To help get a fresh perspective on The Lord of the Rings during the re-read, I’m also reading and blogging the occasional critical work. Some time ago, I read a paper by John Garth, “Frodo and the Great War,” but saved it for now, when it begins to be most relevant. Garth uses literary works by other WWI veterans and reports of war correspondents to find parallels to LotR’s characters, themes, and landscapes. My knowledge of WWI is pretty much limited to white-knowledge history, Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels, Rilla of Ingleside, and a few poems, but Garth’s textual arguments seem well-supported to me and illuminate the pervasive effect of WWI on the book.
Garth starts by discussing heroism and soldiering. WWI resulted in a new depiction of soldiers as passive sufferers, and LotR contrasts this with the more traditional epic heroism of the larger-than-life characters (compare Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s race after the Uruk-hai, to Frodo and Sam’s painful plodding across Mordor). Frodo’s heroism is in, first, “taking on an outsized burden for the common good,” and second, “discover(ing) unlooked-for endurance and courage; or, as a soldier might have said approvingly in 1916, ‘grit’ and ‘pluck.’”
The relationship of Frodo and Sam is also drawn from the experience of WWI soldiers, specifically the officer and servant (“batman,” and is there any way to distinguish that aloud from Bruce Wayne’s alter ego? I briefly puzzled Chad exceedingly when talking about this over dinner.). Tolkien wrote in a letter, “My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English solider, of the privates and batmen I know in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.” At the start, class and social barriers divide them; but, according to Garth, “Tolkien maps the gradual breakdown of restraint until Sam can take Frodo into his arms and call him ‘Mr Frodo, my dear.’” In addition, their hierarchy inverts, with Sam turning into the leader, which is also modeled on experience; C.S. Lewis said that his sergeant, who was the one who actually knew what he was doing, turned their “ridiculous and painful relationship into someting beautiful, became to me almost like a father.”
Garth argues that Frodo’s later experiences also parallel those of WWI soldiers. For instance, Frodo experiences something like “shell shock,” which often came with insomnia, nightmares, and changes in sensory perception. He comes home physically and mentally scarred, and is ignored by the civilians who can’t comprehend the new reality of war. He also experiences what Tolkien called “unreasoning self-reproach: he saw himself and all that he (had) done as a broken failure,” something other WWI officers felt after their losses. Garth calls Frodo’s subsequent departure to the Grey Havens “a piece of wish-fulfillment . . . . something akin to the fairy-story flight from reality that Tolkien has so far eschewed.” However, Garth argues that this voyage’s “undeniable poignancy resides, paradoxically, in our very knowledge that such ‘completed peace’ is impossible in this life.”
(I am not sure what I think about this argument. My first reaction is resistance, but I think I need to wait until we get there to really decide. However, it is an interesting contrast to the reaction that sees Frodo’s departure as absolutely heartbreaking.)
The Nazgûl, according to Garth, are another set of characters influenced by WWI. He quotes Tolkien’s children as saying that the battlefield “fogs and smokes” made the German horses appear natural, while their riders did not. Further, gas helmets obscured the face and caused breath to snuffle and speech to hiss, while the description of the Nazgûl’s cry is similar to that of artillery shells in flight.
Gas helmets, specifically the view through them, might also have influenced Tolkien’s descriptions of the Dead Marshes, in which corpses are seen “as if through ‘some window, glazed with grimy glass.’” The Dead Marshes also reflect how “the ubiquitous dead” of the Western Front “were strangely captivating reminders of (soldiers’) own fragile mortality”; Garth gives examples of soldiers’ morbid fascination with corpses. And, to go back in the book a ways, he suggests that the surreal scene in the Barrow-downs, particularly the green light, may have been influenced by gas attacks.
Finally for here (I have reordered topics for purposes of this summary), Garth quotes Tolkien as describing trench warfare in two words: “animal horror.” Garth uses this to discuss how “always the miasmic clouds of fear in The Lord of the Rings force people down towards the level of beasts”—particularly Gollum, who Garth further links to a Somme myth about half-insane deserters who live underground past a certain point in the trenches.
This last point was the one that most interested me. The other comments were interesting but either things I’d already recognized (Sam as Bunter, Frodo’s trauma) or more in the line of trivia—nice to know but not giving a substantial insight into the book. But the point about beasts immediately resonated in the “oh, of course!” way of good criticism for me, crystallizing something I knew but hadn’t articulated.
This paper was published in The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, Marquette University Press, 2006. Garth also has a book titled Tolkien and the Great War; the change in noun is highly indicative, as the book is much more biography than literary criticism. I got it out of the library, started reading it, and realized that I am not actually that interested in biography, so I can’t say anything useful about it.