Tolkien and the Horrors of the Great War

The First World War left a lasting impression on Tolkien

Tolkien and the Horrors of the Great War
Image: Amazon Prime Video

In the spring of 2019, I attended the Tolkien in Vermont conference at UVM in Burlington. The event is an annual academic conference that delves into the minutia of J.R.R. Tolkien's works, and the topic that year was Tolkien and Horror. I'd been reading about Tolkien's life and experiences in the First World War, and had picked up a book that examined how that conflict influenced how we envisioned and created horror literature. The two dovetail neatly, and The Lord of the Rings can easily be read as a meditation on the horrors that humanity can inflict on itself.

Amazon's new streaming series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is set thousands of years before Tolkien's trilogy, and follows a younger Galadriel as she contends with the aftermath of a massive war against Morgoth in the world's earlier ages. The conflict had an impact on her and the world, and it looks as though it'll be playing a huge role in the series to come. With that in mind, I figured it would be a good time to resurface this talk.  

When it ended on November 1st, 1918, the First World War was a watershed moment for the 20th century, a conflict that not only altered the balance of power across the globe, but for how people imagined and viewed the world around them. The conflict held a notable impact for the artistic community, as stories of gallantry and heroics faced an abrupt redefinition for authors such as Erich Maria Remarque, T.S. Elliot, Wilfred Owen, Ernest Hemingway, and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.

In his recently published book, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, historian W. Scott Poole asserts that the war enacted a fundamental change in the horror canon, noting that the war was a nightmare that had never been experienced in modern memory, and that the works that followed tried to interpret and examine that collective experience. “No war fought before 1914 had created so many corpses,” he writes, “Many writers on the war have commented on the mind-numbing catastrophe of twenty thousand British soldiers dying on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The world could not be the same after such bloodletting.”

While Poole mentions Tolkien only in passing, there are certainly parallels between his findings and the late author’s works. Tolkien was one such soldier who witnessed the horrors of combat, and elements of what he experienced would later find their way into his body of work, from the foundational history and terrain of Middle-earth, to the nature of the conflicts of the world, to the experiences of his characters. His literary mythos was shaped and inspired by what he saw, and provides an enduring lesson on the horrors of modern warfare, and differs from the stories that preceded it.

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The First World War

The assassination of Austria’s Archduke Fran’s Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914, disrupting a delicate balance of power that had fermented in Europe in the preceding decades. Bound by treaties and alliances, the continent’s various countries declared war on one another, with Great Britain entering the conflict alongside France on August 1st, 1914.

All participants assumed that the conflict would be short, violent, and glorious. After all, that’s what the war stories they grew up with had promised.

What few realized however, was that advances in military technology had transformed the nature and conduct of battle. “The weapons developed over the previous decades — bolt-action rifles, machine guns, modern howitzers — provided firepower in unprecedented measure and presented insoluble problems to western military organizations,” writes Williamson A. Murrey in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare: The Triumph of the West. ”Modern weapons allowed armies to set up impregnable defensive positions, and neither the officer corps nor the general staffs worked out how to use modern technology, or evolved tactical concepts to break through such defenses, until 1918.”

Beyond more effective firearms, armies had an array of new and terrible tools for killing the enemy, from toxic gases that could kill thousands of unprotected soldiers in minutes, artillery that could launch shells miles from behind the front lines, aircraft that could drop bombs from untouchable altitudes over them, and armored tanks that could decimate infantry soldiers. While precursors to these weapons were used on the battlefield in the decades prior to the conflict, all were unleashed at an industrial scale beginning in 1914 with catastrophic results. A majority of the casualties weren’t even the result of enemy weapons: diseases ripped through the masses of men deployed to unsanitary front lines.

Battles such as The Somme in July 1916 saw casualties that had never before been seen in human history: the British Army alone saw nearly 58,000 men killed or wounded — in the first day of the battle. Over the course of the entire 140-day offensive, it experienced more than 420,000 casualties. By November 1918, four years after the war began, nearly 10 million soldiers were dead from all sides, with nearly four times that number in total casualties. European towns were wiped off the map, and entire generations of young men were killed or gravely wounded. The effects persist to this day: some areas are still too dangerous to enter, because of remaining shells and chemicals.

These are numbers that are inconceivable today. The closest natural disaster in recent years was the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, in which more than 300,000 people perished. For a wartime comparison, an estimated 461,000 thousand people are thought to have been collectively killed in the entire Iraq war.

