Franco Manni



Papers on Tolkien in English





An Eulogy of Finitude

Anthropology, Eschatology and Philosophy of History in Tolkien



Franco Manni




An undeclared love and a latent polemic

“I'm not a philosopher, but an experimenter”

Tolkien, Notion Club Papers


In his works Tolkien never refers to philosophers by name[1], 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”[2]; 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 times[3]A 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 to be[4]. This distinction is the same made by Thomas Aquinas in an article[5] in Summa Theologiae, a work which Carpenter says was present on Lewis’s bookshelf during the Inklings’ evening meetings[6] and which Claudio Testi tells me that he knows Tolkien to have possessed[7].

Another 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  is  hope?'  she  said.  'An   expectation  of   good,  which though  uncertain  has  some  foundation  in  what  is   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  of  the  world,  for  it  does  not  come from  experience, but from our nature and first  being. If  we are  indeed the  Eruhin, the Children  of  the  One,  then  He  will  not  suffer  Himself  to  be deprived  of  His  own,  not  by  any Enemy,  not even  by ourselves. This  is  the  last  foundation  of  Estel'./.../Among the  Atani /.../  it is  believed that  healing may yet  be  found, or  that there  is some  way of  escape. But  is this indeed  Estel?  Is  it  not  Amdir rather but without  reason: mere flight  in  a  dream from  what waking  they know:  that there  is no escape from darkness and death?'»[8]. In the Summa Theologiae 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[9] -  from “spes” 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.”[10]

Further references to ancient and medieval philosophers have been pointed out by Tolkien scholars: Plato[11], Plotinus and Augustine[12], Boethius[13].

But: 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[14].

With regard to writings not intended for publication, this word appears a few times in his Letters, usually as a synonym for “religion”[15] or with the meaning of generalized “theory”[16], 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 reincarnation[17], or when he explains the significance of the Ring of Power or speaks of the moral corruption present in Eddison’s novels[18]. 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”[19]. The “home” of philosophy is, according to him, “in ancient Greece”[20] (and not in Germany, which he considered “home” of philology[21]), for the reason that “southern” mythology rests on deeper foundations than that from the north, and so must lead “either to philosophy or anarchy”[22]. 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”[23].

These occurrences (or, better, non-occurrences) of the names of philosophers[24] or the word “philosophy” bring to mind Carpenter’s reconstruction of a typical Inklings’ session[25]: 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 “contemporary thought”[26]. 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 “tender minded”[27]. 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 academic world[28]. 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.

And 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.”[29] 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. J. Ayer.

But – 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 religion.

Summing up: a strong concern for philosophical themes[30], combined with a latent polemical attitude towards the way in which these are treated by recent and contemporary philosophers!




Which themes, then? Verlyn Flieger agrees with Tolkien’s assertion: the principal theme is death; Charles Nelson considers other subjects to be central[31]; W. A. Senior thinks that the central concern is the “sense of loss” of which death is but one form[32]; Tom Shippey observes that although to Tolkien it “seemed that the central theme was death”[33], he himself sees the “ideological” and “philosophical” nucleus of Tolkien’s work as being about providence[34].

Tolkien 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[35]. 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.[36]

As Ralph C. Wood writes, this is a “radical non-Platonic  turn”[37] And Claudio Testi, too, writes: philosophically “approximately one could say that it seems to be an Aristotelian element in a Platonic context”[38]. 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[39].

This “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[40]. 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[41].

  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[42]. 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 biblical monism[43].

 In “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[44]. 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 lose it”).

 In 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[45]: 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[46]. 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)[47].

 Amongst 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.”[48] . The paradoxical logical implication of this step is that “true immortality” coincides with death.

Immediately 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[49]. 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”[50].

These 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 [51]. 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[52].

In summary, we can say that remembering the past is a good thing only if it serves to clarify future moral action (“historia magistra vitae”), as Nietzsche and Croce emphasized in their criticism of antiquarian historiography[53]. Since the Elves in Tolkien’s fiction represent an aspect of real anthropology[54], 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[55]. 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”[56] – or, as is also said, on the “ultimate purpose”[57] of human life.




   Because of death we all live in a city without walls”

  Epicurus, Letters


                                 “To take life seriously means to accept resolutely, rigorously, as serenely as possible, its finiteness”

Norberto Bobbio, De Senectute


Franco 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[58]. 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[59]. 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”[60]. 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”[61].

  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”)!

Here we should remember that trough the philosophical tradition – even in the Christian one, as in Aquinas[62] - the so-called “eternity”is quite different from “endless time”: Time concerns Change, while instead Eternity concerns Immutability, “tota simul existens”, 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.”[63]

Tolkien 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”[64]. 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[65].

We 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[66]. 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”[67]

The “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[68]. 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).[69]

More 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[70], 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”[71].

A 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 decomposes[72]? 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[73].

Perhaps 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[74].

Here 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 necessary price[75]. 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 him”[76]. 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”[77]. 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.

The 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.”[78]

And  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[79]. 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[80].

