A Casual Reader’s Thought of “Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I”

I have grown from a lanky schoolgirl who watched the first Lord of the Rings movie in an almost-dilapidated local cinema with my mouth gaped in wonder, to a serious book hoarder who read books that I had never imagined I would’ve read, such as The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien, and finally this one: Baptism of Fire: the Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. While I’ll forever envy the likes of Tom Shippey, Dimitra Fimi, Verlyn Flieger and John Garth for having a career that surrounds the works of Tolkien (not to mention the artists like Alan Lee, Ted Nasmith and Jenny Dolfen), I’m really happy to be immersed in Tolkien’s works, along with other books that help improving my understanding toward his modern mythology. 

baptism of fire

Baptism of Fire was the latest Tolkien-related work that I bought, about a year after Perilous and Fair; both of them were published by Mythopoeic Press. Edited by Janet Brennan Croft, these books contained collections of essays related to the topic. However, unlike Perilous and Fair that exclusively focuses on Tolkien (with mentions of other authors), Baptism of Fire focuses on The Inkling members such as Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield, plus non-Inkling authors such as Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lord Dunsany, and G. K. Chesterton (still, from 17 essays appear in this book, Tolkien is discussed in 7 essays, so it’s still something worth to read for all serious Tolkien lovers).

While Tolkien might have been adamant that Lord of the Rings is not “an allegory of war,” it is convenient to suggest that the war must have shaped the way he created his modern mythology. John Garth, whose biographical work Tolkien and the Great War received positive responses, described how the war shaped Tolkien’s way of creating his modern mythology. Furthermore, he even said that Tolkien might have not written at all without his experiences. According to Garth, the reason why Middle Earth mythology feels so familiar and eloquent is because “it was born with the modern world and marked by the same terrible birth pangs.”

I haven’t had a chance to buy Tolkien and the Great War (I did put it in future shopping list), but Baptism of Fire helped me understand what he meant. The more I read, the more I got these “aha moments” that helped me understand why some parts of the books, such as in LOTR, The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin, feel so darkly familiar, even when I read those books as a student with very limited knowledge about Tolkien. For example, since I studied psychology, I read a lot of materials about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including cases that happened to war veterans and disaster victims. In essays that discuss the effects of war and killing on Tolkien’s characters, such as The Shell-Shocked Hobbit and Wounded by War: Men’s Bodies in the Prose Tradition of The Children of Hurin, the authors explain how Tolkien portrayed these signs on Frodo after his adventure, and Turin after he accidentally kills Beleg. The essays also make comparisons with actual quotes from medical texts, so you get more detailed analysis.

However, while the book focuses on fantasy writing during World War I era, it is not just about the wound and trauma. Faramir and the Heroic Ideal of the Twentieth Century focuses on bigger scope: the way society perceived “heroism” and “ideal heroic traits” before and after WWI; a war that was marked with extensive use of technologically-advanced weaponry that totally altered the way modern warfare fought. Sméagol and Déagol: Secrecy, History and Ethical Subjectivity in Tolkien’s World surprised me when I finally read it for the first time, because who thought that Gollum is a great subject for an essay about espionage hysteria and secret movements during WWI era? Didn’t see that coming.

As for the non-Inkling essays, I instantly jumped to the page that discusses Sylvia Townsend Warner; partly because I really love Lolly Willowes, and partly because she was the only female author discussed in this book. From Lolly Willowes to Kingdom of Elfin discusses the socio-political commentaries that present in Warner’s fantasy story collection Kingdom of Elfin, and her satirical novel with a touch of fantasy; the aforementioned Lolly Willowes.  While the novel focuses on the failure of patriarchal society in addressing women’s plight and needs after the war, the short story collection portrays social division, prejudice and narrow-mindedness after the Great Wars, through the way the elves and humans interact in the stories.

T. H. White and the Lasting Influence of World War I, an essay that discusses T. H. White’s series of Arthurian legend novels The Once and Future king, was put in the last part of this book, and I think with good reason. Unlike many prominent British authors during the World War I era who had served in the army, he never did. However, as a civilian, T. H. White was very aware of what happened to soldiers who came back from the war. They had gone with images of glory and patriotism, but came back disillusioned and broken. They had given up jobs to serve, but when they came back, they found it hard to find employment; a story that is still too familiar in many countries even these days. The Once and Future King portrays Arthur as just; a young knight who fills his head with images of glory, idealized notion of chivalry, and how fun fighting would be, only to find out that his supposedly heroic acts to pursue glory (the Holy Grail mission) turned out to be the biggest blunder he has ever done for his own kingdom. After the second Gaelic War, Arthur still has this schoolboy-like thinking about winning and losing, until Merlyn (Merlin) reminds him about the death of “seven hundred kerns and one knight who falls from his horse.” Again, don’t you think this still sounds painfully familiar even today?

Overall, I can say that Baptism of Fire is another satisfying purchase I’ve ever made for a Tolkien-related book this year (well, Tolkien and other notable authors), the best one after Perilous and Fair that I bought last year. I usually tell everybody to just enjoy the book when reading, and not to think too much. However, sometimes it is very satisfying to try deciphering the secret message the authors might put in their works, whether unwittingly or not, to find greater understanding about this world through the stories these authors delivered.

In the end, I think Baptism of Fire is a proof of our worth as a human: yes, we have lots of flaws, but we also have abilities to turn the horrors of wars into something beautiful and insightful at the same time. Quoting a random Tweet I once saw, I just want to say: “if only we paid more attention to these literary prophets!”


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