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15 October 2009 @ 06:25 am
This is an essay I wrote which I am reposting because this is my journal and I can. This is pretty much what I do with my day besides researching the Gaza conflict (I went for that internship after all) and watching gobs of Battlestar Galactica (new goal in life: to be Starbuck). Originally posted elsewhere.

I was pondering all of this and how it fit with The Lord of the Rings (which, I must admit, I am far more familiar with than any of Tolkien’s other works) even though it is admittedly the most distanced. Tolkien said that of all the characters, he was most like Faramir which upon further reflection their war experiences are in some ways quite similar.

"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise."

My impression from Garth is that, replace “Númenor” with England and you’ve got Tolkien speaking. In fact, it’s not far off from the poem which is ostensibly about Oxford. (I hope you know which one I’m talking about because I can’t find it.) They’re both scholars who ended up as soldiers – officers, no less - who profess a profound patriotism that is more than simple jingoism. But it’s more than that. Let’s start not with Faramir but with Denethor.

Denethor is the Steward, supposed to protect and defend Minas Tirith. He uses the Palantir to assist him in this as a method of gaining intelligence and makes military decisions based on what he sees. In fact, this seems to end up being the sole basis of some of his decisions – there is no first hand experience. This is exactly how WWI generals both acted and were perceived as acting. Their intelligence was unreliable due to unreliable communications, as Tolkien would have been directly aware of given his office as a signaler. Particularly during battle, messages could take hours to get from the commanding officer to the infantry actually enacting the order, by which point it was frequently irrelevant anyway. Denethor’s information isn’t irrelevant so much as it is inaccurate, but he is either unaware of or apathetic to this fact. This is shown brilliantly in the scene in the movie where, juxtaposed with the charge on Osgiliath, Denethor sits in comfort and eats good food while being sung to as his men gallop to their deaths, just as the generals sat comfortably well behind the lines with frequently no idea of or connection to the reality. In fact, this is probably coincidental, but one of the things Joffre was known for was his strictly kept meal times completely regardless of the situation. Denethor ends up being the quintessential “Old Man” of the First World War, particularly considering how the infantry perceived both the old generals and the civilians who tended to be viewed as profiteers in some way. It’s not so much age as it is the complete disconnect. The politicians and generals frequently had no idea of the reality of the front. Denethor tells Pippin that this is what good generals do – hang back until the fighting is over, then move in to claim victory, which again is exactly what happened in the First World War. According to Hynes, many of the soldiers ended up feeling somewhat disenfranchised – like all of the men who had hung back from the fighting had secured their positions and gained from the sacrifice of the fighting men who really gained nothing. The “Old Men” of England kept sending the men in to be killed with little reaction to the actual situation. The Somme was considered to be going fairly well that first day – the same day that 20,000 British died. They looked at the evidence and saw no possibility of defeat. They kept going, using the same methods despite the evidence that their tactics were, shall we say, not the most effective. Denethor, given similar odds, instead despaired completely, and we all know what Gandalf and Aragorn think of that.

I think we also know Tolkien’s opinion, given his treatment of Denethor in comparison to that of Théoden. Théoden also starts out as an Old Man, both in attitude and in fact. He, however, rallies to the cause and instead of hanging back behind the lines charges out well in front of his men. His actions are not unlike many front line officers, in fact, whose death rate (if I recall correctly) was twice as high as that of the other ranks because they tended to run out first to encourage their men and thus get shot first. (The Germans also liked to target the officers who were, before uniform changes, easy to spot.) Denethor dies an ignoble death, trying to drag down his almost dead son with him, like the Old Men sending their metaphorical sons off to die. Théoden also dies, but he dies leading his men and thus gloriously, with the honour and respect which Denethor lacks. Although Tolkien lacks much of the anger at the older generation that his contemporaries tend to espouse, I don’t think it’s completely far-fetched to view Denethor and Théoden in light of the huge generation gap that the war created.

Turning back now to Faramir, let’s leave aside the fact that his war is conducted on horseback. He is sent on a mission that has little hope of success by a general who has lost touch with reality. He agrees to go despite his chances for success – a quality even the Germans noted in the men of the British Expeditionary Force. Finally, they are forced to retreat, defeated and having lost one third of their men. This was a common statistic in the First World War, particularly in 1916 when Tolkien was at the front. In fact, Faramir fared better than many on the Western Front. Although Denethor’s decision to defend Osgiliath seems to make strategic sense, given the actual facts it seems at best a desperate mission which will accomplish little. Faramir points out that they cannot afford to lose even few while the enemy can afford to lose a host. Although this wasn’t true for anyone in WWI, it is true that the attacker frequently suffered more than the defender – Allied casualties tended to be far heavier than German (who had more men to call on in the first place). And so Faramir, the intelligent, well loved, only remaining heir sets out to sacrifice himself for an almost impossible goal. Faramir is not just Tolkien, he’s the TCBS and Tolkien’s generation of officers. The highest casualities were among the university and public school educated. They’re called the Lost Generation for a reason. Particularly after the war, England came to see the dead as best and brightest, their potential heightened by their deaths, such as in the case of Wilfred Owen. They could also be the lost generation, as in wandering – many of the soldier-writers never really found their way out of the war. The Black Breath is practically shellshock. All those who are blighted with it have suffered deeply traumatic events aside from their brushes with the Nazgul.

Faramir is also like Tolkien in that, unlike his friends, he survived and was invalided out of the rest of the war. In ]A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes separates the people immediately after the war into five groups, and as I read his thoughts on each generation’s distinguishing characteristics, none of them seemed to fit Tolkien. This is another commonality between Tolkien and Faramir – both are invalided out of the war before the last big battle. Tolkien missed Passchendaele and the German offensives of 1918 thanks to his illness. I wonder if this is what made Tolkien who he was in part. His appreciation of fairy stories was, as he says, quickened by war, but I think it was more than interest. Tolkien was in the war long enough to appreciate it and to feel the effects of the despair and desolation. But I think he was invalided out in time and was thus saved not just from the danger of the trenches but from the cynicism that marks the rest of his generation. So many from that time fell prey to this disillusionment with the war, but Tolkien in a way was reillusioned, finding new significance to old myths. Faramir too is scathed by his ordeal in a way both physical and mental, but he recovers to life and hope. Tolkien was in the war just long enough to experience the darkness that makes his writing more than mere fancy. I really wonder what would have happened, who he would have been, had he been in the war for longer.
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Beckysmor on October 16th, 2009 04:07 am (UTC)
I know it's been awhile since I stopped by here, but I have to say, I love your analysis of this. I never really stopped to think too much about how Tolkien's war experience would have shaped his writings, and particularly in regards to Faramir vs. Denethor (though I did know that Tolkien considered Faramir to be most like him). But it all makes perfect sense to me. And while I'm not really a history buff at all, you're kind of making me want to learn more about it.
balrogthanebalrogthane on October 16th, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
Really great essay! Like SMOR, I've always known that Tolkien was in WWI, but I never considered just how that would affect him-- I just thought "Oh, he'd be more serious from seeing his friends die" and moved on from there. But this makes perfect sense.