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Tolkien: From the Battlefields of the Somme to the Birth of a Fiction



In 1915, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was 23 years old. Newly graduated from Oxford, he felt his literary aspirations fading when he left to train with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was quickly transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France in June 1916. The creator of The Hobbit was comforted by the presence of university friends Gilson, Smith and Wiseman with him in France (although sadly, only Tolkien and Wiseman came home).


Mobilised on the Somme front, Tolkien served as a signaller during the offensive. He participated with the bloody battle for Thiepval Ridge, the terrifying attacks on the Schwaben Redoubt and the capture of Regina Trench. Between the 1st July and the 8th November 1916, the British author survived not only the Battle of the Somme, but also the discomfort, fear, mud, and severe cold; it was Trench Fever, an illness transmitted by lice that proliferated on the front, which finally transported Tolkien from the horrifying experience of  the fighting.


As he was convalescing in Staffordshire, haunted by the violence of the offensives and the images of a territory torn apart, Tolkien began writing Fall of Gondolin, first of the Lost Tails. Middle-earth was in part inspired by the still fresh memory of the battlefields of the Somme… Much later, the author confided that the description of the dead marshes in the Lord of the Rings was directly influenced by his experience during the First World War in the Somme: when it rained, the craters of No Man’s Land became lakes in which the bodies of men from both sides floated.
From the battlefields to the birth of a fiction - like for Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ernst Jünger and many others - was but a single step. Tolkien, however, went further than simply describing the desolation; throughout his works, he chose to glorify the heroic and honourable actions of individuals serving a common cause.
In 1940, Tolkien said that "to be caught in youth by 1914" was a "hideous" experience. I was pitched into it all just when I was full of stuff to write, and of things to learn; and never picked it all up again." What then would his work have contained without the horrors of the First World War? Could the Hobbit have known a different birthplace to the trenches of the Somme?

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Tolkien: From the Battlefields of the Somme to the Birth of a Fiction
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