Tolkien and the Nazis
I was reading a review of a book on the Second
World War by Ferguson and came across this;
'Ferguson contrasts the grandiose vision of the Nazis, set to Wagner,
with the infinitely more homely ideal of the British, reflected in JRR
Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings. Whether or not Tolkien acknowledged
the symbolism, Ferguson says, Mordor represented the nazi world, a
'blasted industrial hell' while the British thought of themselves as
hobbits of the Shire, 'plucky little underdogs pitted against an
all-knowing, all-powerful foe'.
It is nice to see Tolkien taken seriously as a literary force and
namechecked by historians as well as literary critics, but is this
The idea of a blasted industrial landscape actually had its birth
in England during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century; that
was where the phrase 'dark satanic mills' was born. The more the
English middle and upper classes pined for a green and pleasant land,
the more it fell victim to an industrial sprawl that fuelled their
empire. And as the land changed, the English peasantry - the real model
for the hobbits - also disappeared, recorded best in Hardy's Wessex
novels; a vanished people in a vanished county.
The real model for the ashen wasteland of Mordor was the Western Front,
which was created by a number of participants in the First World War.
Tolkien would have seen it as the result of greed for power, destroying
the trees and the natural world. But it is a general and abstract
greed, which can afflict any nation.
Tolkien actually said he wanted to give England a mythology, so he
might have been thinking of giving them what the German people had in
Wagner and his celebration of the myth-cycle of the Ring. I don't think
when Tolkien said he wanted to create a myth for England he had just
the hobbits in mind. When it came to giving England a mythology Tolkien
might have preferred that the heroes to inspire people would be
characters such as Aragorn, Arwen, Eowyn and Theoden.
But these characters are not especially English, although Eowyn is a
terrible snob, and class is an English obsession. Tolkien's heroes owe
their characters to a blend of aristocracy, martial skills and ancient
lineage. They would fit in to a Wagner epic except they lack
ruthlessness and cruelty, which also marks them as different from the
characters of epics like the Iliad or the Aeneid. Neither Aragorn nor
Theoden would kill their prisoners, or deserters. In that they take on
virtues that come from Tolkien's Christian values rather than from any
I can't think of any specifically English quality shared by the Elves.
They don't like fish and chips, soccer, or Big Brother. There is no
rhyming slang in Quenya or Sindarin. Elves don't like Fosters or
scrumpy cider or
Monty Python. Elvish languages owe a lot to Welsh, as it is so
mellifluous, and the Elves themselves might have been copied by Tolkien
from the Tuatha De Danann, the mythological race of warrior beings who
peopled Ireland before the Celts. They were tall, courageous and
beautiful, and formed warrior companies such as the Red Branch. But I
don't know what bits of the Elves there are which are specifically
English. They must represent a truly vanished ideal.
So Ferguson's statement, that the hobbits are the quintessentially
English heroes of an epic that Tolkien admitted he hoped would give
England a mythology, is not that far of the mark. The Shire is modelled
on the shires, the leafy green rural England with its tiny market
towns, Anglo-Saxon churches and aristocratic Great Houses. The English
royal family have not been English since the death of Richard lll, the
last Plantagenet; all their royal houses since have been foreign. So
the aristocracy in England are not quintessentially English, and to
find the true English qualities, Tolkien goes to the Anglo-Saxon
peasantry to create the hobbits. These are plain country Saxons, small,
stocky, practical, brave, loyal, honest, humorous and clever enough in
a quiet way, but hating above all pretence and dishonesty.
Their enemy, Sauron, is like the Nazis, intelligent, efficient,
ruthlessly determined and cruel. But Saruon is beaten by the hobbits in
the end because, as Gandalf says, they are not stronger or wiser, but
because they are brave and loyal. It is Frodo and Sam sticking
together, through terrible trials, that get them to Mordor, and out of
it, and in doing so, save the world.
It is more important, Tolkien seems to be saying, to have a great heart
than to have great wisdom. As Ferguson says;
'since they had no very lofty notions of what they were fighting for,
the English...proved hard to demoralise....' as Tolkien said of the
'They are hard to daunt or kill.....'
