From the Trenches to Mordor and Back: World War I and British Fantasy Literature
In 1889, two and a half decades before the outbreak of World War I, Mark Twain published a short and whimsical novel entitled A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (later renamed A Connecticut Yankee in Arthur’s Court). The book tells the tale of an American engineer, Hank Morgan, who, after suffering a severe blow to the head, is transported through time and space to the mythical court of King Arthur. With his futuristic knowledge and technological wizardry, the American visitor soon comes to be viewed as a potent sorcerer. Embarking on a series of attempts to modernize England’s hidebound medieval institutions, Hank runs into the fierce opposition of the Catholic Church. The book ends with Hank and his 52 young cadets facing off against a host of 30,000 knights. Crouching behind minefields and electrified fences, and manning Gatling guns that “vomit death,” the time-traveler and his companions mow down rank upon gleaming rank of their armored assailants. For all their splendor and chivalrous valor, the knights are helpless in the face of modern, industrialized warfare.
Upon its release, this early example of science fiction was devoured by thousands of British and American children. Among the rapturous young fans was a wide-eyed eight-year-old, a certain Clive Staples Lewis, later known as C.S. Lewis, the lay theologian and author of the much-loved Chronicles of Narnia. Young Clive was entranced by the tales of King Arthur’s knights and the stirring romanticism of their martial exploits. In this he was not alone — a whole generation of English schoolchildren during the Victorian and later Edwardian ages had been weaned on tales of ancient heroism and medieval chivalry. From Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to William Morris’s medieval romances and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetic resuscitation of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, the idealized warrior ethos of a mythologized Albion was tightly woven into the cultural fabric of Imperial Britain. It was only much later, in 1952, that Lewis would revise his youthful assessment of Twain’s work. It was the “romantic elements of the novel” he had enjoyed as a child, he noted, not “the vulgar ridicule directed against the chivalric ideals of the Middle Ages.” For Lewis, “the idea of the knight — the Christian in arms for the defense of a good cause — was one of the great Christian ideas.”
And indeed, Twain had intended his novel, at least in part, as a satire of those same ideas. The American writer, who had lived through the fratricidal bloodletting of the American Civil War, had a visceral distaste for the 19th-century obsession with medieval romanticism, which he viewed as having undergirded the more vainglorious aspects of Southern male identity in the antebellum era. Six years earlier, in Life on the Mississippi, Twain had railed against the pernicious influence of authors such as Sir Walter Scott, claiming:
It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. […] Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.
Twain’s critique of what he perceived to be antiquated notions of honor and chivalry, as well as his portrayal of the paradigm-shattering advent of industrialized warfare, in many ways foreshadowed the broader artistic and cultural debates that would erupt in Great Britain a quarter-century later, during World War I. Lewis’s own fierce rejection of such critiques, and his continued attachment to what he viewed as the timelessness of certain Victorian and chivalric values reflect, for their part, some of the more morally profound aspects of certain masterpieces of 20th-century British fantasy and children’s literature. Many of the authors of these much-loved works — from Lewis to J.R.R. Tolkien, John Masefield, and A.A. Milne — were veterans of World War I. Their traversal of those four years of stygian gloom and bloody destruction played an important role in the shaping of their fictional universes, prompting them to think in different ways about traditional notions of glory and patriotism, as well as about the justness of certain wars.
Frontispiece for the 1889 edition of A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Melancholy and Disruption: The Literary Cradle of the Edwardian Afternoon
Britain’s most famed 20th-century fantasy writers came of age in a complex and interstitial era. In the aftermath of World War I, many looked back on these first few years of the 20th century with wistful nostalgia. Following the carnage, privations, and societal upheavals of the Great War, the Edwardian era came to be viewed as one fleeting “golden afternoon” before the fall of darkness — a period of imperial self-confidence and relative peace and prosperity. These rosy-hued retrospections did not, however, necessarily comport with the actual mood of the pre-war era. Indeed, the Edwardian epoch was above all one of social transformation and geopolitical transition. As Princeton professor Samuel Hynes notes in The Edwardian Turn of Mind, it may well have
…seemed like a long garden party on a golden afternoon — to those who were inside the garden. But a great deal that was important was going on outside the garden: it was out there that the twentieth-century world was being made. Nostalgia is a pleasing emotion, but it is also a simplifying one.
