Misusing Tolkien and History: Loconte and Bellicosity
Joseph Loconte has clearly never met a War he didn’t like. A couple of years ago, he was using Tolkien to beat the drum at a time when war with Iran seemed imminent:
Now? He’s doing it again. This time, via wheeling out Tolkien analogies in the context of the Ukrainian War:
Now, don’t get me wrong. Putin is a war-criminal, and a corrupt and brutal arse (a reactionary one at that, for any Leftists foolish enough to think that any non-Western power is by definition sympathetic). The Ukrainian War itself is a tragedy – one that will also have uncomfortable consequences on the Middle-Eastern grain supply these coming months. But I cannot help but feel that Loconte belongs to that school of foreign policy thought that gave us Iraq – the notion that the enlightened West are, by definition, the good guys, and as such have a moral licence (even a moral obligation) to intervene in international affairs as we see fit. Any tendency towards isolationism or negotiation is tantamount to Appeasing Evil – and the existence of undoubtedly Evil Bastards like Putin is treated as a generic all-purpose justification for action. As though War is monstrous when Putin does it, but perfectly fine when the West does it – it’s always 1939 and never 1914 in Loconte’s world. He did seem suspiciously keen on war with Iran in January 2020…
(Albeit it is unclear what Loconte is actually calling for here. Perhaps he’s just flattering the West’s self-image from the safety of his keyboard, even while it’s the Ukrainians who are doing the dying?).
For myself, I am undecided about what irritates me most about Loconte’s article. Is it his misuse of Tolkien or his misuse of history?
Allegorising Tolkien has been a political pastime for nigh on seventy years, to the point Tolkien himself had to weigh-in to set the record straight. And, to be fair, the War of the Ring does offer that neat sort of Black/White paradigm in which to view any conflict of your choice. The problem is that everyone likes to think of themselves as Gondor or The Shire. No-one likes to think that we are dealing with one of Tolkien’s messier conflicts. The Revolt of the Noldor, for example. The Feanorians versus Doriath. Or even the giant geopolitical pissing contest of Imperialists that was Ar-Pharazôn versus Sauron. That sort of thing invites a degree of self-awareness in readers, a call for thought before donning the khaki, and that sort of nuance runs entirely against Loconte’s agenda.
That is not to dismiss the undoubted moral dimension of the Ukrainian War, of course. That is obviously present. No, my point is that Tolkien should not be used in this sort of manner. The War of the Ring is a fictional conflict, and shoehorning it into real-world pro-war sentiment (in much the same way as every Dictator of the Week winds up as the New Adolf) is a tiresome exercise. Not least because the actual War of the Ring does not hinge on the battles. It hinges on the moral choices of two very ordinary people to reject power. Rejection of Power – and not the Jacksonian ethos of Stand and Fight – is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, and insofar as the viewpoint of isolationist neutrality is considered at all, it is not so much a matter of hobbits (whose isolation is arguably a function of geography and their protection from the Rangers of the North), but rather of Tom Bombadil (whose isolation is a matter of personal policy).
And now to the history:
It was the 19th-century Finnish epic, “The Kalevala,” that so impressed Tolkien as a young man and helped to inspire his own story. A collection of ancient songs and myths, “The Kalevala” gave the Finnish people a history and a cultural tradition—a national identity—of their own. And it is credited with helping the Finns to break away from Russian rule during World War I.
Speaking as something of a Finnophile, I can state one thing with certainty: Finnish History is an extremely complicated beast, and generally something to be approached with caution and caveats. Loconte does neither, of course. The fact that Imperial Russia deliberately encouraged a separate Finnish identity in order to more effectively separate it from Sweden is overlooked, as is the February Manifesto of 1899 (a sudden and nasty reversal of previous Russian policy towards Finland). To focus on Kalevala in this sort of manner is to grossly simplify things – I would point out that one of the other great classics of Finnish literature, Väinö Linna’s Under the North Star trilogy (1959-1962) pokes fun at the fundamentally middle-class nature of nineteenth century Finnish nationalism. The sort of nationalism where comfortably well-off Swedish-speakers name their children after Kalevala characters and pretend their ancestors were Finnish-speaking peasants.
