Many have siphoned their wartime experiences into their literature later on in life, even in fiction. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, J.D. Salinger, T.S. Eliot — be it on the civilian side or the military, it has been a creative outlet for many who wish to express those feelings in a manner more digestible than a simple retelling of the facts.
Two soldiers, who coincidentally served in the same war and in the same major Battle of the Somme, would go on to write epic fantasy series, and would even become friends with one another later in life — C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis wrote the Narnia series, and Tolkien invented Middle Earth, and both wrote several books in their respective universes.
If one would think of a fantasy novel written by two combat veterans of WWI, they would probably think of the epic battles. Of dragons and lions, or thousands of men slaughtering thousands more on a field. They might think of orcs or the White Witch as a metaphor for historical antagonistic forces.
But there is something else that fills the pages of the novels by both of these authors. It’s something that even today’s military veterans might smirk at and shake their heads. Both authors have their battles, usually a culminating fight at the climax of the book. Both have their heroes and their villains. But above all, both have a whole lot of walking.
Go back and read “Lord of the Rings.” The battle at Helm’s Deep is pretty epic, not to mention the battle at Minas Tirith. But what fills up page after page? Walking. They walk, they walk, and then they walk some more. Frodo and Sam endlessly plod across Middle Earth, Gollum at their front. A huge part of the first book is a ruck march to Rivendell, promptly followed by more rucking, periodically broken up with various engagements with the enemy or breaks in their journey. If you watch the movies, it’s no different. Much of it is “on the road,” and the characters are speaking to one another as they lumber across the mystical world.
The Narnia books have these same elements, especially “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The children, on their magical journey into Narnia, find that they are walking from place to place more than they’re doing anything else. Little Lucy comes to a point where she has tunnel vision and is entirely focused on the feet of the magical creature leading them on their march. These long walks are followed by a fight or an ambush that is over just as quickly as it started — followed by more walking.
No doubt this is a direct reflection of the experiences of Lewis and Tolkien. After all, most fantasy authors do not focus on such things. Their books tend to be composed of fantastical battle after fantastical battle, or pages filled with magic and awe — not endless ruck marching. In reality, firefights are sporadic and decided very quickly, and this is even truer now than it was in WWI. As the lethality of wartime technology increases, time in battle tends to decrease. That’s not to say these books don’t have long battles; it’s just that those battles are bookended with an obscene amount of walking. If one finds that they have to walk across an entire country to or from a battle — well, that’s going to take a long time, whether you’re in Afghanistan, France, or Middle Earth.
War might change, but it seems that rucking does not.
Featured image: Soldiers returned to the U.S. from France after the Great War march in a homecoming parade in Madison Square, New York City, 1918. In the background is the Flatiron building. | AP Photo