The influence of the First World War on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien’s is recognised as one of Britain’s great writers. His ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and ‘The Hobbit’ were adapted into Oscar-winning films as well as inspiring video games, board games, artwork, music, TV and much more. But have you ever thought about what inspired Tolkien’s ideas for his fantastical Middle-earth and imaginative characters?

WW1 and its affect on culture

During the First World War many writers, artists and musicians served in the armed forces. Many sadly died and we will never know the great works they could have created.

However, there are a number of extraordinary documented pieces of work from those who survived, including the work of J. R. R. Tolkien.

New military inventions and their parallels to Tolkien's work

There were many new military inventions and developments during WW1, including the tank, the machine gun and the flame thrower, which would have been experienced by all those who served, and which clearly influenced some of the aspects of Tolkien’s work

It is said that the elephant-like Mûmakil or Oliphaunts in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are reminiscent of these new tanks, which demolished everything in their path. In the books they are described as “grey-clad moving hill[s],” and the horses of Rohirrim are scared to go near them.

A further example of new military inventions from WW1 features in another of Tolkien’s works, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, which he wrote whilst recovering from trench fever in hospital.

In this story, the antagonist Morgoth attacks the elvin city of Gondolin with deadly serpents and dragons. These have been said to also describe the destructive nature of the tanks that Tolkien saw on the Western Front.

It is also believed that the Nazgûls in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is also a reference to the horrors of the First World War. During the war, the mist and the fumes on the battlefields would conceal the cavalry, but not their horses, and when they spoke wearing their gas masks it would sound like they were hissing and sniffling.

You can see the similarities in the books, as the Nazgûls wear heavy black cloaks to disguise themselves and hiss at anyone they come across, sniffing the air around them searching for the ring.

The screams of the Nazgûls is also thought to be akin to the sounds of the artillery shells soaring through the air before they exploded. Not only this, but the description around how the characters in the books feel when they hear their screams is similar to the psychological impact the soldiers experienced when hearing the shells being fired during the war.

When speaking about the Nazgûls screams, Tolkien said: "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."

The bond between an officer and his batman

There are many references to Tolkien’s experiences during the First World War within his work, and another is the character Samwise Gamgee. He based Sam on the common soldiers he knew during the war, who appeared courageous with high spirits, despite the horrors of what they were seeing on a daily basis.

During the war, officers were most often men from a higher class and were usually appointed a lower solider, known as a batman, who would cook and clean for them. It was not unusual for a close friendship to occur amongst them, and sometimes if an officer was killed on the battlefield, the batman would be found to have died next to him.

This friendship can be seen between the characters of Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins; within the books Sam always calls Frodo ‘Master’ or ‘Mr Frodo’ and often carries Frodo’s bag on their journey, as well as cooking, cleaning and protecting him from danger.

Tolkien commented on this friendship: "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".

'Shell-shock' and its impacts on soldiers during the war

‘Shell-shock’ is also a theme that can be seen within Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, predominately through the character Frodo. ‘Shell-shock’ was a very real infliction for soldiers during WW1 and symptoms included hallucinations, traumatic nightmares recollecting past events, anxiety, depression, temporary blindness and changes in personality.

Throughout Frodo’s journey to destroy the ring this can be seen, as he experiences temporary blindness on numerous occasions, and when approaching Mordor, he also loses his taste and smell, becomes exhausted and extremely anxious. Even when returning to The Shire, it’s clear that the journey has dramatically changed him and he becomes withdrawn, disinterested with the goings on and experiences traumatic nightmares and hallucinations.

This was very common in soldiers returning from the war. Many were no longer interested in the same things as before and became isolated from society in an attempt to forget their traumatic memories of the war.