note 1 of Collingwood's and Myres's Roman
Britain [full citation:
Collingwood, R. G. and Myres, J. N. L. (1936), Roman Britain and the
English Settlements (Oxford: Clarendon Press)] the authors
acknowledge Tolkien's help with the philology of the name Sulis, the
Celto-Roman goddess of the hot springs at Bath. It also seems that
Collingwood was the reason why Tolkien was consulted on the name "Nodens"
found in inscriptions at the excavation of Lydney Park (Tolkien's piece
has now been reprinted in “Tolkien Studies”, Volume 4, 2007, pp.
177-183).”, (from an email of Dimitra Fimi to me, 5th
April 2009). And also
Anderson, referring to his unpublished lecture of 2004: “Much of the
work that I did do was on the similarity of interests between W.G.
Collingwood, his son Robin, and JRRT, as well as what I could piece
together of R.G. Collingwood's and JRR Tolkien's friendship. I barely
touched on Collingwood's view of history, and there's a lot that could
be said there.” (from an email
of Anderson to me, 8th April
2009). And Claudio Testi read a Tolkien's manuscript (A 14/2, folios 28
and 29, at the Bodleian
Library) where he, after
quoting Bede about the name 'Britain', observe that Collingwood is
writing an introduction to
the history of Roman Britain, but, being mainly a philosopher,
he does not refer neither to literature (unless philosophical)
and to language.(from an email to me, 7th august 2009). I
note that in his book Philosophy
of Enchantment (one
section of which is entitled On
the Fairy Tales: ), written in the same times when Tolkien was
preparing his lecture On the Fairy Stories, Collingwood deals
with topics as the geographic and historical diffusion
of the fairy tales, their relation to “archetypes”, their
function towards the adult people rather than the children. All themes
which in that lecture Tolkien also focused on. I think that the recent
biography of Collingwood (Fred Inglis, History Man. The life of R. G.
Collingwood, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 105, 201, 223),
notwithstanding three quotations of Tolkien's name, is pretty
superficial on the relations between the two authors.
Amongst contemporary philosophers, Collingwood’s ideas
correspond in particular to those of the Italian Benedetto Croce about
whom he wrote several times and whose ideas (on aesthetics and
especially philosophy of history) he spread, directly and indirectly, in
the English-speaking world. William H. Dray, author of the most recent
and complete study on Collingwood which documents his profound and
lasting influence on Anglo-American philosophy of history (History
as Re-Enactment, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, p.
26), felt it necessary to underline that it was untrue that the English
philosopher was “little more than a popularizer of Italian ideas”.
In his intellectual biography of Croce, Fausto Nicolini writes : “the
English philosopher with whom Croce had the closest and most frequent
exchanges of letters and personal contacts was R. G. Collingwood, who
died at little more than fifty years old in 1943. Benedetto Croce began
correspondence with him, then a young Fellow of Pembroke College,
Oxford, in 1912-13, when Collingwood translated for the publisher
monograph on Vico. There followed the translations of Contributo
alla critica di me stesso, Iniziazione all'Estetica del
Settecento, Frammenti di Etica
and also the article on Aesthetics for the 14th edition of
the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These contacts further intensified
in 1923 when Croce went to Oxford where he was subsequently to return
twice ( Croce, UTET, Torino, 1962, p. 485).
The Idea of History, Oxford
University Press , 1946: “The processes of nature can therefore be
properly described as sequences of mere events, but those of history
cannot. They are not processes of mere events but processes of actions,
which have an inner side, consisting of processes of thought ; and what
the historian is looking for is these processes of thought. All history
is the history of thought. But how does the historian discern the
thoughts which he is trying to discover? There is only one way in which
it can be done: by rethinking them in his own mind. /.../ The history of
thought, and therefore all history, is the re-enactment of past thought
in the historian's own mind. This re-enactment is only accomplished, in
the case of Plato and Caesar respectively, so far as the historian
brings to bear on the problem all the powers of his own mind and all his
knowledge of philosophy and politics. It is not a passive surrender to
the spell of another's mind ; it is a labour of active and therefore
critical thinking. The historian not only re-enacts past thought, he
re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge and therefore, in
re-enacting it, criticizes it, forms his own judgement of its value,
corrects whatever errors he can discern in it. /.../Thought
can never be mere object. To know someone else's activity of thinking is
possible only on the assumption that this same activity can be
re-enacted in one's own mind. In that sense, to know 'what someone is
thinking' (or 'has thought') involves thinking it for oneself./.../ And
this does not appear a satisfactory account of historical thought only
to persons who embrace the fundamental error of mistaking for history
that form of pseudo-history which Croce has called `philological
history': persons who think that history is nothing more than
scholarship or learning, and would assign to the historian the
self-contradictory task of discovering (for example) ' what Plato
thought' without inquiring 'whether it is true'. (pp. 215-216, 287, 300)
History of Middle-earth,
vols. 5 and 9.
Verlyn Flieger, Tolkien’s Experiment
with Time in P. Reynolds and G. Goodnight (editors), Proceedings
of the JRR Tolkien Centenary Conference, The Tolkien Society &
The Mythopoeic Press, Milton Keynes and Altadena, 1995, pp. 39 - 44,
translated into Italian by Roberto di Scala in “Terra di Mezzo” n.
7, Spring 1998, pp. 7-14.
cit., n. 181, p. 233.
Of which it unlikely, given their diffusion in many different
areas, that Tolkien knew nothing, as Michael Drout has also said: “The
relationship between Tolkien and philosophers has not been explored as
much as it should be (the focus has been almost entirely on Theologians),
so your research is important. Unfortunately, I cannot help very much.
There have been rumours over the years that a catalogue of
Tolkien's personal library would be published, but that has not yet
happened. I don't know of
any direct evidence, but I would be shocked if he didn't know something
about Spengler and Toynbee, but proving it is another story.”
(from an email to me dated 22nd March 2009).
Der Untergang des Abendlandes
Decline of West), 1918.
A Study of History,
Die Philosophie in der Krisis der europäischen Menschheit
(Philosophy and the Crisis of
European Man), 1935.
Der Mythus des 20° Jahrhunderts (The
Myth of the Twentieth Century), 1934. See an interesting comparison
between Rosenberg's philosophy of history and Tolkien's in: Christine
Chism, Myth and History in World War II, in Jane Chance (editor),
Tolkien the Medievalist, Routledge, New York – London, 2003,
For example: n. 13
pp. 144, 157; n. 211 p. 283, n. 294 p. 376, n. 183 p. 244. Tolkien gave
considerable detail: his own present and that of the readers of LotR
(second half of the 20th century) corresponds to the end of
the Sixth Age or the beginning of the 7th and, since each Age
lasts about 2000 years, between the beginning of the third – and the
events of LotR – and the
novel’s publication there were about 6000 years. The idea of living at
the end of the Sixth Age of the world or the beginning of the seventh is
not original to Tolkien, but first to be found in De temporum
Ratione of the
Venerable Bede, an eighth-century English monk. Since Tolkien had
marked the ends of the First, Second and Third Ages with grandiose
events in Middle-earth in which the forces of good won over those of
evil (the War of Wrath and the expulsion of Melkor; the War of the
Elendil and Gil-Galaad against Sauron with Isildur who takes possession
of the One Ring; the War of the Ring and the destruction of Sauron), it
is interesting to ask which events might have corresponded to the ends
of succeeding Ages. In a spirit of pure speculation, I propose: the
Fourth Age finishes in about 2000 BC at the beginning of the Bronze Age,
when the Indo-European Elamite people defeated and put an end to the
Semitic Sumerian civilization, when the period of anarchy in the
Egyptian Empire ended and the unified Middle Kingdom began, with capital
in Thebes, when the Rigveda, the oldest Hindu text, was written (Hinduism
is the most ancient religion still in existence today). The Fifth Age
finishes around the year zero, when Octavian defeated Anthony and
Cleopatra at Actium (31 BC), impeding the rise of the East with respect
to the West; when Jesus of Nazareth was born as the incarnation of the
Christian God (3 BC); when Jesus Christ was crucified, initiating
universal redemption (AD 30). The Sixth Age finishes with the defeat of
Hitler’s plan to conquer the planet and enforce Nazi methods and
ideology (AD 1945), or when de-colonization freed the peoples of the
Third World from European dominion (1945-1965); or when, with Stalin’s
death and the 20th congress of the PCUS the irreversible
de-totalitarization of the USSR and disintegration of the Third
Communist Internationale began (1953). We should remember that JRRT’s
letter is from 1958.
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., p. 303.
For the links between England’s “finest hour” and the
composition of the LotR, see Franco Manni and Simone Bonechi The
Complexity of Tolkien's Attitude Towards the Second World War, in The
Ring Goes Ever On. Proceedings of the Tolkien 2005 Conference, 50 Years
of the Lord of the Rings, The Tolkien Society, Coventry, 2008, vol.
1, pp. 33-51.
Even less pessimistic than that
one of Christopher Dawson. Tolkien quotes several times Dawson in his
writing On Fairy Tales, and the relation between the two authors
is underlined by Bradley J. Birzer (J R R Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth:
Understanding Middle Earth, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2002)
and by Gregory Bassham (email to me, 15th June 2009).
“Spengler” (pseudonym), Tolkien's Ring: When immortality
is not enough,
in “Asia Times Online Ltd.”, 2003.
W. A. Senior, Loss Eternal in Tolkien's Middle-earth, cit.,
p. 176. On the collective death of peoples and institutions in
Tolkien’s fiction, see also the chapter entitled Le
in Vincent Ferré, Tolkien: sur les rivages de la terre du milieu,
cit., pp. 253-255.
cit., n. 53 p. 65, n. 77 p. 89.
Franco Manni, Real and Imaginary History in The Lord of the
issue 47, Spring 2009, pp. 28-37.
n.153, p. 189: "Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents
"Mentality" is defined as that group of convictions
held by all people in a certain historical and geographical
context, irrespective of education, personal ability, sex, profession,
wealth and age. See e.g. Michel Vovelle, Ideologies and Mentalities, Polity
Press, Cambridge, 1990.
Ballantine Books, New York, 2002, p. 90; Unfinished Tales,
Ballantine Books, New York, 1988, p. 242, 263: “Nay," she said.
"Angrod is gone, and Aegnor is gone, and Felagund is no more. Of
Finarfin's children I am the last. But my heart is still proud. What
wrong did the golden house of Finarfin do that I should ask the pardon
of the Valar, or be content with an isle in the sea whose native land
was Aman the Blessed? Here I am mightier."
Unlike her previous behaviour; cf.
Unfinished Tales, cit., pp. 248-252, 256.
Garbowski, Recovery and Transcendence, cit., p.
Brazos Press, Grand Rapids , 2003, p. 109.
cit., p. 36
cit., n. 337 p. 418.
Cf. Claudio Testi, Il Legendarium, cit..
Humphrey Carpenter, JRR
Tolkien. A Biography, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1977,
cit., n. 5 pp. 9-10.
On this crucial point in life Tolkien’s orientation is
substantially different to that of many of the Great War poets, idealist
and nostalgic, who are well analysed by Paul Fussell in his interesting
and perceptive book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975),
Oxford University Press, , 2000.
See comments by Enrico Berti in his Una metafisica
problematica e dialettica, in Aa. Vv., Metafisica. Il mondo
Bari, 1997, p. 45.
cit., n. 181 p. 236.
Fighting the Long Defeat: Philology in Tolkien's Life and
in Roots and Branches, cit., pp. 139-156.
Cf. Tom Shippey: Grimm,
Grundtvig, Tolkien: Nationalisms and the Invention of Mythologies,
in Roots and Branches, cit., pp. 80-96.
Tom Shippey tells me that in the English-speaking world Germanic
philology is held in such poor repute that there are no longer young
philologists able to edit critical editions of medieval texts in that
family of languages. And my old friend from the Pisa Scuola Normale and
disciple of Gianfranco Contini – Father Saverio Cannistrà –
recounts that the situation is the same today in France and Italy for
cit., n. 181 p. 236: “The Elves represent, as it were, the artistic,
aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature”.
n. 212, p. 285.
According to a 2004
poll of 250,000 German readers: John D. Rateliff,“And All the Days
of her Life are Forgotten”, cit., p. 89.
cit., n. 328 p. 412.
cit., chapter 3.
Goths and Huns: the Rediscovery of Northern Cultures in the 19th
in Roots and Branches, cit.,
pp. 115-136. Now we have the freshly published most explicit Tolkien's
attempt to do that, The
Legend of Sigurd & Gudrùn (HarperCollins, London, 2009), where
he tries to solve – by his artistic means – the Königsproblem
of Germanic Philology.
The Road to Middle-earth,
cit., pp. 271-280; “Defeat hangs heavy in Smith of Wootton Major.
Smith is 'an old man's book', as Tolkien said in Letters, p. 389.
But Alf is there to put Smith in a longer history. There were men
who wore the star of inspiration before Smith; in a later age there will
be others; in any case the star, that inspiration, is only a fragment of
a greater world, a world outside the little clearing of Wootton.”, p.
Complexity of Tolkien’s Attitude Towards the Second World War
Manni and Simone Bonechi
its capacity to warn about such extremes, fantastic fiction has the edge
over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to
avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘Fantasy’ actively embraces them”:
writes John Garth,
who also observes that if the two world wars had not occurred, we would
view JRRT as merely a follower of William Morris: “Middle-Earth looks so
engagingly familiar to us, and speaks to us eloquently, because it was
born with the modern world and marked by the same terrible birth pangs”.
1966 Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (LothR) is,
amongst other things, a collection of statements in which Tolkien (JRRT)
– more or less intentionally – alters the real course of events. For
example, he began writing LothR on 16th December 1937
and not in 1936; he did not visit the Balin tomb at the end of 1940, but
at the end of 1939.
