Summary: The World Wars seemed to birth an unlikely legend, the saga of Middle Earth. Tolkien wove a new mythology for humanity, to help us move beyond a nostalgia for violence. Our world needs new stories, rooted in the goodness of the world, in the merriment of home. War begets war, and as a survivor, Tolkien penned a dream to move us beyond violence as a crutch for identity. His answer is to ground our roots in truth, beauty, and goodness.
Tolkein said that he set out to craft a mythos for his beloved England, a past rich in the land of faery, pregnant with a Thomistic Christianity. A work of historical reconstruction. My limited reading on this says that he wanted England to have her own origins, and not borrowed legends from other nations.
England was long a frontier nation, regularly invaded and carved up and redrawn. Certain legends rose to the surface that anchored the soul of the British people, like Arthur, and Robin Hood.
And yet, this was a man who survived the Somme, a brutal snapshot of a world at war with itself, where a million men died in the ruts, mud, and wasted blood.
I think those World Wars changed many people. And I think it brought home to Tolkien the sheer horror of war and violence. Until then, much of warfare was bannered and gilt with noble stories and ritualized idealism. The actual PTSD and trauma was repressed, papered over, ignored.
Europe must have been shattered by this crisis of identity; multiple sides claiming that they were God’s faithful ones, blasting their brothers mere miles away with the harshest weapons possible.
The child is the father of the man. And I wonder if Tolkien began to see the inkling of a truth: The stories on which we raise ourselves are self-fulfilling prophecies.
If your mythology tells you that the gods wrestled order out of an unwilling, devouring chaos, and constant battle is the only way to preserve peace, then human society is boned through with these laws and stars.
I think Tolkien did more than set out to just craft the greatest story of his being. He did more than birth for Britain her own myth. He charted a dream for a world beyond war.
Now I know that seems like a strange, disingenuous idea. Middle Earth is regularly overrun by orc and fell being. It is a constant battle ground.
Millions have been poured into the drama and delight of all this warfare, from the movies to the games to the fan fiction of devoted Tolkienisti, like myself.
But Tolkien fed himself on the lembas of Heaven. Communion, and Eucharistic adoration. We know he thought deeply. And we know that he ‘honored his mother and father,’ – honoring the dirt, duty, and ideals, the homeland and heritage inbreathed by history into a person.
Excalibur and mutually assured destruction
In the heart of the Arthurian saga lies a gem that long fascinated me. It seemed a throwaway moment, when Merlin presents Arthur with Excalibur. Unlike later retellings, Excalibur seems more of a symbol than an enchanted weapon. It is rarely used, almost never drawn. Merlin chides Arthur to the magic of the scabbard, such that the scabbard would safeguard the wearer from bleeding in battle. The scabbard was just as important.
As a child, I wondered over that. Now, I begin to see that the legendarist was indicating perhaps a difficult and cryptic point. Perhaps a point that many lords and knights couldn’t see for centuries. Keeping sword and scabbard united meant the wearer would not lose blood.
Merlin laid a seed in the hearts of the greatest British saga. Yes, the sword should be scabbarded. The king stands as a symbol for his people. He is the embodiment of his nation before the gods. And when he draws his sword, he spills more than his enemy’s blood. He spills his own.
Merlin is prophecying a message that would be echoed by the popes of the 20th century about violence and torture. In torture there are two victims – the oppressed, and the oppressor. Both are wounded by violence, and the ground cries out for justice.
The sword should exist, yes. There is a need and place for violence. For war. It is often a necessary evil. But we rarely think of the scabbard. Violence is like mutually assured destruction. Excalibur is a weapon of mass destruction. There are no winners in war. Only the dead, and the phyrric victors.
War is a fact of the human condition. Of human history. It’s how borders were maintained. Treaties upheld. Good done, and evil avoided. It was a necessary evil to preserve a greater good.
But the two World Wars changed our awareness. Changed our sense of identity. The seams had been sewn together on our world. We faced ourselves for the first time, as a human family.
The human family vs a nostalgia for battle
We could no longer identify ourselves and our success purely on our own terms. Trade and economies sifts and settles all peoples together. Travel and religion and discourse shows us a common humanity.
It’s not just political correctness why Hollywood can no longer ‘demonize’ other nations. Our great enemies in movies are now archetypal – aliens, demons, orcs.
Human nature still hungers for the older values of life, where war and death and violence unified a people, gave meaning to manhood, and purpose to pain.
We haven’t realized something Tolkein did. That hunger, that need, is born from the trauma of the past. War breaks the human psyche in all ages and times. Love of war binds old wounds badly, creates generational sins and curses, and rebreaks new bones to fit dead molds.
Tolkein wove a world beyond the lines of nations, where men fight men for hearth and home. He pointed us at an evil that never slept, that twisted and tortured the good in things. An evil that must be fought back and killed at every turn.
The orc is not the evil man of another nation. The orc is a pre-human beast, outside the laws of nature, wallowing in meta-physical evil. It’s a preternatural being.
It’s perfect for a story with guilt-free war, like fighting aliens or viruses.
But everyone who celebrates all that war misses the point.
The whole point of Middle Earth is that war is a sad, sucking waste of beauty and truth and goodness.
The center of the saga: a merrier world
Like a chiasm, right in the ‘center’ of the two movie trilogies, lies the death of Thorin Oakenshield. As he dies, he looks at the Hobbit, the symbol, the stand-in for the simple, home-rooted happiness that is central to all human life.
Thorin’s last words are;
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
The ‘Song of Roland’ is valued as a glorious tale of great violence and heroism against the enemies of a past Christian world. It’s a world we can never live in again.
It is the kind of story that recently-baptised warriors would tell. The kind of story where myth shoulders for a place in our hearts with the challenging notes of religion.
Virtue evolves with our capacity to see it. In the past, violence was the ‘evil’ we were comfortable with. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ was never truly taken seriously.
Will Sipling sketched out this development of virtue through Christian culture, from the ‘Song of Roland’, to ‘Perceval’, to ‘Laudato Si’. Our world has changed. We can never truly revel in the pages of the ‘Song of Roland’ and delight in the drama and gore, the way our forbears did only a few hundred years ago.
We read the ‘Iliad’ with an archaeologist’s appreciation. Perhaps with an anthropologists’ awareness. We should value it as a step in the path of human development.
There was a time when humanity needed this tool to define and safeguard itself. But now it must only be used with regret. We can’t ignore the scabbard.
And that is what Tolkien built for us with Middle Earth.
It’s worth fighting for
At every point we see the wonderful words of Sam ‘there’s some good in this world, and its worth fighting for.’ Everything beautiful and good must be preserved from the ravages of evil.
But when the battle is done, we then must ask, what next?
And that is when we beat the swords into ploughshares. When we bend all our genius and energy to peace and home and binding wounds and good things.
But we can only do that if our founding myth tells us that.
If you live in a Viking world defined by battle and war and a warrior’s heaven, then you will never build anything different.
Tolkien dug deeper. He unearthed a deeper myth, and put it center stage. All this horrific and horrible war serves a purpose – to be ended. It exists to die. It exists like a flash in a pan, so that we can return to what is truly important.
And that is family, home, raising children, delighting in the goods of the world, helping our brothers, healing our trauma.
What would a world be like where our battle-scarred, emotionally-gutted men and women could find inner rest, inner self-worth, and joy in the abundance of the Sermon on the Mount?
Tolkien lived in that world. The Somme, and the succeeding wars, showed him that this horror is the rank outbreath of Sauron’s Mouth. Not any ‘ism or political thing. It’s a human thing.
The ring is sin, is violence, is war. It is every attempt to wield the tools of the enemy to do good. It is not a gift. Excalibur is the Ring. Nuclear weapons are the Ring. It breeds victims and victors who never learn the lesson.
Middle Earth sits under a pall of sadness, of regret, that all this waste and war is needed to push back against evil. But we must. We absolutely must unsheathe that sword to take back our home from the orc.
But our human brothers are not the orc.
Beneath the glamor and polished armor and heroism of all the great heroes, beats a human heart.
And beneath that, beats the divine heart from which all human hearts take our dignity and purpose and prophecy.
A new myth for humanity
Middle Earth is more than Britain’s mythology. It’s the mythology humanity needs. A myth that recognizes the need for war. But it is already beyond war. Happy to drop it as soon as it’s unneeded.
The more our world weaves itself together into a common family with a common home, the less we can enter all out war with ourselves.
And our stories need to reflect that. The novels and games and legend-makers have a new challenge. How to get beyond finding identity in the lipless, lidless hunger for violence.
It’s said that a great story is as great as its villain.
I say that a truly great story is as great as it can help you joy in overcoming your own villainy.
As long as we externalize evil in someone else, as long as we can scapegoat anything else as the reason for all things wrong in the world, and as long as we can tell ourselves that fighting it to the death is the definition of ‘good’, then we are still in an animal past. We still worship a god of war.
The Christ-impulse within the human family is a binding one, a Hobbit-like one. Hobbits ever yearn for one thing, no matter how many calls to adventure or war.
They value food and cheer and song. Just as Christ did on his earthly ministry, and just as he continues to do through God’s ‘faithful people’ in all ages and times.