Your copy of The Lord of the Rings likely has at the beginning a ‘Foreword to the Second Edition.’ This short text of 5 pages was added in 1965, and serves, primarily, to deny any stated connection between the legendary story of the Great War of the Ring and the real war.
“This tale grew in the telling until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring.” So begins the Foreword. The shadow of World War II, Tolkien recalls, fell on much of the telling. The journey of Frodo to Mordor was composed as a serial and sent to his son Christopher, in South Africa with the RAF. Tolkien says that one must personally come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression, but the war that he fully felt, he points out with pain, was the Great War of 1914.
John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War took this autobiographical cue and with some craft reconstructed the relationship between felt oppression and its expression in early fairy story. Garth’s study gives us pause for thought when Tolkien grumbles that definitions of the relationship between lived experience and written story are “at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.” Garth does not perform a miracle,identifying a point of contact he tells a story in history: the early biographical chapter in which real war visibly exploded before his subject’s eyes, inevitably impacting upon the meaning of Tolkien’s story expressions.
Tolkien also lived though World War II, a father at home in the home guard. Touched personally by the adaptation of old and ancient stories in the cause of National Socialism, perhaps tainting the tradition of the North forever. Later things look different, as they always do. In the late 1950s, Hiroshima and Auschwitz gave face to the War, and talk of the war and the story of the One Ring in the early 1960s no doubt sounded hollow to Tolkien. Hence the tone of the Foreword.
I want to do for World War II something like what Garth has done for the Great War. My path follows composition of On Fairy-stories over a long swathe of the real war (1940-1942) and a story from Moria to Isengard by way of the Golden Wood, Rohan, and Fangorn. My project looks very different from Garth’s because we are not walking with the body of Tolkien on the explosions of the Somme but in the mind of a body looking out on the world from a room in North Oxford: my story is told in the imagination and intention of the author – it is the story of the Lady Galadriel and the wizard reborn, two kings of Rohan, some hobbits and some trees, as made up in the darkest years of World War II.
Telling the story of World War II in The Lord of the Rings must respect the challenge as laid down in the 1965 Foreword. We are to trace the relationship between the “real war” and “the legendary war” while taking seriously its claims: the sources of the story were “things long before in mind,” the real war modified “little or nothing” in the story of the legendary war, and had the disaster of war been averted the story would have developed “along essentially the same lines.”
However, these claims are read together with Tolkien’s firm recollection that the sequel to The Hobbit was begun before the original was published in 1937, which Christopher’s drafts show to be incorrect (unless Tolkien had in mind the 1936 ‘The Fall of Numenor’ as the true start of the sequel, before the first draft of ‘A long-expected party’ in Christmas 1937). Just about everything that Tolkien said about his story after it was published require some pinches of salt. We have some latitude for interpretation; but we must respect the point of felt certainty about priority expressed in the Foreword. Looking back on a story begun nearly 3 decades earlier, Tolkien is certain the inner magic of the story was autonomous of and discovered prior to September 3, 1939.
I think this felt certainty has a source in a biographical fact: in March 1939 Tolkien was in St Andrews University in Scotland, where he delivered a lecture on fairy stories. This lecture contains the seed of the reconciliation of Tom Bombadil and the wraith-encounter on Weathertop, out of which the mythological framework of The Lord of the Rings blossomed. This seed was just in the process of being planted in the new hobbit story when, on September 3, war was declared. The real war had an immense impact upon the story, but the vision of the Mirror and the Eye predates World War II.
On Fairy-stories (1947) is a post-war document, composed in 1943, with the story resting after Saruman’s staff is broken, harvested from a seed put down in March 1939, a lecture delivered half a year before the real war began, in which Tolkien reflected on some wide-reading of fairy-stories so-called by an author looking enchantment and the wraith in the face. On Fairy-stories develops a thesis forged just before World War II began, a composition born out of four years of story-writing, a war outside his window, and a middle aged man with his own doubts. These doubts, I think, become the real frame of the essay, as called forth by the third and final of the three questions that frame the essay:
What is the use of a fairy story?
The upshot is that a fairy story aids reflection on history, revealing its meaning. Galadriel is no prophet, she does not know what others will be; her Mirror shows you what you bring to it, a heuristic use, a consolation of northern art. Activity is self-defeating in the vision of this owl of Minerva. Boromir sees clearly what he wants, as Sam puts it after; and then falls when he tries to take it. Aragorn will succeed in mastering the Stone of Orthanc, and determine history by contending with the will of Sauron. He is the heir of Elendil. Denethor, great lord of Gondor, falls into folly, use the Stone of Minas Anor, lose his courage and burn like a heathen king. The Mirror is dangerous because it pertains to the future, and those who are leaders must especially beware, but the Mirror speaks also of the past, and here it is less perilous for us to look. Galadriel’s Mirror shows the Eye, but by the time Gandalf was in Rohan the story had given a proper name to the unfriend who gives the lie on our own doorstep. As throughout Rohan, the strangers counter the lie with the name of the Lady.
The story between Moria and Orthanc gives expression to the great themes of On Fairy-stories, laid down at St Andrews University in March 1939. What is a fairy story? Frodo is blindfolded on his entrance into one and we see with him his recovered vision, looking out from the tops of a tree on the light and the dark that holds the world in sway. What is the origin of a fairy story? A mortal in history speaking the name of a fairy element. Tolkien prays on paper as he writes his essay, and he speaks the name of the Lady who enters his story: this is how we should read the section of his essay he later labelled Origins. The Cauldron of Story is just Galadriel’s Mirror once the Lady has sailed away on the last fairy-ship, taking also the Stone of Elendil, Gandalf, Three Rings and two Bagginses.
Where the Foreword suggests the plot of The Lord of the Rings was set before the real war became actual its author must be resisted. Christopher’s editions show that the story turned over the space of a long pause at Balin’s tomb between December 1940 and August 1940: the story that went into Moria was not yet recognized as a war story, in summer 1940 Tolkien resumed writing what he now knew a war story.
After the new hobbit story becomes the tale of the Great War of the Ring, Tolkien speaks the name of the Lady. The world outside is very dark indeed.
Tolkien was not a prophet. Neither his lecture nor his story predicted the war, although after the event it might be asked whether both had and their author had not noticed. It simply cannot be otherwise: September 3, 1939, was a watershed: both story and lecture drafts must have appeared strangers to their author. It is fitting to Tolkien that he saw the value in his earlier drafts, and rather than revise them, placed Tom Bombadil in preserving borders and told a darker story outside of them. Bombadil’s new borders preserved his native pacificism and protected him from the stain of Appeasement.
Tolkien used the recipe of Fairie written up for St Andrews as a mirror, a crystal ball in which he discovered the real meanings of war. But what he saw was not the future but the past: his Mirror allowed him to retell the same story anew, leaving the old in place but now discovering what he had not seen in 1938. In August 1943, Tolkien in his own story had given the proper name Wormtongue to the lie on his own doorstep. And he had called upon the fairy element that was the magic of prayer in story, and she had come.
The story from the Mirror to the lightening after thunder that silences the lie in the court of the king of Rohan give the shape of war to the question asked by On Fairy-stories: what is the use of a fairy story.