He admitted that the Second World War (WWII) delayed the writing of the
book, but denied that the work made reference to it. His denial consists
of two banal truths (that the book is not a one-to-one allegory, and in
general that a writer cannot remain unaffected by his personal experiences)
and the non banal lie that little or nothing in the book had been changed
by the WWII. JRRT also wished to suggest that if a war had influenced LothR,
this was not WWII, but rather the First World War (WWI). But,
note and suggest
even if it true that the crucial chapter “The Shadow of the Past” was
written before war broke out, it is certainly not true that the menace of
war began in 1939 (as JRRT would like to suggest).
problems (and the “excusatio non petita” nature of the entire
Foreword) derive from at least two causes.
The first is the sum total of JRRT’s ideological and
psychological particularities – which we will return to below – which
make it difficult for him to speak of the events of WWII (like, many years
later, it still is for us: fascism, communism, and the USA remain
controversial subjects, whereas the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Tsar and
the Kaiser are not). The second is that the literary criticism and public
opinion of the time tended much more than now to believe that works of
fantasy were “one-to-one allegories”. Thus Tolkien, in denying the
allegorical nature of LothR, suggested that it was not inspired by
the dramatic events which had taken place. It is true, as he writes, that LothR
has a moral significance (although it is not a political/historical
analysis), but also true that moral values do not appear from nowhere, but
rather from the historical reality in which a writer lives; in this case
the WWII was an extremely important component.
criticism, both out of an exaggerated respect for JRRT’s pronouncements
and a personal tendency on the part of the critics to agree with his
ideology (and prejudices), has often avoided examining the relation
between the important historical events which occurred during JRRT’s
life and his works of fiction, almost as if this analysis – routinely
carried out for Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Dickens - would have been
disrespectful towards JRRT, and has concentrated instead (often with
excellent results) on literary, religious and philosophical roots. In the Proceedings
of the 1992 Oxford Centenary Conference, for example, only Tom Shippey’s
contribution (Tolkien as a Post-War Writer) addressed this aspect.
Today things are changing,
but many Tolkienians could still benefit from a calmer, detached and more
and the War
War is a constant feature of JRRT’s works: not counting the two
major books, whose epic mode requires, as it were, the representation of
the confrontation between Good and Evil as much as the clash of opposing
armies and peoples or the struggle of individuals against monsters and
adverse destiny, even in a more conventional fairy tale like The
Hobbit the real climax is provided by the long and exciting (even if
indirect) description of the Battle of the Five Armies.
This central importance notwithstanding, the theme of war has
seldom been investigated in depth by JRRT’s critics beyond the more
immediate symbolism of the struggle between Light and Darkness. Critics
have usually limited themselves to declaring that JRRT, though hating the
brute destructiveness and the futile horror of war, was not a pacifist,
judging that some wars had to be fought in defence of a good cause.
attention has been given to the question of the representation of war in The
Silmarillion and The Lord of
the Rings, with the aim of evaluating whether the eventual differences
between the two works might be due to a change in JRRT’s attitude toward
the symbolic and historical significance of war, and to try to understand
(were these differences found to be substantial) how much the experience
of the two world wars that were fought during the most prolific period of
his literary life had influenced his
writings in this respect.
the present essay we will try to show that such differences in outlook and
representation are to be found between the wars of Elves, Men and Valar in
the First Age and the great War of the Ring at the end of the Third Age
and that they actually reflect a development in JRRT’s thinking directly
connected with the war years.
Tolkien wrote The Fall of Gondolin,
the first of the stories that would one day form The
Silmarillion, the Battle of the Somme was being fought and Tolkien
himself had seen some of the severest fighting. It is, therefore, perhaps
understandable that his first story should take the form of a bitter
conflict, that this and the other tales and poems that came to be put
together in the vast collection first assembled in the “Sketch of the
Mythology” (1930) related the seemingly hopeless defence of the good
Elves and Men, symbols of what is high, noble and beautiful in humanity,
against the overwhelming host of the tyrant Melko, lord of slaves and
is the meaning of all this? After 1918, Englishmen returning home from the
battlefronts began to relate their experience in the literary terms of
modernism and war-memoirs, of disillusionment and bitter anger against the
“rants and lies” of the pre-war and war period.
What, in this context, can we make of such an epic as JRRT’s? Was
he trying to delude us (and himself first of all) that nothing had changed
since 1914 or was he perhaps struggling for a way to escape from the shock
he had suffered, creating a Secondary World as “a therapy for a mind
wounded in war”?
are not that simple. Far from escaping or turning a blind eye to the moral
and cultural consequences of the Great War, we know that JRRT cloaked
“such knowledge as he has and such criticisms of life as he knows it,
under mythical and legendary dress.”
Totally committed to pre-modernist values in literature and philosophy, to
the traditions that the new culture emerging from the post-war years was
threatening, he reinvigorated them for the struggles ahead. His personal
inclinations combined with the cultural dislocation of the era to make him
express all this in epic/fantastic mode. JRRT himself tells us as much in
his letters to his son Christopher, written when another, still more
destructive, conflict was raging.
: the First World War and The
starting from these premises, we take a closer look at the background in
which the Wars of the Jewels are set, in order to define their distinctive
features, we are confronted with a panorama in which the discourse on war
is developed into a critique of man in general and of the world of the
first quarter of the twentieth century in particular.
production of arms by the Noldor is a direct result of the lies and snares
sowed by Melkor/Morgoth among them in Valinor,
and of the visions of “the mighty realms that they could have ruled at
their own will, in power and freedom in the East”, if the Valar had not
“kept them captive”, so that the weaker and short-lived race of Men
“might come and supplant them in the kingdoms of Middle-earth.”
In direct response to these insinuations and to the pride and jealousy of
Fëanor, the Noldor revolt, flee Valinor and, killing their own kindred at
Swanheaven, are cursed to endure sorrow, treachery, the vanity of their
efforts and a hopeless death. For the war they brought to the Blessed Land
they will have to pay with endless war. Thus war, rather than mere
homicide, is chosen to represent here the Original Sin that definitively
Noldor reach Middle-Earth and establish many realms there, but they are
divided among themselves and mistrusted by the Sindar Elves and the
Dwarves, their allies against Morgoth. They are befriended by some of the
new race of Men, but many others join Morgoth and fight bitterly against
them. As prophesised, all their victories turn to sorrow and in the end
all their lands are laid waste. And even if
Morgoth is eventually defeated by the intervention of the Valar,
the cause the Noldor chose to embrace is lost, their pride humbled, the
“power and freedom” they came to conquer revealed as self-delusions.
are the points of contact between this story and the political and
cultural scenery of the early twentieth-century world. The Noldor seeking
to conquer “mighty realms” to be ruled “in power and freedom in the
East” makes one think of the European and American colonial powers, that
by 1914 had extended the “white man’s rule” over the peoples of the
east and south of the world, in a race for power and mastery that would
soon lead to the conflagration of the Great War. Compare all this with the
motivations of a great Elven chief like Fingon or even Galadriel, who was
inflamed by the words of Fëanor, “for she yearned to see the wide
unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.”
is not only imperial hubris that JRRT is criticizing here: in exposing the
evil side of these rousing speeches, all “liberty and a place in the sun”,
he rejects the jingoistic, revanchist enthusiasm that had taken hold of
the West since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and had been
celebrated in England by Rudyard Kipling, in poems like The
White Man’s Burden (1899) and in stories like The
Man who would be King (1888).
And in the Sil we also see the Numenoreans conquering lands in the
East “rather as lords and masters and gatherers of tribute, than as
helpers and teachers”.
divisions among the Elves and their allies echo those between the Entente
Powers (all bent on pursuing their own nationalistic goals) and point to
the difficulty of choosing “the right side” in a conflict in which all
the warring camps seemed engaged in the same scramble for supremacy.
picture of a generally corrupted moral landscape in pre-war Europe is
reinforced when one looks at the radically negative outlook JRRT takes of
industrialism and the consequent mechanization of warfare, a “taint”
from which none of the warring states could claim itself free. The forging
of weapons by the Noldor and the mechanical-like monsters devised by
Morgoth for his attack on Gondolin are the epic representations of man’s
egotistic desire to dominate nature and coerce other wills, a desire
intrinsically evil and self-destructive.
features and events of the actual war find a close correspondence in
JRRT’s depiction of some of the conflicts of the Wars of the Jewels. The
first three Battles of Beleriand, during which Morgoth’s onslaughts are
defeated and repulsed by the Sindar (the First) and the Noldor (the Second
and Third) can be seen to mirror Germany’s 1914 offensives, stopped by
the Allies at the Marne, on the Yser and at Ypres. These led to the
stabilization of Western front and the beginning of the four-year-long,
siege-like trench stalemate, much as the Third Battle of Beleriand (Dagor
Aglareb) led to the Siege of Angband, “which lasted wellnigh four
hundred years of the Sun.”
of the gruelling fights of 1916 and, especially, the appearance of the
tank are echoed in the Fourth Battle of Beleriand, Dagor Bragollach, where
Glaurung breaks through the lines of the Elves, (with more success than
British armoured vehicles on the Somme).
the Silmarillion perhaps depends more heavily on the actual events
and overall feelings of the Great War in the chapter describing the Union
of Maedhros and the disastrous Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Fifth Battle. The
mustering of strength for the grand assault on Angband, the summoning of
allies from every nation of Beleriand (Sindar, Edain, Dwarves, Men of the
East), the planning of a two-pronged offensive from West and East, all
seem to echo the preparations made for the great Allied offensives of
1917, planned in the inter-allied Chantilly conference of November 1916.
escalated warfare of the 1917 and 1918 battles, involving tanks, airplanes,
gas bombs, heavy artillery, flamethrowers, trench mortars and light
machine guns in ever increasing numbers reverberates in the long and
furious fighting of the Nirnaeth, the bloodiest battle of the Wars, with
the Elves and their allies contesting the full might of Morgoth’s “new
weapons”: wolves and wolfriders, Balrogs and dragons and the Great Worm
Glaurung. And the treachery that wrecks the Eastern Army and destroys the
hope of the Elves cannot fail to make one think of the Russian Revolution
and the crumbling of the Eastern Front in 1917.
this discussion, we can see that war in The
Silmarillion is presented, without qualifications, as just one of the
consequences of the Fall, a mala
planta grown out of the lies of Morgoth and the pride and
possessiveness of the Noldor. Though JRRT thought at the time that, “for
all the evil on our part”, the Great War was “in the large view good
when he pictured war in his writings he chose to put the stress on its
wicked roots, on endless defeat rather than ultimate victory.
the heroism and sacrifice of the Elves, like that of the English, Italians,
Frenchmen and Russian and also Germans and Austrians, really comes to
nought, as the Elven realms are swept away and the real world plunged into
a new war twenty years after the end of the first. “I have seen three
ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless
victories”: these sorrowful words could as well have been on the lips of
many a diplomat present at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, when it
started all over again in the autumn of 1939, though perhaps only a very
few, even after the “War to end all Wars”, really had “deemed that
evil was ended forever.”
Elrond we hear JRRT speaking: Lieutenant JRRT who beheld the horrors of
the Somme and Professor JRRT expressing, many years later, his “comment
on the world” and its history in the epic words of The
But where poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and T.S. Eliot saw in
the war only old lies and waste lands, and memorialists like Robert Graves
wrote to say Goodbye to all that,
meaning that the war had opened an impassable rift between the Belle
Èpoque and the post-war, “modern” world, JRRT refused to consider
the conflict and its aftermath only in terms of disenchantment and
disillusion (though he was well aware of them and would give a poignant
portrait of the “disillusioned veteran” describing the life of Frodo
back in the Shire), and chose to resolve them in a timeless epic about
good and evil, beauty and
loss, noble values and self-destructive egoism.
looking at the great canvases of history, rather than concentrating on the
contingent details of the memorialists and the poets, JRRT saw the Great
War as one of the countless wars in the great struggle of man against
“the monsters”: a burden to be carried, a punishment to be endured. In
the mythological timelessness of The
Silmarillion, with all the physical and moral disruptions of a futile
war weighing heavily on his mind, the keynote is still on tragedy, loss
and endless defeat. The epic romance of The Lord of the Rings,
written during a second world war, will give him space, “a good many
Orcs on our side” notwithstanding, to strike the chords of loyalty,
glory, courage and (not so fruitless) victory. Stuart Lee writes:
“Unlike the Second World War, which more easily falls into the 'just
war' definition of right versus wrong, the First World War appears as a
conflict with aims that were quickly lost”.
on the Relationship Between LothR and the Second World War
Jackson said: “It’s easy for people to speak of the theme of Lord
of the Rings as though it were a classical struggle between good and
evil. But it’s not that
simple; Tolkien hated war, the futility and devastation of war, but he
also said that sometimes there are things worth fighting for. Above all,
freedom. Those who are
enslaved, who are victims of the horrors of invasion and oppression, are
right to offer resistance. This is the theme of the Second World War.
The First World War was merely futile and devastating, a stupid war
which should not have been fought. The Second, though, if it’s possible
to justify war in the 20th century independently of one’s
personal position towards war, had to be fought. I believe that
Tolkien judged the War of the Ring – which I have portrayed in the film
– as a war to be fought”.
And Ian McKellen said: “Tolkien and I both lived through the Second
World War, and he was writing this during the war, and I was sleeping
under a metal shelter in the north of England waiting for the bombs to
fall. So there was a Sauron around. And although he doesn’t think of it
as an allegory for the Second World War, how could he not be affected?
/.../ Whenever I had to think, What is Sauron? I would think of Hitler.
He’s the great evil force of our time, and certainly of Tolkien’s.”.
Whether or not the majority of Tolkienian critics and others find
references to the wars of the 20th century, or only to WWI, in LothR,
Jackson and McKellen are of a different opinion, and they are not alone.
