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Webmatters : J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings

I wish none of this had happened

So do all who live to see such times but that is not for them to decide.
All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.

It is a long time since I last read Tolkien’s three part work (I called it a trilogy initially but got corrected by Kevin from Virginia) and although I have become a fan of the films I have resisted (so far) the temptation to return to the books and make comparisons between two different story telling media.

Tolkien and the Great War
Tolkien and the Great War

As I have an interest in the First World War and was already aware that some of Tolkien’s imagery comes from his service on the Somme I thought I would read up on this period of his life.

Rather to my surprise at that time, there was little there to read, and it took me a great deal of searching to even find out just which Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers he had joined.

John Garth

Since then the British author has produced an in-depth study into Tolkien’s life during the war years.

Called simply: Tolkien and the Great War, the book makes the point that whilst Tolkien’s contemporaries found nothing but disillusionment in their experiences, Tolkien managed to relate his experiences in the manner of the great sagas of which he was so fond.

The book concentrates on the personalities rather than the war’s events, but there again Tolkien’s actual period in France was quite short lived. He was, however, as affected by the fate of his friends, as his own personal experiences.

John Garth has provided a studious account of Tolkien’s move into the world of legend and myth and so, if you are perhaps just a casual reader I would suggest seeking out a copy at the local library. If not, a moment on Google will find a copy quite easily.

Here are a few of my own paragraphs linking Tolkien and the First World War.

Early Years and the TCBS

John Ronald Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa on 3rd January 1892, but four years later on 15th February 1896 his father died and the family returned to England.

By 1904 Tolkien was attending King Edward’s School in Birmingham and already demonstrating a remarkable aptitude for languages. He had made a number of close friends at the school including Robert Gilson, the son of the Headmaster (who was encouraging the young Tolkien to study the classical languages).

Whilst there Tolkien formed a society called the Tea Club and when they were forced to move premises to the Barrow Stores in Birmingham they became the TCBS (Tea Club, Barrovian

The members of the group became very close friends with a wide variety of interests all of which rubbed off on the others. Tolkien was studying languages, Robert Gilson was interested in the physical sciences and Renaissance art. Christopher Wiseman’s interests included natural science, mathematics and music, whilst a late recruit to the TCBS was Geoffrey Smith, who was instrumental in introducing them to modern English literature.

Smith and Tolkien became firm friends and it is probable that it was Smith’s influence that prompted Tolkien to start writing poetry.

The Somme 1916

When the war broke out in 1914 Tolkien was at Oxford and rather than dashing off to join the Colours he decided to remain and complete his degree. Having gained a first class honours he then
enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant, choosing the Lancashire Fusiliers in the hope of fighting along side his friend Geoffrey Smith who was in the 19th Battalion. As things turned out Tolkien was posted to the 11th Battalion of the Regiment.

On 22nd March 1916 Tolkien married his fiancée Edith before completing his training and embarking for France.

I read through the Battalion War Diary and Tolkien gets just two short mentions. One on 28 June 1916 which simply states that he joined and another on 18 November 1916 which states that he was
struck of strength — sick.

On 1st July 1916 and within days of his arrival in France, the Battle of the Somme opened. Much to Tolkien’s dismay, one of that horrendous day’s victims would be Robert Gilson, killed by a shell whilst fighting with the 11th Suffolks.

Within the month Tolkien took up position as the battalion Signals Officer responsible with his small team for ensuring that as the soldiers advanced across the battlefield that the telephone lines were reeled out after them.

During his short time on the Somme (including service at the Schwaben Redoubt) Tolkien succumbed to Trench Fever and had to be evacuated back to a hospital in Birmingham.

The fever would continue to flare up and he remained in Britain for the remainder of the war, though he was still granted his promotion to Lieutenant.

Only days after his return to England Tolkien heard of the death of his friend Geoffrey Smith who had been hit by shrapnel during a bombardment on 29th November. Smith’s injuries were serious and he died of his wounds on 3rd December. At the time he had been the acting Adjutant of his Battalion and it is his signature on many of the papers and documents in the War Diary.

Although Christopher Wiseman survived the war and remained a lifelong friend Tolkien felt that the TCBS had gone, and with it his days of youth.

The effects of the war

I would have to admit again at this stage that much of my imagery of the Lord of the Rings comes from watching Peter Jackson’s films rather than any true memory of the descriptions in the books. Even so the films with their scenes of trees torn down, the destruction of the land through the spreading of a great malevolence and Uruk-Hai being born out of mud made me think of some of the things that Tolkien must have witnessed. He was later to say that the inspiration for some of his characters was rooted in the courage and ingenuity of his soldiers.

Although he denied that his work was allegorical, there are certain themes running through his work. Tolkien had been appalled by how war had become mechanised. He had witnessed how machine guns scythed through his soldiers, gas reduced healthy men to coughing, blind shadows of themselves, how aircraft now brought death from the skies, and of course the ultimate machine, the tank was first used whilst he was in France.

I was interested in a comment by Peter Jackson concerning Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf when, in his version of the Council of Elrond, Gandalf hears Frodo’s offer to take the Ring to Mordor.

It is the look of a man who hears his son is off to fight in World War One. He knows it has to be done, but it will mean certain peril.

The carnage and inhumanity deeply affected Tolkien but perhaps we can count ourselves fortunate that like so many artists the trauma that he lived through found an outlet in his later writings. The memory and early encouragement from Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Smith in particular resulted in the beginnings of something that would endure beyond Tolkien’s own death in 1973.

Following his discharge from the Army, Tolkien returned to Oxford as an editor of the New English Dictionary. His family grew in size and he turned to telling them stories. The rest is history.