Disenchantment Renders Failure Meaningless

I recently finished a book entitled “Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth” by John Garth. For Tolkien fans, it is a delightfully insightful journey through his days just before and during the formative years of World War I. John Garth’s perspective and narrative are equal to the monumental task of artfully reporting these moments relative to Tolkien’s life and providing insights into the early years of this literary titan. For me, the details of Tolkien’s early writing were fascinating but it is Garth’s review of Tolkien relative to his time that provides lessons for those of us living in 2018.

Late in the book, Garth offers a fascinating analysis of Tolkien’s world view in contrast to that of other writers post WWI which powerfully captures the woeful disenchantment shared by a generation of young men who lived through that brutal conflict. As these soldiers returned to civilization and began writing about their experiences, they lamented the pointlessness of the conflict and of war in general. A generation of patriots had gone to war and returned disenchanted; with the war, with their country, and in some cases, with life.

Tolkien never really wrote of WWI but he did write the seeds of what would turn into the world we know as Middle Earth and his writing suggests that he rejected the disenchantment of much of his generation. This excerpt from the book captures it:

“Tolkien stands against disenchantment in both its literal and metaphorical senses; indeed, they cannot strictly be separated in his work. The disenchanted view, metaphorically speaking, is that failure renders effort meaningless. In contrast, Tolkien’s protagonists are heroes not because of their successes, which are often limited, but because of their courage and tenacity in trying. By implication, worth cannot be measured by results alone, but is intrinsic.”

Worth cannot be measured by results alone, but is intrinsic. What radical words in our results-driven world! Today, the end goal justifies, or fails to justify, whatever we endure to get there. When we come up short all is lost. Post World War I, soldiers lost sight of the incredible valor and honor that emerged in the midst of the carnage. To celebrate those commendable moments would somehow rationalize the pointlessness of the War. The resulting disenchantment removes the value of the experience by refusing to honor those moments; it works to render the sacrifices meaningless.

How many times have we despaired over the “meaninglessness” of something we or someone else has suffered? Such is the nature of despair. In doing so, we allow disenchantment to mar the intrinsic value of the journey. This is not to say that we need to celebrate suffering but instead seek the good that often emerges from it. In the midst of great sacrifice, valor often exists and it should be celebrated because it has great worth; not necessarily because of its outcome but intrinsically.

Wars provide extremes that allow us to gauge the span of the good and the bad.  With hindsight, we might gain perspective on the broad scope and its implications; within we find the stories that show moments worthy of celebration in spite of their brutal context. The panorama narrows in our day-to-day existence and perspective becomes more difficult to maintain.  When we fall into disenchantment, we render our suffering meaningless. When we despair in the difficulties, we lessen the value of our loss and give our power away. In that place, we are the victim of our own story.

Consider the Tolkien view. If the worth of experience is intrinsic, then we have gained by experiencing it, surviving it, and moving forward from it; no matter the difficulties. This is not to suggest that we enjoyed it, are happy about it, or want to experience it again. We learn from experience. We grow from experience. We open the door to hope when we acknowledge the value in what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown, or simply the fact that we survived. Disenchantment and despair render the experience meaningless when we don’t recognize that we’ve become something more through it.

This week, think about your own life and where you might be experiencing disenchantment. Have you given your power away to another person or a difficult challenge? Have you lessened the worth of your experience by allowing despair to seep into your day? Tolkien believed that there was great magic in our world and, for him, enchantment was literal and figurative. Look a bit more closely at your life and your challenges, perhaps there is enchantment within if you open your eyes to it.


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