For example, Philip French writes: “Traditional
quests are in search of some numinous object that confers power and a
special grace on its owner. But Tolkien, writing after the Nazis had come
to power and during the Second World War, thought Wagner's interpretation
of the ancient Ring stories was dangerously perverse. So he made the
object of Frodo's journey not a search for power but its abnegation. The
aim is to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it in the Fire of
Doom where it was originally forged.”.
Edmund Fuller: “It has for me an allegorical relation to the struggle of
Western Christendom against forces embodied, successively but overlapping,
in Nazism and Communism. The work was conceived and carried forward when
the darkest shadow of modern history was cast over the West and, for a
crucial part of the time, over England in particular”.
And John Reilly: “No
medieval epic, and indeed no epic of which I am aware, conveys the sense
of the world in motion that the Lord of the Rings does. The work is
more like The Winds of War than Le Morte d'Arthur."
And Isabelle Smadja: “Despite Tolkien's protests to the contrary, the
moral universe of LothR is recognizably that of the Second World
And Joe Hartney: “However,
it is worth considering why this novel has proven to be so popular. My own
view is that it is a Second World War story displaced to the realms of
magic and mythology. Tolkien's tale of the reluctant hero suddenly drawn
into a global struggle of good against evil reflects the official
presentation of the Second World War still familiar to us today. The sense
of menace and threat, especially in the first book of the trilogy, surely
reflects the anxiety of the liberal world faced with the military
successes of the Nazis.”
Keith Akers: “Reading LothR, one seems to be caught up in a world
which is very similar to how we remember the Second World War: as an epic
struggle of good versus evil. For most of us, the Second World War was
surely justified: and surely the violence used in resisting the evil
Sauron in LothR would be justified /.../ I think it is best just to
admit at the outset that the way in which Tolkien is able to evoke the
ethos of the Second World War, in a mythical way, is absolutely uncanny.
In both the battles of Middle Earth and the Second World War we had an
epic, universal struggle of good versus evil. Many tried to remain neutral,
but found it impossible. Frodo, Gandalf, and friends are not just up
against a personal evil, but against universal evil, involving them
in a struggle which obliterates all other petty struggles and concerns”.
Charles Nelson wrote: “Saruman’s long disquisition on the exercise of
power refers to the old order and former alliance that must be set away
along with sneering asides about the fading races /.../ His argument
echoes Hitler’s justifications for WWII”.
Brian Rosebury is of the opinion that Tolkien would not have been able to
write LothR if he had not lived in the 20th century. “LothR
describes a continental war in which the survival of whole peoples and
cultures is at stake”.
And Christopher Garbowski: “In the foreword to the American paperback
edition Tolkien drew attention to the impact of WWI on his imagination,
but he did not in fact deny the impact
of WWII. You could almost call them one war. Much like the War of
the Ring, in fact, includes the war of the Last Alliance/.../ When I read
the chapters on the Riders of Rohan's participation in rescuing Gondor I
think of the participation of Polish
soldiers on many fronts of WWII ‘For your freedom and ours’, as it is
written on their section of the war cemetery at Monte Cassino. The
choice Polish soldiers had to
face of whether to continue to support the Western
Allies after it was clear that the Soviets had overrun Poland was a
monumental one, and one that has hardly been recognized by the
rather ungrateful Western Europeans.”
John A. Ellison, comparing LothR and WWII, writes: “One
may continue by remarking on the odd but diverting impression of
amateurishness pervading much of The Fellowship of the Ring; not on
Tolkien's part, one hastens to add, but on that of the participants. 'And
you are lucky to be alive too, after all the absurd things you have done
since you left home’, says Gandalf to Frodo at Rivendell. He too, though,
has been markedly 'slow in the uptake', in reaching vital conclusions
about the Ring, in the light of all the evidence that he had had available
to him. If there is really a war in progress, being fought in order to
meet and destroy a deadly menace of worldwide proportions, is not this a
somewhat casual way of preparing for it, and carrying it on? Tolkien
himself remarked on the evident contrast of tone between the bulk of FotR
[Fellowship of the Rings] and LotR as a whole. Does this not
faintly recall the wholly distinct atmosphere that pervaded the early
months of wartime; the sense of unreality that acquired the nickname of
'the Phoney War'. A sense of unreality that, in the months before
Churchill became Prime Minister, arose from indications apparent to
everybody of general unpreparedness, incompetence in high places, and
military bungling of this and that kind. It was not long, of course,
before this sense faded from everyone's consciousness as the total
dedication and professionalism with which war came to be carried on, took
over on all fronts and at home. 'Total war' came to mean concentration on
everyone's part, in or out of the forces, on the single objective of the
defeat of the Axis powers to the exclusion of everything else. The latter
course of the War of the Ring seems to reflect this attitude of mind, as
much in regard to Gandalf as in any other respect. When he reappears, to
the astonishment of Merry and Pippin, amid the debris of Isengard, he has
changed in a way they find difficult to understand. He acts as a briskly
professional commander in the field; with, 'ten thousand orcs to manage',
he has no time on his hands for acting as a father-figure for a pair of
rather puzzled hobbits. In a similar fashion the 'Strider' of the earlier
stages of the 'History of the War of the Ring' becomes more impersonal and
remote as 'Aragorn', as the nature of his role changes, and becomes, as
the war moves towards its final issues, concentrated on leadership in the
field, and in battle."
Shippey notes evident connections between characters and scenes in LothR
and recent history: for example between Saruman and many European
intellectuals and their “trahison des clercs” in favour of Hitler and
Stalin; between the perplexities of Frodo at the beginning of the journey
and the inaction of Neville Chamberlain, advocate of the strategy of appeasement
towards Hitler; between Elrond’s memories of the previous victory over
Sauron and the renewal of European conflict between the First and Second
World Wars; between the difficult and inefficient construction of the Wall
of Rammas Echor in front of Minas Tirith and the illusion of
security which the Maginot Line gave to France; between the harsh
conditions of peace dictated by Mouth of Sauron and Hitler’s dominion
over French soil annexed to the Reich after the disaster, whilst the Vichy
puppet government was set up in the un-annexed territory; between the
Shire dominated by Sharkey and the spectre – which hung over Europe
after WWII – of a Soviet-type communism, rhetorical in its
pronouncements as it was criminal in its actions; between Saruman’s
deforestation and pollution and the ecological disasters produced
by communism in the nations of Eastern Europe; between Denethor’s
competitive (and desperate) hatred towards Sauron and the Western nuclear
arms race – potentially suicidal (“better dead than red”) – which
the position of the “Vulgate” of Tolkienian criticism is distant from
the opinion that WWII had a marked effect on the content of LothR.
Janet Brennan Croft has written an entire book – War and the Works of
- which represents well the prevalent conviction amongst Tolkien’s
critics: “thematically and stylistically the LothR is in many
ways more clearly a product of Tolkien’s WWI experiences”.
Both in Croft’s work and in the “Vulgate”– we believe –
the fundamental reason for this position is the uncritical attitude taken
towards JRRT’s Foreword, an approach which has lead even to
accept that LothR was begun in 1936!
propose the following ratio as an analogy. Sil : LothR = WWI
: WWII. Feanor and Fingolfin’s imprudent attacks against Angband,
Hurin’s anger towards Thingol, the vindictiveness of Feanor and his sons,
the isolationist pride of Turgon, Thingol’s avidity, Galadriel’s
desire to dominate, the war of Feanor’s sons against the Doriath, and
Numenorean imperialism resemble the attacks of Joffre’s French army with
“élan vital”, the ultimatums and mobilizations (such that of the Tsar)
which started WWI, the French desire for re-conquest,
Bolshevik Russia’s isolationism, the avidity of the Kingdom of
Italy, the Entente’s support to the war of the “White” armies
against Bolshevik Russia, and British imperialism. The “goodies” of
Sil often have motives which are not good, just as the
Entente powers were impregnated with militarism, nationalism and power
politics. On the contrary, Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, Theoden, and the
“mature” Galadriel have only good motives, just as the four WWII
Allies ( UK, France, US, URSS) had only good reasons for going to war: all
four acted with reluctance to defend their lives and liberty. Furthermore,
the three Western powers also moved to defend freedom in the world and the
dignity of human beings. Shippey points out that Bertrand Russell - a
pacifist during WWI - came to
the painful realization at the outbreak of WWII that pacifism in certain
circumstances is indefensible.
is, in WWII, an ideological and ethical
dimension which is not present in WWI. Just as in LothR in
comparison with Sil .
I proposed this analogy to John Garth – the author of a serious and
erudite biographical study of JRRT’s youth, and in particular of the WWI
years – he replied that it was an “interesting” hypothesis and did
not raise objections to it. But I do not believe that Garth or the
majority of Tolkien scholars are in agreement with the idea.
Composition of The Lord of the Rings
the History of Middle-Earth (HoME) Christopher Tolkien gives
us various indications concerning the compositional chronology of LothR,
indications that are still seldom used in critical studies on JRRT’s
work. My general “weak” hypothesis is that the times and content of
the various parts of
could be related to external WWII events. A “stronger”
general hypothesis is that as it became clear that WWII was going to be
long, the plan for LothR (contents and plot development) was
extended in consequence. In addition (with full awareness that they may be
controversial), I propose specific hypotheses regarding particular moments
during the compositional process.
between 16th and 19th December 1937, three months
after the publication of The Hobbit, JRRT began – in response to
his publisher’s request – to write a sequel (called “New Hobbit”
at first, on 31st August 1938 renamed “The Lord of the Rings”).
On 24th July 1938 the writing had its first halt : JRRT wrote
to the publisher, saying that the sequel had lost his “favour”: Bilbo
was to live happily ever after and the story finish there.
Could it have been that Chamberlain’s strategy of
“appeasement” – which seems in these months to have been
unopposed – demotivated JRRT? But on 28th August Chamberlain,
under pressure from public opinion, decided to make a show of resoluteness
and instructed the ambassador Henderson to warn Hitler with respect to
Czechoslovakia, and JRRT on August 31st wrote to his publisher,
saying that he had started to write again two or three days
previously (at this point he chose the name “The Lord of the Rings”).
Perhaps this presumed political counterattack inspired JRRT’s literary
recovery? In these mere “two or three days”, the story of LothR
takes a leap forwards: the Hobbits finally leave the Shire and pass
through the Old Forest, where they encounter Bombadil and the Barrowight,
and reach Bree.
But on 30th September Chamberlain and Daladier reached an
agreement with Hitler at Munich and many hoped that war has been avoided:
Chamberlain returned to
England a popular hero, speaking of "peace with honour" (echoing
an earlier prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli) and "peace in our
time." And Christopher Tolkien observes that in October 1938 the
nature of the One Ring is long from being elaborated, the vast and distant
lands of Gondor, Lothlorien, Fangorn, Isengard and Rohan do not yet exist
and that in that moment his father thought that after the Misty Mountains
the Ring would be thrown into the chasm of the Fiery Mountain.
Was it that, thinking that with Munich the prospect of war had been
vanquished (in fact it still existed and menaced ever larger and more
distant territories), JRRT decided to put a rapid end to the literary
then became clear that Hitler was not going to be satisfied with the
Sudetans, and France and Britain appeared weak and wrongfooted as in the
worst moments of the appeasement period. In the meantime – December 1938
- JRRT interrupted the writing of LothR.
Perhaps the discouragement and above all the confusion and indecision of
the moment influenced him. JRRT restarted to write his book in August 1939
and on 15th September 1939 (12 days after Great Britain
declared war on the Third Reich), JRRT wrote a letter to his publisher in
which he referred to the “gloom of the approaching disaster”.
In the papers his father wrote in this crucial August, Christopher
finds that he is thinking of radically altering the storyline hitherto
under development: ”New Plot. Bilbo is the hero all through. Merry and
Frodo his companions. This helps with Gollum (though Gollum probably gets
new ring in Mordor)”. And Christopher comments: “The astonishing
suggestion in the first part of this note ignores the problem of ‘lived
happily ever after’, which had bulked so large earlier”.
Maybe JRRT, in the wake of the world-wide conflict found himself facing
the thought – an unconscious thought, I believe – that he should
participate directly (Bilbo = JRRT) and not only through his children
(Merry and Frodo = Michael and Christopher)?
There was along interruption in the composition in late 1939 (tomb
of Balin) and Christopher says that his father was mistaken when he wrote
in the1966 Foreword that this interruption began in 1940.
In a letter to the publisher on 19th December 1939 JRRT speaks
of the “anxieties and troubles that all share”, and says once more
that he has almost finished LothR and will be able to finish it in
spring 1940. Why this continual underestimate on the part of JRRT of the
plot development and the writing timetable? Perhaps the “Phoney War”
made him expect an imminent peace agreement between Britain and the Reich,
and a correspondingly rapid solution (on the level of literary inspiration)
to the drama of Middle-Earth?
After August 1940, JRRT took up the story once more and
wrote the Bridge of Khazad-dûm:
how can one not see a connection between this return of the will to write
and Gandalf’s “You cannot pass!” to Balrog with the Battle of
Britain, the most dangerous part of which, by 15th September
1940, had been won? From late 1940 until the end of 1942 JRRT continued to
develop the story up till the end of the Third Book of LothR, with
the appearance of Lothlorien, the Great River, Rohan, Isengard and Fangorn.
Might one not be reminded of the rapid opening of vast new areas of
conflict in WWII during the same period: Libya, Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria,
Greece and Yugoslavia, then Russia, and later South-East Asia and Oceania
then follows a second long interruption from the end of 1942 until
in November 1942 the Soviet Russians surrounded von Paulus at
Stalingrad and Montgomery defeated at el-Alamein the Italians and Germans
commanded by Römmel, followed in 1943 by the American advances in the
Pacific and those of the USSR in Russia, the fall of Italy, and on 1st
December the Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. On
9thDecember JRRT wrote to Christopher a letter about the
conference of Tehran, in which he deplored “that bloodthirsty old
murderer Josef Stalin”, said that Churchill “actually looked
the biggest ruffian present”, foresaw the
future Americanised globalisation of the world, which he strongly
deplored, and even makes the suggestion that “in the long run” the
Allied victory might not have better results for the world than that of
their enemies would have done.
