J R R Tolkien says this of his own literary development in the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which will be the subject of the next post. That post in part, and the one following it in whole, will address the subject of escapism as it is commonly associated with fantasy fiction. Before getting to that I wanted to draw attention to this one remarkable sentence that appears as an aside in the middle of Tolkien’s essay.
I find the last six words of this sentence — quickened to full life by war — in particular to be haunting. It is all the more disquieting to encounter such a sentence delivered in an off-hand fashion. “On Fairy-Stories” was originally a lecture given in March of 1939, though I do not know if this sentence was part of that lecture or if Tolkien inserted it later: I am reading a version revised in 1964. But I would imagine such an aside would have been present in the original lecture, as it isn’t the sort of thing one adds later on.
Tolkien of course was referring to the Great War, and as he spoke few could have doubted that Europe was preparing to go to war again. I suppose a man could make such a comment casually, even vaguely, only if he were addressing a room full of people who had been through the same civilization-altering war to which he referred. I cannot imagine a literary scholar today standing up in front of a room of academics at a prestigious school (JRRT delivered the lecture at the University of St Andrews) and mentioning, in passing, a traumatic experience like the Great War, and doing so with the knowledge that many of the people he addressed, certainly the majority of his colleagues present, had first-hand experience of that same trauma.
I was nineteen years old, just about to begin my sophomore year in college, when the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 occurred. I was most certainly getting into philology. But the war which was shortly to begin, and pick up significantly during my junior year when the US invaded Iraq, was something I was barely conscious of. I didn’t go to a prestigious school for undergrad, a place full of rich people. I was at the University of Cincinnati. But it made no difference, I was totally isolated from the conflicts, nobody talked about them except as a reason for despising the president.
As is the case with many people roughly my age, both my grandfathers fought in the Second World War. I grew up hearing their stories of the war — and their silences, when they came to that of which they could not speak. I was very interested in military history when I was a boy, and I spent a lot of time studying it in all of its phases, from antiquity to the present. In America of course military history does not extend beyond the advent of firearms, but I was always most interested in pre-modern warfare. I encountered plenty of it in fantasy, which genre, for reasons I’d like to talk about soon, does not mix well with gunpowder.
My father shared much of my interest in military history and he encouraged my reading about it when I was growing up. But after 9/11 and the wars that it entailed, he could no longer find it in him to study such things in his spare time. Neither did it anymore seem to me the sort of thing one could take a merely casual interest in. But I retained what knowledge I had gathered (along with a couple of swords that are, to this day, taking up space in my parents’ home). One summer, when I was a graduate student in Chicago, I was at a professor’s house with a bunch of my fellow classmates. We were outside on the porch. A couple of military jets flew overhead and I identified them — F-18’s — to the shock and evident disgust of my peers and the professor. To possess knowledge of such matters was taboo.
I will soon have occasion to quote from Sir Philip Sidney, who was a man of letters and a soldier that died what was considered a heroic death in the Low Countries in the 1580’s. There was quite a long period when men of letters like Sidney and philologists like Tolkien went off to war. They may have done it proudly or they may have done it as a matter of course, but the point is they went. My country has been at war, more or less, for most of the time since I came of age, but for the most part those wars have been, to me, something less substantial than a dream, something I would occasionally catch sight of flickering on a TV screen. In general, war is, for me, something I have studied, something I remember fascinating me as a boy in the occasional reenactment I would see, say at Gettysburg or perhaps a joust or two — something choreographed. My generation has not been tested in the way that Tolkien’s was tested, and I wonder sometimes if that lack — how strange to call it so — is visible in our fantasies.