Understanding Tolkien: The Great Wars Part II

Big Bertha was a forty-seven-ton howitzer used by the German army in World War I. It fired a high explosive projectile weighing one thousand, eight hundred and seven pounds. Weapons like these allowed armies to drop hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives on and around enemy lines, creating massive shell holes, erasing buildings, and burying men alive.

World War I saw massive advancement in warfare. Indirect fire allowed artillery to shell positions out of sight, aircraft allowed for more accurate bombardments. Machine guns allowed a few men to fill the air with hundreds of bullets a minute, making offensive maneuver almost impossible. Put another way, in World War I, mankind learned to kill his fellow men with incredible efficiency and cruelty.

This was Tolkien’s life as he came of age in the trenches. The Somme, which had been a quiet sector of the line prior to the assault, became a blackened, muddy wasteland covered in corpses and gas by the time he left the lines. The technological advancement that had been so touted as Europe’s salvation before the war showed itself to be more destructive than helpful. And the rest of the century did not refute this assertion. Immediately after World War II ended with its unrestricted bombing campaigns on civilian population centers, England and the rest of the world stared the potential for a third war in the face, as the Soviet Union and America eyed each other nervously across the Iron Curtain. This time, it appeared that mankind had indeed built a doomsday device in the atomic bomb.

If, as I discussed in Saturday’s post, evil is in some way a part of man, then technology amplifies that. As the old Saxon proverb states “A man does as he is when he can do what he wants”. Tolkien was born in an age that saw incredible technological growth, and that growth was dwarfed by what came in his lifetime. But he did not see technology through the rosy glasses of many of his contemporaries. The industrialization of the Western Front in World War I, the use of airplanes in the Blitz and his son’s service in the Royal Air Force, and the arrival of the atom bomb on the world stage all occupied a very central place in Tolkien’s mind as they happened. They were not merely academic issues to philosophize about, but events that affected him and close members of his family.

Toward the end of World War II, he wrote to his son Christopher,

“Well, the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter — leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machine are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move?” (Letter 96)

For much of Tolkien’s adult life, the world was either at war or attempting to recover from it. Tolkien began studying in Oxford late in 1911, and died in 1973 at the age of 81. World War I raged from 1914-1918, and was followed by a worldwide depression until World War I started in 1939, ending in 1945. Almost immediately, the iron curtain went up and the Cold War began, lasting until several years after Tolkien’s death. It is important to note that this was very, very different from living with the threat of terrorism as we do. The enemies in Tolkien’s time could and did wipe cities off the map, and there was the constant threat that the Cold War could go hot at any moment.

This meant that for Tolkien, resisting evil was not a theoretical question. He lived it, and it brought home two very powerful facts. First, mankind is, apparently, incapable of defeating evil in any final way. “The War To End All Wars” did no such thing and in fact laid the necessary ground work for a second, more terrible war, which in turn led to a third. Because of the fact that evil was within man, mankind could no more rid itself of it than it could rid itself of life.

Secondly, resisting evil comes at great cost. Tolkien’s closest friends were all killed in World War I, and England lost nearly an entire generation of young men, the flower of the nation. Take a moment and watch this clip from the last episode in Season 4 of the show Blackadder. The show is British humor in full form with all the bawdy humor that entails, but that slips to the side here, as Blackadder and his companions prepare to go over the top. At an earlier moment in the episode George (played by Hugh Laurie) realizes that of all his classmates, he’s the only one left alive, and here he realizes that if he dies, no one from his class will ever return to England.

England fought the war much more personally than we did here in America. Their history and culture is older than ours, and the war stomped directly through it. Several years ago, I took a trip to England, going through the guild house in Norwich which was built in the early fifteenth century. Our guide was a little old lady who had lived in Norwich her whole life. The building had been slightly damaged during the blitz, including destroying the spectacular stain glass window which has since been reconstructed. “I’m one of the few people who remembers what it looked like before the blitz.” she said.

England lost much during the war, much of its future in its young men and women, and much of its history. Tolkien did not merely have a front row seat to this, he lived it. He did not flee to the Orkneys to write about the moral superiority of pacifism, nor deplore the evils of man. He fought in one war on the battlefields, and did his part to support the Homefront in the others and confronted in a real way the evil that showed its face in the 20th Century.

This coming Saturday, in Tolkien and the Ancients, we’ll look at the old stories that helped give Tolkien some perspective on the evil he saw around him. I for one and looking forward to writing about things at least a bit more cheerful. Hope you’ve enjoyed the series so far and are intrigued enough to hang on till things brighten up. On another note, I’m gearing up for NanoWrimo, so stay tuned for a post on that as well. Thanks for reading, don’t forget to comment, and have a great Monday!

First: Understanding Tolkien: The Three Pillars of His Influence

Previous: Understanding Tolkien: The Great Wars Part I

Next: Understanding Tolkien: The Ancients