Perhaps JRRT also took a long break to meditate on the problems of the
Ring, which is to say (as well) those of World Power!.
April until October 1944, JRRT wrote the Fourth Book (Marshes, Ithilien,
Shelob’s Lair and Sam in front of Cirith Ungol) and began Minas Tirith,
the first chapter of the Fifth.
20th October the Allies conquered Aachen (Aquisgranum), the
first city of pre-war Germany to fall, on 15th October the
Russians had overrun Estonia and laid siege to the Germans in Latvia, and
on October 20th they took Belgrade. And in October 1944 JRRT
once more interrupted his writing. We might ask ourselves: in JRRT’s
mind, who is under siege, and by whom? Certainly many literary influences
contributed to the siege of Minas Tirith (the siege of Troy, for example,
as Alex Lewis
saw), together with historical factors: we may hypothesize that, amongst
these, there was a fusion in JRRT’s mind between Britain under siege by
the Nazis in 1940 and Germany surrounded by the Americans and Russians in
long pause in the composition of LothR lasted until September 1946.
The peace treaties signed during this month laid down that Germany would
remain divided in two and the war with the USSR that had been feared (by
did not break out. On 30th September 1946 he announced that he
had restarted writing LothR a week previously,
and towards the end of the year closed the Fifth Book with the chapter The
Black Gate Opens. JRRT remained largely unproductive during 1947. The
main part of the last Book, the Sixth (Mount Doom, The Scouring of the
Shire, etc.), was written in
1948 and finished before 31st October 1948, with revision work
continuing until autumn 1949.
hope not to have irritated those Tolkienians who are convinced that
JRRT’s writing of the book was not influenced by WWII. Each of these
specific hypotheses, taken one at a time, could be mistaken. But I am sure
that the two general hypotheses - that
I suggested at the beginning of this section
- cannot be wrong, and hope that my efforts with respect to the specific
questions serve to provoke stimulating doubts in the minds of other
Tolkien scholars, who might wish to examine the argument in greater depth.
Influence of “History” on “Stories”
that Gandalf, in the chapter The Last Debate, is very occupied with
military matters, but understands that – without the destruction of the
Ring – any victory would be meaningless. This makes me consider the idea
that, if after WWII there had
been no civil reconstruction of moral and social values, the victory of
the Allies would have served no purpose. Dickerson also notes that Gandalf
does not glorify war because he declares that, although war involves
killing, he feels pity for Sauron’s slaves; furthermore, Sauron’s
enemies show mercy towards Gollum.
Consider also how different the behaviour of the Allies in WWII was
towards defeated soldiers and civilians in comparison to that of the Third
Reich (this difference was not present between the two sides in WWI).
Garth writes “The Russian revolution had established the first
totalitarian dictatorship /.../ Lenin became a template for Hitler, Stalin
, Mao and the other political monsters of the twentieth century”.
This reminds me of the regime of Sauron which ruled over Mordor (whereas
there were no totalitarians in WWI).
says to the Council that he has seen “many defeats and many fruitless
victories”, and then states that the victory of the Last Alliance “did
not achieved its end”, that is, it did not manage to destroy Sauron, and
the foundations of the Dark Tower remained, to disappear only with the
destruction of the Ring.
This makes me think of those historians who see WWI and WWII as two phases
of a single war, which they call the “Thirty Years’ War”. This
implies that the second phase – WWII – was different in some way to
the first, because it succeeded in putting an end to the conflict and its
causes, whereas the first did not. Denethor – Gandalf remembers – had
said: “You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but
against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory”.
This brings to mind French defeatism – which prepared the way for Vichy
- about which Marc Bloch has
written so well
and on the subject of which Churchill spoke to the Canadian parliament on
30th December 1941: ”But
their generals misled them. When I warned them that Britain would fight on
alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his
divided Cabinet: ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a
chicken’. Some chicken; some neck.”
figure of Churchill seems to me to have inspired JRRT. I can imagine that
this claim might cause many Tolkienians to knit their brows.
But I think that the human mind is complex, not simple, that it may
contain contradictions and semi-contradictions and that there are various
levels or planes of consciousness, semi-consciousness, pre-consciousness
and unconsciousness. I am well aware of the references to Churchill in
JRRT’s Letters! But I also think that a person can be, more or
less consciously, influenced on some level of his life by another person
whom (on another level) he does not like. Specifically, that the
ideological and political part of JRRT the citizen was a level not
necessarily coherent with the poetic part of the novelist JRRT.
his speeches Churchill often talks about the “Free Peoples”, the
same phrase we often read in
LothR. Gandalf in the Council of Elrond speaks of a wisdom
that could seem madness born of desperation and false hopes, just like
Churchill’s line regarding appeasement and defeatism.
it was that Gandalf took command of the last defence of the City of Gondor.
Wherever he came men’s hearts would lift again/../ Tirelessly he strode
from Citadel to Gate, etc.”:
like how Churchill, after he became Prime Minister, flew often to France
to put fresh life in that government in flight from Hitler. In a speech on
at his old school, Harrow,
he said: “Surely from this period of ten months this is the
lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in
nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to
convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to
the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy”.
wrote that on 3rd September 1939 he went down into the air-raid
shelter armed with a bottle of brandy and observed “They were all
cheerful and joking, as is the habit of the English when they go to meet
the unknown”. This reminds me of Shippey’s words concerning the
Hobbits : “Is it possible to be cheerful and without hope at the same
time? Modern optimistic convention says not/.../ but the Gamgee family
seems to take a skeptical view of that idea : While there’s life
there’s hope, says the Gaffer, conventionally enough, but he usually
tacks on the deflating words, and need of vittles”.
the eve of the crucial Battle of Britain (14th July 1940)
Churchill spoke on the radio: “We
must show ourselves equally capable of meeting a sudden violent shock or -
what is perhaps a harder test - a prolonged vigil. But be the ordeal sharp
or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we
may show mercy-we shall ask for none.
let all strive without failing in faith or in duty”. Words which
resemble those of
Gandalf concerning Sauron and Middle Earth, and his behaviour with regard
of Sauron. In
the same speech Churchill said: “While
we toil through the dark valley we can see the sunlight on the uplands
beyond”. This reminds me of the chapter Helm’s Deep : “So
King Theoden rode from Helm’s Gate and clove his path to the great Dike.
There the company halted. Light grew bright about them. Shafts of the sun
flared above the eastern hills /:::/There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a
rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun.”
his Introduction to the Letters of JRRT Carpenter writes:
“It became obvious that an enormous quantity of material would have to
be omitted”. This is clear to the reader: e.g. in a period as crucial as
that between February 1939 and December 1939 we find not one letter, and
again from March 1940 until the end of September 1940, and from November
1941 to December 1942. With regard to JRRT and WWII we must conclude,
therefore, that the published epistolary material is full of gaps.
states in his biography of JRRT: “His distress for the continuation of
hostilities was almost as much for ideological as for personal reasons”
In the next paragraph I will comment on the former category , and in the
following on the latter.
Letter N° 52 (late 1943) JRRT says that he prefers anarchy or
he would like a king who can sack his advisers if they criticize the cut
of his trousers, and says that it is unnatural for men to command others.
JRRT says “non-constitutional” rather than “absolute” monarchy
(the adjective would be too evidently at odds with the idea that “power
tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, in other
words that men are not made to rule over other men, an
idea that JRRT stated in the same letter),
but the historical reality is that the two things are equal:
non-constitutional monarchies have been absolute monarchies. In his
latest book, Brian Rosebury comments: “I still regret Tolkien’s
expressed indifference to what I called in 1992 the necessity of those
unaesthetic political structures which, however imperfectly, curtail the
concentration of power.”
In Letter 52 JRRT also makes a sarcastic reference to “Winston and his
gang” and in Letter N° 53 writes that he loves England, but not Great
Britain, the Commonwealth or the USA. One must ask, what would have
happened if only the English had fought in WWII and not also Scots, Welsh,
Irish, Canadians, Australians, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans and
Americans? And in Letter 100 (29th May 1945) he writes that he
has not another drop of patriotism left and that, were he a free man, he
would not send a penny, much less a son, to help the war. This makes me
think of the young American soldiers who, at that moment, were dying in
Okinawa, and of Manchuria – where the Japanese had perpetrated terrible
war crimes against the Chinese – which was still enslaved.
seems to me, therefore, that JRRT’s ideology, which Patrick Curry
describes with acuteness and sympathy,
has some contradictory and negative aspects. On the other hand – e.g. in
Letter N° 45 – JRRT expresses hatred for Hitler who had corrupted the
“Germanic ideal/.../ that noble northern spirit/.../that nowhere was it
nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized”.
And in various other letters – in the name of his own Christianity and
“Englishness” – he expresses his aversion to Hitlerism.
effect – as Rosebury writes – many readers assimilate the observations
present in LothR concerning the nature of the Ring to the liberal
theory of the division and balance of power, and they are not entirely
wrong because LothR has a “liberal temper” and is in opposition
to the works of other writers such as Sartre and Pound and many others
“sneering at liberal humanism”
In Letter N° 81 JRRT has an attack of anger and compares the English
press to Goebbels: the English talk about the Germans like the Germans
talked about the Poles and the Jews. Then he collects himself a moment,
and adds: “of course there is a difference here. The article was
answered, and the answer printed”.
interesting example of the confusion and contradiction present in JRRT’s
ideology is the following. In Letter N°53 he writes “I am not really
sure that its victory is going to be so much the better for the world as a
whole and in the long run than the victory of OMISSIS”. And in N° 66 he
writes that the Allies try to defeat Sauron using the Ring, but they will
thus only breed new Saurons and - “slowly” –
transform Men into Orcs. These
worries of the frustrated and
angry citizen JRRT diverge from a profound conviction of
the novelist JRRT. In LothR those phrases (“in the
long run”, “slowly”) are not to be found. The novel does not say
that it is useless to combat today’s evil because in the future there
will be other evils; on the contrary, let us listen to Gandalf: “Other
evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or
emissary. Yet is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to
do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set,
uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live
after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not
ours to rule”.
JRRT allows his mood of rancour to get the upper hand, he starts to
prophesy that the good in the world will be reduced to an entombed church
surrounded by the end of civilization; but, when he thinks seriously –
which he does in the same Letter N ° 79 – he uses words very similar to
those of LothR: “gloomy thoughts, about things one cannot really
know anything of; the future is impenetrable especially to the wise”
later, commenting on W. H. Auden’s review of the last volume of LothR
which had by then been published, JRRT expressed apparently novel ideas
about war. Many times in letters written during WWII he had considered the
two sides in the war as equal, or almost equal, because of the fact that
persons or groups on the Allied side were, according to him, motivated by
morally censurable reasons. Now though (1956), the judgement changes:
“There are clear cases: e.g. acts of sheer cruel aggression, in which
therefore right is from the beginning wholly on one side, whatever
evil the resentful suffering of evil may eventually generate in
members of the right side”. And if the individuals fighting on the right
side do bad things, this condemns them morally as individuals, but does
not invalidate the rectitude of their cause. Those who fight on the wrong
side “at any rate have not right to demand that their victims when
assaulted should not demand an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth”./.../
Similarly, good actions by those on the wrong side will not justify their
cause/.../A judge may accord them honour /.../but this will not alter his
judgement as to which side was in right, nor his assignment of the primary
blame for all the evil that followed to the other side”.
1956 Stalin was dead and the war between USA and USSR - which JRRT feared
– had not broken out, the world had become aware of the evidence of the
horrors of the Shoah, and JRRT seems to have embraced the idea that WWII
had been a “bellum iuxtum”.
“poet” JRRT had understood this quickly:
LothR talks of a bellum iuxtum of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth.
In 1956 he seems also to have understood this as “philosopher”, or
developer of a Theory of Ethics. This
ideological transformation – I believe – was fruit of WWII and his
reflection upon its progress and subsequent effects, and certainly not due
to reading Thomistic treatises on
the “bellum iuxtum”!
then, another 10 years later, in the 1966 Foreword, did JRRT deny
the influence of WWII on himself and on LothR ? A possible reason
might be that the human mind is not a crystalline monad, but rather made
up of geological strata, and so an ideological change in an adult person
is always partial and problematical. In synthesis: the change due to
maturation which occurred in JRRT “philosopher” – who asked
questions concerning the ultimate status of good and evil – did not
reach JRRT “literary critic”, concerned to defend LothR both
against hostile “mainstream” criticism and against that, friendlier
but at times ingenuous, of his fans. And
JRRT “literary critic” carried out this defence largely still
wrapped in that “Inklings Ideology” (perhaps also strengthened by his
great publishing success, which seemed to show that he was right!) which
disapproved of modernity, romantically over-valued individual creativity
with respect to environment, society, external factors etc. and
under-valued or ignored psychoanalytical theories concerning the formation
of the personality.
have looked for - but been
unable to find - specific psychological studies on JRRT’s personality.
To my knowledge (certainly imperfect), the information available includes
the material in the biographies by Carpenter and (more recently) by Garth,
who only deals with the early life. It would be most interesting to have
more detailed studies on this subject (if, of course - I repeat -, they do
not already exist!). Here I should like to present a few fragments and
suggestions for a psychological analysis of JRRT, and only with reference
to the subject of the present essay.
criticism – from at least the 19th century onwards –
takes it for granted that an author’s interpretation of his own works
may well not be by itself the most exact, informative or truthful
interpretation possible. I do not see why JRRT should be an exception. It
does not seem to me a heresy if in studying Tolkien a critic, with good
reasons and some sort of argument to put forward, contests particular
statements made by JRRT regarding his works. An eminent modern medievalist
- Norman F. Cantor – in his erudite and brilliant study of 20th-century
medievalists, after reviewing the numerous and various explanations of the
meaning of LothR which JRRT gave at various times, writes: “The LothR
exists, apart from what Tolkien said at one time or another it was
supposed to mean. It was largely a product of the realm of fantasy in the
unconscious: that was the ultimate source. Therefore, what Tolkien later
consciously thought about it is interesting, but not authoritative as to
the work’s meaning”.
