This week’s “Talk on Tolkien” video comes from Oklahoma State University, where Janet Brennan Croft gave a presentation last November about Tolkien’s life and how his war experiences are reflected in his fiction. Croft is the author of War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which was published in 2004 and won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies in 2005. She is one of a number of critics, such as Tom Shippey and John Garth, who discuss ways in which Tolkien can be seen as a war writer.
Croft’s talk covers aspects of Tolkien’s life including his experiences as a soldier in the First World War and as a parent with sons in the Second World War.
I thought it might be interesting to compare George R.R. Martin’s views on war and on Tolkien. The following is an excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview by Mikal Gilmore, published on April 23, 2014. You can read the full interview here.
In the interview, Martin talks about how his objection to the Vietnam War influenced his writing of characters. If Tolkien had been writing The Lord of the Rings throughout the Vietnam War, do you think his characters might have turned out differently? The peace movement was very visible in the 1960s, and Tolkien’s work was widely read by many who participated in the anti-war protests. Were you one of them? Any observations to make about that time and how Tolkien’s work was received? (Please keep in mind that all comments should be respectful towards different political views).
We talked earlier about your unwillingness to fight in Vietnam. The Ice and Fire books are shot through with the horrors of war. As Ygritte says to Jon Snow, “We’re just soldiers in their armies, and there’s plenty more to carry on if we go down.”
It’s true in virtually all wars through history. Shakespeare refers to it, in those great scenes in Henry V, where King Hal is walking among the men, before the Battle of Agincourt, and he hears the men complaining. “Well, I hope his cause is just, because a lot of us are going to die to make him king of France.” One of the central questions in the book is Varys’ riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn’t the swordsman have the power? He’s the one with the sword – he could kill all three if he wanted. Or he could listen to anyone. But he’s just the average grunt. If he doesn’t do what they say, then they each call other swordsmen who will do what they say. But why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history. Going back to Vietnam, for me the cognitive dissonance came in when I realized that Ho Chi Minh actually wasn’t Sauron. Do you remember the poster during that time? WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NOBODY CAME? That’s one of the fundamental questions here. Why did anybody go to Vietnam? Were the people who went more patriotic? Were they braver? Were they stupider? Why does anybody go? What’s all this based on? It’s all based on an illusion: You go because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t go, even if you don’t believe in it. But where do these systems of obedience come from? Why do we recognize power instead of individual autonomy? These questions are fascinating to me. It’s all this strange illusion, isn’t it?
You’re a congenial man, yet these books are incredibly violent. Does that ever feel at odds with these views about power and war?
The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, “What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?”
There’s only a few wars that are really worth what they cost. I was born three years after the end of World War II. You want to be the hero. You want to stand up, whether you’re Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, or the American saving the world from the Nazis. It’s sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don’t necessarily think there are heroes. That’s something that’s very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We’re all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices. Look at a figure like Woodrow Wilson, one of the most fascinating presidents in American history. He was despicable on racial issues. He was a Southern segregationist of the worst stripe, praising D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. He effectively was a Ku Klux Klan supporter. But in terms of foreign affairs, and the League of Nations, he had one of the great dreams of our time. The war to end all wars – we make fun of it now, but God, it was an idealistic dream. If he’d been able to achieve it, we’d be building statues of him a hundred feet high, and saying, “This was the greatest man in human history: This was the man who ended war.” He was a racist who tried to end war. Now, does one cancel out the other? Well, they don’t cancel out the other. You can’t make him a hero or a villain. He was both. And we’re all both.