Tolkien was teaching at Oxford in 1933 when students at the Oxford Union Society approved the motion: “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country.” It was a shock to the political establishment. And it was a bad omen: Adolf Hitler had just become chancellor of Germany and was drawing up secret plans for remilitarization.
Oh, those silly students. It wasn’t as if fighting for King and Country hadn’t led to its own unique horror less than two decades prior. Or that Adolf himself was fundamentally a political failure, seeded at Versailles and fertilised by the Great Depression.
1939 was not the fault of pacificism in the face of Evil. 1939 was the fault of 1919 and 1931 – a momentous failure on the part of the political class, yes, but one a long time coming, and without Versailles or the Depression, I daresay no-one would have heard of Hitler.
Tolkien began writing “The Lord of the Rings” in 1936, the same year Germany occupied the Rhineland and intervened on behalf of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. In his introduction to the Shire and its inhabitants, Tolkien might well have been describing isolationist England under Neville Chamberlain: “And there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living, and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved, until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of sensible folk.”
This is probably Loconte’s most historically ludicrous paragraph. For a start, Tolkien started The Lord of the Rings in late 1937, not 1936. For another, Loconte cheerfully ignores Tolkien’s own views on the Spanish conflict (views that have, alas, not aged well: Letter 83, for reference). And most importantly of all, Loconte straight-out defames Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was not the isolationist appeaser of pop-history, but rather someone who knew full-well war was coming, and who thought Britain was not in an adequate state to fight in 1938. Chamberlain no sooner returned from Munich than he got those armament factories going round-the-clock.
If you want to blame someone here, blame Stanley Baldwin.
A combat veteran of World War I, Tolkien watched with dread the rise of ideologies unleashed in the war’s aftermath: communism, fascism, Nazism and eugenics.
Communism (albeit not in the form of Leninism) long predates the First World War, of course. Citing eugenics is a curious one, considering that it only acquired its sinister connotations as a result of 1939-1945. Certainly, some objected (famously G.K. Chesterton), but it was uncomfortably mainstream for longer than many people realise.
In Tolkien’s world, indifference to the evil of Mordor is portrayed as an evasion that can only result in catastrophe. Ending a decades-long policy of nonalignment, the Finnish parliament recently approved a plan to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—a turnabout that brings to mind Gandalf’s warning to the Shire: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”
Another glorious misrepresentation of Finland. Finnish post-war neutrality was a product of its experience during the Second World War (which was actually three separate wars in Finland’s case. It was complicated). It was also, emphatically, not about fencing itself in. Rather, Finland throughout the Cold War era sought to be a mediator between Moscow and Washington, acting whenever possible to cool international tensions. It is no accident that the high-point of US-Soviet Détente was the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Comparing post-war Finland – a nation whose survival rested on its negotiation skill – with lazy Shire hobbits is ludicrous.
(Meanwhile, the fact that Finland is taking this step now is more a comment on Putin’s bungling foreign policy than anything else).
When Britain was thrust into the most destructive conflict in human history, Tolkien reached for an older literary tradition to find strength and resilience. He sought to give the English people what “The Kalevala” had given the Finns. The result was a war story, wrapped in myth, that teaches fundamentals about the human condition: harsh realities about the will to power and the virtues needed to stand against it.
And now back to misrepresenting Tolkien. The notion of a “mythology for England” (a term used only by biographer Humphrey Carpenter, and not by Tolkien himself) refers to The Book of Lost Tales – the stories that would eventually evolve into The Silmarillion. There are no isolationist hobbits in those stories, of course – but Loconte ignores that.
The Lord of the Rings was never intended as an English Kalevala, even if it does utilise some Kalevala tropes. Rings was intended as a sequel to The Hobbit, plain and simple.
That concludes my somewhat irritated response to Joseph Loconte. The irritation, I think, might lie in the fact that the current anti-Putin Zeitgeist allows articles such as this to go unquestioned or unanalysed. It is popular now to hate Putin (albeit with copious justification), and The Lord of the Rings is always popular – what could possibly go wrong with using one as a paradigm through which to see the other? Quite a lot can go wrong, I think, which is why you have to be damned careful in terms of comparing Tolkien’s world with our own. And that goes double when the person doing the comparing has an agenda.