When 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”[81]. 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)[82]. 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”[83].

This 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 be forgotten[84]. 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 in practice[85]. 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.








Philosophy of History


   'Don't the great tales never end? ', 'No, they never end as tales,' said Frodo.

`But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended.

Our part will end later – or sooner.' ”

Sam e Frodo, The Stairs of Cirith Ungol



I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world.”

Tolkien,  Letter n. 183



With 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 ”[86]. 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”[87]. 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.

This 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 observed[88]; 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[89]. 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[90]. 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”[91]. 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.

But 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[92]; 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 [93] 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 past[94]. This idea of re-living inspired the two “time travel” novels which Tolkien left unfinished: The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers[95]; 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[96]. 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 creative way.

At 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.

The 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.

Tolkien wrote that every event had at least two aspects: one regarded the history of the individual, the other the history of the world[97]. 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[98] such as those of Oswald Spengler[99] and Arnold Toynbee[100], together with others, intellectualist and extravagant such as that of Edmund Husserl[101] or terrible and obscure such as that of Alfred Rosenberg[102]. 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.

But 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[103]. 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)[104]. 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[105]. Tolkien’s “philosophy of history” is not pessimistic as were those in fashion at the time[106] 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.

As 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 Age[107].

My 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[108]. A disintegration of which of Tolkien (like many other Britons) did not disapprove![109] 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 death.

This 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[110], 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.

Why? 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.

Tolkien’s 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[111]. 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 well aware[112].

Although 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"[113]. Galadriel at the end of the Third Age is a woman who no longer leaves the side of husband Celeborn[114], 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.

And 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[115]. But – says Tolkien - Andreth is wrong! As Matthew Dickerson observes,[116] 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”.[117]

Here 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).






A moment in the life of Tolkien


The days seem blank, and I cannot concentrate on  anything.

I find life such a bore in this imprisonment”

Tolkien (in retirement)


“When is the moment to exit from the world? To be a philosopher is to learn to die”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


A 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”[118]. Let us try, then, to examine more closely the “particular situation” from which Tolkien drew most of his motives for death and immortality.

Claudio Testi calls the years 1956-1960 “the apex of Tolkien’s reflection”[119]; 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[120].

When 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 finished[121]. 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[122]. 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?

Let’s 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.

Tolkien 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?

Tolkien 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”![123]) 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 change[124].

Shippey 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[125]. 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[126] – also disintegrated, or at least started to[127].

It also comes to mind that Tolkien, in that he was an Elf (i.e. an artist and scholar[128]), 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, Not-Yet-Mortality)!

In 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”[129]. 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?

A 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!

Before 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[130]. 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”[131].

What 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.[132]

Tom 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[133]. 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”.

But 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 own ways[134]. 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 individuals.

This too is, I believe, a Tolkienian “Eulogy of Finitude”: either Philology and Fiction are good things, but finite, certainly to be appreciated, but not idealized.

I 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!


[English translation by Jimmy Bishop]





[1]             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 )..

[2]             Letters, cit, n. 131, p. 151.

[3]             Email to me, 21.08.09.

[4]             J.R.R. Tolkien, The Morgoth's Ring, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1994, p. 343.

[5]             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”.

[6]             See Chapter 3 in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1978.

[7]             Claudio Testi has purchased Tolkien’s copy on the collectors’ market and received a positive  expertise by Carl Hostetter.

[8]             The Morgoth's Ring, cit, p. 320.

[9]             Summa Theologiae, pars prima secundae partis, quaestio 40, artt. 1,3,6.

[10]           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. 21.

[11]           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)

[12]           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.

[13]           Tom Shippey, Tolkien, Author of the Century, HarperCollins 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).

[14]           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.

[15]           Letters, cit., , n. 26, n. 49, n. 153, n. 156, n. 183.

[16]           Ibidem, n. 15, n. 49, n. 52,

[17]           Ibidem, n. 153, p. 189 (implicitly showing, it seems to me, that he knew some of them!).

[18]           ibidem, n. 157, n. 211, n. 199

[19]           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 explanations).

[20]           ibidem, n. 84.

[21]           Cf. Tom Shippey Goths and Huns in Roots and Branches. Selected Papers in Tolkien, Walking Tree Publisher, Zollikofen (Switzerland), 2007, pp.114-136.

[22]           Beowulf:  the Monsters and the Critics, in The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1983

[23]           J.R.R. Tolkien, Sauron Defeated, cit.,  pp. 159, 178.

[24]           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, 170, 307.

[25]           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

[26]           They are against Karl Marx and the theologian Karl Barth., ibidem.

[27]           Several personal communications with Shippey .

[28]           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 experience: “I 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).

[29]           ibidem.

[30]          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 libraries.


[31]           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.

[32]           Ibidem.

[33]           Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2005, p. 301.

[34]           Tom Shippey, Roots and Branches. Selected Papers in Tolkien, Walking Tree Publisher, Zollikofen (Switzerland), 2007, pp. 317, 383.

