Today is Lord of the Rings Day (previous editions: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014.). Every year, I spend a part of March 25 thinking about the continued relevance of this book; even though this may have diminished significantly, it remains for better or for worse the work that founded modern fantasy literature (in the English language) and which subsequent works sidestepped, superseded or transcended. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, thinking about Lord of the Rings has largely been, to me at least, thinking about fantasy as escape, but this year, it may represent something else – and in doing so also become a little bit more relevant in my own imagination.
This year, on this day, war is on all our minds. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Middle-Earth saga, of which Lord of the Rings is one important part, there are many, many wars. The fundamental themes of Lord of the Rings, the greatness of friendship and the triumph of good over evil, are themselves consummated by victories in battles, a motif that Tolkien establishes in the (fictitious) history of Middle-Earth from the very beginning itself. Some of them come immediately to mind, for being more poignant than the others: the Battle of Sudden Flame, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, the War of Wrath and the Defence of Osgiliath. Three of these four conflicts are tragedies.
In the Battle of Sudden Flame (‘Dagor Bragollach’ in Sindarin), Morgoth, the primordial antagonist in Tolkien’s works, breaks the siege around his fortress by the high-elven Noldor and marches forth with a great army, including the first dragon, to reassert his power in the region of Beleriand. Shortly before this battle, some of the Noldor had contemplated an assault of their own to quell Morgoth once and for all, but didn’t proceed for want of consensus. Most of the Noldor believed the siege alone, which by then had lasted over four centuries, would suffice and that Morgoth would fade away. But after the Battle of Sudden Flame, Morgoth rose and rose in power.
Two decades after the siege was broken, many of the high-elves, dwarves and Earthlings – led by Maedhros – united once more under his banner, inspired by the heroics of Beren and Luthien against the kingdom of Morgoth, and intended to take the fight to him instead of, as with the siege, letting him muster his forces. But through a network of spies and turncoats, Morgoth got early wind of the Union of Maedhros. This led to the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (‘Nirnaeth Arnoediad’), in which the Noldor were decimated, by the end of which Morgoth had an iron grip on the continent’s north, and had only three kingdoms left to challenge him: Gondolin (which had secluded itself anyway), Doriath and Nargothrond.
Some six centuries, and many interim epics, later, Eärendil pleads with the Valar – the angelic peoples called the “Powers of the World” in the Middle-Earth mythos – to help the elves and the humans defeat Morgoth. They agree, thus the Host of Valinor is assembled, and thus begins the War of Wrath, which by one account lasted fully 40 years. The exchange of power is so great in this time that Beleriand itself is reshaped and many of its mountains and plains are drowned by newly recast rivers and seas. Morgoth himself is defeated and cast into the “Timeless Void” (that favourite place of fantasy authors in which to consign villains who have become too mighty for anyone’s good).
His lieutenant, the necromancer Thû, however escapes and hides in east Middle-Earth, eventually creating the dreaded kingdom of Mordor and himself becoming known as Sauron. The Defence of Osgiliath transpires when Sauron is preparing to assault Gondor, a great kingdom of humans on Middle-Earth. Osgiliath, by this time, is an outpost with a military garrison. A small scratch force from Gondor sets out to prevent Sauron’s forces from occupying Osgiliath, and fails miserably. One of the casualties is Faramir, younger son of Denethor, the steward of Gondor. Faramir, as captain of the party, sets out to defend Osgiliath though he knows he can’t, that he may even die, simply because Denethor had wished Faramir had died in battle instead of his older, and favoured, son, Boromir.
I was hoping in the course of this recollection to find parallels to Russia’s war in Ukraine. I don’t know what they might be. However, the battles of Beleriand – especially the ones the ‘good guys’ lost – in Tolkien’s telling are not about underestimating Morgoth’s might or miscalculating one’s own, even when they are. They are ultimately animated by the spirit of resisting a mindless tyrant irrespective of the outcome. It’s certainly folly to found one’s attacks on flawed strategies, but in the face of an enemy who can’t be reasoned with and who just won’t back down, there are times when waiting for the numbers to add up, for the skies to clear, for the stars to align can be more indefensible. Ukraine may not have wanted this war but it must fight anyway to resist Russia, and Vladimir Putin.
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration.John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy: And Chapters on Socialism, 1848
Happy Lord of the Rings Day!