The dragon will always get through — IV

So, as I was saying, there doesn't seem to be much evidence about what was on Tolkien's mind when he was writing The Hobbit, in particular about the issue of aerial warfare. For example, I don't know what he made of the bombing of Guernica, which took place about 5 months before The Hobbit (and I stress again that this might just be because I have not done the requisite research!) However, we might be able to make an educated guess from his feelings as expressed just a few years later, during the Second World War. Of course, the aerial bombardments of that war itself, from Warsaw to Hiroshima and all points in between, would have given Tolkien ample food for thought. But so strong is his hatred of the bomber war in the 1940s that it seems unlikely that it wasn't there in some form in the 1930s.

The following is a quote from a manuscript Tolkien wrote during the war ('in the middle of this war'), apparently thoughts on the internal combustion engine, but in this section he talks about the aeroplane (he didn't like cars either). It's the most direct and sustained piece of writing I've found by him on the subject of aviation.

As for the aeroplane, that has been even more unfortunate. It was fledged just in time to be baptized in blood, to become a chief exemplar in our time of the dreadful potency of Original Sin. Clumsy, and, in spite of its growing complexity, inefficient machine, in comparison with its high object, it has taken the menacing shape not of birds but of fish-like or saurian monsters, and it defies and overrides all privacies, and scatters over all quietitudes the deadly roar of its parent den; at unawares it may fall in ruin on the frail houses of men, burning and crushing them at play, or by their hearths, or working in their gardens. This 'in peace'. War it has raised to a mass-production of slaughter. Yet a man -- yes, in the middle of this war -- trotted out this argument to me: 'You can talk,' he said, 'but if your child was dangerously ill, and the only specialist was in America, you would be only too glad to use a plane.' That dates it: a little earlier the specialist lived in Vienna. So to save the life of that hypothetical child by the supposed skill of an imaginary specialist (who might not succeed), hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, are to be blown to rags and burned, and half the remaining beautiful things of saner centuries with them. It would seem rather more economical to have a few more doctors more handily placed. I would be too brutally 'realistic' to suggest that the poor child must die, if it can only be saved by a machine with so terrible a potential of murder. It is all right if it is done by a machine. It might be regarded as odd if I sacrificed even one other man on an altar to gain the favour of the gods.

The question to be asked, of course, is not "Would you try to save your child's life by using an aeroplane now -- in a situation that you did not make or will?; but "Would you will such a situation to save your child's life?" The answer to the first question is: yes, let Moloch bring doctors for once, if he can. The answer to the second is just: no.1

I've emphasised the most interesting bits. The aeroplane is 'a chief exemplar in our time of the dreadful potency of Original Sin' (Tolkien had a strong Catholic faith, so this phrasing is not casual). It has the 'menacing shape' of 'fish-like or saurian monsters' (hello, Smaug!) It has turned war into 'a mass-production of slaughter' (presumably contrasting it with a more noble warfare in the past). It destroys civilians and culture alike, on an enormous scale. The second part of the extract, recounting the argument he had with an (alas, unidentified) airminded man, is significant because it suggests he didn't confine his opinions to his manuscripts, but was prepared to speak out against this modern horror.

During the war Tolkien kept up a correspondence with his youngest son, Christopher, partly as a sounding board during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. As it happens, Christopher joined the RAF in 1943 and trained as a pilot in South Africa, though what type of aircraft he trained for I don't know. He was commissioned and stationed in Shropshire from March 1945; he might not have seen combat at that late date. (Another of Tolkien's sons, Michael, was also in the RAF, as an air gunner in Bomber Command who flew missions over Germany; he was invalided out in 1944.) As might be expected, aeroplanes cropped up in Tolkien's letters to Christopher; there are three references in the published collection, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (which Christopher had a hand in).

This is from a letter dated 9 July 1944; Tolkien first allows that machines are invented to make life better, but they only end up making life worse.

And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil. So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom! This terrible truth, glimpsed long ago by Sam Butler, sticks out so plainly and is so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse menace for the future, that it seems almost a world wide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive it. Even if people have ever heard the legends (which is getting rarer) they have no inkling of their portent [...] Well, I have got over 2 thousand words onto this little flimsy airletter; and I will forgive the Mordor-gadgets some of their sins, if they will bring it quickly to you.2

Note his reference at the end to aeroplanes as 'Mordor-gadgets'. That's not a compliment.

