Aug
01

July Update: It’s Like the Stepford Wives, but with Child Sacrifice

It’s hard to imagine John Ronald Reuel Tolkien as anything other than a white haired hobbit don, but in John Garth’s book Tolkien and the Great War, I saw another side to Tolkien. To me, Middle Earth has always been a world apart, grounded in real mythologies but something so completely ancient in spirit that it was alien to modernity. But in reading about Tolkien’s school days, soured in the end by his anxiety and sense of doom as World War I looms over Britain, I have come to feel differently. Garth does an excellent job of expressing the darkness Tolkien feels threatening his life and the lives of everyone important to him, as his classmates and friends, along with nearly every able bodied man in the country, are sent to struggle and die in grueling battles against an often unseen enemy. Tolkien rattles around in an emptying Oxford, determined to finish his degree, and the day after his anticlimactic graduation joins the army. He is so young, like too many soldiers in that war, but ready to fight in what he viewed as a “just war,” a concept that would become relevant in his later fiction.

Garth traces the roots of Tolkien’s fiction through his schooldays to his days at war, through light and dark, happiness and devastation (although Tolkien’s childhood was by no means carefree, and the war years were not without joy). You may have heard of the Inklings, the group of academics and writers to whom Tolkien would read his unfinished works for discussion. I had already known that the relationships formed in this group, particularly his friendship with C.S. Lewis, had a significant impact on Tolkien’s creative life. However, I had never before heard of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, or T.C.B.S., a tight knit group of Tolkien’s school friends who influenced each other’s creative and intellectual development. While its membership shifted over the years, Tolkien and three others formed a lasting bond, sharing their most profound beliefs and desires, and for some, their creative works. The deaths of half the group and many of its periphery members in the war could only dim the survivors’ youthful dream of bringing an old, essential light back into a world which these precocious and determined boys viewed as faded.

Serving in the war, Tolkien experienced his share of truly dehumanizing battle, narrowly escaping with his life as countless men died horrendous deaths all around him. The deaths of his closest friends, those who had shared in his plans for greatness and change for England and the world, affected him in ways only such tragedy can. While I try not to fall into the trap of viewing The Lord of the Rings as some sort of paint-by-the-number allegory for the Great War, there is no way a person goes through an such an experience, losing most of his closest friends, without being deeply affected. From the start, some critics have accused The Lord of the Rings of escapism (although Tolkien wouldn’t have seen that as much of a criticism), but this work faces head on some of the darkest facets of life, not the least of which has to do with war. One of the concepts I’m focusing on in my research is the “just war” I mentioned earlier, a war worth fighting and dying (and killing) for. Tolkien, the pottering, gentle don, expressed in his stories of ancient warriors and bloody conflicts a part of himself that was fierce as a hobbit defending his mushrooms.

In American Gods, Neil Gaiman has a somewhat more postmodern approach to war. The central driving conflict of old versus new gods turns out to be a grand hoax, orchestrated by two gods thirsty for blood and power. War is not “just,” not necessary to defend goodness and innocence. There is no Shire to protect, no idyllic homeland to return to. Shadow has no home, allows himself to be dragged across a country that feels strange and unfamiliar in many ways. The town of Lakeside, the one place he fosters something of an affinity for, where he finds a kind of welcome, turns out to be an illusion. The prosperity of this Midwestern town, this pocket of good fortune in a region sliding into economic depression, turns out to be bought with the blood of innocents.

In his essay “Place and Culture: Analeptic for Individuality and the World’s Indifference,” geographer Yi-Fu Tuan claims that in literature, “One reason why even a very ordinary event can catch our attention is that, in the artist’s depiction of it, the assumption of unified place and culture is subtly transgressed.” Tuan reveals the familiar domestic scene–such as a child’s birthday party–to be a cultural drama, an acting-out of cultural norms and defined relationships that serves to bury the isolation each individual must live with, the niggling truth that we are each alone in life and can never be fully understood.

Along this vein, Gaiman takes a seemingly ordinary Midwestern town–populated with tropes of American small town culture such as neighborly cops, motherly cooks, and old men who love to spin tall tales about the past–and reveals an ancient darkness behind it, an evil stemming from the distant past. The peaceful and prosperous life these midwesterners enjoy becomes strange and wrong, an illusion founded on what they would consider primitive and cruel acts, the sacrifice of their own children. Gaiman upends the small midwestern town, reveals the unthinkable at the heart of what many would consider a quintessentially American way of life and culture. Gaiman’s war is not just, but rather a cover up, a false division of complicated truth into right versus wrong, us versus them. This subversion is very different from Tolkien’s treatment of a war that is just, a defense against the destruction of all that is good-although winning the war cannot save all good things, for everything must fade, in time.

Comments

  1. Hi Charlotte,

    I’ve enjoyed reading through your posts and seeing how you’re approaching these popular books! I appreciate how much you’ve looked into Tolkien’s life and how it influenced his writing–I didn’t know much about the man behind the book. In contrasting Tolkien’s approach to war to Gaiman’s approach, have you drawn any conclusions about how their personal experiences with war contribute to how they depict it? While you mention how Tolkien experienced WWI, I’m wondering if Gaiman had any personal or familial experience that influenced how he views war as unjust. Of course each author is more complex than the “paint-by-numbers,” like you mention, but it would be interesting to add more depth to American Gods by discussing Gaiman’s upbringing as well!

    -Brittany

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