I have always been fascinated by the effect that an author’s own personal experiences can have on their literature. In most cases there is evidence of the author’s life seeping into the narrative, having most works being inspired by the changing world around them. Tolkien (shown here on the right in his military uniform) is no exception to this. In many ways, the fantasy world populated by dwarfs and elves is not far from our own history. Or at least the history that Tolkien himself experienced.
“One of the greatest influences on the epic battle for Middle Earth is what Tolkien saw during the Great War. In 1916, instead of bravely facing down a horde of Orcs clad head to toe in the black armour of Mordor, himself wielding a legendary elvish weapon, Tolkien sat in a mud-filled trench on the River Somme, clutching at his Webley service revolver, preparing to face the onslaught of German guns. It was his
experiences in this bloody conflict that inspired many of the heroic battles that take place in The Lord of The Rings.
The filthy conditions that Tolkien endured lead him develop “trench fever”, and in turn earned him a ticket home from the front to recover. It was during his time in hospitals that he embarked on his fantasy adventure and began writing The Lost Tales.
During his time in hospital, the horrors of the frontline haunted him, and in turn began to plague his writings that would form the foundations of the Lord of the Rings. The threat from the demonic overlord
Sauron has many similarities with Kaiser Wilhelm the II’s desire for the dominion of Europe. One of which, is the vivid imagery used to describe the wastelands of Mordor which echoes the blood soaked terrain of the western front. “It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume” (page 261). No doubt the latter part of his quotation is a reference to the use of chemical weapons during the Great War.
Tolkien based many of his characters on his experiences on the front line. From the charming hobbits who dwell in the shire, to the demonic nazgul depicted to the left. Tolkien said “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war”. This serves as a harrowing reminder that the trials and tribulations of characters such as Samwise Gamgee, and the brave men of Rohan and Gondor, may seem far away in distant fiction to the majority of us; but for Tolkien, his writings are based upon the hardships of real soldiers.
Tolkien may have lifted a lot of his fiction from his own experience of the Great War. However, although his writing resonates from real life, Tolkien has made the conflict in his novels far more comforting than the war that he himself experienced. This relates to the idea of Romance, where an author makes the fantasy vaguer which allows readers to insert their own thoughts and anxieties into the text. After all, to envision yourself cutting the head of an orc is far more inviting than Tolkien’s reality of taking the life of another human being.
I found the following biography most helpful in identifying key inspirations from the Great War: Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth. For personal reference it can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Tolkien-Great-War-Threshold-Middle-earth/0007119534