Carpenter’s three books
various aspects of JRRT’s personality emerge; these are not necessarily
harmonious or concordant with one another: a devoted “friend”, but
also possessive and exclusive; a romantic “husband” lacking in empathy,
silent and absent; an affectionate “father”, but also over-dependent
on the company of his children; an independent and nonconformist “critic”,
but also aristocratic, one-sided and excessively polemical; a highly
erudite and eminent “philologist”, but also lazy and not up-to-date; a
precise and hard-working “teacher”, but boring and with little
charisma; a profound “philosopher” but also amateurish and
unsystematic; a law-abiding “citizen”, but passive and indifferent
with respect to politics. The aspect of his personality that dwarfed the
others was that of JRRT novelist and poet, that in which he gave of his
best. This, I believe, is his best aspect, because it was above all here
that JRRT was free from the roles and prejudices imposed by society in
general and by the particular groups he belonged to.
More than in other aspects, here his profound conscious convictions
were in harmony with his deep unconscious convictions.
when he wrote the Foreword in 1966 JRRT was not in his role as
storyteller and poet, but in that of “critic”, of interpreter of
himself, member of the Inklings, and wanted to make clear that the war
that influenced him was WWI - in which almost all his friends died -
and not WWII, and also that the final part of LothR was not
inspired by the England of the aftermath of WWII, but by that of the first
years of the century, when the English countryside had already begun to be
disfigured by industrialization. In these declarations JRRT seems to want
to deny the emergence of new developments in history and in his own life,
as though all that really mattered had already happened a long time ago.
Why? He had certainly made new important friendships after those of the
TCBS (his school club) in adolescence, and had certainly seen many new
developments in England after the reign of Edward VII.
is as though JRRT wished to exclude his adult life – with its formative
events and meetings – from the inspirational background of his literary
masterpiece, as if, after childhood and youth nothing else of significance
occurred that inspired LothR. I see two possible reasons for this
behaviour: one is more ideological, in
that in the Inklings he disparages the “modernist” culture which
spread after the WWI. The other is more intimate and personal: as a child
and young man JRRT was strongly traumatized by the death of his parents
and the terrible and bloody experience of the trenches, and like any
traumatized person he continually turns – with a desperate desire for
liberation – to the shocked parts of his being.
WWI his life stabilized: he experienced peace, the pleasures of family
life and had the university post to which he aspired. He might have
imagined – and deceived himself – that his real self was similar to
that of Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit, calm and untroubled. But,
by the first half of 1938 – with Hitler’s explicit threats to Austria
and Czechoslovakia, and the open challenge to France and Great Britain -
JRRT could not but be aware of the “return of the Shadow”, both in the
world at large and, as a consequence, in his own life and the lives of
those dear to him. In July he told his publisher that the “New Hobbit”
(LothR) no longer inspired him, and that there should be no sequel
to The Hobbit, so as not to disturb the scenario in which Bilbo
“remained very happy to the end of his days and those were
extraordinarily long”. Christopher, commenting upon this letter, is
amazed: how could it be that the final sentence of The Hobbit
constituted an “insuperable obstacle” to a sequel, since the pages of
the “New Hobbit” written so far dealt not with Bilbo, but his nephew
Bingo (later renamed Frodo)?.
My interpretation would be that JRRT wrote thus because Bilbo and Frodo
represented two parts of himself, which he was unable to recognise
and distinguish, if not occasionally.
Roughly speaking (it would be most interesting to perform a careful
analytical study) Bilbo represented his “crystallized” self, turned
melancholically towards the past (to the “traumatic” period of his
life), coated and overlain by the consolatory illusion of the “calm and
carefree life”, in which he smoked his pipe, looked after the garden,
chatted with his friends and wrote books; nothing else.
on the other hand, represented the living part which had to face up to
real events in the present, outside and inside of himself. We know what
the result was: exit Bilbo, enter Frodo (who inherited the house,
the friendship with Gandalf and the leading role). This solution was
reached only after tormented changes of mind. Bilbo felt tired and old and
restless in the Shire, the quiet life no longer satisfies him: his
melancholic Self has to give way to that in contact with life. But the
dramatic events in Europe cause JRRT to sway first one way and then the
other. Were new tragedies, like those of his childhood and youth, on the
way? No, it was better to remain an Oxford don who busied himself with
literary discussions with his Inkling friends and distanced himself (in a
sort of Flight of the Deserter?) from the reality of his country and the
world. Yet it was impossible to withdraw: Bilbo-JRRT feels “all thin,
sort of stretched, like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”.
That is, the consolatory illusion of the life of tranquillity no longer
manages to hide and sustain the profound depression of the
melancholic Self. These oscillations are reflected in the
composition of LothR and in Frodo’s voyage and were greatly
stimulated by the grandiose, tragic and glorious historical events of
those years, as above I have attempted to demonstrate.
has to take the “burden” of the Ring to Mount Doom, Bilbo or Frodo?
JRRT was born in 1892 and in 1940 – when WWII really arrived in the West
– he was 48 years old. Another eminent scholar, Marc Bloch, professor of
Medieval History at the Sorbonne, was born in 1886 and was 54 when he
decided to join the French Army as a volunteer. He fought, but survived
the rout and went to England and then returned to Vichy France where –
after trying to put in safety his wife and four young children (the older
two sons were already enrolled in De Gaulle’s Free French Forces) – he
entered the Resistance as an
active fighter and, after being arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, died
heroically. JRRT wrote to his son Michael: “One War is enough for any
man. I hope you will be spared a second”.
And to his son Christopher: “If I was of military age, I should, I fancy,
be grousing away in a fighting service”.
He justifies himself: he had already been in one war (but Marc Bloch had
also fought, rather more than JRRT, in WWI), and is too old. Yet staying
safely at Oxford does not satisfy him: “to carry on the old pre-war job
is just a poison. If only I could do something active!”.
Janet Croft writes: “WWII taught him the frustrations of a parent, too
old for active duty, forced to watch his sons risking their lives”;
but I think that at least part of JRRT’s mind cast doubt both on the
“too old” and on the “forced”.
WWI Marc Bloch had been awarded the Legion d’Honeur and the Croix de
Guerre, whilst JRRT had not demonstrated particular courage and certainly
not a desire to fight.
For sure, people are not all the same (and neither should we wish they
were), and I am not criticizing JRRT for not having fought in WWII: I am
merely trying to understand a certain mental confusion which was present
in JRRT at that moment in his life. If he had had clearer ideas he would
have said to himself and others: “I am not going to fight, not because
one war in a life is enough, or because I am too old, but because I have
another vocation and other duties, other things to do”. In first place
he had to write LothR!
even if not explicitly, JRRT moves in this direction: he manages to
control the impulse to leave his “quiet life”, identifying strongly
with his son Christopher, enrolled in the RAF, who comes to represent his
Frodo-self: “I certainly live in your letters although my circumstances
are so very much more easy. In my case weariness, sheer boredom of
sameness is the enemy. I were younger, I should wish to exchange with
But Christopher also represented for JRRT his Bilbo-self – that which
was writing the book – because he seemed to be a faithful disciple of
the father and an Inkling in pectore. And to Christopher he sends
– the only valid thing that he seems to be able to do at Oxford –
parts of LothR, a book of war, the War of the Ring. This work
neither concentrates on the “fatuous” world of the Shire – that is,
the illusion of the “quiet life” of the Oxford philologist – nor
repeats the “pure mythology of The Silmarillion” (Letter N°
31), or in other words the melancholic returns to the romanticism of the
TCBS and the “fruitless victories” of WWI. It is a new development,
which is going to transform the world of the Shire - the world of The
Hobbit - and that of The Simarillion, as Alex Lewis and
Elisabeth Currie demonstrate clearly in their book.
It is the right and personal way that JRRT can take part in the great
events of the present.
do not know how aware JRRT was of this. There is a decidedly strange
sentence in the 1966 Foreword: “It was during 1944 that, leaving
the loose ends and perplexities of a war which it was my task to conduct,
or at least to report, I forced myself to tackle the journey of Frodo to
Mordor”. My interpretation would be that here JRRT is saying that in
1944 – when his alter ego Christopher has left him to serve his country
as a pilot in the RAF
- he becomes increasingly aware that participating in WWII for him meant
writing LothR. Alex Lewis and Christopher Garbowski, to whom I
communicated this interpretation, are not in agreement.
Patrick Curry, on the contrary, wrote to me thus: “Regarding your
hypothesis, I can only say you may well be right - it's certainly an
interesting idea - & I don't see any serious objections to it.
Is one implication
that WWII contributed more to TLotR than is generally realized - or
admitted by T.?
The more I think about the more I think you are right! I find your thesis
‘very compelling’, both in substance and detail (You will, of course,
come up against the English prejudice against psychology/ psychoanalysis...)”.
the letters to Christopher JRRT does not talk of the important events of
WWII, but speaks in detail of those of the War of the Ring,
which thus appears to have been his “vicarious” war: he wrote and
rewrote, discussed with his son, read parts of LothR on Thursdays
to the Inklings and discussed with them. Carpenter says that one of the
reasons the Inklings’ Thursdays came to an end was that JRRT, at the end
of 1947, stopped reading LothR during the meetings.
18th June 1940 Churchill said to the House of Commons: “every
man and every woman will have the chance to show the finest qualities of
their race, and render the highest service to their cause. For all of us,
at this time, whatever our sphere, our station, our occupation or our
duties, it will be a help to remember the famous lines: He nothing common
did or mean, Upon that memorable scene. /…/But if we fail, then the
whole world /.../ will sink
into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more
protracted, by the lights of perverted science”.
think that JRRT showed his “finest qualities” and rendered his
“highest service” to the cause, performing his personal “duty”,
which was – or at least included – the writing of LothR. In the
mystery of the individual destiny
(unique, unrepeatable) of each human life, each has his own particular
(his “charisma”, as Saint Paul says), and that of JRRT – during
those terrible but great years – was to create this powerful portrayal
of the drama of desperation and hope. To use the words of Shippey: “If
Tolkien were to choose a symbol for his story and its message, it would
be, I think, the horn of Eorl. He would have liked to blow it in his own
country, and disperse the cloud of post-war and post-faith disillusionment,
depression, acquiescence, which so strangely (and twice in his lifetime)
followed on victory.”
nothing common did or mean”.
Literature of the Second World War
Croft points out in the literature of WWII characteristics such as “disillusionment”,
“distrust of authority”, the presence of an “ideological vacuum”
and a lack of “romanticism”. She comments that these features are not
present in LothR, to support her thesis that “there is
little if any evidence of any distinctively and clearly WWII influence on
its themes or style”, inasmuch as in LothR we find the themes of
honour, courage, glorious undertakings, etc..
But John Garth demonstrates that these characteristics do in fact
distinguish the literature of WWI, in the work of writers such as
Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves
In addition, Croft does not take into account how full – in fact - the
literature of WWII is of courage,
the net distinction between good and bad causes, adventure and glorious
deeds. Neither does she seem aware of how, whereas in the WWI trenches the
soldiers were able to experiment the “animalic horror” of which Garth
writes, in WWII millions of civilians and military experienced a
“diabolic evil” absent from WWI. Enough to recall: Ann Frank, Diary
; Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz ;
Alistair MacLean, Guns of Navarone ; Frank Bonham, Burma
Rifles ; Lore Cowan, Children of the Resistance ; William
Brinkley, The Ninety and Nine ; Janina David, A Square of
Sky ; Mladin Zarubica, The Year of the Rat ; James Jones,
The Pistol ; Corrie Boom, The Hiding Place ; John R. Tunis, Silence
over Dunkerque, amongst many others. It is for this reason that
Tom Shippey puts JRRT’s novel together with others which came out during
or after WWII, such as those of C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, G. Orwell and W.
Golding. C. S. Lewis had recognised that JRRT in LothR had found
(in contrast to the extremes of militaristic propaganda and disenchantment)
“the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment”.
would like to single out one WWII book in which the themes of “disillusionment”,
a lack of “romanticism”, the demythologization of courage, and an
“ideological vacuum” – typical of WWI literature – are absent; on
the contrary, the opposite values (of which also LothR is full)
shine out: Le Lettere dei Condannati a Morte della Resistenza Europea.
This work was published in 1954 (the year Lothr came out) in Italy,
a compilation of the last letters – sent to relatives and friends – of
fighters against Hitler: Albanians, Austrians, Belgians, Bulgarians,
Czechs, Danes, Frenchmen, Germans, Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavians,
Norwegians, Dutchmen, Poles, Romanians, Russians and Hungarians.
