Tolkien and World War I
Critics and readers are always fascinated by the intersection of life and art. When analyzing author J. R. R. Tolkien, who is most famous for The Lord of the Rings, he is no exception. For instance, the recent film Tolkien sought to link the writer’s experiences in World War I with his work. During his lifetime, Tolkien was skeptical of biographical criticism—a form of literary criticism in which the critic analyzes an artist’s work in light of the artist’s life, saying:
I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists . . . only one’s Guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and the author’s works.
The Lord of the Rings is not autobiographical nor is it an allegory. However, World War I did shape his work in many ways. When pressed to make connections between The Lord of the Rings and World War II, Tolkien stated that it was born more from the first war than the second:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to fully feel its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my closest friends were dead.
Tolkien was born in 1892 in South Africa. At the age of three, he moved to Britain along with his mother, Mabel, and his brother, Hilary. His father was supposed to follow them but died in South Africa of rheumatic fever. Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900 and raised the boys in the church despite her Baptist family’s subsequent rejection. Tolkien adored his mother and was devastated when she died of complications caused by diabetes when he was twelve.
After her death, his guardian was Father Francis Xavier Morgan. At first, the brothers lived with an aunt, but later Father Morgan placed them in a boarding house where he hoped life would be more sociable for the boys. The sixteen-year-old Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, a nineteen-year-old boarder. Father Francis forbade the relationship because Bratt was a Protestant and because he feared that romance would distract Tolkien from his studies. The priest moved the Tolkien brothers to new lodgings and demanded that Tolkien have no contact with Bratt until he turned twenty-one (by then Tolkien was eighteen). Tolkien proposed to Bratt on his twenty-first birthday and a few days later she accepted.
Meanwhile, Tolkien developed his love for languages and his sense of camaraderie within a virtually all-male world. In his last year at King Edward Independent Day School he formed a group with classmates Christopher Wiseman, R. Q. Gilson, and Geoffrey Bache Smith called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). While other members came and went, this core group of four stayed tight-knit through Tolkien’s Oxford years and beyond. They had high hopes for a future in which they would inspire great works by one another. Being teenagers and later very young men, they were also goofy, taking great delight in breaking minor rules and cracking jokes.
In 1914, England declared war against Germany. Despite massive pressure to enlist from friends, family, and the general mood of the time, Tolkien remained a civilian. Among other things, he had to finish his studies at Oxford if he was to have any chance of pursuing a teaching career. His reluctance to go to the front did not detract from his conviction that the war was just and necessary. While Tolkien was not anti-German in general, he believed that Germany had come under the sway of power-mad leadership and that the war was “in the large view good against evil.” This conflict, in Tolkien’s mind, represented a kind of madness that was not generally reflective of any nation. When readers tried to compare orcs and goblins to the Germans, Tolkien clarified:
I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in “realistic” fiction, only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For “romance” has grown out of “allegory”, and its wars are still derived from the “inner war” of allegory in which good is on our side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain and naturally honest men, and angels.
Tolkien started his final exams in June of 1915 and, upon graduation, applied for an officer’s commission. He was horrified to learn that he was appointed to be a second lieutenant with the 13th Service Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers and would soon be posted to the front. The TCBS was scattered across the fields of battle, and Tolkien was moved from one army camp to another. Tolkien loathed the inefficiency and “stupidity” of army life, finding most of it caused by officers. As he later stated, he learned a “deep sympathy for the ‘tommy,’ especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties.” The character of Sam Gamgee is not based on any one person, but is rather a tribute to the batmen and other soldiers, “My Sam Gamgee 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.”
The final meeting of TCBS was held in September of 1915. It was a pivotal meeting in terms of cementing Tolkien’s ideals and philosophy. The four core members believed that the group had become distracted from their real purpose by the silly antics of younger members. They sat down for a serious talk about lofty matters. They called this meeting “The Council of London.” During this time, the four repeated their conviction that they amplified each other’s intelligence and had a responsibility to accomplish great things. Over the weekend, they talked about the issues that mattered most to them—not specific personal matters, but broader, philosophical issues. The four hoped to encourage and challenge each other in years to come to create great works that would have a real impact on literature and society.
Tolkien and Bratt married on March 22, 1916 and he was shipped out overseas again in June, transferred to the 11th Service Battalion. He found himself in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme, where he was the battalion signal officer. Much of the reality of the trenches can be seen in The Lord of the Rings: the practical aspects of eating and sleeping, the importance of numbers and strategy and timing, the adrenaline rush of battle and the mental toll of combat, aerial warfare, and poison gases, and the desire to fight for something with a higher meaning. Tolkien stated that the events of The Lord of the Ring owed nothing to either world war, but that some of the imagery might. “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme,” Tolkien stated in one of his letters.
The Dead Marshes, found in The Two Towers, particularly evoke the horrible mud of the Somme. The dead would sink into the mud, and then float back towards the surface, while soldiers had to walk on boards to avoid being sucked into the mud and drowning. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter that takes place in the Marshes:
Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. “There are dead things, dead faces in the water,” he said with horror. “Dead faces!”
