Dracones et Bellum: Tolkien and the Serpents (a reply to Joseph Loconte)

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It seems Daenerys Targaryen isn’t the only person riding dragons to war these days. Joseph Loconte at National Review has just put out a piece – ostensibly about J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary treatment of dragons – that is really an attempt to co-opt Tolkien into a wider agenda of manufactured bellicosity and jingoism. Some of us remember back sixteen or seventeen years, to the last time an inhabitant of the White House had a cunning plan to intervene in the Middle-East… it’s all very familiar. In fact, it is almost like this new article is less about analysing Tolkien, and more about (mis-)using him for a real-world political agenda.

Cynical, me? Never…

The dragons with whom he had an acquaintance “loved to possess beautiful things.” Greed and hatred motivated them. “And how can you withstand a dragon’s flame, and his venom, and his terrible will and malice, and his great strength?”

It probably was not lost on the children present that Tolkien’s mythical dragons sounded a lot like the people who inhabited the real world. The adults might have discerned a more ominous message.

Curiously, there are actually only four dragons in Germanic myth – Fafnir (slain by Sigurd), Jormungand (the Midgard Serpent), Nidhogg (chewer of Yggdrasil’s roots), and the unnamed dragon in Beowulf. Of these, Jormungand and Nidhogg exist on a cosmic scale outside mortal ken, so that leaves Fafnir and the Beowulf dragon as in any way on our level. Fafnir is originally one of three brothers, but runs off with cursed treasure, and turns into a dragon as a result. He spends his days guarding the aforementioned treasure, until Sigurd (egged on by Regin) stabs him in a surprise attack. The Beowulf dragon, by contrast, is always a dragon. It too is quite happy to sleep on its treasure hoard, until some poor sap steals a cup, whereupon it proceeds to go ballistic at the surrounding countryside. Beowulf and Wiglaf eventually take it down, an effort that kills the former.

Now, despite the best efforts of Loconte to squeeze his square agenda into this particular round hole, neither dragon is a particularly good fit for Hitler or Stalin. At least from Britain’s standpoint. The Fafnir comparison only works if you are one of those far-right nutters who believes that the Jews were secretly plotting to use Britain to take out the Nazis, and despite my distaste for Loconte’s article, I am not going to accuse him of believing that. The Beowulf dragon also fails as an analogy because the dragon isn’t trying to take over the world. It is quite happy where it is, until the cup incident. Sure, there is the implicit theme of the poem that man is mortal, and that one must remain brave even the face of inevitable doom, but more pragmatically, there is also the message that interfering with dragons (and their treasure) is a dangerous business. No-one is forcing anyone to steal the cup, whereas fighting Adolf was decidedly non-optional.

Tolkien’s analysis went deeper still. Drawing on the epic English poem, Beowulf, he said that the English people had a special insight into the moral significance of dragons. In the poem, Beowulf defeats the demon Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fearsome dragon — but at the cost of his own life. Tolkien was fascinated by such tales, with their portrayal of the persistence of wickedness, the danger of pride, and the value of heroic sacrifice for a noble cause. “One might say that the chief morals that such stories teach, or rather awake in one’s mind, are all shining in this story,” he told his audience.

Oh, Tolkien found the Northern Theory of Courage fascinating. The notion that fighting on for doomed causes is the true mark of bravery – it is much easier to fight if you think you’re going to win, while fighting and losing does not in itself mean refutation. But fascination does not mean blind acceptance – Tolkien was actually critical of the Northern Theory of Courage, especially in how it overlaps with despair (Eowyn and Fingolfin), how it ignores the needs of the common people (Gandalf’s hint to Theoden), or in how it slips into pride and desire for fame.

(In the case of Beowulf, the heroism of the protagonist is framed by something much darker. Man is mortal, the monsters will eventually triumph, and Beowulf’s funeral is accompanied by dark musings on the future of his people. To his credit, Loconte does actually allude to all of this. The fundamental problem with the article is that it conflates heroic sacrifices in the context of an existential crisis with sending others to die in the latest imperial adventure).

These were not popular themes in a post-war England awash in pacifism and moral cynicism. In 1933, for example, students at the Oxford Union Society had famously approved the motion “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country.” A veteran of the Battle of the Somme during the First World War, Tolkien nevertheless rejected the disillusionment that seized the minds of many in his generation. He loved England and its cultural achievements without glorifying war or exalting nationalism.

