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World War I

The First World War saw Tolkien lay the foundations of Middle-earth. Here, an outline of his creative output between 1914 and 1918, and a discussion of the war's influence on his life's work, must follow a summary of his wartime experiences—as a student, as an army officer in Britain and on the Western Front, and as a war invalid.

The student
Hostilities broke out when Tolkien, 22, had completed the second year of his English degree course at Oxford University. When Britain declared war on Germany, on 4 August, he was on holiday in Cornwall. By October, despite pressure from his aunts and uncles, he had decided to defer enlistment in the armed forces until after his degree. He said later that this was because he did not relish military action; but at the time he told friends that as a young man with a fiancée and little money, he had to prioritize his future academic career.

In October, beginning his final undergraduate year, Tolkien joined the Officer Training Corps. Oxford was now full of soldiers, makeshift military hospitals and war refugees. Friends enlisted in the army, including G.B. Smith and R.Q. Gilson, whom he met up with in December 1914 in a 'Council of London' that saw their clique, the TCBS, acquire a new moral and cultural sense of purpose.

The soldier
Having achieved a first-class degree in June 1915, Tolkien quickly followed Smith into the Lancashire Fusiliers—celebrated for the gruelling Gallipoli landings that April—as a temporary second lieutenant, the lowest rank of commissioned officer. He trained from July 1915 with other officers at Bedford but was disappointed to not be assigned a place in the regiment's 19th Battalion, with which Smith would be going to war. Instead, in August Tolkien was placed with the 13th Battalion, purely a training unit, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, and as winter drew in he moved with it to bleak camps on Cannock Chase. Tolkien was bored by training, oppressed by military discipline and depressed by the war. At the start of 1916, Tolkien began to receive letters from Smith and Gilson describing the horrors of the Western Front. In March, Tolkien returned to Oxford for his official graduation and, in Warwick, married Edith Bratt, who then took lodgings at Great Haywood, near Cannock Chase. He had chosen to specialize in signals, which was a safer occupation than leading a platoon, and which appealed to his interest in codes; but his marks after a specialist course in Yorkshire that spring were average.

Into battle
Embarkation orders arrived on June 2, 1916. Tolkien was sent via Folkestone and Le Havre to Le Touquet, where he received final training and awaited further orders for three weeks. He was despatched to meet his service unit, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, at the village of Rubempré on June 28 and was at Warloy-Baillon, five miles behind the front line, on July 1 when Britain and its allies launched the vast Somme offensive with immediate and tragic losses (20,000 British soldiers dead and 37,000 wounded on the first day). A few days later at Bouzincourt, a village just above the front line and reeking of death, he briefly met up with Smith. Tolkien stayed there at divisional signals H.Q. while the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers went into action and suffered their worst setback of the battle: the loss of an entire company which had advanced too far. Tolkien himself witnessed what he later described simply as 'the animal horror of active service' when he went into action on July 14-16. He found the signals system in chaos and the battlefield choked with corpses, but his battalion took the surrender of hundreds of German soldiers and the entrenched hilltop of Ovillers-la-Boisselle.

On his return to Bouzincourt, Tolkien learned that Gilson had been killed on the first day of the offensive. The news undermined (perhaps only temporarily) his faith in the purpose of the TCBS and brought him into dispute with Smith and Wiseman, the other two surviving members. New duties as battalion signals officer from July 19 kept him busy amid what he called 'the universal weariness' of war as the unit, uprooting itself every few days, rotated through rest, training and a series of trench duties: July 24-30 opposite Beaumont-Hamel, August 7-10 east of Colincamps, August 24 to September 5 in Thiepval Wood and north of Ovillers, September 27-29 in Thiepval Wood again (where the unit had made a minor attack on a German position), and finally from October 6 south of Regina Trench. The Somme turned to a mire, treacherous to navigate, littered with decaying corpses. With little or no ground gained in the campaign of attrition, demoralisation and shell shock affected many soldiers. During a cold snap and a respite from rain on October 21, Tolkien ran the signals operation from a front-line dugout as his battalion joined others in capturing Regina Trench and many German prisoners.

Almost as soon as the battalion had marched out of the line for a series of congratulatory inspections, Tolkien succumbed to trench fever, a chronically debilitating, potentially fatal condition transmitted by lice in the unhygienic trenches. He reported sick on October 27 at Beauval, and the next day, as his battalion took the train to Ypres, Tolkien was taken to an officers' hospital instead. From October 29 to November 7 he was in another hospital at Le Touquet, on November 8-9 he crossed the English Channel in the hospital ship Asturias, and on November 10 he arrived at Birmingham University's wartime hospital.

The invalid
Tolkien spent the remainder of the war either in hospital, convalescing at home or carrying out safer duties in England. Chronic ill-health almost certainly saved his life, as he was reminded by Edith, by Christopher Wiseman, and by the death of G.B. Smith on the Somme on December 3, 1916.

On December 9, Tolkien went to convalesce at Great Haywood. At the end of February 1917, he was sent to hospital in Harrogate, Yorkshire, for a month. On April 19, he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers' 3rd Battalion, which trained new recruits and guarded the coast of Yorkshire's Holderness peninsula. He was put in charge of a battalion outpost at the village of Roos, and then judged fit for general service in June. A relapse hospitalised him in Hull from August to October. Edith, who had moved several times to be near him, returned to Cheltenham to give birth to their son, John, on November 16. At the end of the dark 'starvation year' of 1917, Tolkien was promoted to lieutenant but posted to the 9th Royal Defence Corps, a coastal unit of men too old or unfit to fight, based at Easington, near the tip of the peninsula.

