Remembering Tolkien

Though read today as a children’s book, J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit and its sequel The Lord of the Rings has also been the subject of serious study, seen as a conscious and systematic effort at creating a mythology for England. This combination of fairy tale and mythic elements creates a work that is stratified and complex. I also tend to find hints of contemporary allegory in the books, written during the Great War. Though dampened by Tolkien’s vigorous assertions that his work is pure fiction and has no relation to the stirring events of his time, I refuse to give up. Here are the reasons why.

The cue is set by Tolkien in the Foreward to the 1965 Ballantine Book edition which tells us all about the futility of devising allegorical implications. “As for any inner meaning or message, it has in the intention of the author none“. Tolkien continues by stating that he dislikes allegory, though curiously he uses allegorical images to describe his own art of writing: “In spite of the darkness of the next five years, I found that the story could not now be wholly abandoned and I plodded on, mostly by night, till I stood by Balin’s tomb in Moria. There I halted for a long time. It was almost a year later when I went on and so came to Lothlorien and the Great River in 1941.”

Though The Hobbit had been written in the early ’30s and published in 1937, The Lord of the Rings was written at intervals, between 1936 and 1949. At the time Tolkien was writing about the Shadow of Mordor spreading over Middle-Earth, of the defence of Gondor and Rohan, of the two towers and  of Sauron, our world too had been plunged into a vortex of anarchy and bloodshed. Militarism and violence, Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima, Fascism, slogans, mind games and propaganda and a thousand other weary deeds of cruelty, big and small formed the realities of the outside world.

Middle Earth was born amidst this tumult, in which case the books become an elaborate parable of power, the Ring a tangible embodiment of this power while the Dark Lord who created it is power at its most unnerving- Hitler’s Germany. As in World War II the whole of Middle Earth is plunged into action. All living creatures, be they plants, animals, men, other beings or even the non-classifiable Tom Bombadil-a kind of primal nature force- are drawn into the struggle. The whole atmosphere of war is evoked- the sudden desperate friendships, the joy felt from the ordinary things of life,(including a warm meal and tobacco) the parleys, strategies, reversals all bear uncanny similarity to the ceaseless plotting and endless movement on the Front. And here is an excerpt from Book III which reads like a real human war: “The mist was in Merry’s eyes of tears and weariness when they drew near the ruined gate of Minas Tirith. He gave little heed to the wreck and slaughter that lay all about. Fog and smoke and stench were in the air, for many engines had been burned and cast into the fire pits while here and there lay many carcasses. The flying rain had ceased for a time and the sun gleamed up above, but all the lower city was wrapped in a smouldering reek“. The wars of 1914 and 1939 unleashed disorder everywhere. In Tolkien’s world too the burden of evil touches everyone and all places including the tranquil Shire. Realpolitik and the ingenuity of political machinations are present even in the simpler The Hobbit. The Dale witnesses a brief struggle for power legitimacy between the Master and the Bard and the Dragon can only be outdone by elaborate strategy.

Mythologists speak of the “eschatological myth” which enacts the process of renewal and rebirth as also the renewal of life that characterises the Quest Hero. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings  enact this movement. Bilbo brings life back to the desolation of Smaug, Merry and Aragorn free Gondor from the clutches of Saruman and revitalise King Theoden. Frodo’s quest overthrows the Dark Lord. Perhaps Tolkien, like Joyce, had mythologised the events and lessons of the Inter-War years, as when T.S.Eliot felt Ulysses to be “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity”, which gave “shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”. But there is so much more of hope in Tolkien than in Joyce. Perhaps, like the Fellowship, saner minds will resist hate and power and hold out promises for the pleasures of everyday life. In Bilbo’s words:

“Eyes that fire and sword have seen/ And horror in the halls of stone /Look at last on meadows green/And trees and hills they long have known”.

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