Hal G. P. Colebatch: Why we’re drawn to catastrophe stories

Literature, the Soft Life and the Catastrophe

 Words by Hal G. P. Colebatch


Early in The Lord of the Rings Frodo Baggins says of the rustic inhabitants of his home, The Shire, that he had often thought that they were too dull and stupid for words, and that an Earthquake or an invasion of dragons would do them good.

He doesn’t mean it, of course, and when the call comes he risks, and in a sense sacrifices, his life to save them from just such a fate.

Most of us have probably felt like Frodo at some time. H. G. Wells pioneered many of the great themes of science-fiction including interplanetary invasion and time-travel. He also, in The War in the Air and other stories, pioneered the “domestic catastrophe.”


Written just after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, it tells of a great war in the air which spreads around the world. Frontiers, front lines and neutral zones become meaningless, and there is a general collapse of civilization. The hero, an Englishman named Bert Smallway, is a typical lower-middle-class townsman, who, discovering an unexpected streak of ruthlessness and daring in himself, ends up as a clan chief in a Britain that has returned to feudalism. Previously too timid to approach a girl who attracts him, he now disposes of his rival in love by the simple but effective expedient of shooting him in the back.

There were also about this time a large number of “invasion novels” dealing with predominantly French, later German, attacks on England, but these were generally more concerned with straight-out military problems than with psychological and cultural ones. Australia had a number of equivalent novels, mainly dealing with the “yellow peril” and Chinese or Japanese conquest. (At least one of these was promoted by politician Alfred Deakin to help terrify the Australian States into Federation). Again, however, these were largely simple political tracts.

            One theme of The War in the Air was also present in Wells’ great novels The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, and also touched upon in his The History of Mr Polly: they all contain pictures of “soft” cosy, civilized people confronted with catastrophic violence and terror and unable to cope with it. The first hint in The Time Machine that something is terribly wrong is made  with a beautiful subtlety: meeting for the first time a crowd of Eloi, the beautiful race dwelling at ease upon the surface of the Earth in the distant future, Wells’ time-traveller notices (with no more than puzzlement) that there are no old people among them.
            In The History of Mr Polly, Wells describes two brawling shop-keepers:
            “There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age, untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another - of which the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn and twisted collars.”

(That story was published in 1910. The protagonists would soon acquire their fill of expertise.)

These were quite different to the Victorian and Edwardian heroes of John Buchan, Rider Haggard or even Kipling: soldiers, engineers, hunters, brave, tough and capable men, able to handle a savage environment – the ideal of the knight brought up to date. These heroic adventurers, however, were individuals, who, one way or another had gone seeking the adventurous life of action and self-reliance and were prepared for it. The image of the unprepared society or community was something quite different. Some of Kipling’s writing was in this general area – his Roman centurions protected a fragile civilization from the barbarism outside. Gibbon in the 18th Century had been aware of the same thing, when he wrote that in the declining Roman Empire “Prosperity had relaxed the nerve of discipline.”

One image of The War in the Air that lodges in the memory is the survivors of post-catastrophe England waddling about in winter swathed in layers of newspaper which has otherwise become useless. They do not know how to weave or shear sheep, and have few other ways of keeping warm. The adaptable eventually survive, though their lives are relatively poor, nasty, brutish and short. The rest perish quickly.

That much-overlooked writer John Christopher tells in The Death of Grass how a virus kills all the grasses – which includes all the wheat and rice as well all the grazing grass. A small fraction of the human race may survive on roots like potatoes and fruits. Those not able to think in terms of survival and getting hold of weapons and defensible and productive land, die (P. G. Wodehouse reversed the catastrophe convention: all his novels can be seen as occurring in a sunny, cosy England in which the catastrophe of the First World War had not occurred. Indeed nothing really tragic had ever happened. Perhaps there is some connection between this and the fact that when he was swept up by the Second World War, he did not know how to cope, and as a civilian internee he foolishly but innocently made broadcasts for his German captors).

The catastrophe and the question of civilized man’s ability to meet it seem to have been never too far submerged beneath the apparently placid surface of late Victorian and Edwardian complacency. As Wells’ time-traveller, observing the effete, helpless humans of the distant future reflected: “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!”

It seems to have been an idea which also haunted Tolkien. Some of his hobbits show unexpected reserves of toughness, but towards the end of the story we find that the inhabitants of the Shire have also become somewhat over-civilized and have allowed themselves to be bullied and tyrannised by the evil wizard Saruman, even though he has been stripped of his magic powers.

The hobbits returning from the Quest of destroying the evil Ring, toughened by wars and adventures, soon rouse the rest to throw Saruman and his henchmen out, but we see the Shire Hobbits have gradually lost initiative and the spirit of independent action. As one farmer who had tried to do something previously said, “folks wouldn’t help.”

One of the saddest aspects of The Lord of the Rings is that one closes it with the knowledge that the hobbits are doomed. Their country, although, or even because, it is now protected by the good King Elessar, has shrunk from an independent land to a reservation.

In an early draft of The Lord of The Rings Tolkien said the hobbits are now becoming extinct, and though this is not specifically stated in the book as finally published, enough is said to make it obvious. King Elessar, after the evil experience of Saruman, forbids men to enter the Shire, but before this no such ban was necessary – the hobbits had looked after themselves.

In an attack on The Lord of the Rings the left-wing writer Michael Moorcock claimed that it celebrated insularity:


“The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are “safe”, but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are “dangerous”. Experience of life itself is dangerous.”


Moorcock’s ideologically-based criticism is in general untrammelled by inconvenient facts, and this was in fact the opposite of one of the points The Lord of the Rings is repeatedly making – the Hobbits of the Shire (which can indeed be taken as England) were in danger partly because they were not experienced or interested in what was happening beyond their borders.

In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said the Hobbits saw the Shire:


as a district of well-ordered business, and there in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living; and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved, until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule of middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk. They forgot or ignored what little they had ever learned of the Guardians, and of the labours of those that made possible the long peace of the shire. They were in fact sheltered, but they had ceased to remember it.


They were forgetting that the world contained “the high and perilous.” Even the strong Tom Bombadil, who was not a hobbit but some sort of nature-spirit, and had withdrawn into his own country, was in danger unless others protected him. Indeed throughout The Lord of the Rings various people on the good side are endangered by their reluctance to look outwards and confront an enemy growing ever stronger. This complacency, or perhaps reluctance to face gathering peril, nearly destroys even the wise Ents and Elves and the valiant, martial men of Rohan and Gondor. It seems an endemic and nearly fatal flaw of the good side and must be


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