[35]          J.R.R. Tolkien, The Morgoth's Ring, cit.

[36]           Ibidem, p. 317.

[37]           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 , 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 terrible thing.”

[38]           See Claudio Testi, Il Legendarium tolkieniano come meditatio mortis, unpublished.

[39]           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”,  pp. 11-25.

[40]           Wood, The Gospel, cit, pp. 158-160

[41]           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.”

[42]           Letters, cit., n. 291, p.371.

[43]                Christopher Garbowski, Recovery and Transcendence for the Contemporary Mythmaker, Maria Curie – Sklodowska University Press, Lublin, 2000, p. 168.

[44]           The Road to Middle-earth,  cit., p.238

[45]           Cf. Franco De Masi, Making Death Thinkable. A Psychoanalytic Contribution to the Problem of the Transience of Life, Free Association Books, 2004, p. 21.  And  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”

[46]           Franco De Masi, op. cit., pp. 116-118, 137, 105

[47]          Vincent Ferré, La Mort dans Le Seigneur des Anneaux, « seconde partie » in Tolkien: sur les rivages de la terre du milieu, Christian Bourgois Éditeur, Paris, 2001, pp. 253-255.

[48]           Letters, cit., n. 208, p. 267.

[49]           Ibidem, 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. 96-100).

[50]           Letters, n. 212, p. 285.

[51]           Ibidem, n. 181, p.236

[52]           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.

[53]           See: Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen  [English translation: Untimely Meditations] (1873-1876) and Croce,  La storia come pensiero e come azione [English translation: History as the Story of Liberty] (1938).

[54]           Tolkien, Letters, cit., n. 153, p.189: “ Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires, incarnated in my little world”.

[55]           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 of immortality!

[56]           In the Christian tradition the “final things” are: Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven.

[57]           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.

[58]           I limiti dell'esistenza, cit,. p. 23

[59]           Ibidem, p. 101.

[60]                Recovery and Transcendence, cit., p. 168, italics added.

[61]           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.”

[62]           Summa Theologiae, pars prima , quaestio 10, articulus 1.

[63]                Immortality and the Death of Love: Tolkien and Simone de Beauvoir, in  Tolkien 2005. The Ring Goes Ever On. Proceedings, cit., p. 127.

[64]           Letters, cit., n. 156, p. 205.

[65]          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).

[66]                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.

[67]           Another Road to Middle-earth, in Roots and Branches, cit., pp. 380-383.

[68]           The Road to Middle-earth, cit., p. 190

[69]          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”.

[70]           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 senectute e altri scritti autobiografici, Einaudi, Torino, 1996, p. 41).

[71]           Simon Critchley, The Book of the Dead Philosophers, Granta Books, London, 2008, pp. 280-281

[72]           The Road to Middle-earth, cit., p. 217.

[73]           Letters, cit., n. 181, p. 235.

[74]           Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, cit , pp. 214-215.

[75]           Davis, Choosing to Die, cit., p. 135

[76]          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 gran rifiuto, 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.”

[77]           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.

[78]           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.

[79]           The Road to Middle-earth, cit., pp. 188-189.

[80]           I should like to recall here the views of Benedetto Croce (from Frammenti di etica [1922] Laterza, Bari, 1981, pp. 23, 25) concerning the themes of death, immortality and the individual and his mission.

[81]        In John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, cit., p. 180

[82]           Letters, cit., n. 181, p. 234.

[83]           Ibidem, n. 310, pp. 399-400.

[84]        However 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,, November 2003).

[85]           The Road to Middle-earth, cit., p. 219.

[86]           Letter of 3rd February 1916 quoted in Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, cit., pp. 118-119, 177.

[87]           Letter of 30th August 1916 that Smith later sent to Tolkien, ibidem, p. 185.

[88]           The Road to Middle-earth, cit., pp. 308-317.

[89]           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 ».

[90]           Ibidem, 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 .”

[91]           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.

[92]           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 Douglas 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.

[93]           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 Macmillian  Croce’s 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).

[94]           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)

[95]           History of Middle-earth, vols. 5 and 9.

[96]           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.

[97]           Letters, cit., n. 181, p. 233.

[98]           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).

[99]           Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of West), 1918.

[100]         A Study of History, 1934.

[101]         Die Philosophie in der Krisis der europäischen Menschheit (Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man), 1935.

[102]         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, pp. 72-75.

[103]         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.

[104]         The Road to Middle-earth, cit., p. 303.

[105]         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.

[106]         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). 

[107]                “Spengler” (pseudonym), Tolkien's Ring: When immortality is not enough, in Asia Times Online Ltd.”, 2003.

[108]       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 Déclin in Vincent Ferré, Tolkien: sur les rivages de la terre du milieu, cit., pp. 253-255.

[109]         Letters, cit., n. 53 p. 65, n. 77 p.  89.

[110]         Franco Manni, Real and Imaginary History in The Lord of the Rings,  “Mallorn”, issue 47, Spring 2009, pp. 28-37.

[111]                Letters,cit., n.153, p. 189: "Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires".