Thanks for listening!
Wuu, lots to chew on, here. Cheers, V.
As we all know, Tolkien rejects all the attempts at making LOTR an
allegory, but that doesn't mean we can't investigate what's there. He
also likened himself to a hobbit (and also to Faramir), and once
compared his son Christopher while away during World War II to a hobbit
among orcs. As for the Shire representing Oxfordshire, Berkshire or
Warwickshire, he also acknowledged that. Maybe he was all right with
all this, but at the same time afraid that if he conceded one
allegoristic point he would have to concede the whole?
About the mythology: Tolkien wanted England's mythology to be of a
more Germanic-Scandinavian flavour rather than the frenchified tales
brought from the continent from 1066. However, that doesn't mean that
he wanted his myth to be a copy of the viking sagas, in the same way
the Britain today cannot be likened to Denmark, Finland or Norway, even
with all the tales of raids, Danelaw, Jorvik, etc.
But that true mythology is the Silmarillion, not LOTR, or to a
lesser extent. Let's remember that LOTR is a very late work, and that
it feeds off the Sil. And it's there that we find a truly mythical
flavour, with the early years of the Elves and the terrible stories of
Túrin and others. The Hobbit and LOTR then came to give another
dimension to that unpublished work, one that has stuck far deeper, it
So I agree with Varda that the hobbits weren't at the root of
Tolkien's myth, because they came much later. By the same token neither
could have been Aragorn (who started life as a hobbit), and the
Rohirrim weren't even a glint in his writer's eye when Frodo left the
So, we come to the paradox that the root of Tolkien's English myth
is none other than... the very un-English Elves (and I stop here to ask
for an applause for Varda's words on them
). And why shouldn't that be? Myths are supposed to be appealingly
recognisable, but also exotic, different, kind of unreal, faded...
Otherwise they look too much like history. The feats of the vikings in
the sagas or of Arthur are not presented with any attempts at
plausibility - if anything, they grow even more impossible,
unapproachable, legendary and... well, mythical with each re-telling.
The same thing happens with some of the tales in the Sil, where maids
use their hair to escape and dragons are slain by tragic heroes. By the
time LOTR comes around it looks even modern by comparison.
I agree that it's here where Christianity shows its face. Many
myths are very bloodthirsty, even appallingly so by our standards, and
it's in the way the characters in LOTR carry themselves that this can
be seen. By the way, Tolkien spoke of the 'conscious catholicism' of
LOTR but he never said the same of the Sil. And it doesn't need to be.
What's true of the English royal families is true of Tolkien
himself: he is of German origin, like the Hannovers (now Windsors) on
the throne. And Tolkien is seen as the quintessential English hobbit as
much as the Queen is seen as the embodiment of English royalty. So no
Reply from Varda:
It always saddened me to think that Tolkien invested so much importance
in the Sil when the people preferred LOTR. And the people, as I think
it was Cecil B De Mille said, are always right.
Tolkien thought the Sil could impart mythology to his
fellow-countrymen, and there is a respectable body of criticism now out
there which makes a convincing argument for the cohesion and mythic
power of the stories in the Sil. But sadly one thing is missing; the
response of the people. Without the people taking the myth to
themselves and giving it meaning, it is just another fairy story.
How could it be otherwise? The England Tolkien presents these two books
to had myths like John Lennon and James Bond. Are we really going to
believe that a Magnusson Barelegs lookalike such as Beren will enter
the hearts and imaginations of the modern English? They need a myth
that speaks to what they are, and Tolkien was not in touch with what
the English are, he was in touch with what he wanted them to be.
As it happened, one part of that, the Shire and its hobbits, *did* hit
the mark, and as Ferguson says, that is close to the real strength of
the English under fire in the World Wars. As has been observed, the
batmen who served the First World War officers were the prototype of
Sam, quintessentially English, quintessentially working class,
quintessentially hobbits. This was successful myth because it was
grounded in the truth, a truth the people can recognise. Beren and
Luthien, or the high Elves, is indeed strange and exotic, but myth has
to touch the familiar too, to be part of ourselves, something common
and recognisable, an archetype inside of us.
