The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

‘Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ JRR Tolkien

When JRR Tolkien’s epic, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, appeared in three volumes in 1954-55 it sold pretty well without setting the publishing world on fire. It only became a ‘legendary’ book in the 1960s when it captured the imagination of a new generation of readers including many amongst the ‘hippy’ generation. Tolkien’s story of hobbits, elves and dwarves fighting alongside men against the evil power of Mordor was rich in imagery and seemed to be especially enjoyable when viewed through a smoky haze of some kind. Led Zeppelin, the legendary band of the late sixties and seventies, wrote many songs which were filled with imagery taken straight from the legends of ‘Middle Earth’. The incredible popularity of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of films took the legend of Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum and the ring to an enormous audience around the world. But what was ‘The Lord of the Rings’ actually about? Indeed, was it about anything at all?

Having been published in the mid-1950s, many people read Tolkien’s work as an allegory for the struggle for power in the Cold War. The ‘good’ forces of the West, seen in the feisty dwarves, the pure elves, the fragile men and above all the innocent, loyal and determined hobbits, were vulnerable band of friends, the allies, taking on the ‘dark forces’ of Communism represented by Mordor in the East. This was certainly a widespread interpretation and one passed on to me and many who read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the seventies. But the story was actually written long before the Cold War and the frightening tension between Communism and the West. Some people claimed it was based on World War II with Germany being ‘Mordor’ while others looked for a simpler tale rooted in the Norse myths that Tolkien had loved and studied since childhood. In reality, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ speaks of war, of course, and has images rich in Norse mythology but its true origins and the essence of its meaning is to be found in an earlier conflict, the Great War of 1914-18, when Captain Tolkien served with the British Army in the trenches of the Western Front.

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JRR Tolkien, in military uniform during the Great War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

JRR Tolkien was born in 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa but his family moved to England after his father died in 1896. They lived just outside Birmingham, in a village called Sarehole, near Moseley and in what was then Worcestershire but today is very much part of the city itself. It was from Sarehole that the young Tolkien would look out towards Birmingham in the distance, across to Perrot’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks, the buildings which would become the ‘Two Towers’. The domes of St. Philip’s Cathedral and the Oratory church in Birmingham may also have influenced his imagery, as did the local mill at Sarehole. ‘Ronald’ as he was known (his full name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, in case you need to know) grew up at a time of great upheaval with technological change impacting on life at almost every level in Britain. For Tolkien this drama was played out at home as the strength of the local industrial city cast a lengthening shadow over the countryside around him: crafts were changing, traditions were under threat and ‘Old England’ was dying.

Without going into too much detail, childhood was far from straight-forward for Ronald Tolkien, especially after his mother died in 1904. She had suffered from diabetes which was untreatable in those days before insulin had been discovered. It may seem surprising to people today, but Ronald and his brother were placed in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a friend of the family. Father Morgan was a Catholic priest at a church called the Birmingham Oratory, which had been founded in the 19th Century by John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism. Tolkien’s mother had grown up as a Baptist but had become a Catholic and JRR was strongly influenced by his own Catholic faith. Tolkien was a very intelligent, bright child, who was taught a lot by his mother, and he was extraordinarily talented at languages. He mastered Latin and Greek as a boy before developing an interest in Welsh, Finnish and Old English at Oxford University. He also had a habit, going back to childhood, of inventing his own languages, something that would lead to his creation of ‘Elvish’ as used in his books.