In a letter dated 19 December 1944, Tolkien speaks forthrightly of his dismay that Christopher was serving 'this modern Moloch' (the Carthaginians were said to have burned their children alive inside a statue in the likeness of their god Moloch; a reference he also made in the Bodleian manuscript quoted above):

But I fear an Air Force is a fundamentally irrational thing per se. I could wish dearly that you had nothing to do with anything so monstrous. It is in fact a sore trial to me that any son of mine should serve this modern Moloch. But such wishes are vain, and it is, I clearly understand, your duty to do as well in such service as you have the strength and aptitude to do. In any case, it is only a kind of squeamishness, perhaps, like a man who enjoys steak and kidney (or did), but would not be connected with the butchery business. As long as war is fought with such weapons, and one accepts any profits that may accrue (such as preservation of one's skin and even 'victory') it is merely shirking the issue to hold war-aircraft in special horror. I do so all the same.3

Even though he tries to be understanding, he still holds 'war-aircraft in special horror'.

Tolkien said much the same, though with less sympathy, in a letter to Christopher of 29 May 1945:

But it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain. And nothing can really amend my grief that you, my best beloved, have any connexion with it. My sentiments are more or less those that Frodo would have had if he discovered some Hobbits learning to ride Nazgûl-birds, 'for the liberation of the Shire'.4

This is the source of the title for my proposed chapter: Tolkien created some very memorable villains, ultimate evils, so for him to say 'it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain' is significant. So too is his likening Christopher's RAF service, though undoubtedly in a good cause, to 'Hobbits learning to ride Nazgûl-birds, "for the liberation of the Shire".' Tolkien famously despised allegory. But such passages make it clear that he nevertheless saw deep and intimate connections between the world he created in his mind and the world he lived in; the one illuminated the other.

That's about all I have to say on Tolkien and the aeroplane (though I haven't talked about the fear of observation by the crebain and the winged Nazgûl in The Lord of the Rings, maybe an echo of the nakedness felt by infantrymen when enemy aircraft were overhead). Perhaps there's nothing more to be said; perhaps some real research would turn up much more. But I think I've made a reasonably strong, if not particularly cogent, circumstantial case that airpower penetrated Tolkien's legendarium more deeply than one might have thought.

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  1. Bodleian, Tolkien MS. 14 Folios 22-3, quoted in Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories (2008) -- but I found it here (I've corrected obvious typos; all emphases in this post are mine). I haven't been able to look at this book, as academic libraries here seem to turn their noses up at Tolkien studies; only public libraries carry this and similar works. []
  2. Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (London, Boston and Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), letter 75. []
  3. Ibid., letter 92. []
  4. Ibid., letter 100. []

10 thoughts on “The dragon will always get through — IV

  1. What about the black clouds that Sauron sends over during the siege of Gondor? In my mind that connects with Billy Bragg's line 'Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers'. Obviously not strictly contemporary, but was the idea of huge numbers of aircraft blotting out the sun part of knock-out blow fears in the 1930s, and was BB referencing that in 'Between the Wars'?

  2. Great stuff again ... I think you've done a rather good job of establishing JRR's dystopian airmindedness. Perhaps the problem with the original proposal was the narrow chronological scope of the book itself: it seems as though all the really strong evidence you have is post-1939, and it's hard to pin anything down which specifically relates to the period in which The Hobbit was written. Still, I think their project was the poorer for not including this.

  3. Urban Garlic

    Great stuff, again. I've been pretty engaged with this bit, partially because in my mis-spent youth playing D&D, it sometimes bugged me that the fantasy-world architecture was so recognizably European-medieval, when the D&D world clearly had many kinds of magical attacks, including and especially aerial attacks, that seemed to make open-topped castles and walled cities rather moot. On the other hand, most of our scenarios seemed to be in labyrinthine dungeons in the hearts of mountains, so perhaps it wasn't so far off after all.

    Anyways, I was reminded of that while reading this, and I thank you for it.

  4. Neil Datson

    All good stuff, Brett.

    But aren't you missing something? After all, Tolkien used to meet up with C S Lewis and other pals in the Eagle and Child in St Giles, notorious for its sign depicting a poor, innocent, foundling being snatched up by a terrible hawk . . .

    Actually, now I come to scrape the dim corners of my memory, wasn't one of the hobbits recovered from Mt Doom by a good eagle? So maybe it played on his mind in a positive way. So natural use of air, by birds etc = good. Unnatural use of air by dragons, nazguls and aeroplanes = bad. Or something like that.

