Tolkien and the Nazis

by Varda

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 true..... ?

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 nation.

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. Sad

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 hobbits.
'They are hard to daunt or kill.....'

Thanks for listening!

Response from Rogorn:

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 seems.

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 Shire.

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 problem there.

Cheers, mate.


Reply from Varda:

Thanks, Rogorn!

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 myth.

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 character.

And as I said, the people always know best....

Response from Overlithe:

This is really an amazing discussion, I love it 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 intended....That........

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 progression.

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 invisioned...

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......


Reponse from Doctor Gamgee:

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 publish it.

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 'spin-off.'

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 twentieth century."

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 intention.

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 enjoyable.

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 replies, 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 a
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 gobsmacking statement;

'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."

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 othher.

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 people.

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.