War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Notes from PhD land - fairy tales, fantasy, talking animals

My daughter casually mentioned to me the other day that J.R.R. Tolkien had fought in the First World War and that he’d written a war poem. Out of the mouth of babes…

Tolkien was a signals officer who served with the 11th (Service) Battalion at the Somme, specifically at Thiepval Ridge (a place where so many Canadians were lost and never found – only their names on Vimy recall them). He served long enough at the front to see far too much, then came down with a bad case of trench fever – a bacterial infection caused by the lice that tormented the men (and nurses) at the Front which could kill in those days before anti-biotics. Trench fever probably saved his life.

From late 1916-1917 Tolkien was hospitalized in England. During his recovery he began to sketch out the foundations of what would become The Simarillion. He worked on the manuscript for his entire lifetime but never completed it. In 1937 he submitted it to his publisher who said it was too dark. Tolkien’s son published the book after Tolkien’s death.

After I learned of Tolkien’s war experience, the Lord of the Rings made sense to me. Sure Tolkien was a scholar of middle-English who brought Beowulf to the fore, and the society that produced it was certainly a warrior society, but learning of Tolkien’s experience at the Front makes the LOR somehow more sensible to me. And while Tolkien denied the influence of the Great War, one need only read the opening lines, and the spectre of his war experience passes over. Tolkien’s great friend and colleague C.S. Lewis commented in a 1955 review of the Hobbit in Tide and Tide that the land of Mordor surely resembled the scarified earth of the Front.

Well Lewis certainly would have recognized this pocked and burnt earth himself as he too served at the Front. And the endless, endless, endless repetition of troubles which Frodo, Bilbo et al. overcome time and time again only to land in trouble once more – the seeming never-ending of the LOR quest, would surely have resonated with any who survived the terrible locked horns of that war.

Lewis also wrote war poetry. His first book, published under the pseudonym of Clive Hamilton, was titled Spirits in Bondage: a cycle of lyrics. Having just found it I am about to read it and am curious to see how Lewis writes war poetry.

The daughter knows and loves Lewis’s fantasy of course. He and Tolkien were great friends and colleagues and inevitably they would have read each others’ work, probably shared thoughts and ideas on fantasy. Tolkien spoke in his famous lecture, On Fairy Stories, of fairy tales as a way to recover, escape and console. I should like to ask, for whom do they act as a place of the recovery, escape and consolation? How interesting that two survivors of the Great War would also become such fable tellers.

Tolkien did not finish The Simarillion which he began in an English hospital as he lay in bed recovering very, very slowly from Trench Fever. Was this manuscript his place of refuge? And I know it’s easy to psychoanalyze the dead, and more importantly, their work, but this question is worth asking. The same consideration might be given to C.S.Lewis who after all, was the author of fantastical The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and so much other rich and imaginative work. And I’d like to ask the question, how did fantasy save Lewis from his own experience? Lewis was an infantryman at the Somme at age 19. All of this has caused me to ponder, which is what a PhD is supposed to do (though write, write, write is in there too).

Finally, said daughter once again in passing (knowing I’m teaching British poetry of the First World War and being a fabulous encyclopedia of all sorts of knowledge), Did you know that Doctor Doolittle was written by a soldier at the Front? He wanted to entertain his children with stories of a man able to converse with animals.
_ Apparently though, he was upset at seeing the animals at war_, she added.

Critics haven’t been kind to Tolkien or Lewis as poets. But I shall be. I shall read them for what they are and what they’ve seen and where they’ve been. And sure, the text should speak for itself, or so they say, but I shall read them both with new eyes, and will never read or think of hobbits (who live in trench-like holes), nor children who disappear into another world through an old wardrobe, in quite the same way again.


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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled Notes from PhD land - fairy tales, fantasy, talking animals. It was posted here on March 12, 2013.

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