March 25 is Tolkien reading day…
Signals Officer, J.R.R. Tolkien:
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
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression…By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead
J.R.R. Tolkien, Author, The Fellowship of the Ring:
Frodo: I wish it need not have happened in my time…
Gandalf: So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
…Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life…
“A world away from subtle, magnificent Smaug of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s first dragons are surreal hybrids of beast and machine. They lumber against the elf-city of Gondolin, spouting fire and clanking, with orctroops hidden inside.
This was in the first Middle-earth story, begun by 2nd Lieut JRR Tolkien in hospital straight after the Battle of the Somme, where Britain’s own secret weapon, the tank, had just been rolled out.War had caught him at 22, marking the end of the world as his generation knew it. Planning marriage and an academic career, Tolkien resisted enlisting and stayed at Oxford, reading English and indulging his hobby of inventing languages.
Yet war awoke a taste for fairy story, which reflected the extremes of light and darkness he saw around him. It dawned on him that a mythology could breathe life into an invented language, so he created the Elves and began devising Middle-earth.
After winning first-class honours, Tolkien dashed into the Army in July 1915, training in Staffordshire and studying signals in Yorkshire. He married in March 1916 and in June was ordered to France. It was like a death, he said.
Fortunately, unlike some of his closest friends, he and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers were not in the first Somme assault. Held in reserve, they helped capture the German stronghold at Ovillers two weeks later.
Now appointed battalion signalling officer, Tolkien was in and out of the trenches for the next three months. In the ordinary soldier – an inspiration for Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings – he saw astonishing resilience and courage on a battlefield swept by machine guns. Autumn rain made it all a mire, with corpses afloat in shellholes.
In late October, after seizing a key German trench, the Fusiliers were sent on to Ypres. But Tolkien was spared by a louse bite that gave him trench fever, so he was in a Birmingham hospital instead, writing about mechanistic dragons. He turned Middle-earth into an arena of perpetual conflict between good and evil – the kind of materialism that was killing so many men of his generation on either side.
Tolkien spent the rest of the war in and out of hospital and convalescence, or training fresh troops in Staffordshire and Yorkshire. There, a 1917 walk in the woods with his wife Edith inspired the love story of the fugitive warrior Beren and the elven-fair Lúthien (the names are on their Oxford gravestone).
In the months before the Somme, three former schoolfriends had become the first Middle-earth fans, glimpsing in Tolkien’s vision a new light for a world plunged into darkness. The Somme killed two of them and Tolkien felt burdened providentially to fulfil the vision.
Years later, to his son Christopher – training as a fighter pilot to face battle in his turn – Tolkien summed up the trenches as animal horror. But his experience of war infuses an entire mythology.”
For more about his war experiences read here, or if you prefer videos: Tolkien’s Great War. Elliander Pictures; Short film (in two parts) taking you through J. R. R. Tolkien’s war service Part of Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive project. A biopic is also scheduled for release in May, 2019.