The horrors of “The Great War” left few persons touched by it with their souls intact. The war began as a clash of empires and ended with a clash of ideologies. Hope disappeared. The plausibility of God died. And no one or anything was ever the same again.
Dr. Paul Kengor, New York Times best-selling author and professor of political science at Grove City College, describes it as follows:
“For four awful years – here-to-fore unprecedented – the civilized world descended into a hellacious conflict marred by mechanized warfare previously unimaginable: tanks, subs, battleships, air power, machine guns with names like ‘the Devil’s paint brush,’ and legions of poison gas – the largest-scale use of chemical weaponry in history. Winding through all the agony were rotten, death-strewn trenches, and incomprehensible maze of thousands of miles of freezing, disease-ridden, and rat-infested tunnels where men subsisted below the earth in a subterranean stench. They rose from this underworld only to be fed into a scarier one – no man’s land, a denouement with the human meat-grinder. Millions upon millions were blown away.”
One young soldier caught in the midst of the deadliest battle, the battle of the Somme, was J.R.R. Tolkien. He was born in 1892 and had a deep attachment to his home, the English countryside, and all of nature. The contrast with what he experienced in the trenches could not have been starker.
Tolkien, at 24, entered the war a devout Catholic through a program that allowed him to complete his degree in 1915. He had married his wife, Edith, not long before active duty began. On June 5, 1916, Second Lieutenant Tolkien boarded a troop transport for France and was sent to the British Expeditionary Force. By early July 2016, he arrived at Somme and the battle that was ongoing.
Tolkien’s wife feared every knock on the door as she saw how junior officers were being killed off at a dozen a minute. To find ways to let Edith be aware of where and how he was doing, the couple developed a code to use in their letters to one another to get around the British Army’s censorship. Edith used the information to track his movement on a map of the Western Front.
Many of those caught up in the war were members of Tolkien’s semi-secret society who had first met in 1911 in school. This group shared a love of literature and desired to leave a mark on the world. So it was no surprise that these close friends would seek to keep track of each other throughout the war.
By fall of 1916 Tolkien succumbed to trench fever carried by lice. He was given just six days rest in England before being sent back to the trenches.
In the midst of the awfulness of the war, Tolkien would somehow manage to come to the end of it with his soul intact. His war experiences would nonetheless serve as a catalyst for his writing following the war.
Following the war Tolkien became a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. Dr. Joseph Loconte gives us background for what became the stories for which he has become most known:
“…while he was sitting and grading student papers. ‘On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why…names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.
We don’t know why Tolkien wrote those enigmatic words. But we do know what hobbits are like: from his own account, the character of the hobbit was a reflection of the ordinary soldier steadfast in his duties while suffering in the dreary ‘hole in the ground,’ the front-line trench.”
And so it was that J.R.R. Tolkien would go on to write his beloved book, The Hobbit. His years enduring the hardship of the war also reminded him of his belief in a moral code when others around him and other writers during and after the war gave up on that idealistic perspective. He saw common ordinary men who were asked to risk everything in the midst of the evil of this war.
Loconte’s wonderful book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War, summarizes Tolkien’s journey that led to the book this way:
“Tolkien the solider lived among these ‘ordinary men,’ fought alongside them, witnessed their courage under fire, joked with them, mourned with them, and watched them die. Thus the ‘small people’ who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes of Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work. Like the soldiers in that war, the homely hobbits could not have perceived how the fate of nations depended upon their stubborn devotion to duty.
Perhaps this was Tolkien’s quiet way of suggesting that we may, in the end, owe more to these forgotten dead than our modern temperament allows.”
Unlike many writers who sought to try to make sense out of “The Great War” and wrote depressing and desperate stories devoid of hope, the Lord used J.R.R. Tolkien and his mythical story to offer a new lens and hope in the epic struggles against evil.