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How ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Was Inspired by a World War

History By
British writer J R R Tolkien enjoying a pipe in his study at Merton College in Oxford. (Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)
British writer J R R Tolkien enjoying a pipe in his study at Merton College in Oxford. (Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

 

It may be an epic fantasy series, but The Lord of the Rings book series’ origins were grounded in reality. At 24, author J.R.R. Tolkien was shipped off to the front lines of World War I in France to fight in Britain’s Expeditionary Force as a second lieutenant. The novelist, early in his military service, took part in the Battle of Somme, which killed 19,240 of his British comrades. The battle’s first day remains the bloodiest in British military history.

Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun during the first battle of the Somme. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun during the first battle of the Somme. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

 

While Tolkien was hunkered down in Somme, he drafted some of the early incarnations of The Lord of the Rings series as a way of escaping the horrors of war. He dreamed up his fantasy world in a tent by candle light, in trenches under artillery fire, and even in the hospital with trench fever. The New York Times‘ Joseph Loconte points to specific inspirations:

“The descriptions of battle scenes in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ seem lifted from the grim memories of the trenches: the relentless artillery bombardment, the whiff of mustard gas, the bodies of dead soldiers discovered in craters of mud. In the Siege of Gondor, hateful orcs are ‘digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring,’ while others maneuver ‘great engines for the casting of missiles.'”

To read Loconte’s full piece, click here. To learn more about Tolkien and his experience at war, watch the short documentary “Tolkien’s Great War” below.