the imaginative conservative logo

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien fought to defend Faith and Family from attacks upon them by modern-day dragons, but they would not wield the power of the Deplorable Word, nor the power of the Ring, to destroy their enemies, simultaneously destroying the lives of innocent victims in the process…

In “Litany of the Lost,” a poem published at the end of World War II, Siegfried Sassoon lamented the “slavedom of mankind to the machine” and the “terror of atomic doom foreseen.” Writing in the wake of the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the world lurched drunkenly from World War to Cold War, “leaderless and sceptic-souled” and “chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled,” Sassoon prayed for humanity’s deliverance from itself. We were “armed with our marvellous monkey innovations,” the poet declaimed plaintively, but were “unregenerate still in head and heart.”

Similar plaintive and dissident voices were raised by other writers in the aftermath of the horror unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ronald Knox wrote God and the Atom and Edith Sitwell wrote her “three poems of the Atomic Age” about “the fission of the world into warring particles, destroying and self-destructive.” Sitwell wrote of Man’s “migration…into the desert of the Cold, towards the final disaster, the first symbol of which fell on Hiroshima.” Haunted by the sight of the mushroom cloud, emerging like a colossus of madness over what had once been a city of human beings, a line of Sitwell’s reads like humanity’s own epitaph: “a totem pole of dust arose in memory of Man.”

The same doom-laden spirit pervaded other works of literature published at the time. Orwell’s Animal Farm was published in 1945, itself an epitaph to the discredited totalitarian ideologies which had sown the seeds of the recent conflict, and his Nineteen Eighty-Four, published four years later, prophesied a globalist and godless future, devoid of any hope of humanity’s deliverance from itself. In a similar and yet crucially different spirit, C.S. Lewis’s novel, That Hideous Strength, also published in 1945, shared the doom-and-gloom-laden fears of the Orwellian future but was infused with a Christian hope in Divine Providence.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the world, J.R.R. Tolkien was forging his epic, which was written between 1937 and 1949, during the darkness of war and in its chilling nuclear aftermath, in which the true human spirit would prevail over the forces of darkness, aided and abetted by the Divine Light which penetrates all darkness and ultimately dispels its shadows. And yet, in spite of such inklings of light, Tolkien, like Frodo, was journeying in the Land of Shadow, all too aware of the spirit of evil looming over the world. “Well the War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter,” he wrote in 1945, “leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines.”[1] He also lamented the manner in which people were rejoicing in the misery of German refugees fleeing from the terrors of Stalin’s advancing Red Army: “People gloat to hear of the endless lines, 40 miles long, of miserable refugees, women and children pouring West, dying on the way. There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour.”[2]

Although Tolkien was bringing his great work to final fruition in the aftermath of the War of the Machines, its seeds were planted in World War I, that other great war of the machines in which Tolkien had fought, experiencing what he described as the “animal horror” of the Battle of the Somme. During that horrific battle, Tolkien would have witnessed the first use of a new weapon of mass destruction, the sight of which would fire his imagination. This was the newly-invented tank, which was first used by the British army during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916, at a time when Tolkien was in the trenches and in the midst of the fray. The sight of these monstrous, trundling machines advancing towards the enemy lines inspired one of the earliest stories of Middle-earth, “The Fall of Gondolin,” written in 1917, only a few short months later.

In this story we are told how Melko, who is the Devil himself in Tolkien’s mythology, made “dragons” that bore a remarkable resemblance to the newly-invented tanks. “From the greatness of his wealth of metals and his powers of fire” Melko produces “beasts like snakes and dragons of irresistible might that should over-creep the Encircling Hills and lap that plain and its fair city in flame and death.” These new metallic dragons are the work of “smiths and sorcerers.” Wrought from an unholy alliance of scientistic industry and demonic magic, they blur the distinction between monsters and machines, melding them into one. The bronze dragons move ponderously and breach the city walls but it is the iron dragons that most resemble the tanks that Tolkien had seen in the Battle of the Somme. They are hollow, carrying Orcs within like demonic Trojan horses, and move on “iron so cunningly linked that they might flow…around and above all obstacles before them.” They break down the city gates “by reason of the exceeding heaviness of their bodies” and are impervious to enemy bombardment: “their hollow bellies clanged…yet it availed not for they might not be broken, and the fires rolled off them.”[3]

John Garth, in his excellent book, Tolkien and the Great War, quotes a wartime diarist recording with wry amusement the way in which British newspapers compared the newly-invented tanks with “the icthyosaurus, jabberworcks, mastodons, Leviathans, boojums, snarks, and other antediluvian and mythical monsters.”[4] From the German perspective, the surrealist painter Max Ernst, who was serving in the German field artillery in 1916, was inspired by the vision of the seemingly unstoppable mechanized monsters advancing towards the German lines, to paint his iconic surrealist work, Celebes (1921), in which the tank is absorbed into the nightmare which its advent signified. A German report of the psychological impact of the tank on German troops reveals the full horror of man’s impotence in the face of these new dragon-machines:

