Monday, June 25, 2012

Tolkien and Wilfred Owen

 Since fellow blogger Brian Murphy asked, and encouraged, I thought the least I could do is follow through and post this. Granted, I realize it is not perhaps a great paper, and will likely do nothing to further Tolkien studies (or Owen Studies for that matter) it did get me a 91.. there are a few errors, but I don't happen to have access to the graded paper on any longer now that the class is over. So, Tolkien aficionados and masters, please go easy on me.. I'm sure I made mistakes.. but I am after all only an enthusiast.. and desperately was trying to find a way to tie something I enjoyed into yet another boring freshman paper.. so if you have any constructive criticisms to offer I am of course all ears, as I will be writing many, many more papers over the remaining years of my college career, and am always looking for ways to improve.

Eng 1102
18th April 2012 
“Tears Unnumbered”
                War is a grand undertaking, perhaps even the grandest, but it is also the most futile. The desire to wage armed conflict, to willingly distress and demolish another’s country is to confess a uniquely selfish worldview. Wars tend to begin not on the front lines, but in offices in national capitols. The people who start the war, do not fight the war, and thus do not truly understand the nature of war. However, the people who fight the war are left with a great deal of time to pontificate on their situation. They wonder why they are there, what the people fighting on the other side are really like, and if perhaps it is not more likely that their alleged foes are just people like them. The soldier has time to write letters, though censored, to their loved ones at home. Anthony Fletcher asks the poignant question, “What did men confess and what did they conceal, how far did they relate life as it really was? Tones of reassurance were crafted, omissions were adopted in response to degrees of anxiety at home.” (1)Ultimately, historians cannot know exactly what the individual thoughts of a soldier were, but a level of certainty can be gleaned by carefully reading the letters, poems, and stories produced by soldiers. If one is judicious in their reading of soldiers poetry, stories and letters, a common theme begins to emerge. The overriding theme is that of futility. This theme is of the loss and futility of armed conflict as seen by those who witness it at its basest level, quite literally in this case by the people in the trenches, and is brought home repeatedly in a myriad of disparate genres, by a veritable cornucopia of writers.

                One of the most spectacular battles of World War 1 was the Somme offensive, “Opening on 1 July 1916, the Battle of the Somme was the Anglo-French attempt to break through the German lines by means of a massive infantry assault” (Gilbert, 258), its legend has grown due to its grotesque casualty rate, “20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme” (Gilbert, 541). But its horror and callous lack of humanity caused writers and poets to spring up with great alacrity. It was during this battle or others like it that Soldier-writers created art in the midst of this chaos and death. These writers created under horrendous conditions, during stolen seconds of peace, or in the wards of convalescent hospitals while recovering from illness or injury. Heather Lusty, in her paper, Shaping the National Voice, pontificates on the nature of the soldier poet,
Their poetry became a way for these soldiers to refashion their war experiences and express them via a new medium, allowing each of them to reconnect with the world and reconstruct their personal identities in a different world. These poets also reveal their own anxieties about their own participation in the war, the responsibility each bore for the lives and losses of their men, and the pressures of class and rank, all of which contributed to the specific manifestations of their psychological and traumatic reactions to the war. ( 7)
It is always worth keeping in mind just what conditioned these writers worked under. This essential context can bring tremendous insight to the reader, turning them from passive consumers, into critical thinkers.

Wilfred Owen is one such writer. In his poem “Dulce et Decorum est”, often considered one of the greatest poems to emerge from World War 1, Owen writes a graphic and chilling description of a poison gas attack. Providing the reader a grotesquely detailed glimpse of what happened when a soldier was unable to secure his protective gear in time. It is not the gas attack, or the soldier’s death, which makes the poem so moving, but the anger that Owen seethes with and directs at the warmongers at home, which truly makes the poem great. Here is a man who is willing to buck the demanded patriotism to write down his true feelings about the waste of war. Owen writes in the final stanza a bitter renunciation of this callow call for duty and glory,
“My Friend you would not tell with such high zest
To Children desperate for some ardent glory,
The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.” (1)

When this Latin phrase is translated, it reads: “it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for your country” (Ward, 18). In Owen’s capable hands this exultation to duty and sacrifice for the homeland drips with cynicism and irony. John Hughes writes in his own analysis of the poem, “the undeflectable intensity and antiwar intent of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and Owen’s concern, as he said, with unconsoling truthfulness” (1) and I cannot help but agree with this summation of the poem. Further echoes of this understanding are provided by writer Max Saunders when he writes “Like much First World War writing, the poem is not only about the horror of war; the need to represent that horror with unflinching realism, so that what Owen called ‘the pity of war’ can be weighed, and rendered without euphemism or sentimentality.” (62) This leaves one conclusion, Owen is writing this heart-wrenching tale in order to provide the audience with as accurate a picture as possible, to convey the event as closely to the truth as he is able, in an effort to show how pointless this death was.

