Yesterday, I watched The Force Awakens for the third time, and this weekend, my wife and I are wrapping up a Harry Potter marathon we’ve had going with the kids. I’ve been reminded of a literary insight I’ve long held about these (and many other) fantasy stories. My insight isn’t particularly insightful, I suppose, nor original. I’m sure this has been much better articulated in a number of other essays by much better essayists, but I’ve been espousing it to my friends and students for a long time, and it deserves to be in the Past Go canon. It is simply this: The Second World War is a rich source of repeated metaphorical reference in speculative fiction. There are probably ten thousand examples, not even including the film and literature that use the actual, historical war as their setting. I would like to briefly touch upon three to make my point, which will be Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings.
For reference purposes, there are a few facts about the war we should list. Let’s number them for ease of reference:
- Hitler and the Nazis sought global domination and hierarchical subjugation of perceived “undesirables.” Hitler used political machinations to propel himself from humble origins to a position of absolute power over the state.
- Among the “undesirables,” the Jews were perceived “least desirable of all,” and they were systematically demonized and disenfranchised, leading towards a campaign intent on total extermination.
- The Second World War was in many ways a resurgence of the First World War. They are separated by only a couple of decades, and many of the participants in the First continued to play major roles in the Second, with the addition of the next generation of soldiers/politicians.
- Hitler took Germany’s defeat in the First World War as a personal offense and plotted a second war largely as a vendetta. Meanwhile, as Hitler gradually rose in power, the League of Nations was impotent to stop his repeated aggression, and those who saw the writing on the wall, like Churchill, were dismissed as groundless doomsayers by those who were too afraid to prepare for the worst.
- The war was ultimately won by the Allies with a combination of state-of-the-art battlefield technology (such as aerial combat and the atomic bombs) and extremely critical and near-hopeless espionage efforts (such as the capture of German cipher machines and misinformation efforts like Operation Mincemeat).
Having established these, let’s proceed to my examples. I’ll structure each one with a parallel format so my points are as obvious as possible.
Thanks to the fact that there are still new installments coming out in this franchise, this is the most recent and least obvious parallel of my examples, but it still works. Observe:
- Emperor Palpatine and the imperial forces sought galactic domination and the subjugation of alien races. This xenophobia isn’t particularly pronounced in the films, but it is in the expanded universe materials. Meanwhile, it was Palpatine who used political machinations to propel himself from humble origins to a position of absolute power over the state.
- Among “undesirables,” the Jedi were perceived “least desirable of all,” and they were systematically exterminated.
- We can pick the parallels we want on this one, since the Star Wars saga has so many wars, but the war against the Empire in the original trilogy is essentially a resurgence of the Clone Wars, which at first were presented as mere backdrop in A New Hope. We might also take Return of the Jedi and the second Death Star as a resurgence of the Empire’s efforts in the first, though this lacks the generational component. If we want to look at the newest installment, the First Order is a resurgence of the Empire and is attempting to “finish what was started.” In this case, the generational reference is very relevant. (And of course, let’s not overlook the gigantic, long, vertical red banners with the round black insignia streaming in the very Nurembergish scene on Star Killer Base.)
- Building on that last point, Kylo Ren is obviously taking this conflict extremely personally. We haven’t gotten to really see Kylo Ren’s rise to power, but we did see all the puppeteering that Palpatine orchestrated, and we woefully shook our heads while the morons in government idly sat by and not only allowed it to happen, but actually voted in favor of it. Shameful.
- Finally, one of the great selling points of the Star Wars franchise has been the action-packed battle sequences. Land assault scenes are rich with infantry and armored imagery, the the many dogfights between X-Wings v. TIE-fighters are definite throwbacks to all the great fighter-pilot movies. All the while, these knights of the air are regularly assisted by covert operations on variations iterations of the Death Star to lower shields, assassinate the leader, etc.
Being the first of my two British authors (the British seem to me most adept at WWII metaphors), J.K. Rowling drew extensively on cultural memory in her plot and characterizations.
- Voldemort and the Death Eaters sought global domination and the hierarchical subjugation of “undesirables.” Though not in politics himself, Voldemort’s closest minions ultimately infiltrate the Ministry of Magic in order to carry out their master’s agenda in the socio-political arena, and under the auspices of “legitimacy” and “protection.”
- Among “undesirables,” Muggles are perceived “least desirable of all,” and they are systematically demonized and disenfranchised, leading towards a campaign intent on total extermination.