The monster approached slowly, hobbling, moving from side to side, rocking and pitching, but it came nearer. Nothing obstructed it: a supernatural force seemed to drive it onwards. Someone in the trenches cried, “The devil comes,” and that word ran down the line like lightning. Suddenly tongues of fire licked out of the armoured shine of the iron caterpillar…the English waves of infantry surged up behind the devil’s chariot.[5]

Reading these lines, and substituting the word “English” for “Orcish,” one can almost imagine that they are taken from “The Fall of Gondolin,” so close is the grim reality of the war of the machines to the grim realism of Tolkien’s fictionalizing of it. It was no wonder that the war correspondent, Sir Philip Gibbs, could describe the advance of tanks at the Battle of the Somme as being “like fairy-tales of war by H.G. Wells.”[6]

Today, a century later, it is hard to see the tank in the demonic light or darkness in which it was perceived by Tolkien and his generation. Far from being at the cutting edge of military technology, the tank has had its day, superseded by bigger and more efficiently-deadly weapons of mass destruction. In our own dark and doom-laden century, the humble tank seems antiquated enough to almost seem quaint, an outmoded artifact of a bygone age, much like dragons. There is, however, a crucial difference between tanks and dragons. Whereas tanks have had their day, dragons have the power to metamorphose into newer and deadlier shapes. Indeed they come in many different sizes, and wear manifold disguises. They fly like drones and breathe fire that can kill millions of people in one fell swoop, razing entire cities much more efficiently than Smaug’s razing of Lake-town. They can be unleashed with the use of one Deplorable Word, as deadly in its utterance as that other Deplorable Word with which the wicked Queen Jadis destroyed the world of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew. “The world is ended, as if it had never been,” says Aslan. “Let the race of Adam and Eve take warning…. It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things… Let your world beware.”

On October 31, 1956, only a year after The Magician’s Nephew and The Lord of the Rings were published, C.S. Lewis reiterated the words of Aslan in words of his own: “A really modern weapon, a machine which a skill-less man can work by pressing a button, to the destruction of thousands, himself in safety, is disgusting.”[7]

Lewis was no pacifist, nor was Tolkien. They fought to defend Faith and Family from attacks upon them by modern-day dragons, but they would not wield the power of the Deplorable Word, nor the power of the Ring, to destroy their enemies, simultaneously destroying the lives of innocent victims in the process. The Ring cannot be destroyed by the wearing of it, and dragons cannot be destroyed by those who fight dragons by becoming dragons. This is one of the many lessons which Tolkien and Lewis teach us. They are lessons that we fail to learn at our peril. In the words of Aslan, “let the race of Adam and Eve take warning.”

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, p. 111

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Fall of Gondolin” is published in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

[4] John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p. 221

[5] Quoted in Garth, op. cit., p. 221

[6] Ibid.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 803

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
5 replies to this post
  1. “It was no wonder that the war correspondent, Sir Philip Gibbs, could describe the advance of tanks at the Battle of the Somme as being ‘like fairy-tales of war by H.G. Wells.'”

    Indeed so; for Wells had anticipated the advent of tank warfare in his short story “The Land Ironclads,” published in The Strand magazine in 1903!

  2. Would some broadminded person please define the term ‘innocent civilian’ in light of the use of pregnant women as suicide bombers or any suicide bomber who would indiscriminately kill babies, children, women and men in market places. Within the same faith system the only answer seems to be retaliation and revenge. It seems there is only one answer to the possessed, religious zealot.

  3. An interesting article with good information about the backgrounds of Tolkien and Lewis that contributed to their later works. I wonder if the band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, along with their graphic designer William Neal were inspired by Tolkien to some extent in the creation of the graphic image of Tarkus from the album of the same name. Tarkus is part animal, part machine, a weapon of war much like what Tolkien describes in his story.
    The dragons or demons of today’s world are far different though they have the same effect on people as did the tank in WWI.

  4. “The greatest zeal should be shown in the acquisition of whatever educates and ennobles the mind. Otherwise poor mortal creatures may well become like the machines they build — cold, hard, and devoid of love.”

    Pius IX
    International Convention for the Promotion of Ciceronian Studies, Sept. 7, 1959, in Discorsi Messaggi Colloqui del Santo Padre Giovanni XXIII, I, pp. 234-235.

    John XIII also quotes this in his Motu Proprio “Veteran Sapientia” speaking of the Latin language and of great literature.

    Pax.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: