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Examining the historical defence of Christendom as the conceptual template for the defence of “Westernesse” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted December 11, 2017

This essay is based on a presentation co-authored with Wojciech Szymanski, M.A., which was read at the Fantastic Literature Conference 2016 (Religious Topics in Fantastic Literature) at the University of Lodz (Lodz, Poland), September 19-20, 2016.

Like many great classic works of dystopia, science fiction, or fantasy, Tolkien’s works are largely driven by the specific invented terms and languages used in them. The driving impulse of the works under study is the “special languages” used in them.

The invention of language is a vital element of what Tolkien called the “subcreation” of a world, and it can be seen Tolkien has placed an enormous amount of effort into the construction of specific vocabularies. Nearly all of the special words appear in the ongoing flow of the text, without being italicized. Of course, these special languages are not created ex nihilo – they are based on languages formerly used in human societies.

In his world-building, Tolkien went to great lengths to create extensive invented languages. His most prominent invented language, two varieties of Elvish – Quenya and Sindarin, -- have been based largely on a combination of Latin, Old Norse, Old Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Finnish elements, to name the most prominent influences. It is at least somewhat interesting that the relation of the Elvish languages to the Middle-Earth setting at the time of the War of the Ring, is somewhat similar to that of Latin to the various European cultures in more modern times.

Tolkien’s writing can be contrasted with that of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, typified by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. While reading sword-and-sorcery can be a response to an over-regulated and over-bureaucratized world, it could be argued that there is also an element of cheapness, vulgarity, and gracelessness in sword-and-sorcery, especially in the less salubrious examples of this subgenre. The contrast with Tolkien’s own writings, could not be more striking.

Some have argued that Tolkien’s promulgation of a “warrior-ethic” is more pagan than Christian. One sees in these works a robust, stalwart fight against various enemies. This does not seem to be a prominent feature of Christianity, as it exists today. Heroic resistance to one’s enemies is often said to be a pagan, not Christian trait. Indeed, it could be perceived that, today, various denominations of Christianity are often very weak in facing their current-day adversaries. They seem to be talking all the time about “forgiveness”, about “turning one’s cheek”, and so forth.

It is argued that the key to understanding these works of Tolkien as actually more Christian, rather than pagan in spirit, is to refer to an earlier phase of Christian history, notably the defence of Christendom. The notion of Christendom has become extremely attenuated today. The notion of Christendom hearkens back to the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, when most Europeans lived within an over-arching religious-political-cultural complex that permeated their lives to an extent almost unimaginable today.

Christendom was also something that had to be robustly defended. Over the course of close to 1,500 years, European history was punctuated by a series of great battles and sieges that held back various (mostly) Eastern adversaries. Here, one indeed finds a stalwart, robust resistance to various enemies. One can think of such decisive conflicts as Chalons (451 AD), Tours (732 AD), the Great Siege of Malta (1565), the sea-battle of Lepanto (1571), and the siege and battle of Vienna (1683).
Much of this conflict was a struggle against the Ottoman Turks, who were called “the sempiternal enemy of Christendom”.

Also, in the history of the British Isles, there had been at least three conflicts that seemed to fit the template of “defending civilization”. First of all, there was the stand of the legendary King Arthur and what remained of Roman Britain, against the Saxon invaders. Secondly, there was the later resistance of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred – the only English monarch surnamed “the Great” -- against the Danish Vikings. And thirdly, there was the struggle of Irish King Brian Boru against the Vikings. Indeed, G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem, “The Ballad of the White Horse” (1911) – portraying an idealized King Alfred – had been one of the inspirations for Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium.

There is little doubt that Tolkien’s writing was meant to echo in many readers’ minds, various instances of the heroic resistance of “the men of the West” against various enemies.
The defence of Christendom is very likely the conceptual template for the defence of what Tolkien, in these fictional works, himself calls “Westernesse”. The adversaries of Westernesse attack from the south and east, as was historically the case in Europe. Also, Tolkien names one of the southern powers, the Corsairs of Umbar – which obviously brings to mind the Barbary Coast Corsairs – that had plagued Mediterranean Europe for centuries. He also calls the tribes of men recruited by Sauron, the Southrons and the Easterlings.

It should also be noted, that, as in the case of Europe’s historical battles for survival, the struggle, first against Morgoth, and, subsequently against Sauron, stretches across millennia, with many great battles and sieges. In The Lord of the Rings, the struggle reaches a crescendo, as Minas Tirith stands against the hordes of darkness. Both the historic and fictional struggles can be described as epic in scope.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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