Tolkien and the Horrors of the Great War

Tolkien and the Horrors of the Great War


This week’s letter is coming in early, because later this week, I’ll be out at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. This weekend, I attended the 16th Annual Tolkien in Vermont conference at UVM. Dr. Christopher Vaccaro puts on the event each year, and this letter has my presentation.

The conference is a fun event about all things J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve presented a couple of times over the years, and this year’s topic was Tolkien and Horror, and a friend of mine (Ian Gauthier, who had his own fantastic talk about mad scientists and Saruman) convinced me to talk about World War I and its impact on Tolkien’s later writing.

But first, two programming notes! I’ve set up a profile on a writing platform called Curious Fictions! You can sign up as a reader on the site, and if you’re a published author, they will let you request an invitation. You can find my profile here.

I’ve posted up two short stories: ‘Fragmented’, my military SF story that originally ran in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, and ‘Letters of Transit,’ which I wrote back in December for this newsletter. I’ve also posted up a blog post, as well as a listing for the military SF anthology that Jaym Gates and I co-edited, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction. ‘Letters of Transit’ is subscriber-locked for now, while ‘Fragmented’ is available to anyone who logs in.

The site launched last year, and it’s backed by seed accelerator Y Combinator. It’s designed as a platform for authors to earn money off of their backlist of short stories, which they can post to the site. (The terms of service for the site don’t appear to have any unreasonable rights grabs, which is nice to see).

I’m thinking that it might be a good motivation to write more short fiction, especially stuff that I’m not planning to really put a lot of effort into submitting. I’ve got some random ideas for stories for this newsletter, and I’ll probably move those there, if anything just to keep things in one place. It does feel like there’s a lot of potential with this in the larger writing community, but we’ll have to see what the attraction is long-term, and how discourse is on it.

Secondly, I’ve been trying to scale back my social media presence, but ended up starting over with Instagram for an upcoming project. I’ll mainly be using that for things to do with cosplaying and other stuff that’ll be familiar to you on this newsletter. You can find me here.

There's an inevitable sigh here — I'm trying to be on less platforms, but Curious Fictions genuinely seems cool, and it's looking like having an account on Instagram is going to be a bit of a necessity for this project. Expect lots of book and cosplay pictures.

With that out of the way, here's the talk I gave at the conference:

Tolkien and the Horrors of the Great War

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.

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.”

There are also elements that appear to have been somewhat inspired by what he physically saw and was part of in France. From The Two Towers:

“Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into the sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, and the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some old window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead faces!’”

Further on:

“‘But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.’”

Finally, Aragorn later travels along the Paths of the Dead in Return of the King to raise a restless army of ghosts cursed after they had broke an oath. “The terror of the Sleepless Dead lies about the Hill of Erich and all places where that people lingered.”

Stripped of their fantastical elements, one could easily see those passages as true stories recounted by veterans, or the remains of the battlefields on which they fought: of the trenches, the bodies of the dead, and the ghosts of the fallen that lived on in the minds of the survivors.

At various points, Tolkien has denied that his works are a direct allegory for either World War, but in a letter to Professor L.W. Roster on December 31st, 1960, he indicated that the First World War held some influence: “Personally I do not think that either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape. The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”

But on a greater level, the horrors and wholesale brutality of World War I seem to inform Tolkien’s history of his world. Throughout the Silmarillion, we see the rise of great powers to oppose evil forces that seek to dominate the entire world, with the beginning of each age following such a victory, only to herald yet another rise and fall of evil.

Tolkien describes the aforementioned Dead Marshes as the setting of a battle fought thousands of years ago in the Silmarillion, battles that prefigured ones that would eventually follow:

“And so came at last upon the host of Sauron on Dagorlad, the Battle Plain, which lies before the gate of the Black Land. All living things were divided in that day, and some of every kind, even of beasts and birds, were found in either host, save the Elves only.” Tolkien describes the battle as the first in a long siege against Sauron’s forces in Mordor. “They laid siege to it for seven years, and suffered grievous loss by fire and by the darts and bolts of the Enemy, and Sauron sent many sorties against them.”

These descriptions mirror that of the First World War: a world divided that waged a protracted, bloody conflict that resulted in horrific losses for both sides. Tolkien might not have intended a work that retold World War I in a fictional setting, but his descriptions and imagery of his conflicts share much in common with real-world events.

Indeed, Tolkien’s works also seem to convey the transformational nature of the First World War.

But Tolkien’s horrors are not limited to just that of the battlefield. He was part of a generation that struggled to live with the fallout of the wars. Just as toxins and explosives rendered battlefields uninhabitable, the veterans of the wars would deal with the trauma for the rest of their lives to varying degrees. So too do his characters deal with the fallout of their own experiences. There is no clear-cut, joyful and happy ending for the Fellowship: Frodo Baggins and his companions return home to discover not only that their home has changed along with that of the world, turning from a pastoral world to a quasi-industrialized one, but that they continued to live with what they experienced. At the end of The Return of the King, Tolkien writes that Frodo and Sam “went back to ordinary attire, except that when there was need they both wore long grey cloaks, finely woven and clasped at the throat with beautiful brooches; and Mr. Frodo always a white jewel on a chain that he would often finger.” Physical wounds lingered as well:

“One evening, Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.

‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo? Said Sam.

“I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never truly heal.”

It is that revelation that such a fracturing of the world has permanence is a horror in and of itself; that men can destroy what is built and never quite put it back together the way it was, while those witnesses are forced to live with the impact of such a drastic changes. As the war made whole nightmares that had never been seen, those nightmares crop up in the works of creators like Tolkien. Whether is the ghosts of battles long since fought, as in the Dead Marshes or the realization that you are changed by circumstances beyond your control, or a quiet hero living with the scars he acquired on his quest, there are glimpses of the brutality of the war present throughout the legendarium. Tolkien places his contemporary view of the destruction brought on by the First World War alongside that of the heroic warriors and kings that influenced him, creating a body of work that was, as he would later put it, mute the creative potential of his world and generation, a nightmare that still lingers a century after the end of the conflict.

Further reading

It’s been a busy week. On Monday, I posted up the first book list of April. There’s some good-looking things hitting shelves. I’m particularly interested in Finder, by Suzanne Palmer, and Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud. (His horror is so good.) There are other good-looking books coming later in the month. I’m particularly excited for Stanley Chen’s The Waste Tide, a Chinese translation.

I also posted up a how-to for The Verge: How to find great books online. That started out as a list of apps that are doing interesting things in the reading field, and turned into the final form — where to find books around the internet. It’s not entirely comprehensive, but I tried to hit the gamut between reading apps, stores, and libraries.

Finally, the 2019 Hugo Awards were announced. There’s some fantastic stories on the ballot. A bunch of the novels that I nominated are on that list, but only a couple of novellas/novelettes/short stories.

Reading List

I'm working on a couple of the same books as before: Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey, and The City the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. I've got a long train ride to Chicago, so I'm packing along a couple of books I've been meaning to get to: JY Yang's The Descent of Monsters (I loved the first two books in this world by them), Emma Newman's Planetfall, the first of her series, Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire, which I've really been wanting to read and have heard good things about, and because it's Celebration, Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray.

Thank you for reading! I'll be at Celebration from Friday to Sunday. If you're at the con, let me know, I'd love to say hello. I'm sure I'll have some thoughts about it after the fact, and I'll be posting up pictures on various places online. As always, let me know what you're reading, and if you enjoyed this, pass it along to your friends!