More than Mordor: Tolkien and the First World War

It’s no secret that J. R. R. Tolkien borrowed from his experience in the trenches of World War One when creating Middle Earth. A month ago, I myself noted how Tolkien’s descriptions of Mordor and the Dead Marshes come more or less completely from his experiences in the war. It is these locations which Tolkien admirers almost always mention when discussing the influence of the Great War Tolkien’s world and writings.

Yet Tolkien’s inspiration from World War One goes far, far beyond the aesthetic choices of a few settings. The  First World War influenced Tolkien’s entire worldview and informed the themes of his writing.

Ruined landscape of World War One. Commentators often point out the similarity between the battlefields of the Western front and Mordor. Tolkien, however, drew far more from the war than just a few locations.

Today, the thing we associate most with World War I is the terrifying and hellish experience of trench warfare. Yet veterans who fought in the war, including Tolkien, would have remembered other things as well, less dramatic but more personal than the trenches. Men would have gone home to see a changed world, with a ruined economy, hollowed out cities, and a general feeling of exhaustion and futility. For the majority of people, a sense of gradual loss, rather than brutal combat, would have dominated wartime memory.

Tellingly, Tolkien began writing about Middle Earth during his service in the First World War, and not about hobbits or the shire, but about the fall of Gondolin, perhaps the greatest and most beautiful city in the history of Middle Earth. In the story, Gondolin is destroyed by a host of dark creatures, and its beauty and grandeur lost forever.

Tolkien infused virtually all of his writing with his feelings of loss and civilizational backsliding. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s world is haunted by the memory of greater, more wondrous days. Even Sauron, the antagonist of The Lord of the Rings, was a mere lieutenant of Melkor, the great dark lord who fought against the forces of good during the earlier ages of the world. Elrond, one of the oldest elves in Middle Earth, expressed the sense of lost grandeur when he recalled the host of the Last Alliance.

I remember well the splendour of their banners. It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thangorodrim was broken, and the Elves deemed that evil was ended for ever, and it was not so…. I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Part of the reason for the diminishing glory of Middle Earth is the cost and loss associated with war. Tolkien suggests that the forces of good have sacrificed so much in the struggle against evil that even though they are eventually victorious, they will live in a lessened world, lacking the splendor of the ancient days. Many of the wondrous things that appear in The Lord of the Rings, such as elves and magic, appear faded and transient, reminding the reader of all the things Middle Earth is in the process of losing. The theme of civilizational decline would have seemed obvious to anyone who lived through the Great War, in which even church bells were melted down to create armaments.

The Lord of the Rings is a story of loss and longing, punctuated by moments of humor and terror and heroic action but on the whole a lament for a world— albeit a fictional world— that has passed even as we seem to catch a last glimpse of it flickering and fading, disappearing in the mist like the ship carrying the Ring-bearer over the sea to the West.

Patrice Hannon, 2004

No character exemplifies this better than Frodo, who destroys the Ring and saves the world, but in doing so, loses much of his ability to appreciate the victory. 

As Karyn Milos wrote in the Journal of the Tolkien Society:  

Frodo’s post-Quest life followed a typical course for the aftermath of trauma: Initial surprise and relief at simply surviving are followed by the recurring intrusion of memories memories, emotions, even physical pains, associated with the trauma.The hope of returning to life as usual is replaced with the realization that one has been permanently changed by the trauma, that “there is no real going back.” 

Karyn Milos, 1998

Tolkien’s own experience as a veteran surely informed the journey of Frodo. Although Tolkien wrote before PTSD had been diagnosed as a medical condition, Tolkien describes its symptoms exactly.

Frodo’s departure from Middle Earth, the only way for him to escape the trauma of the war.

The fictional sense of longing present in Middle Earth mirrors the sense Tolkien and many others felt that a golden age of beauty and civilization had died in the war, never again to return. Historians would dub the pre-war period of European history ‘La Belle Époque’ or “The Beautiful Era.” Whether pre-war Europe was really an era of idyllic beauty is beside the point. For those who survived the great war, the war had snatched away much of the beauty in the world they had known. 

Gondolin, symbolic of the beautiful and pure world that Tolkien mourned in his writing.

Like the rest of his generation, Tolkien gradually recovered from the war. Although he had begun writing about Middle Earth during the war, describing weighty subjects like the destruction of Gondolin, his first published work on Middle Earth was the light-hearted and delightful The Hobbit, published in 1937. However, in his later works Tolkien returned to his themes of lost splendor, and The Lord of the Rings (1954) echoes them in almost every chapter. Even though the protagonists of the story win, Middle Earth transitions into a new, more mundane age. The elves depart and the dwarves dwindle, while magic itself fades. For Tolkien, there can be little doubt that the world seemed grayer after the Great War.

I’ll close with an anecdote. 

While in school in the years before the war, Tolkien met three other young men, Robert Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Christopher Wiseman. All were well-educated, ambitious boys with bold ideas about art and literature. The four formed a close-knit society, where they would stay up late together debating politics, history, and anything else that struck their interest.

When the war began, all of the “immortal four” joined with high hopes, believing that it would be a grand adventure, and the four of them were destined to remake the world. Tolkien wrote that he felt the group was endowed with a “spark of fire – certainly as a body if not singly – that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world”. Only Tolkien and Wiseman would survive the war. Some Tolkien scholars have drawn a comparison between the four young Englishmen and the four hobbits who set out on the adventure in The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps Tolkien wanted to tell the story of the adventure he and his friends never had. 

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