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November 21, 2019

J. R. R. Tolkien and The First World War

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” This famous line began as a sequel to Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit, but developed into a much larger work — becoming the staple of fantasy worlds and characters. J. R. R. Tolkien is remembered for his extensive world of Middle Earth; but he also witnessed Hell on Earth in the trenches of World War I.

That’s the amazing part about The Lord of the Rings — being reprinted on a regular basis and translated into thirty-eight different languages, the epic fantasy novel by J. R. R. Tolkien has made an eternal influence on the writing community. Influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien’s interest in philology, mythology, religion, and his distaste for industrialization, The Lord of The Rings has been subject to nonstop and extensive probing when it comes to the analysis of themes, symbolism, and rhetoric since its publication.

But J. R. R. Tolkien was more than just a fantasy writer, of course; he was a World War I veteran as well.

J. R. R. Tolkien in 1916.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien found himself in a bit of a predicament after the United Kingdom entered the First World War in August of 1914. His relatives were shocked when they discovered that he, as a 22 year old young and strapping man, didn’t immediately volunteer his services for the British Army.

Later in his life, in a private letter sent to his son Michael in 1941, J. R. R. Tolkien would recall that “In those days chaps joined up or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” From his earliest days, the young Tolkien held his ideas close to his heart.

For a while, Tolkien endured the public criticism that men who didn’t volunteer faced. He entered a program which allowed him to delay enlistment until he completed his degree, hoping that the war would end before he managed to complete his finals in July of 1915.

Being outspoken by his relatives and the rest of nationalistic Brits in a time of global conflict, Tolkien was eventually commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant, stationed within the Lancashire Fusiliers on the 15th of July in 1915 — just a few short days after he completed his degree and had to drop from the protection program that kept him from being enlisted sooner.

“Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed.” — Tolkien, in a letter sent to his soon-to-be-wife Edith Bratt as he trained with the 13th Reserve Battalion.

Eleven months went by, and on June 2nd, 1916, Tolkien was summoned for transportation to France. Three days later, on June 5th, Tolkien boarded a troop transport to Calais in Northern France. On June 7th, he was assigned to the 11th Service Battalion as a signals officer, which was desperate for new faces after being completely destroyed by the Battle of Vimy Ridge against the Germans. He later wrote that he “sank into boredom” as he awaited his summons to this new regiment, and during this time he composed a poem entitled The Lonely Isle — completely inspired by his thought process as he crossed the sea to Calais the previous day.

He caught on rather quickly, learning that all military letters sent back to the home front were subject to the British Army’s postal censorship just in case the letters were to be captured by German troops. Tolkien, in response, developed a secret code of dots so Edith could know where her husband was during time of nonstop warfare.

J.R.R. Tolkien, circled, was posted to France the 11th Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers. Copyright Birmingham Mail.

He found himself commanding enlisted men who didn’t want to be there as much as he; some were drawn from the British mining industry, others former millers and tailors from rural towns. Tolkien felt something for these working class men, but didn’t make friends as the British military protocol forbade him from developing first-name basis conversations between the ranks. He took charge, disciplining them and training them and keeping track of the censorship of letters he had caught onto earlier.

“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.” — J. R. R. Tolkien on his time in the regimen.

As time went on, Tolkien arrived at the Somme in early July of 1916 — exactly one year since he earned his degree and was enlisted into the military. One year of military experience, and he found himself in one the scene of one of the soon-to-be most important battles of the First World War.

A couple of months later, on October 27th, he came down with trench fever after being bit by lice within the dugouts his battalion had taken over. He was invalidated to England on November 8th, after many of his closest friends were killed. Rob Gilson, for example, was killed on the first day of the Somme. Tolkien’s battalion was almost eradicated following Tolkien’s return to England, making him an incredibly lucky (or unlucky, if you think of it) man.

Tolkien found himself mere yards away from death throughout the war, but his health problems removed him from combat positions multiple times throughout his military experience. Tolkien, weak from trench fever and depressed after hearing report after report of his school friends dying on the front, spent the remainder of World War I in hospitals and garrisons — he was deemed medically unfit for service.

Recovering, he began writing even more than he had ever done before. His work The Book of Lost Tales was an attempt to create a mythology for England — a project he would later abandon before completing. His illness recurred on and off between 1917 and 1918, but the military deemed him “recovered enough” to service in camps even though his first child — John Francis Reuel Tolkien — had just been born. Despite his health concerns, Tolkien was promoted to a temporary lieutenant rank on January 6th, 1918. By the end of the year, on November 11th, the war was finally over.

Two years later, on November 3rd 1920, Tolkien was demobilized and left the army — retaining his ‘temporary’ rank of lieutenant. His very first ‘civilian’ job was with the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked with writing the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. In that same year, he took up post as Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, becoming the youngest professor on staff. Within the decade, he wrote The Hobbit and began work on its literary sequel The Lord of The Rings.

This Literary Lord survived World War I and later wrote one of the 20th centuries greatest and most memorable books.

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One Response “J. R. R. Tolkien and The First World War”

  1. Deirdre Toomey
    March 12, 2019 at 11:05 am

    So much of the Lord of the Ring trilogy is drawn from his experiences in WW1.When Frodo and Sam struggle through Mordor, it is as if we are struggling through the mud of Flanders. Also the emphasis on rest and food which is strong in the narrative of the Fellowship’s journey, reflects soldiers’ ideals, as does the Hobbits’ nostalgia for the Shire.

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