With the rise of other great powers such as the United States and — more menacingly — Imperial Germany, there was already a crepuscular quality to certain discussions of international affairs, and a sense that the British Empire’s power was beginning to wane. Meanwhile, domestic debates were increasingly rancorous, centered on transformational and contentious issues such as female suffrage and workers’ rights. There was widespread concern over the long-term societal and environmental impact of mass mechanization and industrialization. Edwardian literature — and fantasy literature in particular — reflected these anxieties, along with the collective sentiment that those living through the early years of the 20th century were entering a risk-laden and unpredictable age.
Concerns over rapidly shifting class structures are thus readily apparent in works such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, while other writers, through a revival of folkloric mysticism and fairy tales, drew attention to the effects of mass urbanization on British rural life. The period bore witness not only to a continued enthusiasm for Arthurian mythology, but also to the growing popularity of Arcadian themes that tied “Englishness” to the beauty of the island’s threatened landscapes and the distinctness of its pre-Christian history and identity. To read the fantasy and children’s literature of the period is to enter a beautiful, yet slightly discomforting twilight. Nothing is quite what it seems, a certain innocence has been lost (this is a major theme of Peter Pan, for example), and the halcyon days are fading over the horizon. England’s old spirits, long tethered to its sleepy villages, rolling hills, and tangled woods, have slowly begun to flee the scene. “The People of the Hills have all left,” writes Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill:
I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprachauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest — gone, all gone!
As literary historians have noted, the Edwardian era was also marked by the revival of the neo-pagan cult of Pan or of Orion the Hunter, both of whom are often presented as the embattled avatars of a rural idyll and bucolic way of life under threat from the smog-belching forces of modernity.
The field of poetry saw the rise of the so-called Georgian movement, which included poets such as John Masefield, Rupert Brooke, D.H. Lawrence, and Siegfried Sassoon. In a wildly popular series of volumes edited and sponsored by Sir Edward Marsh, a polymathic civil servant who also served as Winston Churchill’s private secretary, the Georgian poets developed a new kind of poetry — one that combined pastoral, anti-mechanistic, and elegiac themes with a quest for greater realism and a style that did away with the archaic formalism of the Victorian era. In short, well before the first guns were fired along the Western Front, British literature and poetry were already veined with social anxiety and wreathed in a more tenebrous form of romantic nationalism.
Indeed, the Georgian emphasis on descriptive realism was not accompanied by an abandonment of traditional themes of chivalry and martial patriotism. To the contrary. The majority of Britain’s most celebrated war poets — with the notable exception of Wilfred Owen — were products of Great Britain’s public school system. (Somewhat confusingly for non-Brits, a “public school” in the United Kingdom is in fact a private institution, as opposed to a “state school,” which is free of charge). These institutions, which churned out generations of imperialist officers, were bound by a “chivalric ethos” — one that celebrated sportsmanship, a romantic brand of patriotism, and the study of the classics — with a particular emphasis on the texts that celebrated stoicism, self-sacrifice, and martial derring-do.
World War I and Chivalry Under Fire
It was these public school boys, with their young heads full of Horace, Tennyson, and Malory, who formed much of warring Britain’s officer corps, and who — due to their responsibility in leading charges from the trenches — were to suffer disproportionate numbers of casualties. The seductive draw of their Homeric notions of heroism is perhaps most visible in the poem The Volunteer, written by Herbert Asquith, the son of H.H. Asquith, the Liberal prime minister. Penned in 1912, two years before the outbreak of World War I, the poem manages to fuse both medieval and classical imagery — all while exalting the perceived time-old glory of death in battle:
Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.
And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.
The horror and squalor of life in the trenches, the savage, indiscriminate efficiency of modern weaponry, and the sheer scale of the continental bloodbath — all of this was to have a lasting effect on British (and European) literature. The Great War poets soon learned from their grim ordeal that
the Western front was neither Agincourt, nor the playing fields of ancient public schools, nor the supreme test of valor, but rather, the modern industrial world in miniature, indeed, the modern world at its most horrifying.
