Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Never Give Up

Yesterday was the anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Over 42 million on both sides died in the conflict. Serving in the British Army was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the future author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The Wall Street Journal might be interested to know that this future Oxford professor’s name was believed to be of German origin, meaningly foolishly brave or stupidly clever. He was born in South Africa to Arthur Reuel Tolkien, a bank clerk, and Mabel Suffield. Both came from England’s West Midlands.

Ronald’s (as he was called by the family) father died when he was abou four and the family returned to England. The landscape of South Africa influenced his description of Middle Earth. The West Midlands in Tolkien's childhood were a complex mixture of the grimly industrial Birmingham and the quintessentially rural stereotype of England, Worcestershire and surrounding areas.

Tolkien's life was split between these two: the then very rural hamlet of Sarehole, with its mill, just south of Birmingham; and darkly urban Birmingham itself, where he was eventually sent to King Edward's School. By then the family had moved to King's Heath, where the house backed onto a railway line - young Ronald's developing linguistic imagination was engaged by the sight of coal trucks going to and from South Wales bearing destinations like “Nantyglo,” “Penrhiwceiber” and “Senghenydd.”

In 1904, Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed as having diabetes, usually fatal in those pre-insulin days. She died on Nov. 14  of that year, leaving Ronald and his brother Hilary orphaned and destitute. At this point, a priest by the name of Father Francis charge of them, and made sure of their material as well as spiritual welfare, although in the short term they were boarded with an unsympathetic aunt-by-marriage, Beatrice Suffield, and then with a Mrs Faulkner.

By this time, Ronald was already showing remarkable linguistic gifts. He had mastered the Latin and Greek which was the staple fare of a classical education at that time, and was becoming more than competent in a number of other languages, both modern and ancient, notably Gothic, and later Finnish. He was already busy making up his own languages, purely for fun. He had also made a number of close friends at King Edward's; in his later years at school they met regularly after hours as the “T. C. B. S.” (Tea Club, Barrovian Society, named after their meeting place at the Barrow Stores) and they continued to correspond closely and exchange and criticise each other's literary work until 1916.

He went to Exeter College, Oxford in 1911, where he stayed, immersing himself in the Classics, Old English, the Germanic languages (especially Gothic), Welsh and Finnish, until 1913. He then obtained a disappointing second class degree in Honour Moderations, the “midway” stage of a 4-year Oxford “Greats” (i.e. Classics) course, although with an “alpha plus” in philology. As a result of this, he changed his major from Classics to the more congenial English Language and Literature. One of the poems he discovered in the course of his Old English studies was the Crist of Cynewulf - he was amazed especially by the cryptic couplet:

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended
- Hail Earendel brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men. (“Middangeard” was a ancient expression for the everyday world between Heaven above and Hell below.)

He used the poem as his inspiration for his trilogy.

Meanwhile, World War I had broken out in August 1914. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Tolkien did not rush to join up immediately on the outbreak of war, but returned to Oxford, where he worked hard and finally achieved a first-class degree in June 1915. At this time, he was also working on various poetic attempts, and on his invented languages, especially one that he came to call Qenya (which would become the language of the Elves of Middle-Earth), which was heavily influenced by Finnish - but he still felt the lack of a connecting thread to bring his vivid but disparate imaginings together.

Tolkien finally enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers whilst working on ideas of Earendel  the Mariner, who became a star, and his journeyings. For many months Tolkien was kept in boring suspense in England, mainly in Staffordshire. Finally it appeared that he must soon embark for France, and he and long-time love Edith Brath married in Warwick on March 22, 1916.

Eventually he was indeed sent to active duty on the Western Front, just in time for the Somme offensive. After four months in and out of the trenches, he succumbed to "trench fever", a form of typhus-like infection common in the insanitary conditions, and in early November was sent back to England, where he spent the next month in hospital in Birmingham. By Christmas he had recovered sufficiently to stay with Edith at Great Haywood in Staffordshire.

During these last few months, all but one of his close friends of the “T. C. B. S.” had been killed in action. Partly as an act of piety to their memory, but also stirred by reaction against his war experiences, he had already begun to put his stories into shape, . . .. in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire [ Letters 66]. This ordering of his imagination developed into the Book of Lost Tales (not published in his lifetime), in which most of the major stories of the Silmarillion appear in their first form: tales of the Elves and the “Gnomes,” (i. e. Deep Elves, the later Noldor), with their languages Qenya and Goldogrin. Here are found the first recorded versions of the wars against Morgoth, the siege and fall of Gondolin and Nargothrond, and the tales of Túrin and of Beren and Lúthien.

Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, although periods of remission enabled him to do home service at various camps sufficiently well to be promoted to lieutenant. It was when he was stationed at Hull that he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and there in a grove thick with hemlock Edith danced for him. This was the inspiration for the tale of Beren and Lúthien, a recurrent theme in his “Legendarium.”. He came to think of Edith as "Lúthien" and himself as "Beren". Their first son, John Francis Reuel (later Father John Tolkien) had already been born on 16 November 1917.

When the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, Tolkien had already been putting out feelers to obtain academic employment, and by the time he was demobilised he had been appointed Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (the "Oxford English Dictionary"), then in preparation. While doing the serious philological work involved in this, he also gave one of his Lost Tales its first public airing - he read The Fall of Gondolin to the Exeter College Essay Club, where it was well received by an audience which included Neville Coghill and Hugo Dyson, two future “Inklings.” However, Tolkien did not stay in this job for long. In the summer of 1920 he applied for the quite senior post of Reader (approximately, Associate Professor) in English Language at the University of Leeds, and to his surprise was appointed.