1916 was a momentous year for Tolkien: at the age of 24, he married Edith Bratt at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick, and was also sent out to fight in the Great War. He arrived just in time to join the fighting at the Battle of the Somme, which started on 1st July of that year. He was in and out of the trenches for four months before being sent home with a common infection called ‘trench fever’, a result of the unhygienic conditions at the front line. He was kept in hospital in Birmingham for over a month, during which time he heard that most of his old friends from school had been killed in the war. These experiences influenced him deeply and were formed into a story known as ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ which later became ‘The Silmarillion’. The sense of belonging to small groups of friends seems to have been significant for Tolkien throughout his life: at school, in the army and later on in academic life he was most at ease with small groups of like-minded men. There was something life-giving and sustaining about facing the hardships and challenges of ‘mighty forces’ in the company of a faithful ‘band’ of friends, something which stands at the heart of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Tolkien suffered recurring bouts of trench fever in 1917-18 and he did not return to the army. He entered academic life, becoming professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University in 1925 where he remained until he retired in 1959. Tolkien was a normal sort of ‘prof’ really, doing nothing too remarkable apart from being part of ‘The Inklings’, a group that met in various pubs around Oxford, the best known of which is ‘The Eagle and Child’. Each week the group met for drinks, discussions and debates on their own writings, and the group famously included the other great ‘religious novelist’ of the period, the Anglican CS Lewis, author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Surprised by Joy’ amongst others. Tolkien clearly valued the company of like-minded men who were able to reflect on life and offer good company.

In 1937, Tolkien had a story published. It was called ‘The Hobbit’, which received widespread acclaim at the time and has remained a children’s classic ever since, selling over 100 million copies. ‘The Hobbit’ was a fantasy work which introduced Bilbo Baggins, Gollum, Middle Earth and ‘The Ring’ to the world, and would provide the background for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which would take 16 more years to reach publication. The key point to know, though, is that the great themes of both books are to be found in his earlier book, ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ or ‘The Silmarillion’. In other words, the themes and imagery for ‘Lord of the Rings’ are rooted in his early experiences in life, his childhood in and around Birmingham, his Catholicism and, most importantly, his experience of fighting and the destruction of the Great War.

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Sarehole Mill, Moseley, Birmingham. (Author: Ashley Dace; Source: here)

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Trenches of the Somme, 1916. (Author: John Warwick Brooke; Source: here)

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a big book in length, of course, but also in ideas, which is why so many people read it at different levels. The basic setting is the on-going struggle for power between good and evil, such that there is almost a dualism at work between a ‘good god’ (embodied in Gandalf) and a ‘bad god’ (represented by Lord Sauron with help from another baddy in Saruman). Religious values mingle with basic human and cultural values to represent a traditional way of life that comes under threat from something more simple, direct and ultimately destructive in the forces that come out of Mordor. They are expressed in the obsessive greed, lying and violence that come from the power of the ring.

The real backdrop or context for the struggle in the story is the Great War, which is one of the reasons why the story focuses on men; very few women play a significant role in the story. The plot is rooted in the traditional values of ‘Middle England’, the world of his childhood, which Tolkien saw as coming under such threat in the war. These values were expressed in many ordinary, traditional things and rooted in the disappearing English countryside: the landscape itself, the small farmers, the village pub, the old crafts, the folk songs and the relationships between ordinary people who just wanted a simple, safe life. These values saw people take time over things that mattered, built quality goods, respected wisdom and the old ways, a world in which people had time for play and for friendship. They were people who lived by the rhythm of the seasons, people who understood the traditional arts and crafts and had manners, honesty and respect for all. This way of life, the life of the ‘Hobbits’ of ‘The Shire’, had come under the greatest threat from dark, distant forces which reached out to cast a shadow over the traditional ways. These were the violent forces of the Ringwraiths at first but the Orcs and others too, the forces that wanted to seize, exploit and reject traditional ways in favour of control, selfishness and greed. The dark forces of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were the result of the rise of industry, capitalism, individualism, greed and violence. The Hobbits were the simple people Tolkien had grown up amongst and who saw their way of life under threat: the farmers, craftsmen, the families of ‘Middle England’ who were thrown into a nightmare not of their making. Most of all they were the ordinary young men who were forced out of ‘The Shire’ and thrown into the horror and the slaughter of the trenches, in a war which seemed to be a struggle for the survival of civilisation itself. The story almost comes to express the values of the Luddites and Captain Swing, all mixed together with a bit of William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’.