This leads us to Owen as a writer. Candace Ward writes in her introduction to a short collection of Owen’s poetry that, “Owen’s poetic skills were honed by the nature of his war experiences”. (18) Owing to the realism  it truthfully seems as if he has poured a great quantity of experience and anguish into his work, but due to the lack of any sentiment except anger his poem nearly comes across as callous during his blunt and straight forward rendering of a man’s death, and the non chalant way in which his comrades react to it.

                In contrast to Owen’s starkly unsentimental realism, a very different sort of writer emerged from the same conflict, indeed separated from Owen by scant miles, the two men, both commissioned second lieutenants, and both sharing a fondness for the language of their Anglo-Saxon ancestors, this writer was J.R.R. Tolkien. Whereas Owen wrote with a realist’s pen, Tolkien wrote with stylus of Fantasy. Tolkien, who, after the war went on to create the world of Middle-Earth as described in his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings among others, was not immune from the seeping influence of his experiences in the trenches. Tolkien’s painful memories of the war are particularly present when his characters cross the region known as “The Dead Marshes” in The Lord of the Rings,
“’I don’t know, ‘ said Frodo in a dreamlike voice. ‘But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and eil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.’ Frodo hid his eyes in his hands.” (627)

Following this line of thought that what Tolkien is describing is a memory of his experiences in the Somme it is useful to look at other sources. One such source is John Garth, who writes in his book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, “Tolkien’s description of the Dead Marshes, a scene of morbid desolation that has become, in effect, a short hand symbol for the trenches”. (311) In this short passage the reader can catch a glimpse of the horror which the men on the western front encountered on a daily basis. Even though the book is a fantasy and it tells the story of invented characters experiencing this horror while inhabiting an invented world, the overwhelming grotesqueness that is present is equal to the stark realism present in Owen’s poem. Ultimately, as Tolkien winds down his story and his characters, returned from the war, now diminished are unable to escape their experiences the reader is left wondering what it must have been like for the real life men whom the author based his characters upon. Even though one is written as Fantasy with a dash of sentimentalism and the other an unsentimental injection of Realism, the sense of loss and the futile nature of war is equally present if the reader cares to look.

This complex frustration and anger at loss and senseless violence that is present in both Owen and Tolkien, and many other writers who have lived through war, is, while not always consistently apparent always seems to be just below the surface if you know where to look. I believe that author and Doctor Mark J. Stillman, in his analysis of war writers, sums up the situation best, “If we listen carefully and ignore the incessant drone of ever beating drums, we might catch wind of distant voices from the past, sometimes speaking foreign tongues, but relating the same elegiac tale. Each distinct voice belongs to a chorus echoing the ageless anger of Achilles.” (485) Though subtle, especially in works that are not presented as realistic, this anger is present. It tends to be directed at the needless loss of compatriots at the whims of politicians who sit safe behind the lines, and order men to their deaths. Nevertheless, like so many others, the war claimed Owen’s life scant days before the armistice was signed. Tolkien narrowly escaped that fate due to illness. Both Wilfred Owen and J.R.R. Tolkien experienced similar situations during their own private experience in war. These two writer’s stories and experiences have been preserved for posterity, and every year thousands of people read them and they perhaps enrich some. The writers have shown us the truth, fantastically or realistically, that war is a dirty, messy business in which lives are ruined, typically for naught, and the lot of the common soldier to cope with this reality is their greatest strength. These writers beseech the reader  not, not to listen to the drums of war, and certainly not to feel patriotism towards one’s country, But to be circumspect in your desire, either to take up arms against another or seen someone else to do it in their stead. It is up to the readers to come to terms with this idea and make the most of it in their own lives, while not succumbing to the incessantly beating drums of those who are ever ready to send soldiers to die on some far away field, be it for a few yards of ground or a few pennies off the price of a gallon of gasoline.

Works Cited.
Fletcher, Anthony. "Between The Lines." History Today 59.11 (2009): 45-51.                                        Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth. 1st edition. New York: Mariner Books, 2005. 310-311. Print 

Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. 1st edition. New York: Henry Holt and                Company, 1997. Print    
Hughes, John. "Owen's DULCE ET DECORUM EST." Explicator 64.3 (2006): 164. MasterFILE Premier.          Web. 6 Apr. 2012.

Lusty, Heather. “Shaping the National Voice: Poetry of WWI” Journal of Modern Literature30.1 (2006): 199-209. Project Muse. Web. 24 Mar. 2012.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum est”  Literature: an introduction to reading and writing. 5th compact edition. Edgar V. Roberts, Robert Zweig. New York: Longman an imprint of Pearson, 2012. 625. Print. 

Saunders, Max. "Friendship And Enmity In First World War Literature." Literature & History 17.1                (2008): 62-77. History Reference Center. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

Stillman, Mark J. "War Poets And The Ageless Anger Of Achilles." Military Medicine 176.5 (2011): 484-     485. Consumer Health Complete - EBSCOhost. Web. 6 Apr. 2012.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 1954. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 620-635. Print.   

Ward, Candace. ed. World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others. 1st edition. New York: Dover, 1997. 18. Print.

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