This sense of disillusionment and disenchantment lies at the heart of some of World War I poetry’s most famous verses, from Owen’s bitter recitation of Horace in Dulce et Decorum Est, to Sassoon’s rejection of the false notion that chivalry somehow “redeems the war’s disgrace.” Indeed, the invocation of medieval themes had not only been omnipresent throughout British literature since the 19th century, but had also formed a core aspect of early British war propaganda. British soldiers were depicted as Arthurian knights on posters and postcards, and the war “against the Hun” was frequently portrayed in religious terms as a righteous crusade — a state-sanctioned narrative that poets such as Sassoon and Owen now viewed with mounting distaste.
British World War I recruitment poster. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Wartime Experiences of British Fantasy Writers
It was against this backdrop of trauma and dispiritedness that some of the greatest British fantasy writers of the twentieth century began to erect the intellectual scaffolding of their fictional universes.
John Masefield — who was later to become a leading children’s fantasy writer as well as Poet Laureate — was old enough to be exempted from military service, instead serving as a medical orderly in northern France. To him, it had initially seemed that Edwardian England urgently needed to recapture something it had lost; prior to the war, the country had “outgrown her machine,” “forgotten her soul,” and “destroyed Jerusalem among her dark satanic mills.” Like so many others, his thoughts during the sweltering summer of 1914 were filled with confidence and flecked with a certain amount of insouciance. He did not believe the war would last long, and the surge of popular patriotism initially enthused him — he was later to state that, “at the blowing of a horn,” it had seemed as though England had finally “remembered her soul, which was the soul of St. George who fought the dragon.” His poem, August 1914, in typical Georgian style, contrasted the beauty of the tranquil British countryside, the English fields “ripe to the soul and rich with summer’s yields,” with the “misery of the soaking trench, the freezing in the rigging, the despair in the revolting second of the wrench when the blind soul is flung upon the air,” and quietly lauded the sacrifice of English soldiers fighting far from hearth and home.
As the war progressed, however, the tone of Masefield’s correspondence rapidly became more somber, as the overwhelmed orderly expressed horror at the conditions and suffering experienced by the country lads plucked from their verdant isle and cast into a maelstrom of fire and filth. Suffering from writer’s block and struggling to find any manner of poetic inspiration, he confessed to his wife that he could not write, “thinking of what goes on in those long slow filthy trains, full of mad-eyed whimpering men.” Later in the war, he was hired by Wellington House — the British department of propaganda — and wrote a famous account of the battle of Gallipoli that drew on tragic, chivalric themes (incorporating quotes from the medieval ballad The Song of Roland) and stressed the heroism of the average soldier in a state-commissioned attempt to salve the collective wounds of what constituted a crushing defeat. Other non-fiction accounts followed in the form of The Old Front Line, in 1916, and The Battle of the Somme, in 1919. When touring the battlefield of the Somme, he provided one of the more memorable descriptions of the brutish pummeling of the contested ground, writing:
To say that the ground is ploughed with shells is to talk like a child. It is gouged and blasted and bedeviled with the pox of war, and at every step you are on the wreck of war, and up at the top of the ridge there is nothing but a waste of big grassless holes ten feet deep and ten feet broad, with defilement and corpses and hands and feet and old burnt uniforms and tattered leather all flung about and dug in and dug out again, like nothing else on God’s earth.
It was in the midst of this hellscape, during the Battle of the Somme, that A.A. Milne, the future creator of The Stories of Winnie the Pooh, was to suffer those invisible wounds that plagued him, along with so many other “shell-shocked” veterans, for the rest of his life — the post-traumatic stress that the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin did such a fine job of portraying. Shortly after arriving on the Western Front, Milne witnessed his best friend, Ernest Push, get killed right in front of him. “Just as he was settling down to his tea, a shell came over and blew him [Ernest] to pieces,” he was later to recall. In August 1916, almost the entirety of Milne’s infantry platoon was mowed down by machine gun fire, with none getting within “twenty yards of the German trench.” This incident left a lasting impression on Milne, who described being almost “physically sick of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation,” that was trench combat.