The context for the struggle faced by Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf and the others is the Great War, the First World War of 1914-1918. Young men, many of whom had never left their home villages and towns, and who knew of foreign lands only through books and newspapers, marched off with high hopes and in great excitement to face an unknown enemy from the East. Inspired by dreams of loyalty, trust and patriotism, they volunteered and celebrated the chance to do their bit ‘for King and for country’. These men, some of them as volunteers, others as conscripts, were sent to the front line to be mown down in their millions for this was a new horror, the first ‘industrial’ war. Traditional weapons and tactics came face to face with the mass-produced destruction made available through machinery, as symbolised by the creation of the Orcs. In the Great War, artillery, gas, tanks and machine guns would wipe out a generation. Industry was tearing up the countryside of Tolkien’s childhood, the landscape being destroyed to turn trees into guns and men into monsters. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is really war poetry on the grandest scale.

One particular scene might serve to illustrate this. If you watch the final film, ‘The Return of the King’, there is a point where, following an ‘Entmoot’, a slow discussion amongst the Ents, Merry and Pippin are carried by the leading Ent to the edge of the wood. There they look out towards Isengard, the fortress of Saruman, and see a devastated landscape where the trees are being torn up and thrown into a giant furnace to build an army of Orcs to destroy Middle Earth. The Ents, or trees, are representative of the countryside itself, symbols of the slow moving but wise and deep-rooted wisdom of Middle Earth, the unchanging landscape of England reaching back to the Anglo-Saxon times and the days of Beowulf, Bede and Caedmon. Nature is being fed into the fires of industry, the landscape is being lost and the old ways are on the verge of destruction at the hands of the Orcs and Ringwraiths who are led by cold, heartless leaders who look down on all that they represent. In this scene, Tolkien recreates the trenches, the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele, and shows what is at stake with the battle for the ‘Ring’, namely civilisation and the heart of humanity. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the struggle for the soul of ‘Old England’ expressed in the horrors unleashed by politicians and rulers who seek power and ‘progress’ at any cost. The alliance of dwarves, elves, men and hobbits represent a vulnerable group which can survive only by sticking together and putting differences of language, culture and religion to one side.

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A scene from ‘Gibraltar’ bunker on the Somme showing the destruction of life as well as the countryside. (Author: British War Photographer; Source: here)

Tolkien would later speak out against Communism and Nazism for the same reasons really: totalitarian regimes, imposing their wills on ordinary people and rejecting traditional, cultural and religious values in the process. He had a world-view that was firmly set against these new ideas and against industrialisation. He favoured tradition and saw a frightening tipping point in his experiences on the battlefields of the Western Front. This is the real meaning of his greatest book.

But maybe it really is just a fairy tale about some brave little hobbits, some elves, a ring and, of course, Gollum. Maybe.

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Professor Tolkien in 1967. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Books: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien (both Harper Collins)

Films : ‘The Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by Peter Jackson (Eiv)

Books: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by CS Lewis (Harper Collins)

War Poets: Poems of the Great War (Penguin): Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Ivor Gurney and others.

Book and film: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, one of the most famous anti-war statements of all time, with the film best seen in the original from 1933.

Books on ‘The Somme’: There are so many fine works about ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that it is hard to choose one or two. Fine works include: ‘The first day on the Somme’ by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin History, 2006); ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine (Ebury Press) shares many of the stories of ordinary soldiers in the battle and Peter Barton’s ‘The Somme’ (Constable) contains a wide range of photographs and testimonies.

DVD: The original of ‘The Battle of the Somme’ which appeared in cinemas at the time is available from the Imperial War Museum here.

 

2 Thoughts on “The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

  1. Joan Conejos on November 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm said:

    Finally I found the webpage!

    • Hi Joan – well done on finding the site. I hope there are not too many difficult words and that the sections are not too long as it is aimed at older students really. If you get the chance to let me know what you think, that would be great. Say ‘Hello’ to all your family from me.
      Mr Ison

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