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Tolkien in uniform

Norman Cantor, who confesses his dislike of The Lord of the Rings, argues in his book The Making of the Middle Ages that Tolkien's contribution to our understanding of the Middle Ages is in the way that he brings to our attention to horrors of medieval warfare. He could not be more wrong. Whatever Tolkien's portrayal of warfare may be, it is not a realistic portrayal of war as it occurred in medieval Europe. But Cantor was correct in discerning that Tolkien is an important writer about war.

When The Lord of the Rings became popular in the early 1960s, the baby boom generation naturally connected it with their parents' experiences in World War II and with the Cold War (starring the Ring as the Atom Bomb). Such equations annoyed Tolkien deeply, as he pointed out in his preface to the second edition. Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings during the war and no doubt perceived the 'applicability' (to use his term). It has also been said that the horrors of Mordor and the Scouring of the Shire are reflexions of Nazi Germany or the Communist Soviet Union. However, it is much more likely that they reflect the real presence of both fascism and communism in British (and American) politics before the Second World War. In this Tolkien may be grouped with George Orwell (author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) who responded to what appeared to be a realistic possibility of the development of totalitarianism in Britain.

Tolkien's formative experience was in the First World War, when he himself had fought in the trenches. No short summary can give a sense of the horrors of one of the bloodiest wars in history. For good accounts of the war, try the Trenches web site or the BBC History page. The chapter entitled 'War' in Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien is also good. The First World War had a profound impact on the poetry of the first decades of the twentieth century. It is useful to compare Tolkien's work to the poems of writers like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke. For more information, see Oxford University's excellent Virtual Seminar on World War I Poetry.

Tending the wounded of the1st  Lancashire Fusiliers, 1 July 1916

Tolkien's own experience of the war was profound in a number of ways. He served as a signal officer for the Lancashire Fusiliers and arrived at the front in France in June of 1916. As an officer, Tolkien would have been assigned a batman, servant to take care of his kit. Soldiers had to endure long periods in close contact under dreadful traditions in the trenches, and the comraderie of the trench later influenced Tolkien's writing. As he put it, 'My "Sam Gamgee" is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself'. The Battle of the Somme began on 1July, when British soldiers climbed out of the trenches and advanced towards the enemy line. They had been told that the German defences were destroyed by Allied bombing, but they were not, and German machine guns mowed them down. Tolkien was not there for the initial barrage; his company did not go into action until 14 July, and that was well for him, since twenty thousand Allied troops were killed on the very first day of the battle. When Tolkien arrived, the trenches and surrounding area were littered with mutilated and decaying corpses. The stench was intolerable. We may recognise these sights in the nightmarish vision of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings.

The road to Guillemont, August 1916

The devastation to the landscape made an equal impact. Grass and corn were destroyed, and the earth became a sea of mud. What trees remained were stripped of their leaves and branches. Here too Tolkien may have seen a vision of Mordor. Tolkien saw battle on several occasions but had managed to remain unhurt until the end of October, when he contracted 'trench fever', a disease carried by lice. He was sent to hospital, and, when the fever did not abate, eventually sent back to Birmingham to convalesce. After he had recovered, he managed to secure a posting in Oxford in order to complete his education. But Tolkien did not escape entirely unscathed. His best friends from his school days, Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith both perished in the war. Their loss was a terrible blow to him, as they were his intellectual comrades in arms. Humphrey Carpenter poignantly titles his chapter on this episode of Tolkien's life 'The Breaking of the Fellowship'. 

A second point may derived from Cantor's recognition of Tolkien as a war-writer. War was also a topic frequently described by medieval authors, or, more specifically, battle, and the performance of the hero in battle. Anglo-Saxon and early Scandinavian literature embraced a heroic ethic, one which continued in modified form as chivalry in the later Middle Ages. The heroic values of courage and sacrifice are treated extensively in medieval literature, and these values had never seemed more relevant than in the First World War. But that was a modern war, in which men were mown down by the thousands by machine gun fire or asphyxiated by poison gas, rather than dying gloriously in battle. Tolkien's contribution to our understanding of the Middle Ages may well be in the way he draws attention to the value of medieval notions of heroism in today's society.

A reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial

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