The Social Impact

The war’s effects were not limited to the physical battlefields. For centuries, combat had been romanticized in the arts, portrayed as a heroic adventure and a way to prove one’s valor and bravery. By the 20th Century, England oversaw a worldwide empire, one responsible for numerous local conflicts for soldiers to earn their moment of fame and war stories. Their stories became a sort of national mythology that glorified the empire’s actions, glossing over the inconvenient parts. One example is that comes to mind is Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, which turned a tactical blunder into a heroic testament to following orders at all costs. Other fantastical works, such as ones by authors like William Morris and George Macdonald, certainly have elements of unease, horror, and the supernatural in their works, but those works fall short of depicting or imaging the destruction and brutality that would later appear in post-war literature.

During and after the war, writers and artists faced a drastically changed cultural landscape as they came to grips with their experiences on the battlefield. In his book, Poole lays out how the conflict shaped the modern horror genre. Horror and gothic literature existed prior to 1914, but “‘Horror’ in today’s sense had yet to be born,” says Poole. The word “first appeared in the fourteenth century as a synonym for ‘rough’ or ‘rugged.’ Over centuries, the term started to carry the connotation of something so ‘rough,’ in the sense of ‘sordid and vulgar,’ that it caused a physical shudder.”

In particular, he focuses on Europe’s collective experience with the war and the high toll that it extracted. He points to specific imagery such as masses of the dead, and that of the trauma that soldiers experienced witnessing such destruction as key fixtures in film and stories that came out in the post-war era. Authors such as H.P. Lovecraft utilized imagery of cities of dead, zombies, populations that experienced mass hallucinations of horrific visions, and of world-ending apocalyptic catastrophes on a cosmic scale. The war unlocked the realization amongst authors that brutality wasn’t limited to individual acts: it could be enacted wholesale.

Tolkien's wartime experiences

This mode of thinking becomes apparent in Tolkien’s work.

As a child, Tolkien’s mother regaled him and his brother with stories of their family’s history. In his biography of the author, Humphrey Carpenter noted that “The Tolkiens always liked to tell stories that gave a romantic colouring to their origins,” and that Mabel Tolkien began to teach her sons the basics of reading and writing, introducing them to fantastical stories that would later inspire the elder Tolkien’s later works. “He was even more pleasured by the ‘Curdie’ books of George Macdonald,” Carpenter writes, “which were set in a remote kingdom where misshapen and malevolent goblins lurked beneath the mountains. The Arthurian legends also excited him.”

He also demonstrated an aptitude for stories and languages. Carpenter notes that he became particularly enamored of old Anglo-Saxon stories, such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Pearl, stories about brave and heroic knights and warriors that fought strange and evil creatures.

Tolkien attended King Edward's School in Birmingham where he formed a close friendship with three boys, Robert Gilson, Geoffrey Smith, and Christopher Wiseman, all of whom bonded over their love of English literature and the arts. The four of them called themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), held regular meetings, and kept in touch as they moved on to college.

As Europe and England plunged into war in 1914, many of Tolkien’s classmates and friends signed up to serve their country, but Tolkien opted to join Oxford's Officer Training Corps, and would eventually be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. In June 1916, he was deployed to the front lines in France, where he joined the 11th Battalion.

He arrived shortly before the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, and as the battle began on July 1st, Gilson was killed, something Tolkien wouldn’t learn about later until two weeks later, when he received a letter from fellow TCBS member Geoffrey Smith.

Gilson’s death affected Smith, Tolkien and Wiseman profoundly: Tolkien wrote that he felt that the group was missing part of its very essence, and despaired that they would never be reunited or whole again. Smith returned a letter from Tolkien with a stern note that the TCBS had not ended, nor would it ever. Shortly thereafter, Tolkien and Smith reunited in Hedauville, their last encounter. For much of the autumn of 1916, Tolkien continued to move with the 11th Battalion, but soon fell ill with trench fever in October and returned home to England to recover. Smith would later die in December after being wounded by artillery fire in November.

Following his recovery at the end of 1916 and early into 1917, Tolkien began to write, inspired by Smith's final letter, eventually producing his legendarium, of which, echoes of the war informed the shape and nature of the world.

Translating the horrors of war into Middle-earth

Tolkien one witness to the horrors of World War 1 and felt its cost on a personal level. He left the war with most of his treasured friends dead, and a personal view of the atrocities perpetuated on the battlefield. Years later, Tolkien would write that he felt that the Great War "had come down like winter on his creative powers in their first bloom.”

These views would translate into his writing, with his experiences on the front lines informing the epic conflicts between good and evil in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

At the time that Tolkien entered the war in 1916, he had already planted the seeds of that would become his legendarium. His writing included fantastical, mythological elements he had begun forming the basis of a fantasy language — Qenya. In his history Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, John Garth notes that elements of the war had already begun to creep into his world on the linguistic level:

“Makati the battle god seems to have been one of the first named Valar. As well as describing the natural world, Qenya furnishes a vocabulary for wartime. Almost all of this accords with the sense that the mythology takes place in the ancient world; but some of it smells distinctly twentieth century.”