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The Two Towers

Tolkien's work is hardly all fantasy

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 18, 2002.

So, most of you are geared up to see The Two Towers, the second installment of The Lord of the Rings. No doubt, it’ll be a blast even with the liberties taken with Tolkien’s work. I repeat again, The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece, a composite of European myth, linguistic fantasy, and story telling of the sort you don’t get anymore. The conclusions of people who remotely disagree with me are hogwash, diluted with imbecility, probably genetic and reflecting on your immediate ancestry, should science and police reports allow such be traceable to a father in the near future. Let me be your guide to Middle Earth, since most people who loved the books only did so with Seconal and acid flowing through their remaining cells clinging to their inflamed cerebral cortex. Most people who hate the books clearly either never read them or never read anything or know nothing of English or English history. Fortunately, I’m here to clear up this embarrassment. Tug your forelock, genuflect, and stop fidgeting. I’m declaiming for the ages, here.

Actually, not. I want to point out that John Ronald Reul Tolkien’s story is due as much to his participation in World War One as his love of language and his desire to provide a fake, but consistently plausible mythology to his island home, because he felt all there was German and French in origin. He knew there were people here before the Celts, Saxons, and Angles, and Hobbits – a magical, small, rarely seen people – fit the standard myth for conquering people to install about those whose land was stolen, whole people were slaughtered. We didn’t really kill them all off, they’re still here if you look hard.

Tolkien fought at the Battle of the Somme, a months long affair that killed more British soldiers alone than the North and South combined lost to battle in the entirety of our worst war. Men trained in nineteenth century warfare, advanced against machine guns, barbed wire, and rifles by walking, since their officers knew they were too stupid to run from cover to cover. Of course, the artillery was going to blow up the barbed wire, which the soldiers discovered didn’t work, absent anything solid to blow apart anyway. The British admitted losing four hundred thousand men, but may have lied and lost half again as many. They’ve never fessed up. The Germans lost a like amount, and both Germans and the French lost about as much in the Battle of Verdun a month before.

From the trenches, not a blade of grass or green or anything natural could be seen except the bleak, burned stubs of once great deciduous trees. When Tolkien created Saruman and envisioned the Ents, I’ll bet it was standing guard duty, peering over No Man’s Land.

Of course, without anyplace to go, water filled the trenches, sometimes up to the shoulders. The ground hardened into rock, and the water of hundred square mile battlefields filled British trenches, which were often downhill from the Germans. You could not leave to use the bathroom, there were none, and we can well imagine how soldiers relieved themselves during rainy season. The result probably was considered an air freshener compared to what eventually was four years of biodegrading corpses all around you, plus the dead horses. Rats, which ate the bodies, are reported to have grown to three to five pounds and were quite capable of killing the cats brought in to whittle down their numbers. There are no cats in Middle Earth.

When the water in the trenches got absorbed into the ground, it could get more dangerous. Thousands of shells vibrated the earth into quicksand, as ground water sifted the soil into states of suspension. Which is to say, a soldier standing at his station could sink into the mud, weighed down by his equipment and drown, as tightly compressed as if a giant spider had wrapped and smothered you. It happened.

This is all absent the joys of battle itself. Most soldiers in the First World War had never seen an airplane till one droned overhead like a prehistoric beast. Russian soldiers had never heard of airplanes and went mad with fear. God knows what the reactions were to the first tanks, also introduced at the Somme. Probably as terrifying as the Romans found Hannibal’s elephants.

British soldiers, looking at the bleak landscape, sought refuge in the bucolic and pastoral poetry of England: green, beautiful, clean smelling, and lovely. A shire in memory before they left against their will on this quest to make the world better and safe by their sacrifice.

And the very weird mythologies that soldiers of both sides believed to no particular advantage. The one I’ll relate involved whole communities that lived underground between the trenches of the combatants, where soldiers who had deserted from both sides lived off the corpses and built huge Moriahs of tunnels beneath the ground where they lived in comfort and splendor, coming out at night to collect food and seek new prey. Germans, Russians, Austrians, French, and English these were. Destroyed by the stupidities of their governments and become animal like, breeding with kidnapped women, becoming a power in their own right. Sort of like Orks were bred from destroyed elves. Soldiers knew these cavern dwellers would have to be gassed soon.

And through this bona fide hell, there was the sure knowledge that England and safety was only a hundred miles away to the West, and that the boat ride home must have been for the British veteran much like Frodo arriving at the Western Isles.

And the ship went out onto the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

I doubt England and the cliffs of Dover were ever so lovingly described, or a soldier’s return given a loftier status. There is much more, of course, but those who believe Tolkien eschewed allegory and metaphor because he so claimed, aren’t paying attention.