Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Lord of the Rings" and the World Wars

In preparation for “The Hobbit,” which I enjoyed a great deal, I watched all three of the original "Lord of the Rings" (LOTR) movies again.  While I’m relying to some degree on the faithfulness of director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the novels, the shadows of World War I and World War II, two of the central events of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life, clearly leave a major mark on the epic saga.

Tolkien served in the British military during World War I and fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the bloodiest battles of the “war to end all wars” that ushered in modern war.  Trench warfare and advanced weapons like machine guns produced higher casualties than previous conflicts, leaving soldiers with tremendous psychological scars.  Steven Spielberg depicted this new kind of fighting well in “War Horse” (2011).  See href>>

By the end of the three films, Frodo Baggins is not remotely the same person he was when he left the shire at the outset of the “Fellowship of the Ring.”  Haunted by his wounds, both physical and mental, he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), or shell shock, as it was called during World War I.  This dynamic is clearer now that it was when “Return of the King” premiered in 2003, as the Iraq/Afghan wars were still in their early stages, and the media has been saturated with stories regarding PTSD as those wars have wound down.

Throughout the movies, characters talk of the menace growing “to the east,” and Mordor likely represents an allegory for Nazi Germany, which lay east of England and France.  Furthermore, in “Fellowship” there is discussion of Mordor rising once again, just as Germany did following its defeat in World War I; Sauron could also easily be seen as a stand-in for Hitler

Haunted by the memory of the Great War, the leaders of the major powers in Great Britain, France, and the United States took extraordinary steps to avoid another conflict during the 1930s.  Allegories for this war-weariness are heard throughout the movies. In the “Two Towers,” the Rasputin-like Grima warns about the “warmongering” of those in King Theoden’s court, a charge frequently leveled at Winston Churchill and others who disagreed with the conventional strategy of appeasing the Axis powers.  Once Gandalf frees Theoden from the evil Saruman’s control, the king still wants to avoid open war with Mordor and takes the people of Rohan to the shelter of Helms Deep.  Finally, despite the clear danger posed by the alliance of Saruman and Sauron, Treebeard doesn't believe that he and his brethren in the forests are threatened.

Fearing the armaments race that led to World War I, Western leaders did not prepare militarily as the threat from Germany and Japan mounted during the 1930s, as a young John F. Kennedy demonstrated years ago in Why England Slept (1940).  Indeed, isolationist sentiment was so powerful in the United States that the U.S. Army was the 17th strongest in the world as late as 1939, a mere two years before Pearl Harbor.  France, which had suffered the most during World War I, developed an extremely defensive posture with its Maginot Line.  In “Return,” Gandalf is frustrated when he finds a Gondor completely unprepared for war, even as the Orcs march toward the kingdom.

Once World War II began, the Nazis often found eager allies in the countries they occupied.  Locals such as Marshal Petain in Vichy France and Vidkun Quisling in Norway cooperated with Hitler either for selfish reasons or out of a misguided attempt to avoid bloodshed.  Indeed, “Quisling” became a new word for “collaborator.”   In LOTR, the key quisling is Saruman, whose betrayal of Middle Earth and alliance with Sauron seems to spring from a belief that the Dark Lord cannot be defeated and that he can attain power by working with Sauron.

Tolkien always denied that LOTR was an allegory for World War II, though that seems difficult to believe after watching the three films.  As “The Hobbit” proceeds, it will be interesting to see the influences on that novel, which was published before the war began.

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