Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
In comparison of some of his contemporary and current composers of fantasy, Tolkien frequently shies away from writing in detail about military engagements. The battle in Ithilien mostly takes place away from the location of the hobbits, being reduced instead to clamors of sounds and flashes of color. The Battle of Helm’s Deep, especially in comparison to its unfolding in Peter Jackson’s film rendition, takes place over far fewer comparable paragraphs, with more sentences focused on the dialogue behind the walls. In The Hobbit, at the enormous Battle of the Five Armies near the conclusion of the tale, Bilbo is almost immediately knocked unconscious, only hearing the main strokes of the battle relayed to him the following day. Evidently, Tolkien has a dislike for compiling correspondences on the currents of a conflict.
Certainly this tendency can be attributed in part to the differences between writing and image-based media: it is much harder to hold the attention of a reader with war scenes than the viewer. Part might also be attributed to Tolkien’s experience in WWI, and a desire to linger on the intricacies of an experience rooted in his heart. Honestly, a part might be attributed to Tolkien’s dislike for writing such details, and a recognition by him at his comparative disadvantage at producing them. Yet more fundamentally for Tolkien, in comparison to authors ranging from ancient Homer to modern Martin, the individuals exploits and detailed features of conflict were of little concern for him. As Faramir will say (a character who Tolkien mentions might best embody him of all the varied assortment of The Lord of the Rings), “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
The struggle between good and evil often comes to open conflict; yet to focus on the killing, the bloodshed, the vainglory, and the adventures of war places the emphasis on the wrong features. However valiant and noble the heroics of warriors might be, The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a story about the internal and external dialogues of people: of how one wrestles with evil, choice, and mortality. Our hobbits – Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin – are our primary windows into the world of Middle-earth. The War of the Ring is less about a war than a ring: the conflict is a diversion to allow Frodo and Sam time to conquer the Dark Lord in the most unwarlike manner. In a sense, the Fellowship only triumphs in how fervently it places its hope not in the strength of arms, but instead in the capacities of two small hobbits.
It might be said that Tolkien’s unwillingness to detail the gruesome and brutal realities of battle promotes an idealistic and imaginative perspective of war, one far removed from the world and unhealthy for a young audience. Such criticism ignores the indirect and subtle ways Tolkien indicates the costs and consequences of conflict: in the long descriptions of the casualties and clean-up of battlefields; in the persistent reluctance of his most admirable characters (Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir) to actively desire bloodshed; in his coming chapter that dwells at length in the Middle-earth version of a field hospital. Tolkien does not deal lightly with war, but neither does he ignore it. He pursues a delicate balance between recognizing the inescapable necessity of conflict (for the sake of preserving the good, the true, and the beautiful against “a destroyer who would devour all”) and refusing to satiate a primitive desire for graphic gore.
No matter the combination of reasons that dissuaded Tolkien from detailing his military engagements, his decision has valuable consequences. In reading The Lord of the Rings, one must actively engage the imagination. In reading The Lord of the Rings, one must linger on the temptations and travails of women and men instead of revelling in warfare. In reading The Lord of the Rings, one must reflect on the nature of a hero, and the the true importance of war and peace. Save the fighting for the films; bring out the book to delve into the depths of the heart.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Edible Virtue of Coneys”