One of the most interesting facts I’ve learned while reading the Letters of J.R.R Tolkien is that he began writing his stories while he was deployed during World War I. It was one of several similarities I found between us, for I also wrote fiction and poetry during all three of my deployments. Most deployed service members try to find ways of escaping their dreary lives away from home, whether through gaming, sports, or reading. Writing is one of the best ways to escape since it allows you to create a world where everything turns out happily in the end.
As I noted the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which contain the most open declarations about his views of faith and literature. It also includes many biographical facts as he comments about events in his life. In one letter, he described that he began writing the mythology of Middle Earth while in a hospital after the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Many people don’t realize that Tolkien served in the trenches of World War I, and it is from this that he developed his views of the evils of mechanized warfare so evident in The Lord of the Rings. Although he didn’t comment about it at the time, when he was so absorbed with the war and had no idea his private world would amount to anything, later he recalled how he began to develop his own mythos based on Norse, Finish, and British legends, which he had studied in his short time at Oxford University before being assigned as an officer.
Tolkien considered his writing an escape, as became clear in letters composed during World War II. He wrote often to his son Christopher, who served in Africa during the war, and he frequently commented on the similarities of their experience. He observed that Christopher had to deal with the same old “camp” problems Tolkien had – regimentation, “grimy canteens,” “lectures in cold fogs,” and “huts full of blasphemy and smut.” He referred to Christopher as “a hobbit amongst the Urukhai,” meaning the tribe of dirty orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin in LOTR. In another letter, he added, “Only in one way was I better off: wireless [radio] was not invented,” which he called “the weapon of the fool, the savage, and the villain … to destroy thought.” He would later send Christopher copies of chapters of LOTR as he completed them. “You are suffering from suppressed ‘writing,’” he wrote, noting this was the result of Tolkien raising him on storytelling. Tolkien had been writing stories for his children for years – the Hobbit and Roverandom both originated as stories he read to his children. He wrote he had originally used “escapism” to adjust to dislocation in moving from South Africa as a child, “and I still draw on the conceptions then hammered out,” though as a soldier he had little time except on leave or in the hospital.
I related closely to many of these experiences. As I’ve retold many times, I originally wrote The Fairy Child to my children while deployed to Iraq and sent it home to them a chapter at a time. When I deployed the second and third time, my children begged me to write them new stories, which resulted in The Mermaid’s Quest and Troll-Bane (unpublished). While I wrote mainly for them, there were times when I also suffered from “suppressed writing” – I thought I would burst if I didn’t write something. For me, as with Tolkien at war, writing was an escape, a way of processing being separated from home, suffering through war, and being constantly in the company of others. Though I often enjoyed the fellowship of brothers in arms, I also at times wished for nothing but to get away from everyone else for quiet thinking. I used to go and sit on the roof of one of the office buildings just to get away from everyone. My writing was a way of dealing with the issues I faced during deployment just as much as it was a way to help my children deal with their issues.
One of my favorite poems is “The Prudent Jailer,” by C.S. Lewis, which perfectly describes the way those burdened by war often feel, where he compares living in this world to being in prison:
Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars
And chains, we think of files; and then
Of black nights without moon or stars
And luck befriending hunted men.
The jailer, he observes, tells the prisoners, “The proper study of prisoners is prison,” which he calls “tireless propaganda.” For most people, “stone walls cannot a prison make / half so secure as rigmarole.”
Most service members face many of the same feelings. They are trapped far from home under incredible stress and sometimes great violence. Is it any wonder that their thoughts turn to life back home or to other places and times where the story turns out happily? This is why fiction, and fairytales especially, are so powerful. For some, the very act of creating or writing is the escape. For others, it’s traveling, or exercising, or watching football, or planning vacations. It’s anything that helps them to escape the problems of warfare if only for a moment and regain the hope they have lost.
© 2021 J.D. Manders