It’s all very easy in a post-Second World War world to laugh at those silly Oxford students. But fifteen years after the horrors of the Western Front, pacifism was, frankly, not out of place – and, in any case, the Second World War represented a political failure, with the ghosts of Versailles, the (mis-)handling of the Depression, et cetera. Blaming the pacifists – who were anything but moral cynics – is to ignore the real culprits. Adolf Hitler was not built in a day, so to speak.

Loconte is correct that Tolkien was not a pacifist. It is, however, wrong to consider him an anti-pacifist. Peter Jackson may have the malevolent Wormtongue condemning war-mongering, but Tolkien himself serves up the (sympathetic) portrayal of Tom Bombadil, a figure of true neutrality. As per Letters, Tolkien’s Bombadil represents a point of view – and while Tolkien himself personally does not hold that view, he at least understands it. Tom is never berated for being soft on Sauron.

(There is also the fact that the War of the Ring is actually less important than a pair of very ordinary people being able to reject power and show mercy. Tolkien’s most famous work does, indeed, feature an heroic sacrifice for a noble cause… but it ain’t a warrior against a dragon. Or, rather, warriors don’t necessarily use weapons, and the dragons aren’t necessarily flesh and blood).

In the perpetual fight against dragons, Tolkien suggested, modern weapons would not be decisive; something else was required. “Dragons can only be defeated by brave men — usually alone,” he said. “Sometimes a faithful friend may help, but it’s rare: Friends have a way of deserting you when a dragon comes.” Politically speaking, those words would become something of a prophecy: After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, triggering World War II, Britain’s chief military ally — France — abandoned its treaty obligations and signed a peace agreement with Germany.

Tolkien is, of course, referring to Beowulf’s companions (except Wiglaf) deserting him in his hour of need. Because the dragon – as representative of an existential crisis, of an external threat from the world of monsters – is an exploration of how an individual deals with such things. It’s a test of character, whereby our brave man confronts his own inevitable defeat, and makes his choice. Again, individual choice, whether to fight the dragon or to resist the Ring – no-one else is going to do it for you.

But it’s back to shoehorning in Second World War allusions, because Loconte misapplies Tolkien’s point in the name of his political agenda. First off, France did honour its treaty obligations vis-a-vis Poland, and the 1940 surrender was more about the fact that France had actually fought… and lost. Secondly, if we are talking about the desertion of friends, I might note Britain and France’s 1938 treatment of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Loconte notes Munich, but not the culpable parties. Probably because that image of the Anglosphere isn’t quite what Loconte is after, one suspects…

(History note: Neville Chamberlain gets a seriously bad rap. He knew full well that Munich was not Peace In Our Time, and the first thing he did when he got back to Britain was to gear up for a war he knew was coming. Munich was pragmatic, from Britain’s point of view. It’s just that from Czechoslovakia’s, it was as good a case of self-serving “friends” running away as one could find).

But Tolkien disliked allegory. The truth is that the catastrophic rise of fascism and communism merely confirmed his insights into the human condition: the nearly irresistible appeal of the demagogue, the schemes for a utopian future, the insatiable will to power. “For the dragon bears witness to the power and danger and malice that men find in the world,” he said. “And he bears witness also to the wit and the courage and finally to the luck (or grace) that men have shown in their adventures — not all men, and only a few men greatly.” 

However dark the modern world might appear, Tolkien could never give up on the older concepts of virtue, valor, duty, sacrifice, and grace. As he told his audience: “Dragons are the final test of heroes.” If Tolkien is right, then what does that say about us? The lust to possess and subjugate is as strong and widespread as ever; dragons continue to roam the Earth. We seem to have a terribly difficult time, however, finding authentic heroes to fight them.

Yes, Loconte, we get it. You’ve dressed up fascism and communism as pantomime dragons, with a timing that alludes to the Middle-East without saying anything explicit. But fighting the dragon isn’t about fighting utopian demagogues. It’s not that specific. It’s about confronting an existential threat – a real one, not the latest skirmish on the other side of the planet – with only yourself and your moral choices. Beowulf fought a dragon, yes, but at the metaphorical level so did Frodo Baggins, and not through force of arms. Tolkien understood the themes of ancient Germanic verse better than most, yet serves up heroes who aren’t about to jump into the next imperial war – or throw others into it, as the case may be.

One thought on “Dracones et Bellum: Tolkien and the Serpents (a reply to Joseph Loconte)

  1. Pingback: Misusing Tolkien and History: Loconte and Bellicosity | A Phuulish Fellow

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