By 3 April 1944 Tolkien had started work on The Taming of Sméagol (Letters, no. 58). By the end of the month of May he had a finished draft of the whole of book IV, and moved C. S. Lewis to tears by his reading to the Inklings of The Choices of Master Samwise (Scull and Hammond  1.291). He had also perforce begun to give thought to what Mordor was like. No one who has read the books will need reminding that ashes, dust, fumes, and smoke figure prominently. It has also long been clear that Tolkien's experience of the trenches in World War One had a profound influence on his descriptions of the blasted landscape of Mordor and the Dead Marshes (Scull and Hammond  3.1408-1409).
But it struck me the other night that there might be another element in play here. During a Mythgard discussion of how 'volcanic' a landscape Mordor appears to be, I suddenly remembered that Vesuvius had a significant eruption in 1944. When I checked the date more precisely, I discovered that the eruption took place from 17 through 23 March, which makes for a very interesting coincidence. My first thought was that Tolkien might have seen newsreel footage like that below:
Starting on 20 March a series of articles record the devastation in precisely the terms one would expect to find: fountains and flows of lava, ash, smoke, mud.
Symptoms of the eruption continue to subside, though the crater is still emitting immense volumes of smoke, often, as throughout yesterday, dirty black smoke, making the mountain look like an immense brick kiln. The pilot of an aircraft flying yesterday to Naples from Palermo encountered this cloud 50 miles out at sea. After flying for 40 minutes in pitch darkness he preferred to turn back and circumvent the volcano by flying inland over Salerno and by the valley eastward from the crater.
(The Times, 27 March 1944, p. 3)
Obviously the pall of darkness encountered by the pilot will remind us of the similar cloud that flows out of Mordor starting in The Journey to the Cross-roads (TT 4.vii.699-700).* Yet, even if this is an influence, it is the comparison of the mountain to an 'immense brick kiln' that will lead us somewhere interesting. My first response was that Tolkien would have found this comparison fitting given his opinion of industrialization. My second was to recall the following passage from The Scouring of the Shire:
And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End [the hobbits] saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.(RK 6.viii.1004)
And it was this that turned me back to the descriptions of the fields and towns being destroyed, and of the people driven from their homes, not only in the articles in The Times, but also in the vision Sam sees in The Mirror of Galadriel, where the smoking chimney also appears:
Like a dream the vision shifted and went back, and he saw the trees again. But this time they were not so close, and he could see what was going on: they were not waving in the wind, they were falling, crashing to the ground.
'Hi!' cried Sam in an outraged voice. 'There's that Ted Sandyman a-cutting down trees as he shouldn't. They didn't ought to be felled: it's that avenue beyond the Mill that shades the road to Bywater. I wish I could get at Ted, and I'd fell him!'
But now Sam noticed that the Old Mill had vanished, and a large red-brick building was being put up where it had stood. Lots of folk were busily at work. There was a tall red chimney nearby. Black smoke seemed to cloud the surface of the Mirror.
'There's some devilry at work in the Shire,' he said. 'Elrond knew what he was about when he wanted to send Mr. Merry back.' Then suddenly Sam gave a cry and sprang away. 'I can't stay here,' he said wildly. 'I must go home. They've dug up Bagshot Row, and there's the poor old gaffer going down the Hill with his bits of things on a barrow. I must go home!'(FR 2.vii.362-63)
Of course when Frodo and Sam finally do arrive home, they discover that Sam's vision of the ruin of their 'own country' has come true; it is in fact 'worse than Mordor' (RK 6.viii.1004, 1018). To survive the war only to confront this 'was one of the saddest hours in their lives' (RK 6.viii.1016). That great chimney fouling the air with its black smoke looms over them just as Vesuvius did over the surrounding countryside. On 16 March 1944 the people there must have thought that, with the war and fascism behind them, they could 'have just a nice quiet time in the country' (RK 6.viii.1018), that life could return to normal.
Did the newsreels and reports out of Italy influence Tolkien's portrayal of Mordor and the post-war Shire? The image of the chimney belching black smoke suggests it might have done so, but smoking factory chimneys were not an unusual sight in his day, and a man from Birmingham with his likes and dislikes would not have had far to go to come up with such an image. That Britain had already suffered extensive destruction from Nazi bombs, far more than it had during the first war when the necessary 'machines' were in their infancy, would have encouraged comparison. This is especially true since Italy itself had suffered from allied strategic bombing, of which he disapproved: 'So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom!' (Letters, no. 75); 'But it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain' (Letters, no. 100). Despite his admiration for the courage of the RAF's pilots and crews, and despite his son Christopher's serving in it, Tolkien found himself at odds with the idea of the RAF (Letters, no. 100).
To make a connection between England and the destruction of Vesuvius was no hard matter, as we may see in the recently published letter of an eyewitness, Ray Small, who was a wireless operator for British Intelligence at the time. He wrote home to his parents of what he'd seen:
In San Sebastiano they said there was a deathlike quiet except for a faint gurgle as the black crust of the lava broke and a mass of white-hot rock oozed out to advance a few more yards. About a third of the town had already gone; where it had stood was nothing but a big slag heap of lava, and a memory. Of the houses and shops that were there, neither stick nor stone remained in sight and would perhaps never see the light of day again. Bombs make a terrific row and leave ruins. Lava makes no sound and leaves – nothing.
Can you imagine a 10 to 30 foot mass of molten rock slowly engulfing Wembley High Street, and, when it is all over, not a stone was left in sight? Sounds crazy, but that’s the way it is. The lava slowly approaches a building, the heat setting it on fire, and starts seeping through doors and windows like a lot of thick treacle. The lava continues to flow in as into a mould, until the pressure of thousands of tons of molten rock becomes too much, and the building collapses, sinking through the thin crust and disappearing for ever.
Finally, even if all we have here is a parallel, examining the two underlines how very close to the 'real' world Tolkien's fantasy can come. The fire and smoke of Vesuvius may be reflected in those of Mt. Doom and the smoking chimney, just as the fires of Coventry, which Tolkien glimpsed over the horizon on the night of 14 November 1940**, may be seen again in the words of Aragorn when saw 'the red glow under the cloud': 'Minas Tirith is burning' (RK 5.ix.877). For Tolkien, to have the hobbits find Mordor and its works in the Shire is as essential as having Sam find humanity in the dead enemy warrior:
It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace ....
|Refugees from Vesuvius 1944 by George Rodger|
* So much for flying the Ring into Mordor.
** See Scull and Hammond (2017) 1.261 : '14 November 1940 Working late, Tolkien sees an ever-increasing fiery glow on the horizon. On 15 November he will learn that Coventry, only forty miles away, had been devastated by German incendiary raids and 1,000 people killed. The bombing of London and other major cities in Britain will continue into 1942.'