The Warlords Of Odin

by Varda

A recently published book on Tolkien and the Great War made a strong case for Tolkien's creation of Middle Earth being not an attempt to escape the horror of his World War memories, but on the contrary an attempt to find meaning in his experiences by presenting a complex and convincing world in which to work out the themes of good and evil, power and corruption.

I was not convinced. All Tolkien's contemporaries in the trenches who became writers, like Sassoon, Graves and Owen, were savage in their denunciation of the war, its leaders and the whole establishment responsible for it. The Great War swept away most of the monarchies of Europe. Tolkien, however, went on to write a tale of Elves and Dwarves which ends in The Return of the King.

It seemed as if Tolkien stood alone, like some hero of Gondor, holding back the orcish hordes of modernism.

But Tolkien was not alone. A biography of the Welsh poet David Jones reveals many parallels with Tolkien.

Jones was not just a poet but illustrated his work, like Tolkien. In love with his Welsh heritage just as Tolkien loved Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon tradition, he read the Mabinogion as a young man. This Welsh epic was, along with the Finnish Kalevala, one of the myth cycles that most influenced Tolkien.

But most importantly, Jones served in the Great War; the Irish poet Montague writes;

'Unlike Owen, Sassoon and Robert Graves, Jones seems nearly to have enjoyed the war. His long prose poem In Parenthesis is a hymn to comradeship, valorous British soldiers enduring the violence wrought by ''the war-lords of Odin''

Like his friend Stanley Spencer, Jones would devote part of his life to trying to create a redemptive vision of that terrible war...''

This bears a strange resemblance to Tolkien's celebration of friendship and fellowship, and his attempt to show a world saved from evil by courage and self-sacrifice.

Invalided back to Ireland, Davis had what could be called a vision-dream, an aisling, which inspired him to write...

So what? you might think. The point is, this shows Tolkien was not alone. Not everyone who survived the war was a realist and a modernist. Critics see Jones as a modernist; he did himself, hating the golden idealism of Yeats. But as Montague says;

'TS Eliot's Waste Land and Joyce's Finnegan's Wake were sacred texts for Davis, but his work The Sleeping Lord draws upon Arthurian and other Celtic legend. Jones's mind seems to be Late romantic, a tapestry of medieval themes and the intense detail of Celtic art..he was, indeed, a Master of the Matter of Britain....'

This is like the 'intense detail' of the Middle Earth described to us by Tolkien. The Lord of The Rings (and the Silmarillion)are medieval tapestries. Events and people play out their individual dramas in the margins of the books like in a 10th century manuscript. Davis's mastery of the subject of Britain resembles Tolkien's ambition to give England a myth.

For these two writers at least the war was not the end of all their previous literary and cultural experience, but a kind of Moria or Paths of the Dead, after which they were able to write even more powerful, effective and unified works.