[112]                "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.

[113]       The Silmarillion, 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."

[114]       Unlike her previous behaviour; cf.  Unfinished Tales, cit., pp. 248-252, 256.

[115]                Garbowski, Recovery and Transcendence, cit., p.   167

[116]                Following Gandalf, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids , 2003, p. 109.

[117]                Silmarillion, cit., p. 36

[118]         Letters, cit., n. 337 p. 418.

[119]         Cf. Claudio Testi, Il Legendarium, cit..

[120]                Humphrey Carpenter, JRR Tolkien. A Biography, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1977, pp. 239-243.

[121]         Letters, cit., n. 5 pp. 9-10.

[122]         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.

[123]         See comments by Enrico Berti in his Una metafisica problematica e dialettica, in Aa. Vv., Metafisica. Il mondo nascosto, Laterza, Bari, 1997, p. 45.

[124]         Letters, cit., n. 181 p. 236.

[125]         Fighting the Long Defeat: Philology in Tolkien's Life and Fiction, in Roots and Branches, cit., pp. 139-156.

[126]         Cf. Tom Shippey:  Grimm, Grundtvig, Tolkien: Nationalisms and the Invention of Mythologies, in Roots and Branches, cit., pp. 80-96.

[127]         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 Romance philology!

[128]         Letters, cit., n. 181 p. 236: “The Elves represent, as it were, the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature”.

[129]         Ibidem, n. 212, p. 285.

[130]                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.

[131]         Letters, cit., n. 328 p. 412.

[132]         The Inklings, cit., chapter 3.

[133]         Goths and Huns: the Rediscovery of Northern Cultures in the 19th Century, 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.

[134]         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. 277.



The Complexity of Tolkien’s Attitude Towards the Second World War


 Franco Manni and Simone Bonechi[1]



“In 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[2], 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”.[3]

The 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[4]. 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, I would note and suggest here, 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).

These 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.

Tolkienian 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[5], but many Tolkienians could still benefit from a calmer, detached and more open approach.



Tolkien 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.

Scant 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.

In 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.

When 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 machines.

What 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”?[6]

Things 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.”[7] 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.[8]


Fruitless victories” :  the First World War and The Silmarillion

If, 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.

The production of arms by the Noldor is a direct result of the lies and snares sowed by Melkor/Morgoth among them in Valinor,[9] 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.”[10] 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 damns them.

The 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.

Many 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.”[11]

It 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).[12] 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”.

The 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.

This 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.[13]

Furthermore, 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.”

Some 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).

But 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.

The 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.

From 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 against evil”,[14] when he pictured war in his writings he chose to put the stress on its wicked roots, on endless defeat rather than ultimate victory.

All 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.”

Through 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 Silmarillion.[15] 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.[16]

Always 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”[17]. 


Opinions on the Relationship Between LothR and the Second World War

Peter 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”[18]. 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.”[19].

            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.”[20]. And 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”[21]. 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.[22]" And Isabelle Smadja: “Despite Tolkien's protests to the contrary, the moral universe of LothR is recognizably that of the Second World War”[23]. 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.”[24] And 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”.[25] And 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”[26].

And 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”[27]. 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.”[28]

            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."[29]

Tom 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 began in1947.[30]

But 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 JRRT[31] - 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”[32].  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[33]!


A Ratio

I 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.[34]

There is, in WWII, an ideological and ethical[35] dimension which is not present in WWI. Just as in LothR in comparison with Sil .

When 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.


The Composition of The Lord of the Rings

In 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 LothR  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.

On 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”)[36]. 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.[37] 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”)[38]. 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.[39] 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.[40] 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 drama?

It 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.[41] 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”[42].  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”[43]. 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[44]. 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”[45] 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[46]: 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 ?

There then follows a second long interruption from the end of 1942 until  April 1944[47];  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.[48] 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!.

From 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[49].

On 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[50] 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 1944.

This 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 JRRT![51]) did not break out. On 30th September 1946 he announced that he had restarted writing LothR a week previously[52], 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[53].

I 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.



The Influence of “History” on “Stories”

Matthew Dickerson observes[54] 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[55]. 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).

John 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”[56]. This reminds me of the regime of Sauron which ruled over Mordor (whereas there were no totalitarians in WWI).

Elrond 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[57]. 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”[58]. This brings to mind French defeatism – which prepared the way for Vichy -  about which Marc Bloch has written so well[59] 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.”[60]

The 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.

In 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.

“So 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.[61]”: 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 October 29th  1941 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”.

Churchill 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”.[62]

On 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. /.../ but 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 to Mouth 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.[63]



In 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.

Carpenter states in his biography of JRRT: “His distress for the continuation of hostilities was almost as much for ideological as for personal reasons” [64]. In the next paragraph I will comment on the former category , and in the following on the latter.

In Letter N° 52 (late 1943) JRRT says that he prefers anarchy or non-constitutional  monarchy; 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.[65]” 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.

It seems to me, therefore, that JRRT’s ideology, which Patrick Curry describes with acuteness and sympathy[66], 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.

