Yahoo! Movies recently published an article entitled The Hidden Meanings Behind Iconic Movies. If you’re expecting a mind-blowing revelation…well, don’t.
Despite some correct and interesting information (I’ve heard the Star Wars interpretation before, but I’ve never seen references supporting the interpretation), writer Rob Waugh is way off on Lord of the Rings meaning. He claims that it’s “REALLY about” the Battle of the Somme in World War I.
Does the Battle of the Somme Unlock the Lord of the Rings Meaning?
Waugh has a lot of his facts right. Tolkien did survive the Battle of the Somme (Biography, 89). He did say that parts of The Lord of the Rings were inspired by his experiences in the Battle of the Somme (Letters, 303). He did write his first story about Middle-earth (although it wasn’t called Middle-earth back then) while he was recovering (Biography, 100). That story was “The Fall of Gondolin” (you can read it in The Book of Lost Tales 2). The description of the hordes unleashed against Gondolin are certainly reminiscent of tanks.
Then on a time Melko [Morgoth, as he was originally called in the early stories] assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrong a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears; others of bronze and copper were given hearts and spirits of blazing fierce, and they blasted all that stood before them with the terror of their snorting or trampled whatso escaped the ardour of their breath… (Lost Tales 2, 171).
The Somme is Only Part of the Influence
While some of the facts are certainly correct, there’s a lot that Waugh leaves out. First, let’s look at letter in which Tolkien acknowledges the influence of the Battle of the Somme on his book.
The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains (Letters, 303; emphasis added).
Even a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for the Battle of the Somme illustrates the significance of that battle in the minds of those who lived through it. The page is full of phrases like, “also known as the Somme Offensive,” “attrition,” “one of the largest of Word War I,” “one of the bloodiest battles in human history,” “worst in the history of the British army,” and “mud, blood and futility.”
None of these phrases resonate with readers of The Lord of the Rings. LotR is clearly not a story about an offensive attack. It’s not a war of attrition. The body count isn’t particularly high. In fact, 88.89% of the Fellowship survive until the end of the War of the Ring (only Boromir dies). To say that The Lord of the Rings equals the Battle of the Somme doesn’t really make sense.
The Ring is the Atomic Bomb!
At the end of the section on LotR, Waugh throws out another (very old) theory with no elaboration or explanation: “Observers have also commented on the significance of the One Ring, which is widely considered to represent the atomic bomb.”
If Tolkien could have added a day to his lifespan for every time someone compared the Ring to the atomic bomb, he’d still be alive today to sigh in frustration. Sadly, he was able to make no such deal with God. He did, however, leave behind very explicit (and easy to find) words that can take the place of his sigh.
As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it [The Lord of the Rings] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical… The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or the conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed or but occupied (Fellowship, xiv-xv).
Okay, so maybe Tolkien doesn’t have to be alive still for you to hear his frustration on this topic.
LotR = Cats
Many of Waugh’s facts are correct, but the application is all wrong. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t not equal the Somme. The Lord of the Rings equals The Lord of the Rings. Yes, Tolkien was inspired by his own experiences of war. It would be weird for an author not to draw on some real life experience. Yes, LotR was written during a time of war. Lots of things are written when important world events are happening–that doesn’t mean all writing during that period is defined by that event.
Ultimately, there is no “meaning” of The Lord of the Rings. It is what it is. Any attempt to force a meaning or explanation onto the story is like trying to put a cat in a santa costume. All you get in the end is a cat who looks kind of stupid and goes limp. Most un-cat-like and therefore useless. If you find it amusing, go for it. But don’t try to say that you found your cat’s true purpose in life.
Photo Credit: Sylwia Bartyzel