The problem with the mythology of the Silmarillion is it could belong
to any country. The Elves, as I pointed out, have been done before, in
the Tuatha De Danann, and other faerie races in romance literature.
They can't be claimed by the English alone nor do the English have any
special affinity for this type of myth, as the Irish do with their
fairy circles, raths and groves. I wrote a post here some time ago
about a tree in the West of Ireland that cost roadbuilders millions to
route a new road around; the reason? It was traditionally the place
where the Fairies of Connaught mustered before mounting their war-raids
on the fairies of Munster. The Elves never left Ireland. But they were
never in England to begin with; the English are too practical,
hard-headed and robust.
Tolkien's dislike of the Gallic-flavoured myths of the Arthurian cycles
shows how he misses the point about the English and myth. The idea of a
noble brotherhood brought to ruin by the adultery of their king's wife
appealed to a nation whose most famous monarch had six wives, two of
whom he executed himself. It might be French, but the English saw
something of themselves in it, and that is why it is their enduring
But in LOTR there are myths which resonate not just with the English
but with the whole modern world. The hobbits are quintessentially
English, but they are also quintessentially everyman; common people
caught up in a great war they have not created but must try to stop.
Now, where did we meet THAT before?
Denethor's family are the ultimate dysfunctional family, with an
increasingly demented father preferring one son over another. This is
the stuff that myths really are made of, as Aeschylus and Sophocles
knew long ago. The family is the source of the most powerful myth. The
story of Denethor and his sons is almost at odds with Tolkien's story,
as it is not really ever resolved; Denethor and Boromir die, and
Faramir loses his Stewardship; this subplot is just merged into the
general happy outcome of the war. But the proud ruler who sends his
sons to their deaths is a chilling archetype that sticks in the mind.
With the films, the most successful myth Tolkien created for many was
Gollum. This is unquestionably a myth for the modern world; an addict,
drawn to the thing that is consuming his mind, still retaining some
shred of humanity but wavering between good and evil. Is this not the
most potent urban myth of all in The lord of The Rings? Certainly it is
the most familiar one to many who saw Gollum's demented midnight debate
in the film The Two Towers. Times change. As Rogorn said, myths now
can't be Vikings. They must relate to our world. And sadly, nothing
relates more to our world as it is than Gollum.
The most powerful mythic figures in the Lord of The Rings is not
Gollum, however. Or even Gandalf, the archetypal wizard, model for a
thousand characters in Tolkien spin-off fantasy fictions. The ultimate
myth is that of Sam and Frodo. Sam, the eternal buddy, the sidekick,
represents that greatest thing of all, in myth or real life, a friend
to the death. And Frodo is that protean character who represents the
plucky underdog but also the clever, well-read 'best of hobbits', the
Elf-friend who rises above his fellow-hobbits to be respected by other
races, great lords of Elves and Men.
At the end of LOTR, when all of Middle Earth, men and Elves, bow to
this hobbit and his servant, Tolkien is quietly showing us the
hierarchy of being in his imaginary world. It is not the shining
immortal Elves who stand at the apex, or even the great kings of men,
but the small furry feet who win an almost impossible victory by
undergoing torture and near-death. This is the most powerful myth,
owing much to Christianity but going back to myths even earlier than
those of the Vikings or Saxons. The ordinary guy who suffers terrible
torments to deliver his people from a hideous foe, but then, like
Beowulf slain in the day of victory, unable to rest in the peace that
follows and leaving, driven by furies, to try to find peace outside the
known and familiar.
All these are powerful myths, and have been taken as such by the
readers of Tolkien. But they are all in The Lord of The Rings, not the
Sil. which is possibly why LOTR has been the one to top the lists of
most popular book of the 21st century. People sense its mythic
And as I said, the people always know best....
This is really an amazing discussion, I
when I read a post and I can feel the wheels in my mind turning
comparing agreeing and disagreeing, so thanks to both of you.
I'd like to add, as one who had mearly dabbled in the Sil, and as
one only who is only aquainted with the theories of the meanings JRR
It is what it is, what it is. To each and every reader...as you
all know. JRR intentions not withstanding it is human nature to apply
the tale to what one knows. What one loves, When I first read FOTR 24
years ago I knew nothing of the tale nor the history...quite honestly I
didn't care. The hobbits facinated me, so simple yet so intelligent, so
mild and yet so fierce and brave. As time passed and I read and re-read
I began to get pulled into the histories it is only a natural
I know this is not nearly as eloquent or well thought out as the
previous posts but "rings" to me has always been that gut reaction,
followed by the desire for more. To be able to feel it to the heart, to
experience the dread of the characters.
Do you remember the first time you read it....I do...i remember
being so caught up in shelobs attack that I was reading through tears
and literally cried out in anguish when i too thought Frodo to be gone
and that Sam would have to carry on alone.
I admire those who study, examine see connections to Tolkiens world
and look for meanings with in the tale, examine the mythologies...But
is it possible that the only real meaning is what we glean personally,
what it means to each of us alone?
The study, as I have said came later to me, mostly because while
writing fictions and posting here I did not wish to look like a total
fool. The sil, for me, provides depth to the tale i so love. It gives
hope to the end of the tale, without such a depth of background and
mythology, Frodo's crossing would be far too much to bear.
What I mean to say is I agree with everything you both said...It
just, that I believe that JRR meant certain things, and only he will
ever know ...we can surmise, suggest and wonder until the end of time.
LOTR is a gift, one that allows us the freedom to make it our own. To
love it in our own special way and yet still connect with others who
also love it on a level that is far beyond anything JRR could have ever
Now I have mused so far from the original topic ..I'm not sure it
even relates.....sorry just my muse off and about in the quiet green
countryside of the Shire......
I should learn to keep my mouth shut, but so far it hasn't taken.
I certainly cannot argue any of the points made; everything said is
true. But I am still left with another fact that I don't know how to
process. Namely: How do you reconcile the fact that LOTR (a "late work"
as Rogorn says) is not the mythology that Tolkien wanted to leave
England with the fact that it is the one he published? He didn't
publish the Sil -- it was done after his death by his son.
I have read Sil 5 times. It is much more 'mythic' in terms of giving a
world genesis, gods, mystical beings and the like. But it seems to me
somewhat dismissive to say that Tolkien 'meant' the Sil to be the myth,
and LOTR is just an afterthought in light of the fact that he didn't
Now one must certainly appreciate the Sil, but one must also look at
the content of the two books. LOTR is an epic tale: heroes, villians,
quests and the lot. The Sil is indeed much deeper, and also more
mythic--not only do we see the creation of the world, rise of the races
(and their subsequent wars/histories), but the destruction of the two
trees and the quest of the Noldor is epicly mythic. He had an affinity
for Beren and Luthien to be sure (another great myth).
And yet, he published the "late work" but not "Beren and Luthien." For
all of the greatness of the Sil, I find that it is rather patchy in
places with no direct storyline (unlike Wagner's myth, which while
convoluted follows the path of his Ring to the end). Granted, Hercules
is not related to Perseus, nor Icarus, so the need for only a single
storyline within mythology is moot. But for all of JRR's love for the
epic of Beren and Luthien, his story is not as well fleshed out as that
of Sam and Frodo. And if he really wanted us to identify with them, he
was capable of embuing their story with the same grace as he did his
So I can't help but wonder if we should give parity to a work
unpublished by an author who wanted to leave a myth, when the 'late
work' he dallied with was called "the best literary work of the
Reply from Rogorn:
Just to clarify the terms, I use the words 'late
works' only as
strictly opposed to 'early works', that's all. I don't know if anyone
interpreted 'late' in a 'dismissive' way, as 'poor', 'made by an author
in decline', or 'not as good as they should be', but it was never my
Also, I hope that my very personal preference for the Silmarillion
doesn't imply that I'm trying to lower the value of LOTR. That's not
like that at all. Rather the opposite, I would like to see the Sil as
universally liked as LOTR is, but it's never been and it will never be.