In 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” [67]. 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”.

An 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”[68].

When 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”

Years 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”.[69]

In 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”.

As “poet” JRRT had understood this quickly[70]: 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”![71]

Why, 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.



I 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.

Literary  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”[72].

From Carpenter’s three books[73] 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.

But 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.

It 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.[74]

After 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)?.[75] 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[76]. 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.

Frodo, 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”.[77] 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.

Who 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”.[78] And to his son Christopher: “If I was of military age, I should, I fancy, be grousing away in a fighting service”.[79] 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!”[80]. Janet Croft writes: “WWII taught him the frustrations of a parent, too old for active duty, forced to watch his sons risking their lives”[81]; but I think that at least part of JRRT’s mind cast doubt both on the “too old” and on the “forced”.

In 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[82]. 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!

However, 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 you”[83]. 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.[84] It is the right and personal way that JRRT can take part in the great events of the present.

I 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[85] - 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[86]. 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...)”[87].

In 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[88], 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.[89]

On 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”.

I 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 talent (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.”[90]

“He nothing common did or mean”.



The Literature of the Second World War

Janet 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.[91]. 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[92] 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”[93].

I 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.[94] 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.

The Preface to this book, of which I quote several lines, was written by Thomas Mann[95]: “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”.[96]



I 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 :

·        JRRT was inspired mainly by WWI in writing SIL and mainly by WWII in writing LothR

·        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.

·         LothR shows similarities with respect to its “moral atmosphere” with other literary works of the WWII years and the decade which followed.

·        We 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.

·        When 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.





[1]              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.

[2]              Tolkien and the Great War; New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p. 223

[3]              Ibidem, p. 309.

[4]              Christopher Tolkien in JRRT, The Return of the Shadow (RothS), HoME 6, HarperCollins, London, 1993, pp. 11,461

[5]              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.

[6]                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.

[7]                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

[8]                Ivi, pp. 75, 78 and 85.

[9]                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.

[10]               JRRT, The Silmarillion; cit.; p. 60.

[11]               Ivi, p. 74. See also JRRT, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth; London, HarperCollins, 1998; pp. 294-348

[12]               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 rewarding.

[13]               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.

[14]               See JRRT to Geoffrey Bache Smith, 12th August 1916, as cited in J. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War; cit.; p. 218.

[15]               “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.

[16]               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

[17]                Introduction to First World War Poetry, 1996, at

[18]              In the extended version of his film The Fellowship of the Ring

[19]               Interviewed by Steven D. Greydanus at

[20]             The Fellowship of the Ring , “The Observer”, December 16th, 2001

[21]             The Lord of the Hobbits in Zimbardo – Isaacs (editors), Understanding the Lord of the Rings, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2004, p. 26

[22]             At , 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

[23]             In “Le Monde Diplomatique”, December 2002, quoted by Ray Cassin, Just give me that old-time mythology January 5th 2003 at

[24]            The Struggle of Good against Evil, March 2002,  at

[25]            At . 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.

[26]             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.

[27]             Tolkien. A Cultural Phaenomenon, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2003, p. 163.

[28]             Email to Franco Manni, 11th July 2005

[29]            The Legendary War and the Real One. LothR and the Climate of its Times, “Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society”, 1989, p. 17.

[30]             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  January 2005).

[31]             Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, 2004, 174 pp.

[32]             J. Croft, War , cit., p. 58,

[33]             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”.

[34]             Author, cit, p. xxxi.

[35]             See 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!

[36]             H.umphrey Carpenter, JRRT. A Biography, HarperCollins, London, 1977, p. 185 ; JRRT, RothS, cit, p. 11 .

[37]             Letters, cit, N°31

[38]             Letters, cit, N°33 ; RothS, cit., p. 109

[39]             RothS, cit, p. 110.

[40]             Ibidem, p. 189.

[41]             Ibidem, p. 309.

[42]             Ibidem, p. 370

[43]             ibidem.

[44]             Ibidem, p. 461

[45]             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”).

[46]             See what Christopher writes in The Treason of Isengard, HoME 7, 1993, p. 192.

[47]             Ibidem, p. 1

[48]             Letters, cit, N°53

[49]             See what Christopher writes on p. 234 of JRRT, The War of the Ring, HoME n° 8 HarperCollins, London, 1992.

[50]             Alex Lewis and Elisabeth Currie, The Forsaken Realm of Tolkien, Medea Publishing, Wimbledon, 2005, pp. 144-181

[51]             On 29th May 1945 he wrote “But at least the Americo-Russian War won’t break out for a year yet” : Letters, cit, N°100.

[52]             Letters, cit., N°106.

[53]             Sauron Defeated, HoME 9, 1993, pp. 12-13 ; Humphrey Carpenter , JRRT. A Biography, HarperCollins, London, 1977, p. 207 ; Letters, cit.,N°117.

[54]             Following Gandalf. Epic Battles and Moral Victory in TLothR, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2003, p. 54.

