It’s really hard to ignore the number of details JRR Tolkien put into Middle Earth. The world-building of Lord of the Rings is so good, that you can practically smell the air. But, there are some elements of Middle Earth that remind us of War. And it’s not just any war, but one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history – World War One. And this is because Tolkien himself was at the front, fighting for the British Army!
Tolkien fought in World War One?!
In 1914, JRR Tolkien enlisted in the British Army, but his enlistment was delayed until he completed his degree at Oxford University. In 1916, he was married to Edith Tolkien, whom he met in 1907. But, he was deployed to France after only a month of marriage. And it wasn’t just any ordinary battle, but the Battle of Somme. He wrote this about his ordeal:
Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.
The Battle of Somme was the bloodiest battle in World War One, and one of the bloodiest in human history. The British army suffered 60,000 casualties alone on the first day of the battle. In total, nearly 3 million soldiers fought in this battle, and 1 million were killed. Luckily, JRR Tolkien was one of those who survived. 600 out of 800 soldiers were killed from his battalion. In fact, the only reason Tolkien survived was that he contracted Trench Fever, a common disease back at the time.
This illness gave Tolkien the time to think and write, as it awoke different parts of his brain’s vivid imagination. It allowed him to express his feelings on fair and foul, good and evil. And that is where the seeds of Lord of the Rings were sowed. Even though it isn’t an allegory on WWI, it has different aspects that are applicable to how the Great War destroyed the world. Here are a few of the major ones:
1. The Hobbits loved everything Tolkien loved in the world
Now, JRR Tolkien loved nature beyond words. His favorite things included food, trees, tobacco, and beer. To him, all this represented the good in the world. And if you recall correctly, which creatures from Middle Earth loved all these? That’s right, the hobbits from the Shire. They loved their land, traditions, peace, and joy, a lot like how Tolkien and English country folk did. But, all that was under threat because of rapid industrialization and militarism, which brings us to our next point.
2. Orcs vs Elves represented Industrialization vs Mother Nature
Now, this is where his idea of the world began to show in his works. For Tolkien, Elves represented art, beauty, nature, creativity, truth, and craft. And that is what he saw in ordinary soldiers. He saw their creative genius cut short by war. But, the reason for that wasn’t the soldiers, but industrialization and the resulting militarism.
According to Lord of the Rings, Elves when twisted and cruelly tortured for years, turn into Orcs. And that is how he visualized the brutalization of workers and soldiers by industry and war. According to Tolkien, industrialization was the tyranny of man over nature. And when it goes into the hands of evil men like Sauron, it turns into war and militarism. It uproots trees and nature, builds weapons, and breeds soldiers, just like Orcs did for Sauron. Moreover, JRR Tolkien used other images of war in Lord of the Rings too.
3. The piercing sounds by Nazgul was a lot like artillery shells in wars
A lot of subtle war imagery is mentioned in Lord of the Rings. For instance, the piercing scream you heard right before a Nazgul came close was just like the sound of artillery shells when they’re about to fall on the ground. Similarly, remember the dead marshes where bodies of elves and men were floating in the water? That’s a lot like the scene in no man’s land in the Battle of Somme. This is because the armies couldn’t carry the dead bodies away. And when it rained and flooded in France, they would simply float in the marshes.
4. Samwise Gamgee – the hardworking common man as a soldier
Our very own Samwise Gamgee was JRR Tolkien’s idea of an honorable common man, or more accurately, the batman in the British Army. Batmen were lower rank privates who did day to day chores for high ranking officers. Because of his Oxford degree, JRR Tolkien was also a high ranking officer. But, he disliked imposing orders on batmen, saying:
The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.
Batmen did most of the work for soldiers, just like Sam did for Frodo Baggins in his epic journey. He even lifted him on his back, climbed Mount Doom, and fought off giants spiders. And he did not have even a single selfish bone in his body. He did it all with complete devotion, to save his home, the Shire. He was practical, patient, and heroic, just like the common soldier was for Tolkien.
5. Frodo suffered from PTSD, just like soldiers did after the war
After he destroyed the ring, Frodo continuously got flashbacks. He barely slept and was always restless, which are symptoms of PTSD that soldiers face after a war. Moreover, his sickness after being stabbed by one of the Nazgul’s sword was just like Tolkien’s on the battlefield. But, the PTSD truly shows how in his bid to protect the Shire, Frodo lost himself along the way. And the saddest part is that the only way for him to heal was by going to the undying land. It depicted that soldiers can only shed the weight of the past after death.
These are just some of the ways with which JRR Tolkien’s experience in WWI inspired different aspects of Lord of the Rings. It’s in no way an allegory, but it is simply applicable to the different instances of the Great War he had to see in his life.