Tolkien During the Great War

As you know, dear reader, I am something of a C. S. Lewis fan. I am not going to burden you with his biography. I’ve burdened myself with it several times already and it has not stuck. I’m not going to ask from you what I have demanded, fruitlessly, from myself. The factoid I have managed to remember is the fascinating case of the Inklings.

The Inklings were a group of people centered around Oxford and were a book discussion group. When you see people huddled around a table, peering over their caffeine, know that the grouping is trying to recreate this glittering moment in time. The group’s headliners were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis yet they were hardly the only two. I can only imagine how fascinating the conversations were. I wouldn’t have a thing to say. I’d mumble a bit and drool geometric shapes. But that would still be a good time.

The Inklings were shaped by wartime Britain. Who couldn’t be? But Lewis, as far as I know, was not unduly influenced by his time as a soldier in World War I or the Second World War–though there are instances where the intellectual concerns of inter- and post- war Britain infiltrate his works. I find it a bit odd but not unique. Tim O’Brien, the prodigious writer of his time in Vietnam, finds it inexplicable but some soldiers do not let the war come home with them. He isn’t one of them. “Fourty-three years old and I’m still writing war stories. My daughter Kathleen tells me it’s an obsession, that I should write about a little girl who finds a million dollars and spends it all on a Shetland pony.” But some, such as Gore Vidal, summarizes that for many it is a “profound irrelevance; traumatic for some, perhaps, but for most no more than an interruption.” 

Perhaps this is a good thing. I think it is. Too many writers who cut their teeth in Vietnam and in the frumious climate surrounding their military stint, to an extent I see Tim O’Brien in this category, possessed one idea to the exclusion of any others. They became, in Isaiah Berlin’s glittering image, more hedgehog than fox. Since the idea was very often, but not exclusively, their wartime experiences I find that the writings are disturbing. Not depressing but more of a personal, pervading disappointment with the authors. What was common underneath all the pretension–and there is a level of pretention in all but the best war novels–is the belief that all human experience can be connected to the fruitless efforts of soldiers attempting to kill their opposites. It is a disturbing conclusion for anyone to come to.

Lewis, even though he was badly wounded during an attack on the German trenches on 14th April 1918, seems to have viewed the whole experience as more interruption than the genesis of subsequent obsession. He recounts the experience, “Just after I was hit, I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death. I felt no fear and certainly no courage. It did not seem to be an occasion for either.” When Lewis regained consciousness he discovered that Sergeant Harry Ayres, who had been standing right next to him, had been killed by the same shell that had wounded him.

There are similarities when we look at his close compatriot, J.R.R. Tolkien, and his involvement in the Somme campaign. The Somme changed people and without lessening Lewis’ efforts, I knew there were many texts about the Somme by other authors. But even knowing these two things I was still surprised to learn of the battles’ vast influence on J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. In the abstract this influence is conclusive and unabstract. “A soldier in World War I and a worried father whose son was a combatant in World War II, Tolkien faced the monstrous, collective horrors–and evil–of the twentieth century” (pg 130). But, nevertheless, I think it would be a nice diversion from our lives to look at a few explicit instances where his wartime experiences coalesced in his writings.

It would behoove us to learn a little about the man. I admitted that it would be unfair to burden you with too much biographical material but I hope you’ll allow me a paragraph of conceit. For Tolkien ‘starts’ after the conclusion of his graduate studies. Tolkien joined in the British Expeditionary Army. He could have avoided the draft because he was Irish but, for whatever reason, he refused the possibility. As a result Tolkien was in the Somme offensive in 1916. Notably, since he joined after he had finished his graduate studies (as Oxford) he became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. In such a class conscious society like Victorian Britain this put him a head above his fellow infantrymen. He took part in one of the many attacks on the Schwaben Redoubt, a heavily fortified strongpoint in the German line, but was able to spend most of the war away from the front lines while being treated for Trench Fever. It was a devastating case. Without those lieutenant bars, and even with them, he might not be here with us at all. Victorian class strictures have their problems, but they may also have their benefits.

