Chapter 8 Worlds after War: Negotiating the Art of Losing in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

In: Where To From Here? Examining Conflict-Related and Relational Interaction Trauma
Stephanie Y. Tam
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‘How was it that Tolkien … could have gone through the Great War with all of its rants and lies and still come out committed to a “feudal” literary style?’ Hugh Brogan’s query captures the critical response of bewilderment towards the Great War veteran J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, his fantastical epic of Middle-earth rich with medieval influences. What could the turn to fantasy and the recuperation of chivalric and out-dated convictions offer for a nation and author recovering from such traumatic devastation? This paper critically investigates how the problematic of memory invites continuous reflection in a number of issues that emerge in the aftermath of war: the end of a chivalric tradition that opened the way for new literary aesthetics, posttraumatic demands on memory and melancholia, and fantasies of reconstruction in a post-war period of disillusionment. My research problematizes the commonly assumed disjunction between the abstract world of aesthetics and fantasy and the gritty politics of war and power. I argue that Tolkien’s literary turn to medievalism and myth provides an alternative to the modernist response to post-war trauma. He revises the chivalric tropes of sacrifice and surrender as a logical ethical and aesthetic response to the brutality of war and the dilemma it raises: how to commemorate the dead, while displacing the logic of war itself. I highlight the importance of negotiating the trauma of war through ‘the art of losing,’ the narrative by which the lament of loss tempers the valorisation of violence.

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