Premonitions of WWII

*   Composition of ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ can be dated by some marginalia on the manuscripts in which Tolkien outlined the death of Boromir. On the back of this sheet our author has absently written: ‘Chinese bombers,’ ‘North Sea convoy,’ ‘Muar River,’ ‘Japanese attack in Malaya,’ and other such. Christopher Tolkien notes the Japanese invaded Thailand and N.E. Malaya on 7-8 December 1941 and the Muar River was crossed on January 16 1942, and so dates this part of The Lord of the Rings to winter 1941-2 (Treason of Isengard 379, 387).

While Tolkien famously denied any allegory between his tale and the Second World War, it is certainly possible to discern the imprint of the global context of composition on the story itself.

Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. On this day, Tolkien was perhaps three weeks into his third phase of writing, and would continue through the end of the year leaving the Company in Moria at Balin’s tomb. By this point the story had almost become that which we know – but it was only when he resumed writing in late summer 1940 that Trotter the hobbit finally became Aragorn the heir of Elendil, and only at this point that the original plan to the story’s length – with a short passage on the other side of the mountains to the end at the fiery mountain began to give way to a whole new world of story opening up in Lothlórien, Rohan and Isengard, as well as Gondor.

When Tolkien paused in Moria in late 1939 the Company consisted only of hobbits in addition to Gandalf and Boromir, a man of Ond (Gondor), a city imagined as under siege on the other side of the mountains. And Tolkien believed his story around 2/3 complete (Letters). The story as the story we know was not yet imagined; yet the role in it of the sea kings of old aside, the great ideas of the story we know were now in play. Crucially, since picking up his pen again in August 1939, eighteen months and two prior phases of composition in to his new hobbit story (not to mention a lecture on fairy stories delivered that March), Tolkien established the idea of the One Ring and framed his story in terms of a great conflict between a white elf tower looking over the sea to the west of the Shire and a dark tower in Mordor out of which looks an Eye.

This great unveiling of ideas (in outlines as well as chapter drafts) largely established the story between Bag-End and Rivendell, which after events first turned upside-down on Weathertop in late summer 1938, Tolkien rewrote two further times and was still working out in the third phase of writing in the second half of 1939. In other words, this third phase is a watershed, and the first of a two phase revolution that lead our author to compose the story we know.

In terms of the wider history of the world going to war, Tolkien provides a curious retrospective reading through Tom Bombadil. In letter 144, composed in 1954:

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were, taken ‘a vow of poverty,’ renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. (Letters 178-9).

It’s worth adding before commenting a passage from the later letter 153:

[Tom Bombadil] merely knows and understands such things as concern him in his natural little realm. He hardly even judges, and as far as can be seen makes no effort to reform or remove even the Willow… he is then… a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entrely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture. (Letters 192).

In this later letter, Tolkien goes on to insist that Tom Bombadil here is in a category different even from the elves, “they are primarily artists” (ibid). And he goes on to add a third take on Tom Bombadil:

Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some part, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything fundamental – and therefore much will from that ‘point of view’ be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion – but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the Universe.

Both of these letters are composed well over a decade after Britain declared war on Germany and The Lord of the Rings grown into the story that it did. But as noted in the previous post, in the much smaller story imagined before 1940, with most adventures happening before Rivendell, Tom Bombadil is a major figure and we must therefore read the above passages of commentary as reflecting a major change in Tolkien’s thinking about the story he was writing.

I suggest the last quoted passage hides the germs of our author’s original vision of a sequel to The Hobbit, the story-world I have called the mirror of the ghost index.

1937-1938: The Mirror Ghost Index

Bilbo’s magic ring is one of many made long ago by the Necromancer to ensnare others. The rings allow invisibility, but occasional vanishing is now revealed as a first step to a permanent fading, becoming a wraith – one of the undead under the command of the Dark Magician.