However, it's not a problem reconciling the popular success of LOTR
with the more mythical, 'foundation-stone' quality of the Sil. They are
both facts of life. Conversely, it shouldn't be a problem to
acknowledge that withour the Sil, LOTR wouldn't have existed and that
the myth started there.
Also, of course, without the success of LOTR, the Sil wouldn't have
been published. Tolkien was very surprised that people actually read
all of LOTR and wanted to know all kinds of details. He thought that
only himself would care about all the back-story, but readers kept
asking in great numbers. We've all been there.
LOTR got published because it was a crowd-pleaser. The Sil because of
the success of LOTR. It's never been a problem to acknowledge and
reconcile both. It could even be said that the Sil is both an early, a
middle and a late work, because it was at the beginning, in the middle
and at the end of Tolkien's literary life: it came before everything
else, but after LOTR he even began excusing himself for not answering
letters saying that each response would take away some of the precious
time that he was devoting to redoing the Sil for publication - changes
that undoubtedly had to be written with LOTR in mind now. So in the end
both complement each other, and seen as such they are both more
Of course, you see that I never called LOTR 'an afterthought'
(that's your word) or something he 'dallied' with (for 14 years??). All
I said was that LOTR is a late work (meaning: written by a person in
his 50s and published in his 60s) and that it feeds off the
Silmarillion in many elements. Both are just indisputable facts, not
judgements of value.
But surely Tolkien can explain it better than me. He wrote this when he
was trying to get LOTR published:
"Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since
fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend,
ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic
fairy-story - the larger founded on the lesser, in contact with the
earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I
could dedicate simply to England; to my country. It should possess the
tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent
of our 'air' (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and
the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the
East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive
beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine
ancient Celtic things), it should be 'high', purged of the gross, and
fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry."
[This now answers your comment on 'Beren not as full as Frodo':]
I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many
only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to
a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands,
wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
Of course, such an overweening purpose did not develop all at once.
The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as 'given'
things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An
absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since,
even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the
other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the
sense of recording what was already 'there', somewhere: not of
'inventing'. Of course, I made up and even wrote lots of other things
(especially for my children). Some escaped from the grasp of this
branching acquisitive theme, being ultimately and radically unrelated:
'Leaf by Niggle' and 'Farmer Giles', for instance, the only two that
have been printed [up to 1951]."
[Now comes the important bit:]
"'The Hobbit', which has much more essential life in it, was quite
independently conceived: I did not know as I began it that it belonged.
But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its
mode of descent to earth, and merging into 'history'. As the high
Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish
minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point
of view – and the last tale blends them."
So you see that 'the early Tolkien', so to speak, wrote in the
style of the Sil (and the at times impenetrable 'Lost Tales'), but with
TH and later LOTR he 'descended to earth' and found a voice that was
less mythical and more popular, one that has been more successful, for
which every Tolkien lover is grateful, because it's 'the last tale'
(LOTR) which brings about 'the completion of the whole'.
As for 'the best literary work of the 20th century' I keep having a
problem with that. Many popular polls, including the BBC one where a
Tolkien family member was live on TV accepting the 'prize' have been
swamped by overzealous Ringers. I can't offer an alternative, because
there's much I haven't read, but most well-read people would put that
accolade in doubt.
Thanks for your thoughts, Dr G. There are many people who share them
with you, and it's good to discuss them.
Reply from Varda:
Thank you all for your very inspiring
however I did not start this as a competition between LOTR and The
Silmarillion. The Sil contains Tolkien's Middle Earth cosmology and
legends, but is unable to give to modern people myths as Tolkien hoped.
Only LOTR stands a chance of doing that.
As Doc says, the Sil was not published by Tolkien as it stands; but by
Christopher Tolkien. Therefore, it cannot be a rival as a mythology or
anything else to the published and acknowledged masterwork.
Basically, the Sil is an interesting work, but not in the same class as
finished work. And again, for at least the millionth time, I have to
point out that writers themselves are not the best people to listen to
when judging their works. Use your own head, as Shakespeare said.