- The events of the Harry Potter series, especially starting with The Order of the Phoenix, are a resurgence of the problems faced by the generation of Harry’s parents, which had culminated in their deaths and the first destruction of Voldemort beside Harry’s crib. Many of those same characters live on, and in fact have been working to prevent the return of the Dark Lord during the “interwar period,” now aided by this younger generation of Hogwart’s witches and wizards.
- Voldemort’s very personal obsession with killing Harry is of Ahabian proportions—to the point where he makes strategically unsound decisions in the interest of this private vendetta. Meanwhile, even after the murder of Cedric Diggory, and despite all evidence to the contrary, the Ministry of Magic was willfully ignorant to Voldemort’s return, and those who saw the writing on the wall, like Dumbledore, were dismissed, defamed, and even persecuted.
- The story focuses mostly on the covert efforts of the Order of the Phoenix (both old and young) to protect Harry and to seek out and destroy the Horcruxes, each secretly located deep within enemy-controlled areas. The quest is nearly impossible and of the utmost secrecy. However, behind the scenes, Dumbledore engages in frantic reconnaissance and diplomatic entreaty with the various races, trying to form alliances in preparation for the full-scale war he knows is coming. Neither effort can result in victory alone: both most succeed, and both are highly unlikely to do so.
Tolkien’s masterpiece is the crème de la crème of World War II metaphors, and the closest in time to the actual events. Tolkien himself served in the First World War, and nearly in the Second as well. More than a magical reenactment, as Rowling’s might be seen, Tolkien’s fantasy is largely a personal recollection.
- Sauron and the minions of Mordor seek domination of Middle Earth and the hierarchical subjugation of all other races through distribution of the Rings of Power, with the One Ring notoriously ruling them all. Sauron came to his political position by exploiting the absence of his exiled master, Morgoth, and through shape-shifting and deception of other kingdom leaders in his younger years. Some of this is articulated in The Lord of the Rings, but much of Sauron and Morgoth’s backstory has to be found in the Silmarillion.
- I can’t think of a particular race that Sauron hated more than all, but here’s a bonus feature: The geographic layout of Middle Earth parallels Europe. On the westernmost coast, there is a great sea that leads to the mystical land Valinor—conceptually similar to Europeans’ perception of the New World in the 16th century. Meanwhile, Hobbiton is in the northwest, where Britain would be oriented, and Mordor is in the southeast, where Germany/Austria would be oriented. The lands of the north are cold (Scandinavia), and the lands to the far east are scarcely mentioned, but seem to be culturally different from the rest of Middle Earth (Russia and possibly East Asia).
- The War of the Ring as depicted in the trilogy, set during the setting’s Third Age, is a resurgence of the events of the Second Age, when Sauron was first defeated by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, and the Ring was lost. Although far more than 20 years had past between these great epochs (we’re talking millennia here), we’re also dealing with fantasy races who have extremely long lives, so the parallel is the same. Many of the characters who fought Sauron during the Second Age were still alive to guide the younger generation fighting in the Third Age. It’s also worth noting that the German Empire of the First World War was designated the Second Reich, while the Nazi Regime called itself the Third Reich.
- It was always personal for Sauron. He wanted to be God. Meanwhile, there remained this period of relative peace between the two cataclysms, during which time the peoples went about their various petty feuds and fell into a false sense of security, thinking that Sauron had been vanquished for good.
- There are two simultaneous plot threads in The Lord of the Rings. On the one hand, we have these massive, medieval conflicts between the great armies and Gandalf’s attempts to forge tenuous alliances between them (U.S.A. & U.S.S.R.?). At the same time, under the radar, we have this nearly impossible covert mission of a small band of Hobbits to infiltrate the enemy’s capital and destroy the most powerful weapon of all. Neither effort can result in victory alone: both most succeed, and both are highly unlikely to do so.
Without a doubt, a closer inspection of any of these stories (or ten thousand others) will reveal scores of other, minor references/parallels, whether simple visual cues or surrounding plot. Just last night, my wife and I were reading up on the history of the Elder Wand in the Harry Potter universe, and it turns out that fascism in the Wizarding World circa 1933-1945 was even more closely aligned with Nazism than Voldemort’s brand in the 1990s. So the potential for drawing on this rich, historical setting is endless. And we never seem to tire of it, either, given the proliferation of not only fantastical WWII-metaphors, but also of straight-forward WWII films and documentaries as well. Clearly, the Second World War persists as one of our most important human legacies, and (pseudo-)Nazis are our most favorite characters to hate.
What other WWII metaphor stories can you think of? You are invited to respond to this or offer any other comments below.