Preface to this book, of which I quote several lines, was written by
“Every one of these condemned men believes in the future, they cannot
help but believe that their deaths will benefit the future and that, if
they must finish in the grave so young, it is to ‘fertilize the soil’:
‘You know, Father, it’s good to die hoping for a better future for all
humanity’; ‘I believe that after this war a life of happiness will
begin’ /.../A lethal constellation is undermining democracy and pushing
it into the arms of fascism, which it has defeated only to help it, as
soon as it is fallen, back onto its feet [Mann refers to McCarthyism here]
/.../Was it in vain, therefore, overcome and deserted by life, that the
faith, hope and the will to sacrifice of European youth, which, though it
took the fine name of Résistance,
international resistance and concord against the ruin of its homeland,
against the insult of a
Hitlerian Europe, did not want simply to resist, but felt itself to be the
vanguard of a better human society? Was all this in vain? Useless, a waste
of their dream and their deaths? No, it cannot have been. There has never
been an idea for which men have fought and suffered with a pure heart, and
given their lives, which has been destroyed. There is no idea which has
not been made reality, at
the cost of making a pact with all the stains of reality, but acquiring
life. It was a childish idea, that of a nineteen-year-old, ‘that
after this war a life of happiness will begin’. The world is not the
home of happiness and moral purity, and less than ever could become so
by means of war – even the most just and necessary war. But the impulse
to bring human life closer to goodness, to that which conforms to reason
and satisfies the spirit, is a task imposed from above, which no
scepticism can weaken and no passivity ignore”.
would like to stress that the observations made above are only hypotheses
to guide future research; time and work are needed – ours and perhaps
that of other scholars – in order to find convincing demonstrations (or
refutations) of them. To conclude, I list our suggestions :
was inspired mainly by WWI in writing SIL and mainly by WWII in
the second case, JRRT - in
part consciously, in part unconsciously - tried
to conceal his inspiration, because of his personal political opinions and
because of some features of his psychological make-up.
shows similarities with respect to its “moral atmosphere” with other
literary works of the WWII years and the decade which followed.
should not “iurare in verba magistri”, or in other words sanctify JRRT
(or indeed any writer or
other person). The defence of
his literary works by those who – like us – greatly admire them
constitutes a counterbalance with respect to the hostility of many
“mainstream” critics. We should, however, seek to retain a correct
balance, and specifically not combine in a confused amalgam the various
aspects of his personality: poet, man of faith, citizen, father, husband,
philologist, teacher, literary critic, philosopher and friend.
we refuse to consider the influence of contemporary history and politics
(or of personal psychology)
on a writer’s artistic production, the reason might be fears that to
admit such influences could lead to the denial or under-valuation of other
sorts of influence: ancient political history, literature, art, philosophy
and religion. Such fears must be resisted; one influence does not exclude
others! Amongst the many books produced during WWII LothR is unique
and unmistakeable, because only JRRT was an eminent scholar and lover of
medieval literature and fascinated by natural and artificial
languages and a lover of the fantasy “mode” and able to
recount children’s stories and vaccinated against the minimalist
and materialist prejudices of the contemporary literary modernism and
a veteran of WWI and deeply Roman Catholic and an orphaned
child and inclined towards philosophical speculation and a
lover of male clubs and friendship, and so on. The presence of all these
(and other) characteristics is unique, and should discourage any
interpretative reductionism. And to this distinguishing assemblage I wish
to add, and to underline, the fact that JRRT was an emotionally involved
witness to the grand drama of WWII. On the other hand, just as political
or psychological critical reductionism deludes, the same applies to other
types of reductionism which one would wish to identify (and limit!):
reducing JRRT and LothR to neo-medievalism, fantasy writing, Roman
Catholicism, aestheticism, ecologism, etc.
Simone Bonechi wrote the sections Tolkien and the War and
“Fruitless victories”: the First World War and The
Silmarillion ; Franco
Manni wrote the remaining
parts of the paper.
Tolkien and the Great War;
New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p. 223
Ibidem, p. 309.
Christopher Tolkien in JRRT, The Return of the Shadow (RothS),
HoME 6, HarperCollins,
London, 1993, pp. 11,461
See Shippey’s work Tolkien Author of the Century,
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2000, the book referred to by Garth, and
Janet Brennan Croft’s, War
and the Works of JRRT,
Praeger Publishers, 2004.
The comment is from Hugh Brogan’s ‘Tolkien’s Great War’
in Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs (eds.), Children
and their Books: A celebration of the works of Iona and Peter Opie;
Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989; pg. 358, cited in John Garth, Tolkien
and the Great War cit. p. 293.
JRRT to W. H. Auden, 7th June 1955; in The
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien; edited by Humphrey Carpenter and
Christopher Tolkien; London, HarperCollins, 1995; p. 211
Ivi, pp. 75, 78 and 85.
See JRRT, The History of
Middle-Earth (from now on HoME);
Part One, vol. V: The Lost Road
and other writings; London, HarperCollins, 2002; p. 228 and IDEM, The
Silmarillion; London, HarperCollins, 2004; p. 61.
JRRT, The Silmarillion;
cit.; p. 60.
Ivi, p. 74. See also JRRT, Unfinished
Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth; London, HarperCollins, 1998; pp.
Kipling himself, though, will draw very close to JRRT in the
pre-war years of the twentieth century, with books
like Pook of Puck’s Hill
(1906), Rewards and Fairies
(1910) and A History of England (1911),
in which he points to the traditional values of the “Englishness”
and draws a picture of history as a sort of cyclical and incessant fight
of civilization against barbarism. During and after the Great War
Kipling struck a more problematic and tragic note in his prose and poems,
a note of disillusionment and bitterness more akin to Wilfred Owen or
Sassoon’s poems than to JRRT’s exhortation to recover hope and fight
on. A comparison between JRRT’s and Kipling’s works would be most
On this theme see the voice “machines” in The
letters of J.R.R. Tolkien; cit., J. Garth, Tolkien
and the Great War; cit.; pp. 220-223, and Colin Duriez, Tolkien
and C.S. Lewis. The Gift of Friendship; Mahwah, New Jersey,
HiddenSpring, 2003; p. 200.
See JRRT to Geoffrey Bache Smith, 12th August 1916, as
cited in J. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War; cit.; p. 218.
“I do this [writing fairy-stories] because (...) I find that my
comment on the world is most easily and naturally expressed in this
way.” In The Letters of J.R.R.
Tolkien; cit., p. 297.
These themes have been explored in detail in John Garth, Tolkien
and the Great War; cit., especially in the Postscript: ‘One
who dreams alone’; pp. 287-313
Introduction to First World War Poetry,
1996, at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg/projects/jtap/tutorials/intro/
the extended version of his film The
Fellowship of the Ring
Interviewed by Steven D. Greydanus at http://www.decentfilms.com
Fellowship of the Ring
, “The Observer”, December 16th, 2001
The Lord of the Hobbits in Zimbardo – Isaacs (editors), Understanding
the Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2004,
, reviewing Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and
Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century, by Norman
F. Cantor, William Morrow and Company,1991
In “Le Monde Diplomatique”, December 2002, quoted by Ray
Cassin, Just give me that old-time mythology January 5th
2003 at www.theage.com
The Struggle of Good against Evil,
2002, at http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/
. The piece continues:
“But just how does Tolkien do this? Explanations as to how this is
done often come up short. People have tried to identify Sauron with
Hitler, and you might try to draw an analogy between the Hobbits, the
humans, and the Western democracies, but these kinds of crude
comparisons generally fall flat. /.../What Tolkien does is to evoke
the social context of a great crisis, and that is what makes LOTR
"feel" like the Second World War. Social relationships in a
time of crisis are fundamentally different from social relationships at
other times. It is not at the level of the individual, but at the level
of society, that the vividness of the struggle between good and evil is
brought to light. /.../ But even more bizarre is how Tolkien would
have to dispose of the Orcs. In real life, Germany and Japan became some
of American's closest allies. /.../The enemies of the Shire must not
merely be vanquished, they must be destroyed or at least completely
isolated. They are of an alien race. /.../Tolkien cannot be accused of
simple racism here: clearly there are some races in Middle Earth, such
as humans and Hobbits, which can co-exist; there are others, such as
elves and dwarfs, which are antagonistic to each other but which can
learn to cooperate. /.../However, we can see in the LOTR myth a
reflection of the way in which the Nazis saw the world. For these other
races of beings in LOTR are simply inherently different. And what makes
the evil nations in LOTR evil, is not that they have chosen evil,
but that they are evil. This is exactly how the Nazis saw
their racial enemies. There was nothing specifically immoral with
them, but -- like termites or rats -- they simply had to be destroyed. /.../LOTR
does not merely represent in mythical form how we saw the Second World
War. It also represents, in mythical form, how many Germans saw the
Second World War (with a different ending, of course). In fact, in
this respect it probably represents the German point of view better than
it does that of the Western Allies.”
I recommend reading the entire essay.
Charles W. Nelson, The Sins of Middle-earth : Tolkien’s Use
of Medieval Allegory, in JRRT and His Literary Resonances, (editors
G. Clark and D. Timmons), Westport, 2000, p. 86.
Tolkien. A Cultural Phaenomenon, Palgrave Macmillan,
London, 2003, p. 163.
Email to Franco Manni, 11th July 2005
The Legendary War and the Real One. LothR and the Climate of
its Times, “Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society”, 1989,
Author, cit, pp.165-166. With respect to Shippey, he sees
the influence of the war in LothR, but does not agree with our
opinion regarding its prevalence over WWI : “As regards WWI and WWII,
I am reminded of a piece by my friend John Bourne (a history professor
at Birmingham) in which he remarks that to people of his and my
generation, attitudes to WWI were coloured by attitudes to WWII - the
two wars were usually contrasted along the lines stated by Jackson. But
much of this is not true. For one thing, WWII strikingly failed to reach
its stated goals, the liberation of Poland, and some would say - Tolkien
probably among them - succeeded only in replacing one awful tyranny by
another. Was Hitler worse than Stalin? Hard to say. WWI by contrast did
succeed in breaking up the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, which
could have been beneficial (though of course things went badly wrong
later). Perhaps we should regard the two wars as merely two phases of
the same war.” (email to Franco Manni , 13th
Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 2004, 174 pp.
J. Croft, War , cit., p. 58,
Ibidem. Croft writes that to follow (without having read the HoME)
the “ipsissima verba” of
JRRT in the Foreword
: “It was begun soon after The Hobbit was written and before
its publication in 1937”.
Author, cit, p. xxxi.
Churchill’s words (January
20, 1940, Broadcast,
London) : “ Very few wars have been won by mere
numbers alone. Quality, will power, geographical advantages, natural and
financial resources, the command of the sea, and, above all, a cause
which rouses the spontaneous surgings of the human spirit in millions of
hearts-these have proved to be the decisive factors in the human story.
If it were otherwise, how would the race of men have risen above the
apes; how otherwise would they have conquered and extirpated dragons and
monsters; how would they have ever evolved the moral theme; how would
they have marched forward across the centuries to broad conceptions of
compassion, of freedom, and of right? How would they ever have discerned
those beacon lights which summon and guide us across the rough dark
waters, and presently will guide us across the flaming lines of battle
towards better days which lie beyond?” These “beacons” to me
remember those ones light in between Gondor and Rohan!
H.umphrey Carpenter, JRRT. A
HarperCollins, London, 1977, p. 185 ; JRRT, RothS, cit, p. 11 .
Letters, cit, N°31
Letters, cit, N°33 ; RothS, cit., p. 109
RothS, cit, p. 110.
Ibidem, p. 189.
Ibidem, p. 309.
Ibidem, p. 370
Ibidem, p. 461
The name given to that phase of WWII between 3rd
September 1939 and 10th May 1940, during which France and
Britain, though at war with the Reich, had not yet been attacked (in
French, “drole de guerre”).
See what Christopher writes in The Treason of Isengard, HoME
7, 1993, p. 192.
Ibidem, p. 1
Letters, cit, N°53
See what Christopher writes on p. 234 of JRRT, The War of the
Ring, HoME n° 8
HarperCollins, London, 1992.
Alex Lewis and Elisabeth Currie, The Forsaken Realm of Tolkien,
Medea Publishing, Wimbledon, 2005, pp. 144-181
On 29th May 1945 he wrote “But at least the
Americo-Russian War won’t break out for a year yet” : Letters,
Letters, cit., N°106.
Sauron Defeated, HoME
9, 1993, pp. 12-13 ; Humphrey Carpenter , JRRT. A Biography,
HarperCollins, London, 1977, p. 207 ; Letters, cit.,N°117.
Following Gandalf. Epic Battles and Moral Victory in TLothR,
Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2003, p. 54.
Ibidem, pp. 55, 69.
Tolkien and the Great War, cit., p. 223.
JRRT, TLothR, Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1986, p. 260.
Ibidem, p. 912
Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence (1940), 1946
S. Churchill, Unrelenting Struggle, p. 363
LothR, cit., 856.
Author, cit., p. 152
LothR, cit., pp. 564-5.
Humphrey Carpenter, JRRT. A Biography, HarperCollins,
Tolkien, cit., p. 191.
Defending Middle-earth. Tolkien : Myth and Modernity,
HarperCollins, London, 2004, especially the first two chapters.
Tolkien, cit., p. 166.
LothR, cit, p. 913.
Letters, cit., N°183
Quickly, but not immediately: Christopher writes (RothS,
cit., p. 189) that in October 1938: “If the nature of the Ring, in its
effects on the bearer was now fully conceived, there is as yet no
suggestion that the fate of Middle-earth lay within its circle”. In
fact, JRRT’s initial idea (see the chapter Of Gollum and the Ring
in RothS, pp. 73-87) was to destroy the Ring; an evil ring,
therefore, but only one amongst the many rings of power, which
subjugated its possessor to the wicked Lord of the Rings, but was
primarily the cause of an individual tragedy (following a Greek-inspired
individualistic notion of ethics), not a tragedy for Middle-Earth (following
a community-based ethical model, of Judaeo-Christian type). But soon
afterwards (in RothS, p. 220, Christopher says that he cannot
give an exact date) the idea of the Ruling Ring, crucial for the destiny
of the world, emerges (RothS, pp. 226-227).
Janet Croft (War and the Works, cit., p. 140) analyses
this text of JRRT but – given her general convictions – does not see
the connection or the change compared to the judgements on WWII
expressed by him in preceding years.
Inventing the Middle Ages. The Lives, Works and Ideas of the
Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century, William Morrow, New
York, 1991, pp. 230-231
The Inklings, Biography, Letters.
See (if you are interested, of course!): Sigmund Freud,
Mourning and Melancholia, 1915 ; Melanie Klein, Mourning and its
Relation to Maniac-Depressive States (1940) in Contributions to
Psycho-Analysis 1921-1945, The Hogarth Press, London, 1948; .Ronald
Fairbairn, Endopsychic Structure Considered in Terms of Object
Relationship (1944) in Psychoanalytic Studies on Personality,
Tavistock Publications, London, 1952 ; Roger Money-Kyrle, The World
of the Unconscious and the World of Common Sense (1956) in The
Collected Papers of Roger Money-Kyrle, Clunie Press, Pertshire, 1978
; Donald W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the
Facilitating Environment. Studies in Theory of Emotional Development,
The Hogarth Press, London, 1965; John Steiner, Psychic Retreats,
Routledge, London, 1993.
