from The Great War and Tolkien's Memory:

an examination of World War I themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by Janet Brennan Croft

Mythlore,  Fall-Winter, 2002 

Excerpt on the Pastoral


     For Fussell, war is the "ultimate anti-pastoral," destroying nature while raking place within it. He sees the English pastoral tradition as unique in several ways. One is its mixture of "highly sophisticated literary pastoralism" combined with "a unique actual ruralism" (Great 231). It has its roots both in British imperialism, which encouraged in its exiles an idealized mental image of "home," and the Industrial Revolution, which transformed the rural countryside within a generation. Both of these may have been influences on Tolkien, given his birth in South Africa and the industrialization of the English countryside where he grew up. Fussell further refines on this theme:

 Recourse to the pastoral is an English mode of both fully gauging the calamities of the Great War and imaginatively protecting oneself against them. Pastoral reference, whether to literature or to actual rural localities and objects, is a way of invoking a code to hint by antithesis at the indescribable; at the same time, it is a comfort in itself, like rum, a deep dugout, or a wooly vest. (Great 235)

     The pastoral landscape in Tolkien can include the works of men, elves, and hobbits, if they are in harmony with nature. A well-tended farm is pastoral; a city like Minas Tirith can be pastoral if it has gardens and families in it. After the King is restored, "[t]he evil things will be driven out of the waste-lands. Indeed the waste in time will be waste no longer, and there will be people and fields where once there was wilderness" (LotR 3.272). Even a dwarf-cave can be in harmony with nature; Gimli's rhapsody on the Glittering Caves of Aglarond (2.152-53) stands in stark contrast to descriptions of Mona, where the dwarves delved too deep.

     The enemy forces in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are deeply antipastoral. The Desolation of Smaug, once "green and fair" (Hobbit 216), is now bleak and barren. The orcs were bred to be the opposite of the elves, and "[I]t seems their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way" (LotR 2.22). Saruman "has a mind of metal and wheels" and a special enmity for trees--"there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves" (2.76-77). Sauron does nor just destroy nature but uses and perverts it. When he dwelt in Mirkwood, the forest was an unwholesome place inhabited by spiders. Morgul Vale is a parody of the pastoral: "Wide flats lay on either bank, shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers. Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air" (2.313). Mount Doom, under his dominion, makes a noise like "a rumour and a trouble as of great engines throbbing and labouring" (3.222).

     Tolkien uses a comparison to the pastoral ideal to show the depth of Frodo's torment and what he has lost by carrying the Ring. When he first begins to understand about his quest, he says, "I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable; I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again" (1.71). His last summer in the Shire is reminiscent of the glorious Summer of 1914 in England, the calm before the storm. But by the end, Frodo says, "I tried to remember the Brandywine, and Woody End, and The Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can't see them now" (3.195); "No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me" (3.215).

     Fussell also feels that the English pastoral is distinguished by the "special kind of sense [the English make] out of the classical tag Et in arcadia ego [...] they take it to mean (correctly) 'Even in Arcadia I, Death, hold sway'" (Great 245-46). The Old Forest is a prime example of this. The Withywindle valley is "the center from which all the queerness comes" (LotR 1.124), where Old Man Willow is filled with "pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice" (1.14 1). Lorien is a nearly perfect Arcadia, but "those who bring some evil with them" (1.353) find their doom there.

     Yet balancing this theme is its opposite: finding a pastoral oasis in the midst of destruction. Like many Great War memoirs, the action of much of The Lord of the Rings, particularly The Fellowship of the Ring, consists of "bucolic interludes [...] sandwiched between bouts of violence and terror" (Fussell, Great 236). These moments of pastoral peace indicate the norm by which the surrounding horrors should be judged. Rivendell and Lorien are obvious pastoral oases, but it is the smaller moments-as C. S. Lewis called them, "heaven-sent windfalls" (40)- that are more reminiscent of life in the trenches. For example, Merry and Pippin create a minor pastoral oasis after escaping from the orcs, by pausing for a bite of lembas: "The taste brought back to them the memory of fair faces, and laughter, and wholesome food in quiet days now far away. For a while they ate thoughtfully, sitting in the dark, heedless of the cries and sounds of battle nearby" (LotR 2.61).

     The pastoral oasis in The Hobbit is less clearly defined by contrast with its surroundings, because except for the final battle the action of the book does not take place in a landscape dominated by war. And the "pastoral moment" usually does not occur immediately after a moment of great stress; after the party escapes the Trolls, there is still a long march before they reach Rivendell, and between the battle with the wargs and goblins and the stay in Beorn's house, the party spends the night with the Eagles, which Bilbo at least does not find entirely restful. The transition from danger to a place of refuge is more gradual.

     The pastoral refuge contains in it a "clarifying or restorative force" (Fussell, Great 239). Rivendell restores and heals the hobbits and Strider after their flight from Weathertop, and the Council of Elrond clarifies their mission; as Tolkien comments in a 1951 letter, Rivendell is "not a scene of action but of reflection" (Letters 153). Their stay in Lorien helps the Company recover from the death of Gandalf in a place "where the days bring healing not decay" (LotR 2.106), but is clarifying in a more dangerous way when Galadriel tests the survivors and reveals confusing visions to Frodo and Sam. Ithilien, on the edge of war, restores the spirits of Sam and Frodo: "the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart's ease not for jest" (2.259). And here again they have their mission clarified by advice from Faramir. Later, as they rest in the mountains of Mordor, Sam sees a star through the clouds: "The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing; there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach" (3.199).

     Leaving or losing the pastoral oasis creates a sense of melancholy. As the Company departed from Lorien, it seemed as if the land was "slipping backward, like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world" (1.393). The Elves sing melancholy songs anticipating the day when they shall have to leave Middle-earth. Fussell quotes a review of Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War, which says of the author that "the sight of a rich and fruitful land, much like his own, laid waste was an additional torment" (Great 259); Tolkien describes many places blighted by the Enemy as once having been fair and green (the Wizard's Vale comes to mind), making his crimes against nature all the darker.

     The pastoral is also a reminder that "ecstasy [is] still an active motif in the universe" (Fussell, Great 242), that the Shadow really is small and passing in Nature's scheme of things. When Sam, Frodo, and Gollum come to the crossroads at sunset, they see that the orcs have defaced the statue of the king, setting a rock in place of the king's head:

 [...] Frodo saw the old king's head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. "Look, Sam!" he cried [...] "The king has got a crown again!" [...]

 [....] A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.

 "They cannot conquer forever!" (LotR 2.311) (1)

     Pastoral ecstasy segues into the ecstatic relief of the arrival of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. The Lord of the Nazgul confronts Gandalf at the gates of Minas Tirith, and a pastoral image breaks his spell:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. [...] Great horns of the North wildly blowing. (3.103)

     And yet the final pastoral oasis, the most important one of which the rest are but dim reflections, is home:

"[...] there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap" (3.311).


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