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DISENCHANTMENT The Price of Victory in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion

DISENCHANTMENT The Price of Victory in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion This contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium “Peace by Other Means” rereads the works of J. R. R. Tolkien as a study of pyrrhic victory. It argues that the origin of Tolkien's cycle of tales is inseparable from his experience of World War I, which ended in anomie and widespread fear of the coercive power of modern society. The price of the victory over evil, in these tales, is disenchantment. Tolkien is the first author to imagine disenchantment on a near-global scale, using literal disenchantment as a metaphor for a kind he could expect his readers to know firsthand. Like disenchantment, this-worldly evil, centralized in a single figure such as Mordor, is a twentieth-century idea, an emanation of totalitarianism: the transformation of Elves into orcs is a horror that only our knowledge of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulag has equipped us to imagine. If disenchantment is the price of victory over absolute evil, few would doubt that it was worth paying—within the framework of the tales. For the far future of Middle-Earth, however, the implications are less benign. The Elves accept their fate and either dwindle or depart. But the orcs, personifying disenchantment in its most radical and terrifying form, are routed but not all killed, and they do not depart. disenchantment World War I J. R. R. Tolkien pyrrhic victory evil http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Common Knowledge Duke University Press

DISENCHANTMENT The Price of Victory in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion

Common Knowledge , Volume 22 (2) – May 1, 2016

DISENCHANTMENT The Price of Victory in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion


The Price of Victory in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion James Trilling J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings makes its first and most vivid impression as a heroic tale. After almost sixty years of reading the book, I am still moved to tears by the raising of the siege of Minas Tirith, when the fog of war miraculously clears and the scattered armies of good converge in the one way that allows them to annihilate a far larger enemy force. There is, however, much more to The Lord of the Rings than this triumphal strain. Behind and beneath the heroic is the elegiac: awareness of time past and passing, of impermanence and change, of mortality. Doubtless because I made my acquaintance with the story so early in life, I took the primacy of the heroic for granted and saw the elegiac strain as a background against which the tale of war unfolds. Slowly I came to realize that the elegiac strain is not simply fundamental to the story; it is the story. Only when the Ring has been destroyed, however, does the elegiac mode come into its own. The final chapters deal with the establishment of institutional, ritual, and social norms for a new historical age and for the first time in history, a world without embodied radical evil. As their world is reshaped, the surviving members of the Fellowship go their various ways, knowing that they will never again be gathered together. 22:2 DOI 10.1215/0961754X-3464973 © 2016 by Duke University Press Published by Duke University Press Some partings are particularly fraught. Frodo, "wounded by knife, sting and tooth, and a long burden," is unable to resume his earlier life as a wealthy bachelor hobbit.1 As he explains to Sam, "I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them."2 This pronouncement is as strange as it is poignant. At first glance, Tolkien seems to...
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Publisher
Duke University Press
Copyright
Copyright © Duke Univ Press
ISSN
0961-754X
eISSN
1538-4578
DOI
10.1215/0961754X-3464973
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Abstract

This contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium “Peace by Other Means” rereads the works of J. R. R. Tolkien as a study of pyrrhic victory. It argues that the origin of Tolkien's cycle of tales is inseparable from his experience of World War I, which ended in anomie and widespread fear of the coercive power of modern society. The price of the victory over evil, in these tales, is disenchantment. Tolkien is the first author to imagine disenchantment on a near-global scale, using literal disenchantment as a metaphor for a kind he could expect his readers to know firsthand. Like disenchantment, this-worldly evil, centralized in a single figure such as Mordor, is a twentieth-century idea, an emanation of totalitarianism: the transformation of Elves into orcs is a horror that only our knowledge of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulag has equipped us to imagine. If disenchantment is the price of victory over absolute evil, few would doubt that it was worth paying—within the framework of the tales. For the far future of Middle-Earth, however, the implications are less benign. The Elves accept their fate and either dwindle or depart. But the orcs, personifying disenchantment in its most radical and terrifying form, are routed but not all killed, and they do not depart. disenchantment World War I J. R. R. Tolkien pyrrhic victory evil

Journal

Common KnowledgeDuke University Press

Published: May 1, 2016

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