Tolkien was deeply influenced by his experiences in the trenches of World War I. Supposedly, the scene at the climax of the movie after Frodo destroys the ring where Sam laments that he couldn’t have married his sweetheart, Rosie, is based on a mortally wounded soldier in the trenches lament for his life that wouldn’t be.

Tolkien would later go on to become a professor of Old English at Oxford and to write his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. There was a long period between the publication of The Hobbit, which he wrote for his children and came out in 1937, and the more extensive and complicated The Lord of the Rings, which was published in 1954. The story was taken up by the Hippie Generations in the 1960s because of Tolkien’s environmentalism and dismay at industrialization.

Then, in 2001, Peter Jackson produced the first of a film adaptation of the trilogy. The film came out a mere two months after 9/11; its story of heroism, loyalty, duty, sacrifice in the battle of good versus evil capture the hearts of a new and entirely different generation.

That’s not to say that Liberals weren’t dismayed by its message of fighting the good fight. Nor were they pleased with Tolkien’s Christianized themes. Now, ten years after the first came out, Liberals and RINOs would like those who took the film’s message to heart and embraced its courage to go quietly back into their hobbit holes.

The problem, Wall Street Journal and Sen. McCain, is that we haven’t yet defeated Mordor. A very interesting note about WSJ’s editor-in-chief, Robert Thomson, is that he’s married to Wang Ping, the daughter of a general in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

If we Tea Party members are the hobbits, then Sen. McCain is very much in the vein of Saruman, the head of the Wizard order who betrays the Fellowship of the Ring to Sauron. I read the Lord of the Rings many years ago, when I first started college and I was instantly hooked. If reading the Lord of the Rings makes its readers schizophrenic, then let’s have more of the malady.

The character Treebeard, the Tree-Herder, tells us of Saruman:

“Saruman was reckoned great among [the Wizards]… He was very quiet to begin with but then his fame began to grow. He was chosen to be the head of the White Council, they say; but that did not turn out too well. I wonder now if even then Saruman was not turning to evil ways….There was a time when he was always walking in my woods.. He was polite in those days, always asking my leave…and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never hae found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told me anything. And he got more and more llike that; his face…became like windows in a stone wall; windows with shutters inside. I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

Earlier on, Gandalf, having been captured by Saruman but escaping, tells the Council of Elrond (who are deciding what to do with and about the Ring of Power):

“I saw that [Saruman’s] robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved, they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
“‘I liked white better,’ I said.
“’White!’ he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten, and the white light can be broken.’
“’In which case, it is no longer white,’ said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
“’You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for your friends,’ said he. “’I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.’
“He drew himself up then and began to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed. ‘The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule. But must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.
"'And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!’ he said, coming near and speaking now in a softer voice. “I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me. A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left… This then, is one choice befor eyou, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand, and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order.”

Gandalf rejects Saruman’s offer and leads the Fellowship as far as he can before he dies defending them in the Mines of Moria. The Wizard is resurrected to complete his mission. Gandalf takes over Saruman’s place and casts him out of the wizard order. The rest of the party listens as Saruman parleys with Gandalf.

“So great was the power that Saruman exerted in this last effort that none that stood within hearing were unmoved. But now the spell was wholly different. They heard the gentle remonstrance of a kindly king with an erring but much-loved minister. But they were shut out, listening at a door to wrods not meant for them: ill-mannered children or stupid servants overhearing the elusive discourse of their elders, and wondering how it would affect their lot. Of loftier mould these two were made: reverend and wise. It was ineivtable that they should make alliance. Gandalf would ascend into the tower, to discuss deep things beyond their comprehension.”

But Gandalf merely laughs at Saruman. Saruman angrily refuses to surrender the keys to the tower of Orthanc:

“Do not be a fool. If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away and come back when you are sober! And leave behind these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at your tail. Good day!” He turned and left the balcony.

In the Wall Street Journal’s and Sen. McCain’s insults, we hear the words of the fictional Saruman of The Lord of the Rings. Is that the way they view the ultimate sacrifice millions of service people have made? Just average doughboys in World War I, most fresh off the farm or out of the tenements. Are we all just rag-tag chess pieces to be sacrificed at their whim? Despite what you may have heard, our military men and women didn’t just sacrifice their lives to save their comrades-in-arms; they sacrificed their lives so that the others could continue the fight. Just look up the Medal of Honor records of any of the recipients in the Korena War. You’ll find countless heroes who charged uphill to take out fortified enemy positions so the rest of the troops could continue on to capture the hill.

Finally, as Sam and Frodo approach Mount Doom, with Frodo barely able to walk or talk, Sam wonders to himself what they’re going to do:

“Frodo had not spoken to him much of his errnad, and Sam only knew vaguely that the Ring had somehow to be put into the fire. ‘The Cracks of Doom,’ he muttered, the old name rising to his mind. ‘Well, if Master knows how to find them, I don’t.’
“’There you are!’ came the answer. ‘It’s all quite useless. He said so himself. You are the fool, going on hoping and toiling. You could have laid down and gone to sleep days ago I fyou hadn’t been so dogged. But you’ll die just the same, or worse. You might just as well lie down now and give it up. You’ll never get to the top anyway.’

“’I’ll get there, if I leave everything but my bones behind,’ said Sam. ‘And I’ll carry Mr. Frodo up myself, if it breaks my back and heart. So stop arguing!’”


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