February 27, 2013

Sadness and the Lord of the Rings

I'm rereading the Lord of the Rings for the first time in a long time. I first read it when I was 12 and loved the books and the BBC radio series. It is strange to come back to it after all that time and some things in it seem overblown. My 12 year old self did not take offence at the bombast in the book nor did he notice the racial divisions within Middle Earth. One thing though that he noticed and I notice now is the deep sadness that permeates the book. Tolkien's vision is filled with pathos and the ebbing of the tide. The Ents ride to their last fight. The men of the West may be accomplishing their last great deed. The great heroes of the story are flawed and mortal and even victory is tinged with death and disappointment. In part this is a legacy of Tolkien's religious vision: the Lord of the Rings is as much a Catholic epic as Lewis's Narnia is an Anglican ethic. He picks up though on other elegy- rereading it I can't hope thinking of Tennyson's line on Virgil 'Thou majestic in thy sadness at the doubtful doom of human kind'.

The Lord of the Rings is based on sadness. I think its wrong to read that sadness in the light of Britain's long withdrawing roar from the world. Tolkien himself pointed to the story's origins in the war of 1914 not the war of 1939: however historians now look at the First War, at the time Britain was a victor and her empire expanded. If the world was ever painted pink, it was in the 1920s. I don't think the Lord of the Rings should be read as a sad epic about national or political decline. I don't read myths of socialism into the book nor was Tolkien writing about liberalism (which he probably would have hated). I think the sadness of the book is much more tied to the industrialisation of England. The fall of Isengard is about the fall of the industrial city scape: the way that Tolkien describes Isengard, this black stone fortress, with claws that rise to the skies, almost evokes Fritz Lang's visions of modernity in the 1920s films (which I doubt the Oxford scholar would have ever seen). Tolkien in his introduction says that the new mill in Hobbiton was based on his own personal memories of a new mill near where he grew up.

Tolkien no doubt did not write just about industrialisation- but I think its there and may be at the root of the sadness that he expresses. His story form is archaic itself: Aragorn, Eomer, Gandalf, these are all characters whose roots are medieval not modern. Even the speech is consciously archaic. There are many reasons why this is interesting. Firstly I think it betrays something I feel often as well: a sense that the lives I have studied are now all forgotten, passed away and gone and that this is unbelievably sad. To be a scholar (and I am no scholar) is to get deeply involved in the lives of people who breathed and lived and loved as much and as tenderly as any of us: but have now vanished. Perhaps I import my own attitudes into Tolkien's work- but its a meaning his writing has to me. A lamentation that the past is past. Secondly I think he shows us how close the industrial revolution in England is- even to us. To put it in context, he could mourn the demise of an England that he almost remembered- and he died in the 1970s.

Tolkien may have had more in mind than just these sadnesses when he came to write his book. His battle scenes and the walk over the dead marshes are definitely filled with memories of the first war. I think some of the grief of parting which is in this novel: whether its of Elrond and Arwen, of the company which splits almost as it is formed, of the Hobbits at the grey havens must be modelled on the deaths of his own friends in the 14 war. I think though these other sadnesses permeate the book as well- it is strange to think that this most modern of genres has at its back a kind of elegy for a world which has been lost.