Tolkien and World War One: Influences behind the World of Middle-Earth

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It’s no secret that fantasy author and Oxford Professor J.R.R. Tolkien fought during the conflict we now know as the First World War, which lasted from 1914 to 1918. The 2019 biopic starring Nicholas Holt as the titular author looked at Tolkien’s earlier life and his interaction with the war, but Tolkien also wrote about his experiences and relations to the world of Lord of the Rings in his (now published) letters.

Stationed at the Somme with the Lancaster Fusileers, he experienced the calamity of war, as well as technological advancements such as the tank. And when you look at his writings, it’s clear that the Great War had an effect on the lessons and lives of his characters. Meaning and significance lies everywhere if you know where to look – from the names of heroes, to the flowers that cover the graves of the fallen. Even though Tolkien himself disagreed that there was no direct allegory in his novels, there was a strong influence from his experiences at the Somme in 1916.

There, Tolkien was faced with new advancements in technology such as the tank, being used in conflict with older techniques such as the cavalry. The dark armour and the high-pitch screeches from incoming shells brought to mind the Nazgul as the “Black Riders”; and the terrain of muddy No Man’s Land with shell holes full of water where men actually drowned is the inspiration to the Dead Marshes seen during The Two Towers. 

Hobbit Samwise Gamgee (portrayed by Sean Astin in Peter Jackson’s award-winning trilogy) can find his personality and attitudes from the trenches. The ordinary Tommies on the Western Front showed great amounts of courage during harsh conditions, and ruthless determinism; officers like Tolkien were also given “batmen” who were essentially a form of servant. Like Frodo and Sam. These batmen were typically a lower class than their officers, such as Samwise is a working-class gardener back in the Shire.

Frodo, in particular, shows something that the war leaves on its veterans: PTSD. While the other three Hobbits are able to return to their lives back home, Frodo is too scarred by what he’s seen to move on, knowing “in [his]heart, that there is no going back” to how he was before. And many soldiers found themselves in the same position suffering from Shell Shock and being unwilling to talk about their experiences to their family back at home. Tolkien knew all too well about the consequences and casualties of war, with “all but one” of his closest friends dead by 1918.

One of the most notable aspects of the First World War and its remembrance is the poppies; first used as a sign of remembrance in 1919 and inspired by the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields” which describes the red petalled flowers blooming across the battlefields of the Western Front. In Rohan, the white flowers Simbelmynë line the barrows of the dead kings and hold similar significance.

One of the central themes of Lord of the Rings is friendship; that love and fellowship can make all the difference in a world threatened by darkness. It comes across strongly in his works, in the lives and deaths of Middle-Earth’s heroes and villains, with the grounding in the reality of the First World War and the author’s own experiences is one of the many reasons why Middle-Earth and its sagas are so popular.

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Second-year archaeology & history student and Culture Editor 2019/20. Loves archery and Assassin's Creed, and still hoping to one day find the doorway to Narnia.

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