[55]             Ibidem, pp. 55, 69.

[56]             Tolkien and the Great War, cit., p. 223.

[57]             JRRT, TLothR, Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1986, p. 260.

[58]             Ibidem, p. 912

[59]               Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence (1940), 1946

[60]             Winston S. Churchill, Unrelenting Struggle, p. 363

[61]             LothR, cit., 856.

[62]             Author, cit., p. 152

[63]             LothR, cit., pp. 564-5.

[64]             Humphrey Carpenter, JRRT. A Biography, HarperCollins, 1992, p.197

[65]             Tolkien, cit., p. 191.

[66]             Defending Middle-earth. Tolkien : Myth and Modernity, HarperCollins, London, 2004, especially the first two chapters.

[67]             Tolkien, cit., p. 166.

[68]             LothR, cit, p. 913.

[69]             Letters, cit., N°183

[70]            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).

[71]             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.

[72]             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

[73]             The Inklings, Biography, Letters.

[74]             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.

[75]             RothS, cit., pp. 108-109.

[76]             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.

[77]             LothR, cit., p. 45.

[78]             Letters, cit., N° 45.

[79]             Letters, cit., N° 53.

[80]             Letters, cit., n°45

[81]             War and the Works, cit., p. 145.

[82]             See  John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, cit.

[83]             Letters, cit., N° 73.

[84]             The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien, Medea Publishing, Wimbledon, 2002, pp. 68-147.

[85]            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”.

[86]            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)

[87]             emails to Franco Manni , 24 July and 11 August 2005.

[88]             See the details in Carpenter, Biography, cit., pp. 200-203.

[89]             The Inklings, George Allen & Unwin Publishers, London, 1978.

[90]             Author, cit., p. 220.

[91]             War and the Works, cit., pp. 62-63.

[92]             Tolkien, cit., pp. 287-313

[93]             Ibidem, p. 312.

[94]            Edited by Piero Malvezzi and Giovanni Pirelli, Einaudi , Torino, 1954, 816 pages.

[95]             This  Preface was written in March 1954; in 1944 Thomas Mann had become a US citizen.

[96]             Le Lettere dei Condannati a Morte, cit., pp. XIV-XV, italics added.




Tolkien Author of the Century


An Interview with Thomas Shippey


Questions by Franco Manni



Professor Shippey, can you tell us for what kind of public did you write the book Tolkien: Author of the Century?


Many 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 students”.


The 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  century?


Well, 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.

So 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 Tolkien is a 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.


You 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?


Now, 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.

But , 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.


What other messages did you wish to communicate with your book?


Well, 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.

I often ask the authors “You don’t know anything about Middle Ages” “No, I have never heard of any Medieval verses”

But 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.


Which are the characters and the scenes you most like in The Lord of the Rings?


Well, 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.

Apart 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.


Can you briefly mention the main differences between The Lord of the Rings  and the Silmarillion?


Well, 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.


You 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?


Well, 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.


Tolkien was a very skilful novelist. Can you put in kind of hierarchical order, Tolkien’s following abilities as a romancer and as a novelist?

A.                The building of the story and the plot; the philosophical and moral contents of the work;

B.                A good psychological depiction of the characters;

C.                Realism and depth of the historical background, of descriptions, of details and languages;

D.                Inspirational force in the creation of ideas.


Well, 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.


What 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?


In 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.


Do 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?


I 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.


Why is Tolkien popular both with Christians and with not Christians?


The 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 the Hobbits.

We 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.


You 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?


I’m 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!


Do 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?


This 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.


Why is the fantasy genre not given proper status by mainstream critics?


In 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.”

I 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!


Why is there such a difference between the popular success of authors such as Tolkien, Lewis and Orwell and their reviews by mainstream critics?


I 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.


In your opinions, what are the good points and the bad points of Peter Jackson’s movies?


I 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.

The 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,

taking 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.


[Transcription by Fiorenzo Delle Rupi]




Moral Philosophy in the Works of JRR Tolkien




·        Introduction :


-         Method : stop 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!

-          synopsis 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..

-         questioning the students on their knowledge of JRRT

-          what moral philosophy is : How  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.

-         JRRT’s philosophical background : 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.  


