War is a horrible experience. Death, destruction, more death, more destruction. And yet, people still think that it will solve the problems of the world. To them, peace talks are a waste of time, and they would much rather blow up a building than sit down over a cup of tea and negotiate.
JRR Tolkien was a soldier during World War 1. He talked about how on a battlefield you would see dead men and boys, eyes blankly staring up at the sky, never to see again. The author was greatly affected by the war, both mentally and physically. Two of his three best friends from school were killed, and while digging a mass grave after a battle, Tolkien contracted trench fever. It was during his time recuperating that he began to write what would develop into the mythology of Arda.
I see many aspects of Tolkien’s battle experience portrayed through his work. Not just the bad, but also the ability for courage to help you be victorious against overwhelming odds. And you need to understand both sides to have the whole picture.
The Dead Marshes
The Dead Marshes, to me, represent the horrors of war and the incredible loss of life. When Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through the wasteland, they see the bodies of Elves, Men, and Orcs, a reminder of the great battle of the Second Age. As Sam says, “There are dead things! Dead faces in the water!” and Gollum replies, “All dead. All rotten. Elves and Men and orcses. A great battle long ago. The Dead Marshes. Yes, that is their name, yes!” The Dead are tortured beings, and they light candles to ensnare unsuspecting travelers in the bog.
That scene is very much like how John Ronald described his experience out on the battlefield. His dead and dying comrades all around him, the light of life in their eyes now permanently extinguished, like the ghosts in the Dead Marshes.
Courage and hope
War is hardly a glorifying experience. But along with the horrifying aspects, there is great pride and hope living in the soldiers who choose to risk their lives. They have great strength in their spirits, and because of this they can emerge as victors, even though the outlook was bleak in the beginning.
Two of the best examples of this are the Battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields. At Helm’s Deep, the odds were three hundred to ten thousand. And yet, the Rohirrim still were the winners. They were fighting for the lives of those they loved and with leaders like Aragorn and Theoden to keep their morale and hope alive, they were able to successfully defeat Saruman’s army, though at great cost.
The Battle of the Pelennor Fields was Gondor’s fight against the relentless hoards of Sauron’s orcs. Though at first unsure and scared, the Guards of the Citadel, at Gandalf’s encouragement, fought bravely for Minas Tirith and did not back down. When the Riders of Rohan and Aragorn’s men from Pelargir came to their aid, the enemy was vanquished.
During the battle, Éowyn and Merry were pitted against the Witch-king of Angmar, leader of the Nazgûl, in the defense of King Théoden. The Witch-king was a force that no living man had ever been able to defeat, and yet, through their combined effort and love for Théoden, the woman and hobbit were able to kill him, though they were seriously wounded in doing so. If either Éowyn or Merry had been a little bit weaker, physically or emotionally, it might not have been possible.
As you can see, Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields are prime examples of how love, faith, courage, and hope can lead a people to victory. In World War 1 (and 2), the Central Powers were incredibly powerful, but the Allied soldiers still charged readily into battle. Why? Because they had pride in their countries and hope in their futures. At least partly because of the fire burning within them, the Allied Powers were victorious.
War is something that touches everyone, directly or not. No one can escape the horror – or the good – that can come out of it. JRR Tolkien was touched directly by both, and it comes across in his writing. The dead marshes, Helm’s Deep, and the Pelennor Fields are only three examples of what battle can do. It can make or break a person. Tolkien manages to show his readers this by balancing out the good and the bad so that we get to see both sides. If only everyone could see them.