How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front


Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The infantry charge was supposed to have been little more than a mopping-up operation. British artillery had pounded its targets for five days, ensuring — at least in the minds of the military staff — that the area would be defenseless. (Robert E. Lee used the same tactic at Gettsyburg, another great and tragic battle which began on July 1. Pickett’s Charge, like the Somme, was similarly conceived as a final stroke at a broken enemy, but instead resulted in horrendous loss of life.) More than 19,000 British soldiers died on the first day. One of the soldiers caught up in that battle was J.R.R. Tolkien:

According to the British historian Martin Gilbert, who interviewed Tolkien decades later about his combat experience, he came under intense enemy fire. He had heard “the fearful cries of men who had been hit,” Gilbert wrote. “Tolkien and his signalers were always vulnerable.”

Tolkien’s creative mind found an outlet. He began writing the first drafts of his mythology about Middle-earth, as he recalled, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” In 1917, recuperating from trench fever, Tolkien composed a series of tales involving “gnomes,” dwarves and orcs engaged in a great struggle for his imaginary realm. …

In “The Lord of the Rings,” we meet Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire, on a fateful mission to destroy the last Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from enslavement and destruction. The heroism of Tolkien’s characters depends on their capacity to resist evil and their tenacity in the face of defeat. It was this quality that Tolkien witnessed among his comrades on the Western Front.

“I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds,” he explained. The Hobbits were “a reflection of the English soldier,” made small of stature to emphasize “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’ ”

Not only did Tolkien’s battle experience give TLOTR its grim authenticity, it also inspired in him a deep respect and fascination for tales of courage and sacrifice. Despite the terrible ordeal that WWI proved to be, its lessons, filtered and interpreted by a skilled writer, are a treasured part of our heritage. Lest we forget.

20 thoughts on “How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front”

    1. Indeed. Though that war inspired some great literature, we clearly lost more than we gained. Think of the lost potential of Wilfred Owen, Apollinaire, and most tragically, T.E. Hulme.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. A very thoughtful tribute to the men who fought there and to Tolkien’s empathy as a writer.
    I seem to recall reading somewhere that Sam in particular was Tolkien’s own tribute to the British soldier, dependable, down to earth, practical (and the only one who picked up The Ring without having the horrors)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woebegone but Hopeful,

      I think you’re right. The oversized Hobbit foot suggested literal connectedness to the earth. So Hobbits were the English common folk, the Elves were the aristocracy, and the Dwarves were the coal-mining and smelting Welsh.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. jlfatgcs,

      I knew Tolkien was in the war, but didn’t know he was caught up in one of the worst battles until I read the NY Times account.

      When I was in college, the lit professors often argued whether literature should stand on its own or if insight could be gained learning about the author’s life and times. I’m now firmly with the latter side.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I too, have blogged about how war has influenced some of Tolkien’s writings such as Mordor being the comparison of the black, bombed, destroyed land that has been ravaged by war in the Battle of Somme. War isn’t the only personal experience in Tolkien’s life though that has influenced his writings, such as him losing both his parents at a young age, most of his characters lose their parents at a young age and become orphaned.


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