How was The Lord of the Rings influenced by World War One?

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1. A lost generation

It is believed that World War One had the highest number of active serving writers, artists and musicians of any war in history, many of whom were part of the estimated nine million military casualties.

One can only imagine the great works of art, literature and music that this Lost Generation might have produced had they survived.

Influenced by their experiences, however, some of those lucky enough to survive created remarkable pieces of work, of which JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings remains one of the most influential and well-known.

2. The battle for Middle-earth

John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli in Peter Jackson's film versions of The Lord of the Rings, talks about JRR Tolkien’s experience of World War One.

3. Machines and monsters

World War One saw the invention of the tank and the development of the machine gun and flamethrower. Tolkien would have personally seen the devastating power of these machines amid the battle and noise of the trenches.

In The Lord of the Rings, the giant, elephant-like Mûmakil, or Oliphaunts, are described as “grey-clad moving hill[s],” mowing down everything in their path like tanks, with the horses of the Rohirrim afraid to go anywhere near them.

Yet a more literal example of this rise of the machines can be seen in a very early story of Middle-earth, The Fall Of Gondolin, written while Tolkien was in hospital recovering from trench fever.

In the tale, the dark lord Morgoth besieges the elven city of Gondolin with huge destructive machines in the form of serpents and dragons, akin to the monstrous tanks on the Western Front.

The screams of the Nazgûl

On the World War One battlefields mist and fumes would obscure cavalry riders but not their horses, and gas masks would distort their speech to hissing and sniffling.

Tolkien's Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths, in comparison, are shrouded in heavy black cloaks to disguise their true (if invisible) form, hiss at people and sniff the air whilst searching for the Ring.

Their cries are also similar to the sound of artillery shells flying through the air before exploding. The psychological effect that the artillery sounds had on soldiers (shell-shock) is comparable to the effect of the Nazgûl’s screams.

Tolkien said of the Ringwraiths' cries: "Even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death."

4. Sam Gamgee and the Tommy

Tolkien's experience of war left him with "a deep sympathy and feeling for the 'tommy', especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties."

He based the character of Samwise Gamgee on common soldiers that he had known during the war, men who kept their courage and stayed cheerful when there was not much reason to hope.

Officers like Tolkien were usually men from a high social class, regardless of whether they had any military experience. They were often assigned a soldier from a lower background to cook, clean, and wash their uniforms.

The officers and these men, known as batmen, often formed strong bonds. It was not unusual, if the officer had been killed on the battlefront, to find his batman dead alongside him.

Tolkien was greatly affected by these relationships, and used them to shape the bond between Frodo and Sam. The Bagginses had a higher social standing in the Shire than the Gamgees, and throughout the books Sam addresses Frodo as either "Master" or "Mr Frodo".

"My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself," Tolkien said.

Sam carries his and most of Frodo’s packs on their journey, he cooks and cleans for both of them and protects Frodo fiercely. By the end of the narrative there is great love between Frodo and Sam for having helped one another survive the horrors of the Ring.

5. Allegory of war?

As a veteran of the Great War, did Tolkien intend The Lord of the Rings to be an allegory of World War One? John Rhys-Davies discusses this with Dr Dimitra Fimi, Tolkien scholar and English lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

6. The shell-shocked hobbit

Shell-shock was prevalent among men on both sides of No Man’s Land, and by the end of the conflict around 80,000 British soldiers had been treated for the condition. Symptoms included vivid hallucinations and nightmares reliving traumatic events, anxiety and depression, emotional numbing and changes in personality.

Tolkien would have been well aware of its effects from his time in hospital and on the front line. He presents a sympathetic view in The Lord of the Rings by afflicting Frodo with the condition while carrying and after having destroyed the Ring.

Even before reaching Mordor, Frodo experiences sudden temporary blindness on a few occasions, a common symptom of shell-shock, and as he gets nearer to Mount Doom he experiences a loss of taste and smell, uncontrollable trembling, exhaustion and bouts of anxiety.

Pacifism and withdrawal

Upon his return to the Shire, a change in Frodo's personality becomes increasingly evident. The Shire is overrun with thugs and hooligans, and while Merry and Pippin call the hobbits to arms, Frodo refuses to take part and insists that no-one be hurt or killed.

Shell-shocked soldiers, including the poet Siegfried Sassoon, often became pacifists after the war. Many also began to lose interest in things they had once found enjoyable, and isolated themselves from society as a way of protecting themselves from reminders of their traumatic experiences.

While Merry, Pippin and Sam reintegrate successfully back into Shire life, Frodo quietly withdraws and is plagued by terrifying flashbacks and nightmares.

7. Fact or falsehood?

JRR Tolkien denied that The Lord of the Rings was historical. Do you know which of these were actually intended by the author?

The Ring: atomic bomb

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False

Tolkien said: "Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for domination)."

Orcs: the Germans

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False

According to Tolkien, the Orcs weren't evil to begin with, and neither were the Germans he fought against.

Sauron: Stalin

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False

Sauron was "conceived long before the Russian Revolution," according to Tolkien. The same can be said of Hitler.

The Dead Marshes: the Somme

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True

"The Dead Marshes," Tolkien said, "owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme."