31 March 2016

And Yet Remain Evil -- Some Parallels in Tolkien and Sassoon

Recently I've been reading Siegfried Sassoon's The Memoirs of George Sherston, a series of three novels which tell of the title character's experience before and during World War I and which also draw heavily on Sassoon's own life in England and the trenches of France. Now I have long found this era to be one of great interest since it has had such an impact on the history and literature that followed after.  And still does. 

But in addition to my interest in the WWI poets and writers, I've also been reading these novels in order to become more familiar with the context which men like Sassoon and Tolkien, so unlike each other in seemingly every way, shared and drew upon in their depictions of war. Tolkien was anything but affluent, could only attend the schools he did because of scholarships, and needed to complete his degree in order to have a hope of success after the war. Sassoon was by contrast something of a patrician, with sufficient means, even early in life, to make a degree and a job unnecessary. He left Cambridge without taking a degree, and filled the years before the war with cricket and fox-hunting. During the war his courage and poetry brought him fame, but his public denunciation of the war in 1917 provoked accusations of treason and nearly brought him before a court-martial. Young C. S. Lewis, himself back home from the front with a wound, wrote in a letter of October 1918 that Sassoon was 'a horrid man', likely (I believe) because of the scandal he had caused.[1] What Tolkien may have thought has left no record that I have found.[2] 

Given the differences between these two men, the parallels to The Lord of the Rings I came across the other day in the second of Sassoon's Sherston novels, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, seemed all the more striking. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Sassoon is in any way a source for Tolkien. Their common experience is the source for both of them.
We were at the end of a journey which had begun twelve days before, when we started from Camp 13. Stage by stage, we had marched to the life-denying region which from far away had threatened us with the blink and the growl of its bombardments. Now we were groping and stumbling along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in the zone of human havoc. There must have been some hazy moonlight, for I remember the figures of men huddled against the sides of communication trenches; seeing them in some sort of ghastly glimmer (was it, perhaps, the diffused whiteness of a sinking flare beyond the ridge?) I was doubtful whether they were asleep or dead, for the attitudes of many were like death, grotesque and distorted. But this is nothing new to write about, you will say; just a weary company, squeezing past dead or drowsing men while it sloshes and stumbles to a front-line trench. Nevertheless that night relief had its significance for me, though in human experience it had been multiplied a millionfold.  I, a single human being with my little stock of earthly experience in my head, was entering once again the veritable gloom and disaster of the thing called Armageddon.  And I saw it then, as I see it now -- a dreadful place, a place of horror and desolation which no imagination could have invented.  Also it was a place where a man of strong spirit might know himself utterly powerless against death and destruction, and yet stand up and defy gross darkness and stupefying shell-fire, discovering in himself the invincible resistance of an animal or an insect, and an endurance which he might, in after days, forget or disbelieve.
(pp 161-62, emphasis added)
To be sure many details are salient here -- journeying towards battle through darkness, a distant threat on the horizon from a 'life-denying region', figures of men sleeping or dead in the darkness -- but as Sherston says, 'this is nothing new to write about'. What he calls attention to, however, stands out starkly. That moment of facing up against impossible odds and defying the darkness, which Tolkien would have called 'northern courage', a trait most famously displayed on the Field of Pelennor by Éomer when he thinks that all is lost. 
Stern now was Éomer's mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark. So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.
     Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
     I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
     To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
     Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall! 
These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.
(RK 5.vi.847)
Yet we may also see such courage in Sam Gamgee, not just in the literally 'animal horror'[3] of his fight with Shelob (TT 4.x.728-30), but in 'his song in the Tower', which 'had been defiance rather than hope' (RK 6.ii.922); and in his stalwart refusal to do anything but endure until the end, even if there was to be no returning (RK 6.iii.933-34):
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
(RK 6.iii.934)
While such an uncompromising mood -- or perhaps Old English mód is more what Tolkien had in mind -- may be little or no surprise in the heroes, great and small, of The Lord of the Rings, a toff like George Sherston has come further from his shire days of cricket and fox-hunting than almost any of Tolkien's characters. Much like the once foolish Pippin at the battle outside The Black Gate, who wishes that Merry were there so they could die together rather than apart (RK 5.x.892), Sherston has suffered into this attitude.