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis also experienced grueling combat in World War I. Prior to their deployment, they already shared a deep love of the classics, ancient folklore, and Arthurian legend. Destined to become very close friends at Oxford, they both later acknowledged that what Tolkien dubbed the “animal horror of trench warfare” may have inspired certain elements of their intricate imaginary universes. In a preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien thus remarks that one has to “come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression,” and that “by 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” Key aspects of his mythology, he reminisced, were drafted “by candle light in bell-tents,” and in dank dug-outs that trembled and shuddered under artillery fire. Although he claimed that neither world war had “any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding in the Lord of the Rings,” he did reluctantly concede that certain of the dread landscapes featured in the novel, such as “the dead marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the battle of the Somme.” And indeed, it does not seem a stretch to note certain parallels between the veteran’s descriptions of Mordor — a barren wasteland “riddled with fire, ash and dust,” and choked with “poisonous fumes” — and the nightmarish terrains of war-torn northern Europe.
Consider, for instance, this evocative passage from The Two Towers, and the uncanny resemblance with descriptions of no-man’s land — the blighted, corpse-strewn slashes of soil that divided enemy lines:
The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.
The home-loving and simple-mannered hobbits of the Shire, Tolkien confessed, were “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee [of Queen Victoria, in 1897].” Perhaps most revealingly, the humble yet unquestionably heroic character of Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings was “indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen” that he had fought alongside in the trenches, and that he “recognized as far superior” to himself.
Lewis, for his part, admitted openly that wartime experiences had influenced his friend’s writings. In a 1955 review, he wrote that the epic, continent-straddling war portrayed in The Lord of the Rings had
…the very quality of the war my generation knew. It is all here: the endless unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet of the front when ‘everything is now ready,’ the flying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and such heavensent windfalls as a cache of tobacco salvaged from a ruin.
Lewis had himself been wounded by friendly artillery fire during the war, when a misdirected British shell ripped through two of his closest friends and embedded shrapnel in his torso — shards of which lay deeply burrowed under his flesh for the remainder of his life. Some scholars have suggested that the writer also grappled with post-traumatic stress, and with the social stigmas then attached to those who openly confessed to such psychological scarring. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Lewis admitted that he had long been troubled with recurring nightmares of the earlier war, and provided remarkably graphic descriptions of the terrible things he had witnessed:
The frights, the cold, the smell…the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet — all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else.
British Fantasy Literature in the Interwar Years
These writers all responded to — and drew inspiration from — their private wounds and their society’s collective trauma in different ways. Milne, afflicted with post-traumatic stress, became a militant pacifist. With the gentle, unthreatening universe of Winnie the Pooh, Milne chose the path of soothing escapism, providing — as one commentator notes — a war-weary and grieving nation with a “much needed solace in a time of great sadness, a connection to the intimate wonder of childhood, and a specifically British sensibility.” From quiet walks with his son through the ancient forest of Ashdown, where Norman lords had once hunted their quarry, Milne drew the inspiration for his “Hundred Acre Wood,” a lush green world filled with enchanted groves, dappled sunlight, and gently rustling foliage.
In The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights — two children’s novels that were soon to become cult classics — Masefield indulged in a similar nostalgia-laden withdrawal, with his plucky young protagonist facing off against his adversaries in a rural winter wonderland, a mystical Albion seemingly untouched by the Great War and still populated with pagan figures like Herne the Hunter. In one glowing review of The Midnight Folk in 1927, a journalist remarked that by redirecting his intellectual efforts toward childhood whimsy, “Masefield seemed be growing younger by the year.” One cannot help but wonder, however, whether for the distinguished poet the fashioning of such a reassuringly Edwardian world also provided a form of mental refuge, and perhaps even a measure of expiation for past literary sins. Indeed, in some of his private correspondence, Masefield seems to regret having indirectly contributed to the climate of war fervor before 1914, writing, for instance, that
…we literary men have been very evil, writing about war. To fight is bad enough, but it has its manly side; but to let the mind dwell on it and peck its carrion and write of it is a devilish, unmanly thing, and that’s what we’ve been doing, ever since we had leisure, circa 1850.