RothS, cit., pp. 108-109.
See in RothS the extremely tormented composition of A
Long-expected Party (the first chapter of LothR.), in which
the roles of Bilbo and Bingo-Frodo were continually modified,
interchanged and confused; the same goes for their motivations and the
relationship which unites them.
LothR, cit., p. 45.
Letters, cit., N° 45.
Letters, cit., N° 53.
Letters, cit., n°45
War and the Works, cit., p. 145.
See John Garth, Tolkien
and the Great War, cit.
Letters, cit., N° 73.
The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien, Medea Publishing,
Wimbledon, 2002, pp. 68-147.
Ian McKellen: “ I'm really taken by the fact that when Tolkien
was writing Lord of the Rings during the Second World War, Tolkien's own
son Christopher was serving in Europe, fighting the ultimate evil”.
Which makes me think of Churchill’s words to the House of Commons on 4th
June 1940: “There
never has been, I suppose, in all the world, in all the history of war,
such an opportunity for youth. The Knights of the Round Table, the
Crusaders, all fall back into the past-not only distant but prosaic;
these young men, going forth every morn to guard their native land and
all that we stand for,/.../ deserve or gratitude”.
A. Lewis : “Yes,
the sentence in Tolkien's Foreword is a real conundrum: The problem we
have is as follows: a) is JRRT talking about LotR in both the first part
of the sentence and the second? If so, then the 'war' he is conducting
and reporting is the War of the Ring, perhaps the progress of Aragorn
and other Fellowship members. b) is JRRT talking about something else in
the first part of the sentence, and LotR in the second part only?
This is NOT the usual reading given by most scholars (who seem to assume
JRRT is only discussing LotR - however that is difficult to
sustain as an argument, for Tolkien when talking about allegory, gives
an example of how the War of the Ring is not similar to the real war WW2
and how it would have played out if he had meant to write an allegory).”
(email Franco Manni, 22nd July 2005) , C. Garbowski : “I
myself don't really see any other meanings to the passage you are
wondering about than the one that is at the surface: that Tolkien had
got up to the Siege of Gondor / Battle of Pelennor Fields on the one
hand, but had got behind on the Frodo/Sam strain. In other words he had
written the easier stuff before getting down to the more difficult
work” (email to Franco Manni, 26th July 2005)
emails to Franco Manni , 24 July and 11 August 2005.
See the details in Carpenter, Biography, cit., pp.
The Inklings, George Allen & Unwin Publishers, London,
Author, cit., p. 220.
War and the Works, cit., pp. 62-63.
 Tolkien, cit., pp. 287-313
 Ibidem, p. 312.
Edited by Piero Malvezzi and Giovanni Pirelli, Einaudi , Torino,
1954, 816 pages.
This Preface was
written in March 1954; in 1944 Thomas Mann had become a US citizen.
Le Lettere dei Condannati a Morte, cit., pp. XIV-XV,
Author of the Century
Interview with Thomas Shippey
by Franco Manni
Shippey, can you tell us for what kind of public did you write the book Tolkien:
Author of the Century?
times, people write to me and say “I’m interested in Tolkien, I’d
like to study Tolkien, I’d like to write my degree dissertation on
Tolkien, but my teacher or my professor says that Tolkien is not a proper
subject, that it is something that we do not study in schools, that we do
not study in universities. I really wrote the book Autore del Secolo
to try to show people like that that there were places were Tolkien was
taken seriously. I think it’s unlikely that I am going to convince
professors of this late stage, but there are many students there who’d
like to study Tolkien and I feel they should have someone saying seriously
and thoroughly that Tolkien is an author that deserves just as much as
serious esteem as any author of what we call the mainstream. So you could
say that I wrote the book for a group which I felt to be “disadvantage
main message in your book is that Tolkien was a typical author of the 20th
century. Why has Tolkien become a typical author of the 20th
by the way, because...... Tolkien is not a typical author of the 20th
century, people notice that straight away, he writes about a world
which is almost entirely his own. Nevertheless, what struck me when we
started to examine big polls and public opinion questionnaires about
authors, was that the authors who very often came in the top 5 or top 10
were in some ways, rather, well, like Tolkien. They were authors like
George Orwell, William Golding, Kurt Vonnegut, T. H. White, and
Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis of course. They all wrote fantasy and most
of them were veterans of serious warfare. So I thought that actually,
although Tolkien might not look like a typical author in what he writes
about, his themes are those of the unfortunate and horrible XX century
which are industrialized warfare and a return to one could almost say
”Medieval conditions” which we thought, during XVIII and XIX centuries,
we Europeans had put behind us.
the strange thing I say is that all these authors
write about very serious and real topics, obviously they had 1st
hand personal experiences. Nevertheless they felt that they only could
write what they wanted to write through the media of fantasy. So, in that
respect, in taking serious themes, in a fantastic mode, in that respect
typical author of the XX century. It’s just, I think, that far too many
of my professional critical colleagues have not realized this. They do not
pay very much attention to what people prefer to read and, as I said in my
last answer, they say that ...there’s this lady in the “NY Times”
wrote : “Tolkien is not literature”. But then who are they to decide
what’s literature? Literature, in the end, is what people read, and
Tolkien has certainly been successful in that respect.
describe The Lord of the Rings as
a modern novel, dealing with many important issues of the XX century. Why
have so many critics presented Tolkien as a nostalgic author, as a
Medieval or an anachronistic author?
question three… you ask why so many critics have presented Tolkien as a
nostalgic author, as a Medieval or an anachronistic author. And of course,
they say that because obviously he is
and that is so.
, again, one of the striking things which you find in authors other than
Tolkien and which critics have not mentioned so far, is that they felt
that, in a strange way, Medieval literature was more relevant and more
serious for them than the writing of, again, the XIX to the XIX century.
They thought in some respect that they had returned to a Medieval world .
Robert Graves, the famous author of “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the
God”, he, like Tolkien was a fusilier in the 1st World War,
like Tolkien thought himself as a poet, , but when he wrote his
autobiography “Good-bye to All That” he said he went to Oxford, at
very much the same time as Tolkien, actually I presume they were both
there together, and he was told Medieval literature was just something
that had nothing to do with real life But he said that actually, It had
everything to do with real life, he had just emerged from a Medieval
conflict, which was fought knives, and maces, and clubs in the dark. And
he said reading Anglosaxon literature seemed to him to be much more normal,
much more real than reading the XVIII century literature of the
Enlightenment. So, Tolkien is
a Medieval and anachronistic author, but unfortunately, the XX century
rapidly became anachronistic.
other messages did you wish to communicate with your book?
I’ll just pick one out, which I think is often ignored. Which is that
Tolkien thought himself as a poet. Because he was a poet. I have not tried
to count the number of poems by Tolkien that we have, but they must be
more than a hundred. They are sometimes difficult to evaluate, because
many of them, not all of them, are embedded in a story. But I think that
Tolkien thought, also correctly, that he was not inventing all this for
himself, that he was reviving a tradition of English poetry which had been
very powerful and been forced out of sight by modern times, but had
survived, actually, as such
things often do, like fairy tales, in a kind of underworld, of
sub-literature in popular forms. I am now in the US of America, where a
common musical form is country and western singing, but quite often, in
country and western songs, I hear lines of poetry which actually fit
Medieval meters absolutely perfectly.
often ask the authors “You don’t know anything about Middle Ages”
“No, I have never heard of any Medieval verses”
they are still singing it, all of them, in the same traditions, as their
grandfathers, and their grandfathers’ grandfathers, and so on back for
hundreds of years. This again is a phenomenon which has not been noticed
by professional critics.
are the characters and the scenes you most like in The
Lord of the Rings?
I have to tell you that for many years I was the head of department at a
University, and as a result of listening to all those meetings in which my
colleagues argued all time and they didn’t do anything, the character I
feel most sympathy with is Ugluk, the orc, the one which captures Merry
and Pippin. He too has to deal with a very unruly and orcish band of
followers who don’t do what they are told. And he solves things the way
I’d like to, he steps forward and he cuts a couple of heads off and he
says “Everybody doing my way.” I can’t help… I have felt so many
times very like to be just like Ugluk.
from that, I think other great scenes are of course the coming of Rohan,
the scene at the end of the siege of Minas Tirith, when Gandalf is
standing at the gate of Gondor, and he hears the cock’s crow, he sees
the Nazgul hesitate, and then he hears the horns blowing of Rohan.
“Rohan had come at last.” That was, I think, Tolkien’s favourite
scene, and it is one of my favourites as well.
you briefly mention the main differences between The
Lord of the Rings and the
that would take me a long time! But perhaps the principal difference is
that LOTR is written in the mode of, shall we say, a modern novel. It has
a developed realism, it gives you a lot of detail, it gives you a great
deal of dialogue, it tells you what the characters are thinking and what
they are feeling It is forward, ample, It tells you, as you know, much
more than you need to know. The Silmarillion is written more in the style
of a Medieval chronicle, and even more in the style of a Medieval
Icelandic saga. So, it seems to us to be very abrupt, it does not tell us
things that we need to know. The characters, when they talk, they talk
very briefly, we move quickly from one event to another. There is a sense
of crowding and, one would
say haste, about getting on from
one event to another. It is also of course, as we all know, very difficult
to remember, because it is vital to remember who the characters are and
who they are related to and with our feeble, weak modern memories we
cannot always remember who is whose cousin, or exactly, what relationship
there may be between, shall we say, Tuor and Turin Turambar. They walk
past each other at one point, but they don’t speak. It’s vital moment
in a way , but if you ask me now, “How is Tour related to Turin Turambar?”
“I think they’re cousins, but I have to look at a pedigree, at
a genealogical table to answer that question. But I know it’s an
important question!” So, I think that, in a word, the Silmarillion is
very much more compressed than TLOTR and that is what makes it hard to
read for us.
are a Medieval Language and Literature scholar, but you are also a careful
observer of the XX century literature: in your opinion, what qualities are
there in LOTR that are not in Beowulf?
this is a difficult question. I am much more used to answer the other
question, which is what qualities the two works share. Well, a very short
answer is that LOTR has Hobbits. Both Beowulf and Lord of the Rings have
giants, they have elves, they have dragons, and they have a
sense of immense history behind them, but LOTR has Hobbits. Beowulf
does not have Hobbits, and along with the Hobbits comes the sense of
anachronism, the sense of the world of Tolkien’s
own boyhood, one would call it the modern world, but a more modern
world which exists in the centre of Middle Earth. It also has the Shire,
which is a kind of centre of normality, which of course is quite alien to
Beowulf, and it also has characters like Tom Bombadil, who I think, may
have some very faint resemblances in Anglo-saxon literature…. But not in
Beowulf. So I’d thoroughly say that LOTR is, as I say, a work of the XX
century and the way that XX century gets into LOTR is through the Hobbits
and the Shire.
was a very skilful novelist. Can you put in kind of hierarchical order,
Tolkien’s following abilities as a romancer and as a novelist?
The building of the story and the plot; the philosophical and moral
contents of the work;
A good psychological depiction of the characters;
Realism and depth of the historical background, of descriptions, of
details and languages;
Inspirational force in the creation of ideas.
the first thing, which has also been the most influential, it is what all
the fantasy authors that followed him tried to do, more or less
successfully, is to create a world. Tolkien gave us Middle Earth. It is
true that Tolkien did not think that ME was his own invention. He thought
that he was reviving it from an ancient period. But he made ME habitable
for a modern writer. I think that is the first and most important thing. I
think the second thing is that Tolkien in his work produces a very complex
structure and his imitators sometimes have tried to do that, but I think
they have always failed, they have not been able to put together the
multiple stranded plot, the interlaced plot which Tolkien managed to write
and to make successful. I think a third point, which I think is very
important but also very obscure, I find it difficult, is that Tolkien does
have a philosophical standpoint and he tries to convey this, but the
strange thing is that he tries to convey it through the plot. It is the
cross connections of the plot which tell us what Tolkien thought about,
shall we say, Luck, and faith
and providence. But… I’d like try to explain this. Every time I read
the LOTR I find more connections and I just hope that one day I can get
this straight in my head but I think that one thing that Tolkien I s
saying is that human minds do not actually, are not able to understand
Providence. We do not have enough capacity. We just have to be aware that
it exists but we can’t ourselves expect to see it. And that is like the
experience of reading Tolkien. I cannot take it all in at the same time.
And finally I would say that Tolkien is very capable of creating striking
and interesting characters. As I said before, the Hobbits are a great
invention that is like nothing else that existed in the world, I think,
until Tolkien invented them.
do you think about the theme of Providence, or “Fate”, or “Luke”,
or “Wyrd”? In your opinion, are there any XIX or XX century mainstream
authors which have dealt with the theme of Providence?
the XX century I can’t think of any, because they don’t believe in it
anymore. In the XIX century some of the great English authors write fables
of providence. I would say perhaps the most striking of these is the
female author writing under a false name who calls herself George Eliot,
her novella, Silas Marner, in a way, is kind of a study on
Providence, and Boetius. I don’t know if Tolkien read this, but if he
had he’d have recognized, I think,
and be amused by the way George Eliot in a very firmly English
environment. So, George Eliot is perhaps one writer. Another of a very
different kind I Charles Dickens, but Dickens, while I think a great and a
brilliant novelist, was not a thinker, so his presentation of Providence
do not have the learning and the deliberate connections which Tolkien or
George Eliot would have. Nevertheless his novels are often a strange study
in the nature of coincidence.
you think Tolkien gave a good depiction of the theme of courage? Can you
trace a comparison with some XX century mainstream authors who write about
theme of courage?
think perhaps the best is the Polish author writing in English whom we
call Joseph Conrad. Joseph Conrad was agnostic, but Conrad, I think, again
a man who had lived an active life and who had considerable non-literary
experiences, for he was a ship captain and a master mariner, he wrote
about courage and endurance very powerfully. He also wrote about cowardice
very powerfully. But we should say that his….