  5. Post author

    Thanks all!


    That's interesting, I hadn't thought of that. To me a cloud like that suggests poison gas, though I can't recall if it had any physical effect on people. But there could be a danger in taking things too far... I wouldn't want to give the impression that Tolkien inserted airpower references all over the shop!

    About 'clouds' of bombers: surprisingly, I don't think this was much of a trope during the interwar period. At least it's not one that has stuck in my mind, and I can't find many references to such images in my notes (it appears in 2 or 3 novels, e.g. Miles' The Gas War of 1940 (1931).) Shadows are more common, e.g. the shadow of the Zeppelin even before WWI, or a 1935 Conservative poster I've posted about before. It does seem like a natural image to use... which raises the question, why would it be natural for us now but not them then?


    Yes, I think that was a big part of the problem. The book is going to be about The Hobbit and history, and while I really wanted to talk about Smaug there was just a frustrating lack of evidence there, so I was having to talk around him, so to speak. If it had been Tolkien and history I might have had more luck.


    Ah, perhaps not surprisingly I had a similarly misspent youth. I don't think I ever noticed that problem, but you're quite right. It must say something about the ways in which we use the past, in this case the 'medieval' one. It never changes. The same way there's always a king and nobles and a feudal system, there's no sense of contingency or evolution.


    And Tolkien sent his boys to the Dragon School! But I tend to think Beowulf more influential than either of these...

    Yes, I'm sure you're right about the good/bad aspects of Tolkien's airpower. But the mention of the Eagles and Mount Doom shows how un-airminded he really was. It's a common fan complaint to ask why the Council of Elrond didn't send a message to Gwaihir saying, 'hey, instead of rescuing people at the last minute (which we are very grateful for, of course) couldn't you like take the Ring, fly over Mount Doom, and just drop it in? Would save us all a lot of trouble.'

  6. ajay

    It's a common fan complaint to ask why the Council of Elrond didn't send a message to Gwaihir saying, 'hey, instead of rescuing people at the last minute (which we are very grateful for, of course) couldn't you like take the Ring, fly over Mount Doom, and just drop it in? Would save us all a lot of trouble.'

    IIRC it was because the hobbits only get rescued after the Ring has been destroyed, taking with it all the airborne Nazgul. If the Eagles had tried to get through earlier they would have been torn to bits by enemy aircraft.

  7. Post author

    Well, I don't think so: at the time of the Council the Ringwraiths had been unhorsed at the Bruinen ford and didn't become airborne until they'd gone back to Mordor. The perfect moment to call up Gwaihir for the job, instead of coming up with some damn-fool plan to send the Ring to Mount Doom ON FOOT carried by a HOBBIT. There's no evidence from LOTR that I can recall that Mordor had any other air defences as such. Tolkien could have made up some reason for why the Eagles couldn't be used but I doubt he ever thought to do so.

    Which of course is the point: Tolkien wasn't thinking in airpower terms. His writing may have incorporated some aspects of it but he didn't have a fully integrated vision of how airpower worked in warfare or in Middle Earth etc. And why should he have done, after all?

  8. Lester

    This series was fascinating, thank you. I had read about the influence of the first world war on Tolkien in a few places, but the connection of Smaug to the knockout blow is new to me and a great idea!

    (on the subject of "ON FOOT carried by a HOBBIT": I assume you've seen "Boromir's Catapult"?)

  9. Maybe Gwaihir makes more sense as an allegorical representation of the Calvinist God than as a literal thing that flies. Frodo is in a state of complete despair thinking that he can't possibly escape but then he's arbitrarily saved by an inscrutable deus ex machina. If the eagles aren't interested in taking the ring to Mount Doom in the first place then maybe we can conclude that they haven't saved Frodo because of the good work that he'd done by destroying the ring and it's just predestined that they appear at that point and not before.

    Or have I just spent too much time reading and writing about puritans?

    And a second thought on the sky dark with bombers thing: maybe it comes later in the war with thousand plane raids and airborne divisions. I also remembered the scene in A Bridge Too Far where all the planes fly over the church, but that's mostly about the noise.

  10. Post author


    As I say, it was Alun's idea :) And no, I hadn't... but Boromir's right!


    Sounds plausible to me! Why not write it up as a series of blog posts? :)

    Apparently when Bomber Command started routing its streams over London very late in war (which they could then do because they now didn't have to worry about the Luftwaffe) there were complaints from civilians about the noise!

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