The story is to show a combination of forces in the world that are stronger than the dark power of the Necromancer: Gollum would use the ring for sneaking and end up monstrous, but his hobbit bones prevented any undead fading; Bingo-Bolger Baggins, heir of Bilbo, is to use the evil ring only for jest; Tom Bombadil is older even than the Necromancer, and the Barrow-wights obey his voice; the elves and Gandalf will rescue Bingo at the ford at Rivendell…

And one of the things we now begin to see is how this picture of a world of a story did not survive the turn of our world to a second great European war.

After 3 September,1939

When Tolkien finally has all the pieces in play in late summer 1940, now Trotter is the heir of the sea kings of old, he must lead the Company now Gandalf has fallen into the abyss with the Balrog, and as they emerge on the other side of the mountains Aragorn leads the Company into Lothlórien. In the Golden Wood, Tolkien now redrafted the story of Tom Bombadil around an elvish queen and her mirror.

The Lady Galadriel is many things in Tolkien’s mind, but she steps out of a reimagination of the relationship of enchantment that perhaps introduces the idea of elves as artists so that where Tom Bombadil simply is, even Galadriel is choosing and so a doer. Galadriel’s whole shtick is that she is not a counsellor, that not in saying yes and no but simply holding up a mirror may she aid the quest. Yet Tolkien reimagines the encounter of Frodo and Tom Bombadil (“Who are you, master?”) as more equal and hence dramatic: Galadriel’s heart desires the Ring; she is a face of Faërie confronted with a power it cannot laugh off. (The comments on Tom Bombadil in letters written over a decade later view him to a disadvantage through the person of Galadriel, yet the magic ring that first came to the house of Tom Bombadil was but one of many such in the world.)

On the Marish and in Bree, Tolkien drew the landscape of his new story, inventing the Shire by way of Buckland, the Old Forest, the Barrow-wights, Farmer Maggot and Tom Bombadil (possible kin). The journey to Rivendell went by way of various houses, from Bag-End to Crickhollow, to the houses of the farmer and the aboriginal nature spirit, and the inn at Bree. The house of Tom Bombadil here occupies the main way station between Bag-end and Rivendell, the source of all the new queerness. And as soon as the party of hobbits arrived at the house of Tom Bomadil they were to wake up to a rainy second day in that house, in which their host talked of the lore of the lands beyond the borders of their own. In this conversation Bingo was to lose track of time.

Lothlórien is at heart a return to the lands of Tom Bombadil and to the idea of enchantment, the idea of which is already central in the mirror ghost index in the person (or house) of Tom Bombadil, which word is becoming central to gathering literary reflections on fairy stories, and which idea blossoms a second time around in the person of Galadriel, queen of Faërie. But where the king of Faërie had held the golden ring to his eye and laughed, the queen of Faërie is offered by the hobbit what her heart desires.

When Tolkien wrote a sequel before the war began he saw clearly an evil in the world, but he thought it might be judged in the mirror of reality and found wanting and so set out a tale that discovered enchantment in Tom Bombadil’s house the wholesome and greater opposite of the dark magic of the Necromancer. After the war broke out, even the monarchs of Faërie must choose, and what (only) now appears as the pacificism of Tom Bomadil is redrawn as the face of an ancient parent who can now only watch as a young generation goes out to battle.

But this contrast of Bombadil and Galadriel in how their eye falls on the One Ring is to some degree false, for each originally encountered different rings. Or rather, Tom first takes a magic ring from the hand of Bingo, he has no reason to suppose the fate of the world is now in his hand – that idea is imposed on him later, when a magic ring becomes the One Ring that Galadriel was offered by Frodo Baggins from the first. Tom Bombadil’s pacificism is our author’s queer reading of his own earlier story idea, a reading that would not perhaps have been possible if European and global history had not taken the dark turn that it did, yet an author watching the world while writing a story in 1938 surely had premonitions of what was happening.


* Post inspired by reflection on my collaboration with +Oliver Stegen, +Jeremiah Burns, +Richard Rohlin, +Tom Hillman – a contribution to a Wilderness of Dragons.