The Anglo-Saxon War-Culture and The Lord of the Rings: Legacy and Reappraisal
WLA: War, literature, and the arts, Vol.26 (2014)
The literature of war in English claims its origin from the Homeric epics, and the medieval accounts of chivalry and the crusades. In modern war-literature, produced during and after the two World Wars, themes of existential trauma, alienation of man as victim, horrors of the nuclear warfare and the Holocaust, and the evils of a totalitarian government, critique of narrow nationalism have become dominant; yet some memories of the Classical and the Medieval war-culture can be found, either as subtle allusion, or as a means of irony or satire, as in Catch-22 or Mother Courage. However, another ancient culture of war—that of the Anglo-Saxons—has failed to hold its sway over the thoughts of the modern war-poets and novelists. In fact, the process of oblivion began as early as the 12th century, when the image of loud and boasting warriors, bursting the mead-halls with their genial laughter, and fighting to death for the love of their lords, was replaced by the courteous Christian knights on their quest for the Holy Grail, rescuing damsels in distress, representing abstract virtues and ideals of a feudal culture. In the long run, the medieval image of the knight-warrior, alongside the raw and ‘real’ quality of the Homeric battles, has found ways into the modern imagination, and produced modern reappropriations of these old materials, whereas re-works on Anglo-Saxon literature are of a poor amount. John Gardner’s Grendel offers an existentialist and psychoanalytic approach to Beowulf, rewriting it from the monster’s point of view, and G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse recalls the tone of sadness and lament in the Old English elegies, but none of them shows interest in the war-culture of the Anglo-Saxons, which, notwithstanding the ‘fantastic’ elements of monsters and dragons, remained so realistic in the battles themselves, and a strong bond of love and duty between the warrior-king and his thanes.
Considering the scarcity of the Anglo-Saxon influence in modern war-literature in general, one may wonder and stop by a work like The Lord of the Rings or Silmarillion, which few would be willing to categorise as serious war-literature. The fictional writings of J.R.R. Tolkien are said to have revived the genre of fantasy and magic-realism, and they have been readily assimilated into the new genre of popular literature. What seems to have been forgotten in this process is Tolkien’s own passionate and critical engagement with the war-literature of the Anglo-Saxons, which has gone into the making of his otherwise ‘fantastic’ creation of the ‘Middle Earth’. Tolkien’s lecture, later published as an essay, “The Monsters and the Critics”, brought a formative and seminal change in the course of Beowulf -criticism. His fictional works are at the same time holding the Anglo-Saxon legacy with devoted fondness, yet his reappraisal is of a critical kind—it critiques, reconstructs and reappropriates several Anglo-Saxon themes and ideas while constantly referring back to an old war-culture passed into oblivion.