  • The theme of courage : courage takes a big role in the Tolkienian tales . Let us read The Silmarillion and the deeds of the elf Fingolfin in front the gates of Angband : SIL, pp. 179-180, and the deeds of the man Hurin at the end of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (“the battle of unnumbered tears”) : SIL, pp. 231-232. Let us read The Lord of the Rings and the deeds of the wizard Gandalf : LotR, pp. 348-349, and the deeds of the woman Eowyn : LotR, pp.  873-875 , and the deeds of the hobbit Sam : LotR, p. 938.
    Let’s follow the interpretation of Tom Shippey (most renowned Tolkien scholar in the world) : here we are dealing with a special kind of courage, the Courage till to give up one’s own life, for the sake of one’s own friends , not the courage that ends in itself, as a clue to show one’s proud braveness, one’s skills and human superiority. Tolkien deals with  this idea in a writing, The Homecoming of Beortnoth Beorhhelm’s son (set in the 10th Century, during Danes’ invasions of England) , where  he shows his appreciation for the courage of the Dark Ages : “
    Heart shall be bolder, harder be the purpose / more proud the spirit, as our power lessens /…/ these lines from the poem The Battle of Maldon have been held to be the finest expression of the northern heroic spirit, Norse or English ; the clearest statement of the doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will”. Tolkien admired the impulse towards the good beneath the pride and sorrow ; in Middle-earth he wanted a similar ultimate courage undiluited by confidence, but at the same time untainted by rage and despair. One may say that the wise characters in the LotR are often without hope and so near the edge of despair, but they do not succumb. That is left to Denethor, who will not fight to the last, but turns like a heathen to suicide and sacrifice of his kin. Tolkien needed a new image for ultimate bravery, one milder bit not weaker than that one of the German heathen warriors from the Dark Ages. He centred it, oddly enough, on laughter, cheerfulness, refusal to look into the future at all. The true vehicle of the “theory of laughter” is the hobbits: their behaviour is calqued on the traditional English humour in adversity, but has deeper semantic roots Of Sam while in Mordor we are told : “he had never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair cpuld be postponed. Now they had come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all the way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him”. Is it possible, one might wonder, to be cheerful without any hope at all? Certainly it seems hardly sensible, but the idea rings true. If we read about Fangorn and the last march of the Ents, according to Pippin, Fangorn is “sad but not unhappy”, and to modern English semantics the phrase makes almost no sense, like ‘hopeless cheer’. The paradoxes put forward Tolkien’s theses that determination should survive the worst that can happen, that a stout pretence is more valuable than sincere despair.
  • The theme of friendship : Let us compare a character from the Silmarillion, Turin, and from the LotR, Frodo. In Turin the "heredity" is the dispositions of his parents and – beyond them – of their stocks, the House of Hador and the House of Beor. As well as his mother he “was not cheer, he was laconic…he was slow in forgetting injustices and mockeries ; but in him there was also the fire oh his father, and Turin could be impetuous and fierce” (Unfinished Tales). The friends – who, more than parents, share the free and individual part of one person’s life – do not seem affect Turin’s personality, which – actually – doesn’t develop beyond its beginning dispositions. Both Turin’s parents are alive, even if they are different in their minds and then in fact separated one from the other and both from their child. Under their “shadow” Turin’s fate grows, develops and ends (there is a link between Fate and Heredity). Frodo – instead – is an orphan since his childhood, Tolkien soon forsook his initial idea that Frodo were Bilbo’s son, and doing so he broke the continuity of the Heredity (and of the Fate as well). Bilbo apart, other Frodo’s friends were Merry and Pippin. Bilbo is elder than him, they are younger. They are the “friends” in the “teenage” meaning of the word : the people with whom one has fun. Together they go about the Shire, have parties and dinners, exchange each other jests, or play (after the bath at Crickhollow). But this kind of relation develops too : Merry and Pippin are not just jolly fellows, but they become aware of Frodo’s feelings and organize the “conspiracy” to help him in his enterprise. Sam Gamgee is a youngster too, but he is a “servant” an not a relative. When he was keeping the garden he heard Gandalf and Frodo speaking about Elves and things like that , he sighed because he was worried about Frodo and wants to keep after him, but also because he desired follow him and see the marvellous things of the outside world. Frodo is for Sam a mean in his way to have a psychological and moral growth Let us imagine Sam without Frodo, Bilbo and the Elves: what an ordinary hobbit he would have been! It is enough to look at his father, the Gaffer. He was too sure of himself and a little over-confident , but this over-confidence was transformed by his sincere affection for Frodo. Anyway, the Frodo’s “elective family” (Bilbo, Sam, Merry and Pippin), together with the High Friends (Gandalf, Aragorn and the Elves), becomes essential to Frodo and to his enterprise. While Turin behaves notwithstanding the presence and the advice of his friends, Frodo is an hobbit orphan, without special intelligence, courage or strength, who couldn’t do anything of what step by step al last is able to do , if he had not the help of his friends.
    The classical tradition much appraised friendship : Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch and others linked friendship and moral virtues. Tolkien agrees with this tradition and shows how friendship is more important than the exterior goods : than power (Faramir, Aragorn, Galadriel do not break their friendship with Frodo and do not  take from him the One Ring), than wealth (Bilbo for his friends’ sake gave up his share of the treasure), than honours (Frodo, while the now safe and free people of Minas Tirith are celebrating their victory on Sauron, desires to leave and see his friend Bilbo), than pleasure and peace (Sam leaves his garden and his fiancée to accomplish that “job” together with his master Frodo). Moreover Tolkien agrees with the tradition in esteeming friendship more important than the social prejudices : of class (Sam friend of Frodo and Merry friend of king Theoden), of race (the elf Legolas friend of the dwarf Gimli), of age (old Bilbo friend of young Frodo, adult Pippin friend of the boy Bergil), of intellectual level (the wizard Gandalf friend of the hobbit Frodo, the wise Aragorn friend of the rude Eomer). But Tolkien goes beyond the classical tradition in putting friendship as more important than the political safety (Aragorn doesn’t go to Minas Tirith where his sword is demanded and goes to rescue Merry and Pippin), than the knowledge (while Gandalf wanders about the Middle-earth and become involved in the affairs of his friends Thorin, Bilbo, Frodo, Beorn, Strider, Saruman instead passes his time in reading the old runes in the archives to becoming learned in the “tradition of the Rings”), and putting friendship as more important than virtue itself : Frodo makes a pact with the vicious Gollum, and does thart not jus for utilitarian reasons, but also because he feels compassion and a kind of love for him. And these acts of trust that Frodo performs towards Gollum do not happen without effect : Tolkien himself in one of his letters writes about a “complete moral change” in Gollum, change that unfortunately is ruined by the unaware Sam. One of moral virtues is Wisdom (in Greek phronesis, in Latin prudentia) . There is a passage in the LotR where the wisdom is openly subordinated to friendship : it is when, in contrast to Elrond’s advice, Merry and Pippin offered themselves for helping Frodo e and become members of the Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf says : “I think, master Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great  wisdom” . ( LotR, pp. 292-294) . Also Elrond, then agrees, and from this decision many good and essential events spring out, events which indeed no wise person could ever had foreseen : Faramir can survive because Pippin is present in Minas Tirith and informs Gandalf of the mortal danger the son of Denethor is passing through ; Eowyn can survive and the Lord of the Nazgul dies because Merry is present on the Fields of Pelennor; Treebeard summons the Entmoot and at the right moment goes and fights at the Helm’s Deep and at Isengard, since he was warned by Merry and Pippin who have told him the war plans of Saruman; the Sauron’s Nazguls and Orcs do not engage themselves in searching Frodo and Sam because they think that the One Ring is hold by Merry and Pippin. Indeed a lot of events and very important too!
  • The theme of Power and Evil : Let us read from LotR (pp. 59-60) The most evident fact about the Ring is that it is a conception totally modern. In the chapter The Shadow of the Past Gandalf says three basic data about the Ring : 1) the Ring is immensely powerful, in right or wrong hands ; 2) it is dangerous and ultimately fatal to all his possessors, so, in a sense, there are not right hands ; 3) it cannot simply be left unused or put aside, but must be destroyed, something that can happen only in the place of origin.
    So there is only one way : The Ring cannot be kept, it has power over everybody, it must be destroyed. So we remember the sentence of Lord Acton (1887) :

