While Tolkien vehemently rejected that his fantasy masterpiece represented anything allegorical whatsoever, one might say that it has launched itself forward to stand among the principle allegories of our time.
I recently took to The Lord of the Rings trilogy books once again, as my lack of television has barred me from watching the films for two-and-a-half years, and I couldn’t help but measure everything I’ve seen since COVID-19 arrived to the circumstances of Tolkien and of his chief protagonist Frodo Baggins.
In the edition I read (which was not the edition my brother and I owned when we were young), a detailed foreword written by the author explained how the book came to be when he took up his pen in the waxing years of the turmoil that would become World War II.
In it I found something which Gandalf the Grey might describe as “an encouraging thought,” a feeling that struck me again as I read the innocence in Frodo’s voice as he realizes he must leave his home forever on a perilous quest from which he likely would never return.
Today, with warnings of waning immunity, fourth waves, and more, I thought an interview with Frodo, Gandalf, and their creator might make for a strong lesson in changing times, and our attitudes towards them.
Here’s to the future
The best stories are the ones which are told the best, with all those wonderful literary keystones fitted neatly together. They are the ones we learn of in creative writing: can we see ourselves in the characters, are they flawed, do they make the right choice or the easy one, can we relate to their difficulties?
Tolkien and his characters reflect, whether he would like them to or not, how the times during which one lives tend to vacuum them up, obscuring thoughts of the future or of the past. COVID-19 has been compared to many great crises, sometimes fairly, sometimes comedically, but we can learn from the great writer and his characters that the correct way out of a crisis is to never believe the current disaster is somehow unique in its dreadfulness.
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Tolkien became a man in perhaps the worst single moment in history to do so, around 1914, at the dawning of World War I.
“In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly,” he wrote in a letter to his son Christopher later in life. “It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.”
He was a junior officer at the Battle of the Somme, one of the most tragic events in human history, notable for the sheer empty-headedness of it all. Catching trench fever, he was shipped back to England, after which nearly every young man in his battalion was killed. Talk about a Hobbit’s luck.
The Great War, described at the time as the “war to end all wars” was a singularity. Yet, as unbelievably calamitous as it had proved, twenty years later a new generation was set to do it all again.
“One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” Tolkien writes in his foreword.
He had not finished writing his iconic fantasy books upon the outbreak of the second ‘great war’ in 1939—and had not even finished the first part of the first book.
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“In spire of the darkness of the next five years I found that the story could not now wholly be abandoned and I plodded on, mostly by night,” he recalled. His son was serving in the British Royal Air Force, a difficult situation for any parent. Thank goodness you plodded on sir, thank goodness.
From Middle-England to Middle-Earth
Now we come to Frodo. Like the hobbit, so many of us in March of 2020 suddenly had our collective “Shires” clouded over. News coming out of Italy, China, and a cruise ship off the coast of Washington had placed the Ring of Power atop all our mantlepieces. A long, hard journey lay ahead.
Among Frodo’s seminal strengths is one which shines during his encounter with the dark portents which Gandalf brings to him—that he must leave the Shire behind, perhaps forever. Rather than giving up or refusing to get involved, or feeling there may be no time for futures, he simply gets on with it, despite the fact that he admits he is very scared.
“But this [the adventure] would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me. And I suppose I must go alone, if I am to do that and save the Shire. But I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well—desperate.”
“I should like to save the Shire, if I could,” he tells Gandalf. “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.”
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And without much deciding at all really, Frodo acts, reasoning the world will continue to turn, and that it would turn all the better if he can throw the Ring into the Crack of Doom in Mordor, and thereby save the Shire. This, his partner Samwise also notes after seeing Frodo in a moment of doubt: “A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”
In a separate moment of weakness, Frodo wishes “none of this had happened,” something which many of us have said to ourselves over the last 18 months. Yet Gandalf responds, in one of the most wonderful things ever written in English, practically transposing Tolkien’s experience with the two World Wars and reminds Frodo:
“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All they have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to them.”
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