Another parallel presents itself in the trenches and no-man's lands, which is again hardly surprising. It has long been clear that to some degree the battlefield of the Somme informs Tolkien's descriptions of the Dead Marshes in particular.[4] Tolkien conceded as much himself (Letters, no. 226). It is the ghastly applicability of this particular parallel that makes it so noteworthy. As above, I quote at length because the text is building to a climax:
It was a yellow corpse-like day, more like November than April, and the landscape was desolate and treeless.  What we were doing was quite unexceptional; millions of soldiers endured the same sort of thing and got badly shelled into the bargain. Nevertheless I can believe that my party, staggering and floundering under its loads, would have made an impressive picture of 'Despair'.  The background, too, was appropriate.  We were among the débris of the intense bombardment of ten days before, for we were passing along and across the Hindenburg Outpost Trench, with its belt of wire (fifty yards deep in places); here and there these rusty jungles had been flattened by tanks.  The Outpost Trench was about 200 yards from the Main Trench, which was now our front line.  It had been solidly made, ten feet deep, with timbered fire-steps, splayed sides, and timbered steps at intervals to front and rear and to machine-gun emplacements.  Now it was wrecked as though by earthquake and eruption. Concrete strong-posts were smashed and tilted sideways; everywhere the chalky soil was pocked and pitted with huge shell-holes; and wherever we looked the mangled effigies of the dead were our memento mori. Shell-twisted and dismembered, the Germans maintained the violent attitudes in which they had died. The British had mostly been killed by bullets or bombs, so they looked more resigned.  But I can still remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War.  Who made the War?  I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind.  But I only laughed mentally, for the box of Stokes gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw.  And the dead were the dead; there was no time to be pitying them or asking silly questions about their outraged lives.  Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew.  Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull. 
(pp. 165-66)
As if the shattered landscape of the trenches weren't nightmarish enough, we then encounter 'mangled effigies of the dead', effigies which at once become real bodies of German and British soldiers, and are then further reduced, to anonymous hands, first accusing then appealing to the heavens. They are all simultaneously real and symbolic. Yet the metaphor, the memento mori, the bodies, and the war itself are dismissed with a laugh and a shrug: the dead are the dead; questions are silly; such sights are banal. Then comes the horror in the water, the face that is no longer a face, as nameless and nationless as the hands.  The face, too, must be gazing up at the heavens.  

One can almost hear Sam's horrified cry: 'There are dead things, dead faces in the water.... Dead faces!' (TT 4.ii.627). One can almost hear Gollum laughing at him scornfully: 'The Dead Marshes, yes, yes; that is their name'; and his dismissive  'Who knows?' in answer to Frodo's question about whether the faces are real or not (TT 4.ii.628). In the Dead Marshes, too, such sights must be taken for granted, and the threat is real that the hobbits might join them if they're not careful. Asking questions about the faces accomplishes nothing.

L'Enfer © IWM (Art.IWM ART 441

The third parallel sounds a note as old as literature itself, of the man too long away at war, and longing only to return home.  Late in The Iliad Achilles weeps for the father he left behind and whom he will not live to see again (24.570-633, Fagles), and we first see Odysseus in The Odyssey sitting by the shore, weeping because he thinks he will never see his home and family again (5.1-175, Fagles). To say that this is a commonplace not only of literature, but of human experience would seem to require no demonstration.
As for our conversation between ten o'clock and midnight (when my operation orders arrived from the Adjutant) I supposed it was a form of drug, since it was confined to pleasant retrospections of peace.  Wilmot was well acquainted with my part of the world and he'd come across many of our local worthies.  So we were able to make a little tour of the Kentish Weald and the Sussex border, as though on a couple of mental bicycles. In imagination we cycled along on a fine summer afternoon, passing certain milestones which will always be inseparable from my life history.  Outside Squire Maundle's park gate we shared a distant picture of his angular attitudes while he addressed his golf-ball among the bell-tinklings and baaings of sheep on the sunny slopes above Amblehurst (always followed by a taciturn black retriever).  Much has been asserted about the brutalized condition of mind to which soldiers were reduced by life in the Front Line; I do not deny this, but I am inclined to suggest that there was a proportionate amount of simple-minded sentimentality.  As far as I was concerned, no topic could be too homely for the trenches. 
Thus, while working parties and machine-gunners filed past the door with hollow grumbling voices, our private recess in the Hindenberg Tunnel was precariously infused with evocations of rural England and we challenged our surroundings with remembrances of parish names and farm houses with friendly faces. A cottage garden was not an easy idea to recover convincingly.... Bees among yellow wall-flowers on a warm afternoon.  The smell of an apple orchard in autumn.... Such details were beyond our evocation. But they were implied when I mentioned Squire Maundle in his four-wheeled dogcart, rumbling along Dumbridge Road to attend a County Council Meeting.
(pp. 170-71)
The Weald
It's quite pleasant, a fine summer afternoon, just as he says, but it's also a 'retrospection', an imaginary 'tour' on 'mental bicycles', through his 'history'. The one 'local worthy'  named is seen as part of  'a distant picture' from 'outside' his park.  There's a silent dog and noisy sheep, but not a horse, the one beast we would expect to find in Sherston's imaginings. He and his comrade see everything in passing or from afar. They are not part of the scene, but observers. And the 'simple-minded sentimentality' he endorses as a counterbalance to the 'brutalitized condition of [a soldier's] mind' can only get him so far. The homeliest, most sensuous details will not be evoked at all. Those languid ellipses dividing one such detail from another suggest that being 'implied' by the mention of the Squire's name is scarcely good enough. Yet they had to suffice.

With Sam we get a very different picture:
... and now as once more the night of Mordor closed over them, through all [Sam's] thoughts there came the memory of water; and every brook or stream or fount that he had ever seen, under green willow-shades or twinkling in the sun, danced and rippled for his torment behind the blindness of his eyes. He felt the cool mud about his toes as he paddled in the Pool at Bywater with Jolly Cotton and Tom and Nibs, and their sister Rosie. 'But that was years ago,' he sighed, 'and far away. The way back, if there is one, goes past the Mountain.'
(RK 6.iii.938-39)
Sam's 'simple-minded sentimentality' about home is not without pain. As he lies thirsting in the wastes of Mordor, the memory of water becomes vivid and immediate, a torment, but it also evokes gentler feelings, of cool water, of friendship, and of Rosie Cotton -- set off from her brothers by commas, and mentioned here for only the second time, the first being in a similar moment a few pages earlier (RK 6.iii.934). Unlike Sherston, Sam's memories immerse him and transport him home, however briefly.  They point him back, to Rosie, and set his course 'past the Mountain'.

Yet while Sam's moment of recalling better days seems to accomplish for him what Sherston's could not, Frodo's is more reminiscent of the 'brutalized condition of mind' to which Sherston alludes. Not only can Frodo not evoke the pleasant details, he cannot recall them in any meaningful way. They are even more remote and unreachable than Sherston's. When Sam asks Frodo if he can recall the sunny morning they spent in Ithilien not yet two weeks ago, Frodo confesses that he can't:
'No, I am afraid not, Sam,' said Frodo. 'At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me.'
(RK 6.iii.937-38)
Little could show how common and profound an experience Sassoon and Tolkien share than the way in which these experiences of Sam and Frodo bookend Sherston's, as if all three exist along a continuum. Sherston of course is still in the middle of his journey; Sam and Frodo, though they doubt they'll survive, are nearly at the point where they turn back again. He will grow worse before he gets better. Nightmares and horrific visions of the dead will come to plague him, which also parallels what Sam and Frodo see in The Dead Marshes.[5] Frodo, as we know, returns home in the flesh only, and at times is haunted by things that only he can see (RK 6.ix.1024-25). Sam, owing to his love for his master, for the Shire, and for Rosie, survives far better than either Frodo or Sherston. But from the beginning Sam has also seen their journey and the events in which he and Frodo take part as a story, and he increasingly comes to recognize that the Great Tales never end and that they are in one (TT 4.viii.711-13). Sherston sees the muck and the dead; Frodo sees the Wheel of Fire; Sam sees more. His larger view, I would suggest, combines with his love to give him a faith that carries him through, not unchanged but unscathed, to his chair and his pipe and Elanor in his lap.

His faith in the power of Tales is one he shared with Tolkien, who in 1944 wrote to Christopher who was serving in the RAF:
Well, there you are: a hobbit amongst the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story! I think also that you are suffering from suppressed 'writing'. That may be my fault. You have had rather too much of me and my peculiar mode of thought and reaction. And as we are so akin it has proved rather powerful. Possibly inhibited you. I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for a start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief. I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes. Lots of the early pans of which (and the languages) – discarded or absorbed – were done in grimy canteens,at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire. It did not make for efficiency and present-mindedness, of course, and I was not a good officer. ....
(Letters, no. 66)
As the hundredth anniversary of the Somme draws near, we may be grateful that the evil of those days proved the source of much that is good and true and beautiful in the writings of Tolkien, Sassoon, and so many others. But we should also remember that, for all that, it remains evil.

Paths Of Glory © IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)

Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Penguin (2013).


[1] Lewis does not say why, but it seems to have nothing to do with his poetry -- just mentioned in the same breath without judgement -- and they don't seem to have been acquainted. If anything, since Lewis wrote disillusioned World War I poetry of his own, he could have had little objection to Sassoon on that score. Lewis, however, who could have avoided military service but chose not to do so, seems unlikely to have approved of so public a demonstration against the war as Sassoon made with his open letter of July 1917.

[2] In the relationship of Faramir and Denethor there are echoes of the kinds of criticisms often made during WWI, and even orcs complain to each other about their superiors (TT 4.x.737-39; RK 6.ii.924-26).  One wonders if the stubborn folly of Turgon in The Fall of Gondolin might reflect Tolkien's perception of the same in the General Staff. 

[3] In letter 61 (18 April 1944) Tolkien refers to the 'animal horror of the life of active service [...] such as trenchlife as I knew it'. Perhaps not coincidentally, in this same letter Tolkien remarks that he 'hope[s] to see C. S. L[ewis] and Charles W[illiams] tomorrow morning and read my next chapter — on the passage of the Dead Marshes and the approach to the Gates of Mordor, which I have now practically finished.'

[4] See especially John Garth, 'As under a green sea': visions of war in The Dead Marshes (2008) 9-21, who rightly identifies other parallels in Sassoon; Hugh Brogan, Tolkien's Great War (1989) 351-67;  Jane Brennan Croft, War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien (2004); Livingston, The Shell-shocked Hobbit: The First World War and Tolkien's Trauma of the Ring (2015). 

[5] Sassoon, pp. 186-87; Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1960) 267. Garth's discussion (above n.4) of Sassoon, Tolkien, and other WWI writers in this connection is a fascinating contribution.

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