- War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien
Anyone familiar with Tolkien who reads the works of his contemporaries Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden will be struck repeatedly by parallels. From its stoic, singing hobbits marching towards No Man's Land, to its mounting sense of near-unendurable despair, The Lord of the Rings emerges as a close counterpart to the memoirs and fiction that are more generally recognized as Great War literature. It came out far too late to be understood in those terms, and was often mistaken for a Second World War allegory; but the First World War resonates in Middle-earth most clearly after Tolkien had discovered hobbits, those embodiments of rural Englishry from the decades leading up to 1914. A study of the book in these terms is therefore long overdue, and Janet Brennan Croft goes some way towards answering the need, while also attempting to cover the influence of the 1939–45 conflict and Tolkien's treatment of war as a general theme and his depiction of battle tactics.
Presenting such a mass of parallels is problematic. Once the point has been established that Tolkien's own experiences shaped his fantasy—that it was not "escapism" except in the muscular sense he defined in "On Fairy-stories"—there has to be some purpose to the exercise, and some pattern to be explored, or nothing will result but a catalogue. Croft seeks a solution by turning to The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell's seminal 1975 anatomy of trench literature. As she observes, "it feels like there is a Tolkien-sized hole running through the whole book" (14), and parts of her own book might be profitably read as a supplement to Fussell.
Ticking Fussell's boxes provides valuable insights, although it does make for a somewhat plodding structure. It is good to see the cry of the [End Page 234] Minas Tirith cockerel identified as a moment of pastoral ecstasy, or to note that Sam and others depend on "the consolations of literature" (45) much as Great War soldiers did; but it was certainly not worth pursuing Fussell's assertion that the number three was unusually prevalent in the military imaginations of the day. However, the chief drawback of borrowing Fussell's monocle is that it makes us squint at the trench realities Tolkien knew. Croft is unable to provide much information about his experiences: she has drawn on J.C. Latter's official history of the Lancashire Fusiliers, but not on battalion war diaries, officer service records, or the reminiscences of other soldiers engaged in the same actions. It is a singular piece of bad timing that my own biographical book, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, which absorbs all these sources, came out when War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien had doubtless already gone to press.
Croft is often at her best when she sets Fussell aside and observes the broader ramifications of war experience in Tolkien's works: the "shell shock" trauma of Frodo and the chronic reappearance of displaced peoples and refugees, for example. Like others, she points out that the "dragons" attacking Gondolin in Tolkien's 1916–17 story are versions of tanks, first unleashed on the Somme in September 1916. But she misses the crucial point that the refugees and the dragons exemplify Tolkien's ambidextrousness as an artist: on one hand (like Sassoon and his cohorts) he could evoke the "very quality" of the sprawling, complex Great War through realism, as C.S. Lewis noted (14); on the other hand (like no one else on earth) he could capture the deeper patterns of the war in ways that were primarily unrealistic, through symbolism, nightmare, fantasy, myth. Croft covers the dragons and the Dead Marshes, but neglects most of Tolkien's symbolist transformations of experience: his recurrent depictions of fear as a dark cloud reducing men to...