The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers were wiped out near the River Aisne in May 1918. But Tolkien was far away, back at the Cannock Chase camps, in rural lodgings with Edith and John. At the end of June 1918 he was sent once more to the Hull hospital, with gastritis, and in October he was discharged from a convalescent hospital in Blackpool, Lancashire, unfit for military service and with permission to seek civilian employment. Around the armistice, November 11, 1918, the lexicographer W.A. Craigie gave him a job as a sub-editor on the Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien was officially demobilised on July 16, 1919, at Fovant, on Salisbury Plain, with a temporary disability pension.

Creative output, 1914-18
The first poem of Tolkien's mythology, 'The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star', arising from a reading of Cynewulf, was written at his aunt's farm in Nottinghamshire in September 1914 while he was under pressure to enlist. Back at Oxford, invigorated by infantry drill, he made progress on an adaptation of the story of Kullervo from the Kalevala. Fired with his own idiosyncratic patriotism, he gave a talk on this 'Finnish national epic' in which he expressed the desire for 'something of the same sort that belonged to the English': an anticipation of his entire creative oeuvre. Inspired by the 'Council of London' with his TCBS friends, Tolkien produced a series of poems in April 1915 ranging from fairy-tale ('Goblin Feet') to epic ('The Shores of Faëry'). He also began constructing a 'fairy' language, Qenya, alongside a complex of mythological conceptions centred on immortal Eldamar beyond the western ocean.

After enlistment, Tolkien continued to write poetry and work on Qenya. Training out in the open and among men from all walks of life in 1915-16, he composed landscape poetry set on this side of the western ocean, such as the ambitious 'Kortirion among the Trees', as well as musings on mortality such as 'Habbanan beneath the Stars'. G.B. Smith carried 'Kortirion' in the trenches 'like a treasure', declared himself 'a wild and whole-hearted admirer' and urged Tolkien to publish before going to war; but a collection, 'The Trumpets of Faërie', was rejected by Sidgwick & Jackson.

Tolkien wrote or revised poetry a little in France, even in the trenches. However, return from the Somme unleashed a flood of creativity. In the Birmingham hospital, Tolkien began the story of 'The Fall of Gondolin' and probably 'The Cottage of Lost Play', the start of a framing narrative for such 'Lost Tales'. He started on a second language, to be spoken by the 'Gnomes' in the ancient Europe of his imagination; Welsh-flavoured, it was the early prototype of Sindarin. The story of the elf-princess Tinúviel and her war-weary lover Beren was inspired by a walk at Roos in spring 1917 when Edith danced among the 'hemlocks' (cow-parsley). Tolkien also began the 'Tale of Turambar', drawing on the story of Kullervo. Meanwhile, at the request of Smith's mother in 1917, he edited his friend's poetry with Wiseman for publication as A Spring Harvest in 1918.

Influence on writing
Tolkien said that his a taste for fairy-stories was 'quickened to full life by war' and that the idea of perpetual conflict between good and evil was a 'conscious reaction' to the popular delusion that the Great War would end all wars. He also wrote that the approaches to Mordor had been coloured by the Somme battlefield landscape and Sam Gamgee was 'a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself'. However, his general reticence, combined with the tendency of early critics to see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the Second World War, delayed serious discussion of the First World War's impact until Hugh Brogan tackled it in 1989. John Garth's biographical Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth lays the ground for more informed discussion.

Tolkien might have written nothing of consequence if he had not been impelled by mortal peril (underlined by his TCBS friends). The First World War also furnished key themes, such as mortality and immortality. War probably contributed to his desire to create 'a national epic', and (as an era rich in rumour and new coinages) may have also helped to reveal to him the interdependency of language and mythology. As C.S. Lewis first pointed out, war equipped him with the experience to write The Lord of the Rings. It showed him a world in fear and undergoing cataclysmic change; large-scale military actions; fellowships built and broken; individual heroism and despair; men, trees and villages destroyed with the aid of the machine. In addition, Garth has argued that many 'fantasy' elements in Tolkien's work may be symbolist treatments of wartime experience, with Verlyn Flieger focusing on Tolkien's explorations of dream and exile. Tom Shippey has emphasized Tolkien's place among other witnesses of war in the 20th century who abandoned conventional realism to express their concerns. In a wider literary context, the pattern of Tolkien's 'fairy-stories', in which ordinary people become heroes and experience 'eucatastrophic' resurgences of inspiration against a backdrop of deepening despair, provides a striking contrast to the ironic, disenchanted work of soldiers such as Wilfred Owen whose work is now seen as the epitome of First World War writing.

John Garth

Further Reading

Hugh Brogan, 'Tolkien's Great War', in Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs (eds.), Children and their Books: A celebration of the work of Iona and Peter Opie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A biography, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.

Verlyn Flieger, A Question of Time, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997.

John Garth, 'Frodo and the Great War', forthcoming in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds.), proceedings of the 2004 Marquette Tolkien conference.
John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, London: HarperCollins, 2003.

C.S. Lewis, 'The Dethronement of Power', Time and Tide 36 (22 October 1955); reprinted in Isaacs and Zimbardo, Tolkien and the Critics, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, London: HarperCollins, 2000.

See also Death; Despair (Wanhope); Eucatastrophe; Exile; Gilson, Robert Quilter; Good and Evil; Immortality; Quest Narrative; Sacrifice; Smith, Geoffrey Bache; TCBS; Tyranny; Violence; War; Wiseman, Christopher; World War II.

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