J.R.R. Tolkien left behind a great legacy of literary work. “The Great War” (WW I) served as an expansive source for his mythic tales of The Hobbit and later, The Lord of the Rings. When both major works were translated onto the movie screens, people from all over the world that watched the movies became familiar with the work even though they may not have read the books. Most were struck by the imagination depicted in scene after scene on the screen.
Tolkien’s hobbit characters were born from his experiences in the trenches. Here, ordinary men lived in the subterranean tunnels dug across the European landscape for mile-upon-mile in conditions unfit for human life. Death haunted them from not only the shelling and poison gas, but from the rat-infested, disease-ridden trenches themselves.
Tolkien had grown up loving the beauty of the English countryside and all things of nature. The industrialization that was beginning to flourish was something he rebelled against. That perspective helped form the world of the hobbits in a region of “Middle-earth” known as “the Shire.”
Dr. Joseph Loconte gives us a view into Tolkien’s imaginative source in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War:
“The house of his famous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, takes its name − “Bag End” − from his aunt’s farm in Worcestershire.
When Tolkien considered the overreliance on technology, industrialization and its invasion of his idyllic English farmland, he used his views of these and what he saw in The Great War in creating scenes in The Lord of the Rings:
“Hence, the hateful realm of Mordor is sustained by its black engines and factories, which Sauron introduces as his forces invade the Shire.”
Dr. Joseph Loconte
It would also be the challenges Tolkien faced living in the trenches and his resulting illness as that likely spared Tolkien’s life. Had he been with his 11th Lancashire Fusiliers in late spring of 1918 near the Aisne River, he may well have died or been captured. His entire battalion was thought to be dead or captured as prisoners after this battle.
His service at the Battle of the Somme left indelible imprints in his mind that we get glimpses of when Frodo and Sam try to navigate the Dead Marshes on their trip to destroy the ring on Mount Doom.
“…Tolkien’s description of the Dead Marshes matches precisely the macabre experience of the soldiers in that battle: ‘Many soldiers on the Somme had been confronted by corpses, often decaying in the mud, that had lain undisturbed, except by the bombardment, for days, weeks and even months.”
Dr. Joseph Loconte quoting historian Martin Gilbert.
The impact of The Great War left those who experienced it despairing of hope and God, but from these experiences Tolkien’s mythic stories bring hope, and speak into the present reality as the forces of evil rage against light.
“The war against evil is the moral landscape of our mortal lives: a journey of souls degraded or redeemed, dragged into the Darkness of self or led into the Light of grace.”
Dr. Joseph Loconte
What inspires us about these stories?
What lessons must we learn from “The Great War?”
The characters in them must face and fight their fear in the crises that have come upon them. And so must we one hundred years after “The Great War” that influenced Tolkien’s work. We cheer on these hobbits, dwarves, elves, and men because we want them to win against the darkness. We want to believe we can do that as well in our own stories. We need to believe there is somewhere within us the courage to stand for what we know is right, to resist the evil and the hatred that is bent on destroying any image bearers of the One who is true light.
We resonate with the heroes in The Lord of the Rings.
“…Tolkien presents us with two kinds of heroes: the extraordinary man, the hidden king determined to fight for his people and regain his throne; and the ordinary man, the hobbit, who, like many of us, is ‘not made for perilous quests’ and prefers the comforts and safety of home.”
Dr. Joseph Loconte
It is Samwise Gamgee whose faithfulness to the quest echoes in our minds and hearts long after the book ends or the movie credits have finished running on the screen.
“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Our quest may not be the same, but we also are caught up in a great unseen battle between light and dark, good and evil that plays out every day. In the seen world we experience it in heartache, illness, loneliness, confusion, chaos, and more − the dark enemy will use anything that can dissuade us or distract us from our focus on the return of the King.
Yet we are called to stand, to be unyielding to all that tempts or taunts us, to be the image bearer, and anticipate His coming and tell others the Good News.
“Put on truth as a belt to strengthen you to stand in triumph. Put on holiness as the protective armor that covers your heart.”
Ephesians 6:14 (TPT)