“power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

This 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.
Elrond says : “The very desire of it corrupts the heart”. Boromir bears out Elrond’s words. He never touches the Ring, but desire to have it still makes him turn to violence. Obviously his original motive is patriotism and love for Gondor, but when this leads him to exalt “strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause”, our modern experience of dictators immediately tell us that matters would not stay there.
The Ring is “addictive”. Gandalf tells Frodo not to use the Ring (use always causes addiction); Sam, Bilbo, Frodo nevertheless survive their use of it (addiction in early stages is curable); Boromir succumbs to the Ring without handling it (use is preceded by desire); Faramir doesn’t care of it (a wise person is able of stifling the desire to become addicted, though no wisdom will stifle addiction once contracted); Notwithstanding Frodo wants to get rid of the Ring, he is not able to get rid of the Ring by himself and he needs the violent action of Gollum (the addicts can be cured by the use of external force, though their cooperation certainly helps ; to expect them to break their syringes and throw away their drugs by will-power alone is a delusion).

A 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”.
Still, there is an alternative tradition in Western thought, one which has never become “official” but which nevertheless arises spontaneously from experience. This says that while it may be all very well to make philosophical statements about evil, evil nevertheless is real, and not merely an absence of good ; and what is more it can be resisted, and what is more still, not resisting it (in the belief that one day Omnipotence will cure all ills) is a dereliction of duty. The danger of this opinion is that it tends towards Manichaeism , the heresy which says that Good and Evil are equal and opposite and the universe is a battlefield between them. The strong point of the Manichaean view of evil and the weak point of a Augustinian one is : if you regard evil as something internal, to be pitied, more harmful to the malefactor than to the victim, you may be philosophically consistent but you may also be exposing others to sacrifices to which they have not consented (like being murdered by Viking ravagers or, as LotR was being written (the Second World War!), being put into gas-chambers. In the 1930s and 1940s Augustine was especially hard to believe.

Anyway, 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).







ü                 Thomas Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston-New York, 2003

ü                 Mark E. Smith, Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues, InterVarsity Press, Donwers Grove – Illinois, 2002

ü                 Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson (editors), The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, Open Court, Chicago and Lasalle – Illinois, 2003

ü                 Franco Manni (a cura di), Introduzione a Tolkien, Simonelli Editore, Milano, 2002



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Franco Manni indice degli scritti




Maurilio Lovatti main list of online papers