How J.R.R. Tolkien’s Personal Experience With World War I Impacted Lord of the Rings

By Darkone - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
April 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IBritish EmpireWarHistoryMilitary

How J.R.R. Tolkien’s Personal Experience With World War I Impacted Lord of the Rings

A harrowing tale.

The War Reflected in Tolkien’s Books

After the war’s end in 1918, Tolkien worked as an associate professor before he became a full professor of Anglo-Saxon languages at Oxford University. He continued to work on his novels, beginning with The Hobbit in 1937. Although he denied that World War I had any influence on his subsequent writing, warfare permeates Tolkien’s Middle-Earth just as it permeated Europe in the first half of the 20th century. No writer can divorce himself from the fires of his own experience—if he did, he would have nothing to write about. Contradicting himself later, Tolkien admitted that his stories had been “quickened to full life by war.”

Tolkien and his three friends are reflected in the four Hobbits—Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin—in the wildly popular trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbits’ long journey from the verdant fields of the Shire to the barren, evil land of Mordor neatly mirrors Tolkein and his friends’ journey from green England to the ruined stretches of northern France. Endlessly marching, they leave the West to battle a dark power in the East, much as real-life British soldiers did. The characteristics of Tolkien’s friends appear in the Hobbit’s personalities. The fun-loving G.B. Smith, for instance, serves as the model for Pippin. Sampson Gamgee, a well-known Edwardian doctor who invented Gamgee Tissue used in surgery, lent his name to Tolkien’s character Sam Gamgee, who himself was a composite of the men he had fought beside. “My Sam Gamgee,” Tolkien remembered, “is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”

A vast array of Tolkien’s imagery could have been lifted directly from a World War I battlefield guide. There are the Dead Marshes, for example, “a place where the dead lay underneath a noxious film of stagnant water,” and the “Noman-lands” arid and lifeless, “choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey and pocked with great holes.” Hobbits Frodo and Sam take cover in craters much like shell holes, and a “foul sump of oily many-coloured ooze lay at its bottom.” Mordor’s fumes recall the Germans’ use of mustard gas, while the white and gray mud is similar to the deadly sucking muck of the Somme, where the chalky ground had been pulverized by artillery barrages. “The Dead Marshes,” Tolkien freely admitted, “and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”

Among the great attractions of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth are the realistic landscape descriptions and detailed maps he created for his imagined lands, reflecting the skills he had learned in map-reading and drawing courses at Army signalers school. Much of Tolkien’s world—the Hobbit holes, trolls’ caves, underground Dwarf and Elf kingdoms—mirrors the subterranean existence he experienced on the front lines in France, living in fetid trenches and deep dugouts.

Tolkien’s love of huge and heroic battles, such as the fall of Gondolin in The Silmarillion, the Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit, or the great war epic in The Lord of the Rings, have their origins in the real-life Battle of the Somme. Tolkien always denied, however, that the Orcs, a cruel race, represented German soldiers. He wrote to his son in 1941: “I have spent most of my life studying Germanic matters (in the general sense that includes England and Scandinavia). There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the ‘Germanic’ ideal.”

Tolkien’s details reveal his military training: the skill with which Sam makes a smokeless fire; how the men of Gondor, like army engineers, build bridges and defensive works; and the Hobbits’ backpacks, much like a soldier’s kit of rolled blankets, cooking pans, spoon and fork, tinderbox, and a small store of salt, show an accuracy that any soldier would appreciate. And just as Tolkien’s trench fever recurred in debilitating waves, so too does Frodo suffer from painful fits long after the wars of Middle-Earth have drawn to a close, leaving him lying prone on his bed. “I am wounded,” he tells Sam, “wounded; it will never really heal”—a sentiment many physically or emotionally scarred soldiers from any war can share. Significantly, the destruction of the Dark Lord’s empire in The Return of the King is powerfully reflected in reality as World War I swept away several great kingdoms—Czarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The impact of the war on Tolkien’s works was obvious to those who knew him best. Tolkien’s close friend and fellow Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia books and a veteran himself, recognized the war in Tolkien’s writing. The conflict that dominates The Lord of the Rings, Lewis pointed out, “has the very quality of the war my generation knew. It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet of the front … the lively, vivid friendships.” Finally, in 1944, Tolkien admitted the effect of the war on himself, writing to his son Christopher, then serving in the Royal Air Force, “I hope that in after days the experience of men and things, if painful, will prove useful. It did to me.”

The Cost of Creativity

Paul Fussell’s influential The Great War and Modern Memory argues that the romantic epic suffered a fatal wound in the “stupid” and “senseless” First World War. Tolkien would have disagreed. In stark contrast to the disillusionment and antiwar sentiment of the postwar period, Tolkien unabashedly kept alive the tradition of war as a noble and romantic ideal. He not only rejected modernism, but revived the heroic epic in English literature. The romantic epic lives on with vigor and dash in Tolkien’s cavalry charges, his beautiful princesses, and shimmering enchanted forests. Since his death in 1973, millions of Tolkien’s books have continued to sell around the world, and he is easily the most unique, influential, and widely read writer to emerge from the inferno of World War I. A three-movie trilogy of his works directed by Peter Jackson concluded by sweeping the Academy Awards in 2004.

But such creativity had its costs. Like many  former soldiers, Tolkien downplayed, suppressed, and even denied the effects of the war on him, yet they stayed with him all his life. In 1940, writing to his son Michael who had volunteered to fight in World War II, Tolkien hinted at the things he had lost in the First World War. “I was pitched into it all, just when I was full of stuff to write, and of things to learn,” he said, “and never picked it all up again.” He and Christopher Wiseman—the only survivors from the TCBS—remained lifelong friends, meeting whenever they could to remember their friends in better times.

Tolkien experienced pain all his life—the early deaths of his parents, financial hardship, the war. Like many people, he retreated into his mind, and there he found an enchanted land of heroes, beauty, and great deeds. Still, the memories remained. “I can see clearly now in my mind’s eye,” Tolkien recalled, “the old trenches and the squalid houses and the long roads of Artois, and I would visit them again if I could.” He never did, except in his books.

The war changed Tolkien, as it changed everyone. It injected loss and sadness into his writing, and made his descriptions more poignant because they were more real. Mordor could not have existed had Tolkien not experienced it firsthand on the Somme. But the war also taught him to value positive things as well—pity, beauty, heroism, loyalty, and the meaning of friendship—themes that run throughout all of his works and still reflect the lives and aspirations of millions of readers today.

This first appeared on the Warfare History Network in 2018.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.