Last weekend I was trying to plow through a whole pile of books on women’s pacifist writings from World War I (the folly of trying to meet a research deadline at the end of a teaching term). But I got distracted by Mark Heberle’s essay* on the way J. R. R. Tolkien’s WWI experience spurred and influenced his fantasy writing. The “shadow of war” Tolkien describes as having hijacked his youth is felt throughout Middle Earth in the form of Mordor’s shadow and the Eye of Sauron peering ominously at the hobbits’ doings.
More specifically, Heberle traces how Tolkien found early solace for dislocation and orphanhood in the dragon-slaying tales he invented as a child. The young writer then became fascinated with language. An obsession with one obscure, Anglo-Saxon word in particular, Earendel, prompted Tolkien to create a whole suite of fantasy stories to “house” it and other words he discovered or made up.
It’s a remarkable testament to the healing power of stories. Trauma studies has observed that the process of telling one’s story, and especially of finding a sympathetic audience for it, is integral to recovery. Instead of simply describing his losses to a therapist or family member, Tolkien went way further: he transmuted his pain into heroic fantasy, and in so doing created a story that resonates with readers of all ages and tastes.
I was surprised at Haberle’s revelation that Tolkein “later regretted the way in which the narrative voice [particularly in The Hobbit] is almost overly familiar and intimate.” This grandfatherly voice is my single favorite thing about his books, so I’m glad it slipped past Tolkien’s inner censor, even if it embarrassed him later on.
*Heberle, Mark. “Tolkien, Trauma, Childhood, Fantasy.” in Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War. Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2008. 129-42.