Rogorn you say;
'LOTR got published because it was a crowd-pleaser' This is not true.
Unwin did not know the book would be a success when they published it.
They knew The Hobbit had been popular, but as a children's book and
LOTR was not a children's book and appeared decades later, a war away
from The Hobbit. It was not a guide to how successful LOTR would be.
Certainly Unwins did publish the second two parts when they saw the
first sell well, but it was never a 'crowd-pleaser' until it was taken
up by the campuses of America in the sixties and seventies. Only then
did it take off. If The Lord of The Rings was a crowd pleaser, why was
it not even in print when I tried to buy it when I was at school in the
late sixties? It was unavailable even in England but readily available
in the US.
I am glad you don't see any linear progression from Sil to LOTR, or
even the other way round. But neither do I see them as parts of one
'grand scheme'. I am not that bad a reader; these books are completely
different. One does not owe anything to the other, even if they
reference common events and people. They don't reference ALL common
events, which they should do if they are connected. We are told of a
supreme deity in the Sil and a creation myth. Why hasn't anyone in
LOTR's Middle Earth heard of all this?
Nor is it true to say that LOTR would never have been written had it
not been for the Sil; of course it would. Tolkien says it himself,
according to you;
'The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as 'given'
things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew.'
In other words, the stories suggested themselves to Tolkien, and the
context, or what Tolkien calls the 'links' came later. Had he never
thought of the Sil material he would still have written LOTR or
something similar (and as good!) because in the end, Tolkien was not a
mythmaker but a storyteller of consummate genius.
Tolkien's letters are a poor way to access either the man or his work
for they don't always show him in a good light; look at this
'the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely
found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be 'high', purged of
the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped
Now here Tolkien has mixed up genuine Celtic mythology (The Tain) with
fake stuff like Oisin, and does both a great wrong. For there is
elusive beauty in the Tain, the description of Ferdia's fair face and
slender waist with its golden belt is delicate and unutterably sad
because it is spoken by the friend who has just killed him in battle.
But like great literature it is also earthy and crude, what Tolkien
would call 'gross', but I assume means the realism he leaves out of The
Lord of The Rings where everyone is fearfully chaste and no-one swears,
even in the heat of battle.
By leaving out this 'gross' material Tolkien ensured that many people
will never really see LOTR as an adult work, even though it has adult
themes. But no-one ever doubted that the Tain is an adult work. Perhaps
it is this prudishness that really scuppered Tolkien's hopes of writing
myth, for myth takes in all human qualities, gross as well as noble.
I sense a feeling that the word 'popular' is a criticism, and that The
Lord of The Rings topping popular polls is somehow a denigration. Well
the polls were not rigged and this is not a cause for angst, but for
celebration. That the people love something, especially something of
critical value is worth celebrating. Also, there is no such thing as a
myth that is not universally popular, so you can't have one without the
I do believe that Tolkien came closest to creating myth in the
modern way, by creating fictional characters that people relate to,
like Frodo and Sam, Gollum and Gandalf. And he was helped to do so by a
thoroughly modern idiom; film. I don't think the Sil would have given
England or anyone myths. It is just not capable of touching enough
When you take the terrifyingly modern motorway North from Dublin to
Belfast you cross from Meath into Louth and not long after there is a
sign for the turnoff for Ardee. The Irish name for Ardee is Atha
Fhirdia, the Ford of Ferdia. Folklore and myth tells us that this is
where Cuchulainn and Ferdia fought to the death on the bank of the
river Dee, Cuchulainn defending the territory of the King of Ulster and
Ferdia attacking as champion of the King of Connaught.
If you take the turnoff and travel that road, a narrow steep bridge
takes you over the bright, swift-flowing Dee and there is a bronze
statue of Cuchulainn, carrying his slain friend over the river, so he
might win in death that river bank he sought to win in life.
THAT is myth; something long in the past but powerful and real to the
living, so that they put up statues to someone who existed nowhere but
in a story. The characters of the Sil could not achieve something like
that, but Frodo and Sam just might.