Tolkien was saved from the trenches by that lowliest of creatures—a body louse. These lice infested the trenches and infected the soldiers with “trench fever,” a disease with symptoms including headache, body aches, rashes, and high fevers. The disease was severe enough that Tolkien was transported to a hospital in England, where his wife was able to join him. It was a narrow escape. By the end of the war, he was the only member of his battalion, with the exception of some reserves, who was not captured or killed.
For the rest of the war, Tolkien was in and out of hospitals as his fever retreated and then reappeared. Whatever influence the Great War may or may not have had on his work, it’s indisputable that his lengthy period of recuperation gave him time to work, and he used this time to start to build the mythology that, much later, became the background for The Lord of the Rings. Before going overseas, he had written “The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star,” which was arguably the first Middle-earth fragment, and which contained the first use of “Middle-earth.” In the hospital, he wrote much of The Book of Lost Tales and The Fall of Gondolin, among many other pieces and notes about the language and history of Middle-earth.
Writing helped Tolkien cope with the war, and his war experiences brought new maturity to his writing. Prewar, Tolkien was interested in epic lore, but not so much in stories of magical beings. To his son, Christopher, he wrote, “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war.” When Christopher was serving in World War II, Tolkien wrote to him about how writing helped him cope with the confusing issues around war, referring to the early Middle-earth mythology:
I sense amongst all your pains . . . the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering . . . In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes.
Edith Bratt, now Edith Tolkien, followed him as he was moved from one hospital to another, and one posting (within England) to another, renting rooms in whatever town he was closest to. During one of these interludes, they were able to live together. The couple loved to walk in the nearby woods, where she would sing and dance among the flowers:
I never called Edith Lúthien—but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of The Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.
Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918. Of the core four from the TCBS, Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman were the only survivors. Other, noncore, members had also perished in the war, including the fun-loving Thomas Kenneth “Tea Cake” Barnsley and the youngest member, Ralph Stuart “The Baby” Payton. Tolkien and Wiseman were shattered by the loss of their friends as well as the loss of potential that the group represented.
For the most part, Tolkien did not deliberately use World War I as an inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, but the lived experience of war permeates the series. Much of the brilliance of The Lord of the Rings comes from Tolkien’s unique gift of combining the epic—with incredibly detailed worldbuilding and a massive scope with an intimate human experience. The characters in The Lord of the Rings are playing parts in a vast mythology that extends far beyond the pages of the series itself to the The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion. However, the characters still have to eat, and sleep, and drink water, and carry all their stuff around with them. The practicalities are not lost amidst the grandeur of scope.
Tolkien’s close friend C. S. Lewis, who was also a veteran of World War I, recognized his own war experiences in the books:
It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet of the front when “everything is now ready,” the flying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and such heaven-sent windfalls as a cache of tobacco “salvaged” from a ruin. The author has told us elsewhere that his taste for fairy tale was wakened into maturity by active service; that, no doubt, is why we can say of his war scenes (quoting Gimli the Dwarf) “There is good rock here. This country has tough bones.”
In the period leading up to the first World War, fairy tales and other forms of fantasy flourished in the popular imagination. The works of William Morris, J. M. Barrie, and other writers of romantic imagination were popular with soldiers. However, the mood of the arts shifted with the trauma of war, leading to a focus on realism and cynicism, as practiced by writers Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon.
In Tolkien, we see a rebellion against the tide of “disenchantment” in literature. His work abounds in enchantment of the magical sense, of course, but he also is able to portray the horrors of war while still conveying a sense of heroism in his characters. In Tolkien, moments of despair are usually turning points towards redemption. Actions have meaning because of their intention, not their result. Heroism that results in failure is still heroic. Ideals of country and family and honor remain venerated, while lust for power is condemned.
Furthermore, in Tolkien’s world, the time of the Elves is undeniably passing away, but their arts and wisdom deserve to be remembered. The grief and longing for an earlier time that suffuses so much of the first World War literature can be found in The Lord of the Rings, but it is combined with a respect for tradition as opposed to a blanket rejection of the past.
Tolkien was always clear that the main influences in his writing came from literature, languages, folklore, and mythology, not his life or contemporary events. However, World War I did clearly play a part in his writing. Other examples than the ones mentioned above are logistical, such as the fact of Tolkien’s long recuperation giving him time to think and to write away from the demands of studying, working, or the chaos of the trenches.
The war, combined with common themes in mythology, also infuses his work with a bittersweet quality. Frodo returns home but can never be truly healed from his ordeal. Sauron is defeated, but the time of the Elves as described in The Lord of the Rings is still coming to a close. Much as World War I sealed the end of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the war with Sauron marks the transition from the time of Elves to the time of Men. The war is won, but the world, and the people in it, are irrevocably changed. Some, like Frodo, never fully recover. Others, like Sam, are able to successfully integrate their experience into a new life. But the world is dramatically different now in a way that Tolkien himself experienced as he was released from war to the postwar world and the age of professorship.
I am deeply indebted to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tolkien, and to Tolkien and the Great War, by John Garth.