T.H. White, author of the celebrated Arthurian tetralogy The Once and the Future King, was a devoted fan of Masefield, declaring that he loved The Midnight Folk “to the point of idolatry.” Although White had lived through World War I, he was too young to experience combat, and completed his famous saga during the first half of World War II. His retelling of La Morte D’Arthur is heavily influenced by the Georgian war poets and writers. It delivers “a nostalgic view of childhood innocence tied to agricultural production, animals and the forest,” but also demonstrates the pernicious effects of the ruling elite’s obsession with chivalric honor — with King Arthur’s fragile polity eventually imploding under the strain of his hotheaded knights’ competing agendas, egos, and convoluted alliance structures. The result is the emergence of fascism, with the rise of Mordred — a black-clad knight who leads a “new order” and “popular party” that massacres Jews — challenging the war-ravaged, enfeebled kingdom of Camelot.
As many an astute literary critic has noted over the years, The Once and Future King is an epic chronicle of British postwar disenchantment. Whereas the first volume, The Sword in the Stone, is relatively sunny and humorous, reflecting the optimism of the young King Arthur, who, brimming with missionary zeal, “wishes to encounter all the evil in the world …so that there would be none left,” the concluding book is resolutely bleak. Romantic ideals have either evaporated or been dismissed as hopelessly outdated, and the idealistic young Arthur has morphed into a weary, morally exsanguinated figure. For White, the Arthurian mythos nested at the heart of traditional British patriotism could not, for all its ancient vigor and nobility of purpose, weather the cataclysmic violence of another global conflict, or the heightened cynicism of mass politics.
Tolkien, Lewis, and the Quest for Moral Clarity
Tolkien and Lewis, however, refused to surrender to this mood of nihilism and abnegation. Their characters are plunged into cosmic struggles of good against evil, facing all manners of severe moral tests. Within both writers’ narrative arcs, however, flowers an optimism that the determination and simple decency of their unassuming heroes will eventually triumph. The study of history, noted Tolkien in a letter to his son,
…depresses one with the sense of the everlasting mass and weight of human iniquity. …Old, dreary, endless repetitive unchanging incurable wickedness. And at the same time one knows that there is always good: much more hidden, much less clearly discerned, seldom breaking out into recognizable, visible beauties of word or deed.
This humanistic faith in man’s capacity for redemption and perseverance is most apparent in The Return of the King, as Samwise Gamgee — that plucky personification of the English farmhand dispatched to the front — prepares to scale Mount Doom. Like the soldiers gazing from under their mud-encrusted helmets at the skies of northern France and finding fleeting solace at the sight of “larks, still bravely singing,” Samwise Gamgee peers up at the vaulted heavens over the grim wastes of Mordor, and draws courage from the sight of a single white star shining through the clouds:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a star twinkle for a while. 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 forever beyond its reach.
It has become commonplace to attribute elements of both authors’ moral stances in the interwar years to their staunch Christian beliefs (both writers were devout, and Tolkien played an important role in cultivating the formerly agnostic Lewis’s burgeoning religiosity). Others have pointed out that it was perhaps also their deep knowledge of and love for “the twilit atmosphere of the medieval European north” that rendered this vision possible — in both the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon legends, “hope is often allied to despair, transforming it into a reservoir of endurance and resolve.”
Lewis and Tolkien may have witnessed industrialized warfare in all its dark, Boschian murderousness during World War I, but neither ever doubted the justice of England’s fight for freedom — whether against the armies of the Kaiser in their youth, or against the jackbooted legions of Nazi Germany in World War II. As Lewis was to declare in a famous speech entitled “Why I am not a Pacifist,” sometimes the prospect of armed struggle was necessary, for “the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well we can.”
To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill, or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.
In short, some things are worth fighting for. The age-old struggle of democracies against authoritarian thuggery is one of those things. Preserving a sense of innocence and hope in a world that is tragically imperfect and often cruel is another. Notwithstanding their divergent attitudes toward the justness of certain wars, the relevance of chivalric ideals, or the pertinence of pacifism in an era marked by the rise of fascism, Masefield, Tolkien, Milne, White, and Lewis all sought to safeguard future generations’ capacity for childlike wonder. The charmed legacy of these classics of British fantasy — which continue to enchant millions of children around the world — constitutes yet another precious gift from that brave, battered generation to its more fortunate descendants.
Iskander Rehman is a Senior Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He is currently writing a book on the history of the concept of prudence in statecraft and can be followed on Twitter @IskanderRehman.