Yes, you’d like this, I think. His great novel of courage is the
novel Nostromo. “Nostromo”,
“our man” and yet in a way, it ends I think, as a study not of
cowardice, but of someone who eventually fails a test, but Nostromo
I think is a work which tells us a great deal about courage and in a way
also about luck… I wouldn’t say Providence but luck.
is Tolkien popular both with Christians and with not Christians?
answer is, I think, that Christians are well able to see his benevolent
intentions towards themes of religion but non Christians are quite capable
of reading LOTR without thinking about it at all, because as you know
there is no evident religion in LOTR. The riders dot appear to have a
religion, when they bury Théoden, they have a ritual, a kind of ritual,
but it is not presided over by priests and there is no suggestion of
religious hope when they construct the barrow. And it’s the same with
know that the Hobbits get married… where? In church? They don’t have
churches. In the Town hall? Possibly…Who presides, is it the priest? No,
they don’t have priests. Perhaps it’s the mayor, or one of the
sheriffs. Well, we don’t know, there really is no suggestion of
religious grounding for the societies in LOTR. And yet there is a strong
sense, I think that what we are looking at here, is, in Christian terms, a
forlorn world, a world which is waiting for salvation and which cannot
achieve lasting salvation by its own efforts. As everybody, as all the
wise characters tell us, what they are doing is “fighting the long
defeat” because there is no ultimate victory possible within the tenets
of Middle-Earth. Any ultimate victory must come from the outside, and it
has not come yet.
mention many sources from the “true traditions” which have exerted an
influence over Tolkien. Do you think that in Tolkien, literary traditions
play a greater role than in other mainstream authors?
not sure, Franco, quite how to answer question 13. I would say only this.
I have talked about Tolkien and what I regard as the true traditions of
literature, let me just say that the true tradition which Tolkien talks
about is more powerful in mainstream literature than it’s often noticed.
That the great English poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Tennyson are
in many ways medievalizing poets and poets like Wordsworth or Coleridge
who very deliberately go back to the oral traditions of ballads and poetry,
and again, you see this in authors like Sir Walter Scott himself, a great
creator of ballads and a great creator of ballads. This tradition goes on
through authors like William Morris, and I suppose Swinburne and all the
way up to Tolkien’s own time. It tends to be pushed aside in long terms,
but once again it is a powerful feature and once you know to get the works
of the true tradition, they remain immensely popular. The most popular
work in English in the XX century apart from the Bible is Tolkien and the
most popular work in the XIX century in German apart of the Bible is Jacob
Grimm, with the Grimm’s Fairy tales, which everybody in Europe now knows.
Well, these are both works of
the true traditions we have the most popular work in the XIX century and
the most popular work in the XX century… That’s two pretty good scores
for the Medieval traditions!
you think that the mainstream critics will ever acknowledge the literary
status of Tolkien’s work in a short time, less than 200 years from now?
takes me on to the question whether the critical mainstream will accord
literary value to the works of Tolkien. And of course, no, they won’t.
And I can say quite simply why. The critical mainstream is dedicated to
the notion of modernism. And actually
that is post-modernism, but there’s not a lot of difference. And
Modernism actually is a word of my grand-grandfather’s time, it
goes back to1920, it’s not really modern at all, they just say it is. It
has a notion, I think of modernity and what the XX century literature was
going to be about, which turned out to be completely wrong. So, in many
respects it is an archaic, conservative, conformist movement, but I’m
afraid it has became dominant
in critical mainstream and this is the reason why the critical mainstream
has failed to attract students, certainly in the USA it’s steadily
withering, students don’t turn up, the universities close courses,
that’s because we have people sticking determinedly to something
which didn’t work. Well, it’s a pity, it’s a great pity, think,
that there is not enough study of
Fantasy and of science fiction and all the other popular novels of
modern times, but just the same, that is what has happened.
is the fantasy genre not given proper status by mainstream critics?
the same way, I think because of this. The success of Fantasy, which was
not supposed to happen, challenges the authority of the critics. The
critics say “We are the ones who decide what is literature. You have no
vote.” and of course, the reading public, says “what do we care about
what you think, we are going to read whatever we like,
and if we decide to call it literature well, we will. You say we
can’t call it literature, we’ll call it something else. It doesn’t
make any difference.”
think we have here a characteristic challenge to an entrenched authority
and entrenched authorities, especially when they are bureaucracies, hate
any sort of challenge and will try to deal with it by saying “it does
not exist”, I don’t know, this is a great problem in normal life,
Franco. How do we get over bureaucracies? I don’t know!
is there such a difference between the popular success of authors such as
Tolkien, Lewis and Orwell and their reviews by mainstream critics?
think perhaps that question 16 is why is there such a difference the
popular success of authors like
Tolkien and Lewis’ novels and their critical acceptance. It’s just as
well, let’s say there is the authority challenge and there is also, I
think, in the case of Tolkien and Lewis, their determined religious
traditionalism, the fact that they are Christians, and loathed by
modernists who think that all that kind of things are
overpassé, out of date no need to bother about it any more. I
would say that to me, I think to my colleagues, to my critical colleagues,
people like Tolkien and Lewis, and Orwell, they’re like vampires. You
think they are dead, you put a stake through their hearts, bury them at
the crossroads, and it’s all over, and then someone drops a bit of blood
on them and they’re alive again! When they see Tolkien or someone like
Orwell, they see the Middle Ages coming back, and they find that very hard
to bear, and yet one of the things I have tried to do in Author
of the Century is to
explain why this is happening. It is a phenomenon, whatever you think
about it, whether you like it or not, it is a phenomenon, and a phenomenon
deserves an explanation, if you do not have an explanation for it, then
you do not have a literary theory, and for all the talk these days about
literary theories, we still do not have a good theory about fantasy.
your opinions, what are the good points and the bad points of Peter
don’t think there are many bad points, but… every now and then, you
feel that he has to reach out for an audience of teenagers, of female
teenagers, and he has to do something to amuse them, so there is a scene
in which Legolas skateboards down the steps, at Helm’s Deep. I can’t
help thinking that skateboarding is not really part of Middle Earth. All
right, and then there’s Gimli who is made into a comic figure. There are
a lot of jokes about dwarf-tossing. I don’t know quite what is funny
about dwarf tossing but it seems to be a popular idea in the United states
of America and in Australia but I hope nowhere else. I don’t think we
needed those jokes, so there we are.
good things. The good thing is that Jackson is quite prepared to be quiet
and not to bee noisy. There’s a very good quiet scene in the third
movie, there’s a violent action scene with the trolls battering down the
door to get into the second level of Minas Tirith and during this Gandalf
sits with Pippin who is afraid, and
talks to him very quietly about death and consoles him in a way,
the words from an earlier
chapter of The Lord of the Rings,
which Jackson has taken out and inserted in this point, and that’s very
moving, I think. In same sort of way, it’s very good thing, I think, to
see in the Council of Elrond, which Jackson changed very much from its
original, and in this scene it ends up, as it does not in Tolkien, it ends
up with everybody shouting and arguing with each other. In the middle of
this Frodo says “I will take the Ring.” And nobody hears him because
they are all shouting, but Gandalf hears and turns towards him and Frodo
again says “I will take the Ring.” and Everybody goes quiet, because
they realize that Gandalf is paying attention to Frodo, and not to them.
And then Frodo says “I will take the Ring... but I do not know the
way.” Well, that’s
different from the way Tolkien did it, but I think very powerful and very
suggestive. So, one of the quiet scenes actually again changed from its
original place… In Tolkien,
Frodo, when he realizes what’s happening, quite early on, says to
Gandalf “I wish this hadn’t happened in my time.” and Gandalf says
“So do all who live to see such times but that is not for them to
decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”.
Well, Jackson takes this out of its context And has Gandalf talking to
Frodo in the Mines of Moria, there’s nobody else listening, it’s all
quiet and it’s just the two of them talking quietly. And then, at the
very end of the first movie, when Frodo is about to set off on its own, he
hears Gandalf, whom he thinks he’s dead, talking to him. You see Gandalf
projected on the screen, there’s a voice over, and it says the same
words, but this time it doesn’t say “them”, it says “You”. All
“you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you.”,
so it becomes much more direct and much more personal Well, there are
several moments like that, I think and I appreciate how Jackson has kept
his thoughts on the core of the original story and not be completely
distracted by the violent scenes and the action scenes.
by Fiorenzo Delle Rupi]
Philosophy in the Works of JRR Tolkien
me either when you don not understand and do not agree, and ask. I don’t
speak fluently in English, but I try (may be asking help to professor
Ferrari. Do yourselves the same thing : try and speak!
about life and works of JRRT
(b. Jan. 3, 1892, Bloemfontein, S.Af.--d. Sept. 2, 1973, Bournemouth,
Hampshire, Eng.), English novelist
and scholar who achieved fame with his richly inventive epic trilogy
The Lord of the Rings
(1954-55). The work consists of The
Fellowship of the Ring, The Two
Towers, and The Return of the
King. This remarkable work by the mid-1960s had become, especially in
its appeal to young people, a sociocultural phenomenon. Brought to England
at the age of four, Tolkien was educated at Oxford (B.A., 1913; M.A.,
1919) and served in World War I. He was a professor of Anglo-Saxon
(1925-45) and of English language and literature (1945-59) at the
University of Oxford. He wrote the novel The
Hobbit (1937), which served for his children. Both The
Hobbit and The Lord of the
Rings are set in a mythical past. It is noteworthy as a rare,
successful modern version of the heroic epic. A "prequel" of The
Lord of the Rings, The
Silmarillion, was published in 1977, as was an authorized biography by
Humphrey Carpenter. A film
version of the LotR appeared in
2001-2005, directed by Peter Jackson..
the students on their knowledge of JRRT
moral philosophy is
should we live? Shall we aim at happiness or at knowledge, virtue,
or the creation of beautiful objects? If we choose happiness, will it be
our own or the happiness of all? And what of the more particular questions
that face us: Is it right to be dishonest in a good cause? Can we justify
living in opulence while elsewhere in the world people are starving? If
conscripted to fight in a war we do not support, should we disobey the law?
What are our obligations to the other creatures with whom we share this
planet and to the generations of humans who will come after us? Ethics
deals with such questions at all levels. Its subject consists of the
fundamental issues of practical decision making, and its major concerns
include the nature of ultimate value and the standards by which human
actions can be judged right
or wrong. The terms ethics and morality are closely related. We now often
refer to ethical judgments or ethical principles where it once would have
been more common to speak of moral judgments or moral principles. Ethics
is equivalent to moral philosophy.
: he was catholic and followed a kind of thomistic tradition, so he was
neither materialistic (Spirits, Moral Ideals, Inner Feelings have a big
role in his stories) and
spiritualistic (he doesn’t share the Platonic common places :
hatred for the body, idealization for the intellectual values,
ascetic contempt for pleasures). As a catholic
he gives importance to : love and friendship, compassion and forgiveness,
faith and hope in a unearthly Force (Providence), redeeming function of
suffering, ubiquitous presence of Evil (and not the Manichean separation
between the Evil and the Good). As an Englishman
he appreciated understatement, humour and tolerance. As a XX
Century man he appreciated freedom, intercultural harmony, pacifism.
As a scholar of the German
traditions of the Dark Ages he appreciated war courage, loyalty, sense of
honour. As a Romantic he
appreciated the exaltation of beauty either in Love, Art and in Nature,
the national lore, the power of imagination.
tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
is the core of The
Lord of the Rings. Gandalf says :”Do not tempt me! I do not wish to
become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is
by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not
tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish
to wield it would be too great fro my strength.” This opinion is
distinctively modern. No
medieval chronicler, romancer or biographer would have been likely to
concur with this opinion. In Antiquity and in Middle Ages the idea that a
person once genuinely good could be made bad by the removal of restraints
(absolute power) is not yet present.
good way to understand LotR is
to see it as an attempt to reconcile two views of evil, both old, both
authoritative, both living. One of these is in essence the orthodox
Christian one, expounded first by Augustine (5th century A.D.):
there is not such thing as evil, evil is nothing, is the absence of good,
and it is possibly even an unappreciated good (felix
culpa). Corollaries of this theory are that evil cannot itself create
and that it will in the long run be annulled or eliminated, as the Fall of
Man was redressed by the incarnation and death of Christ. Frodo says :
“the Shadow can only mock, it cannot make : not real new things of its
own”; and Elrond says : “nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron
was not so”.
the characters of LotR (Frodo, Sam and all the others), and the readers as
well!, are uncertain as regards to the nature of Evil and they swing in
their mind : is the Evil internal (absence of Good, intimate craving for
Power), or is it external (the Dark Lord Sauron, the One Ring as a
physical object)? Thomas Shippey observes that this ambivalence allows the
LotR to keep away from either
the introversion of the “bourgeois novel” – so insignificant an weak
to explain the political and war experiences that heavily influenced the
lives of Tolkien and of so many other people during the tragedies of the
20th Century (the Century of the totalitarianisms and of the
two world wars! – and the Manichaean superficiality of the popular
culture and fiction (on one side the Good Guys entirely good, and on the
other side the Bad Guys entirely bad).
Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth,
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston-New York, 2003
E. Smith, Tolkien’s Ordinary
Virtues, InterVarsity Press, Donwers Grove – Illinois, 2002
Bassham and Eric Bronson (editors), The
Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, Open Court, Chicago and Lasalle –
Manni (a cura di), Introduzione a
Tolkien, Simonelli Editore, Milano, 2002