There are two books about the war’s impact on Tolkien’s fiction: John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle Earth and Janet Brennan Croft’s War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Among the passages in Tolkien’s work that seem to echo his WW1 experience is the Journey through the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings. Additionally, Lisa Jardine sees a reference to tanks (first used in WW1) in connection with Morgoth‘s iron dragons, which appeared in a story that Tolkien wrote during a leave of absence in 1916 or early 1917. The iron dragons were ‘iron monsters in the likeness of dragons, which might cross difficult terrain and harbour legions of orcs to transport them safely across the open plain.’ The similarities do not end there. In the comments for Jardine’s piece, Rev. John WaddingtonFeather recounts a story told by Michael Tolkien, according to which the Dark Riders were based on WW1 German Uhlans. According to M. Tolkien (via Waddington-Feather), J. R. R. Tolkien was caught behind enemy lines while riding a cavalry horse and had to flee three pursuing Uhlans. Looking back, Tolkien could see the Uhlans’ ‘skull and crossbone helmet badges’. This gave rise to a recurring nightmare from which arose the Nazgul.

It could be an apocryphal tale. But I am a romantic at heart. The mental image of our Tolkien running in front of a few shouting, virtual Nazguls, sends all the expected shivers up my mildly nerdy spine. One of the criticism that was aired was, strictly speaking, Uhlans didn’t wear skull and crossbone badges. Then again, British soldiers didn’t speak so strictly. They referred to all German cavalry as uhlans. There were at least three German cavalry units in WW1 that adorned their headgear with the macabre decoration. There were the ‘Black Brunswickers‘, who formed the 17th Hussars Regiment, and two regiments of Life Hussars (more here and here). While there weren’t large hussar units on the western front in 1916, several such units were dispersed in smaller groups among the infantry battalions all along the front. Moreover, while the steel helmet had already been introduced by 1916, some cavalry men retained their old skull-and-crossbones hats.

As to the question of why Tolkien, who was a signaler, was riding a horse the answer seems reasonably obvious. Regardless of his rank inside the military he had come from an educated background and was, thus, considered superior. Perhaps it went against regulation, but a few winks were possible. Moreover there was the connection that if signalers had to lay and repair the wire along which their signals ran, then if they had a horse he could do it faster. It is also well within the bounds of possibility that one who had been tasked with such chores would borrow a horse. After all, if a chaplain such as Canon Scott could use a horse to get around, why couldn’t signalers use horses, too?

Aaron Isaac Jackson also published a good article about the War’s influence on Tolkien’s work. His focus is The Hobbit. Jackson says,

In The Hobbit Tolkien is explicit about what they [the goblins] represent, linking them expressly to the mechanized warfare that characterized the First World War: ‘It is not unlikely’ [quoting Tolkien] ‘that they … invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them’. (Aaron Isaac Jackson, ‘Authoring the Century: J. R. R. Tolkien, the Great War and Modernism’, English, 59 [2010], pp. 44–69, at p. 61)

Jackson notes that as Bilbo and his company approach Smaug’s lair, ‘‘Neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished’ greet their approach, echoing the destruction by war of the green farmlands of France.’ (Ibid., pp. 61-2)

I could go on and on. Enough has been written about him on this blog, for now. At Smaug’s lair I’ll leave you, dear reader, until tomorrow.

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6 thoughts on “Tolkien During the Great War

  1. Good stuff. I’ve found that very few were unaffected by their time in the trenches, some it pretty much ruined, some managed to handle it better, some not. I wonder if the still strong (dare I say) code of honor left from Victorian England lessened the visible impact. Nor was it completely restricted to that generation, much of the light went out of Kipling’s work after his only son was killed at the front.

    I think the other, later wars, other than some horrific campaigns, did not have the same effect just because they weren’t as horrendous.

    And, strangely, I just finished rereading “The Hobbit” for the first time since college the other day, and those passages made an impression on me as well. on to the Trilogy.

  2. This phrase “Isaiah Berlin’s glittering image, more hedgehog than fox.” has restored my faith in humanity. There are still some who read and think, thank God.

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