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I know Tolkien often downplayed the influence his experiences as a messenger in World War I had on his writing, but he wasn't being entirely truthful- perhaps the memories were too horrific to think about or discuss openly. But he served through most of the Somme Campaign, and saw firsthand the horrors of war and the uniquely appalling conditions in which the fighting in Northern France and Belgium took place. Without getting into a history lesson, imagine seas of shell craters full of mud several feet deep and rotting corpses and body parts strewn about. No trees still alive, only shattered stumps. No grass or bushes or even weeds, just mud and churned up soil.

He didn't try very hard to conceal the fact that the Dead Marshes especially were directly inspired by the horrors of the war in general and the Somme in particular. He showed a rare lack of subtlety in choosing to refer to an area near the Dead Marshes, at one point in LotR, as "Noman-Lands", which is so close to the infamous "No Mans Land" of WWI as to almost seem lazy.

Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome by far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. … Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails on the lands about.
- The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 2: "The Passage of the Marshes"

Other possible echoes of Tolkien's experience on the Western Front are less obvious. For example, the Orc knife Pippin uses to cut his bonds has a saw edge. British troops in WWI were disgusted by the original German bayonet's design, because the back of the blade had saw teeth, it caused gruesome wounds that were difficult to treat. There are numerous accounts of British troops mutilating German soldiers found carrying these "sawback bayonets". German high command demanded the bayonets be redesigned, but soldiers took matters into their own hands by filing off the saw teeth. On the one hand, I may be reading too much into this, but on the other hand, Tolkien would undoubtedly have remembered the infamous "sawback bayonets".

I've already alluded to the obvious analogy between the Dead Marshes and the Somme; the Brown Lands - also referred to as "Noman-Lands" bear similar comparison to WWI battlefields. Because WWI was bogged down in the trenches and mostly stationary for almost 4 years straight, and because the only way to kill soldiers in trenches without a direct assault was artillery, the same long, narrow strip of ground was subjected to an endless artillery bombardment for year after year. The shells radically altered the landscape. Plants and trees were erased from the land, and nothing but earth, mud, craters, and shattered corpses of men, horses, and trees remained. Nothing green was left after the first few weeks. This is almost exactly the way Tolkien describes the Brown Lands/Noman-Lands, and he attributes this appearance to similar causes- a great battle that once raged there. And as I have already mentioned, "Noman-Lands" is an extremely unsubtle reference to the "No Mans Lands" of WWI - the uninhabitable, ravaged strip of ground between your front line trenches and those of your enemies.

Other examples of echoes of the war that are more subtle and general: the common impression of Orcs as inherently wicked, cruel, and beastly foreigners from the east mirrors the British soldiers' opinion of the Germans, whom they usually called "Bosches" or "Huns" (the reasons why each of these names became popular is the subject of ongoing debate among historians to this day). The allies in WWI would have sympathized with Theoden's question, phrased in the movie as "What can men do against such reckless hate?", and taking slightly different form in the book. The British reformed an old alliance with France, once their most despised enemy, to conquer a greater threat from the East, and the British alliance with Belgium was also based on an all but forgotten treaty signed in the wake of the Napoleonic wars; in Lord of the Rings (at least in the movies), men and Elves reforge their old alliance after centuries of somewhat icy relations. The British and French condemned the Germans for forming alliances with what they deemed to be inferior, brutish races of savages from uncivilized and barbaric lands; the heroes of LotR feel the same way about Saruman and Sauron allying themselves with wild men, the inhabitants of Harad, and pirates. The western allies in WWI accused the Germans of committing atrocities against civilians in Belgium, though usually without cause; The forces of Sauron and Saruman actually commit such atrocities. The list goes on and on, but I will stop myself here.

All of these parallels are borne out by Tolkien's open admission that the Shire is his idealized vision of rural England before the First World War, and that the hobbits are a mythologized version of pre-war English villagers and farmers. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in this passage from the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring:

[T]here in that pleasant corner of the world they plied their well-ordered business of living, and they heeded less and less the world outside where dark things moved,until they came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk... They were, in fact, sheltered, but they had ceased to remember it.

The last battle... that had ever been fought within the borders of the Shire, was beyond living memory: the Battle of Greenfields, S.R. 1147, in which Bandobras Took routed an invasion of Orcs.
-The Fellowship of the Ring; Prologue

This is passage reflects the thinking of the pre-war British so perfectly that it could almost be mistaken for propaganda, were someone to alter a few minor details. The British had convinced themselves that theirs was a peaceful land far removed from the strife and discord of the world beyond their borders, even as they reaped the rewards of living in the seat of the largest empire in human history, which ruled 1 out of every 5 people on the planet, in large part through military might and the threat of force. Despite the fact that they were as much to blame as anyone for the outbreak of the First World War, their instinctive response to the war was to blame the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Russians, and cry "How dare they disturb our well earned peace and happiness, we who never trouble anyone beyond our shores, and who selflessly strive to lift other peoples out of suffering and sorrow! We do nothing for our own benefit, and break our backs to serve the less fortunate of the world, wherever they may be, and ask nothing in return. What villainy is this that drags the most generous, inoffensive, and humble nation in history into a war which we have done nothing to bring on?"

Tolkien said less than he might have about how his work was influenced by his experiences in the war, and what little he did say related mainly to minor points of detail. For instance, he admitted that the character of Samwise Gamgee was based on the humble soldiers and batmen (enlisted men who worked as servants to officers). He says these men of lowly origins routinely proved their courage and valor, much to the surprise of their superiors, and admits that he knew they were much greater men than himself.

My ‘Samwise’ is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier ...the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself..
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

And despite his occasional insistence that little of his work was related to his real world experiences, he also said otherwise from time to time:

I take my models like anyone else - from such 'life' as I know.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #181

While working on Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote a letter to his publisher, Stanley Unwin. The letter was dated October 1938, just after the Czechoslovakia Crisis, and amid a widespread mood, especially in Britain, of an ever increasing dread of war. Tolkien wrote that, although the story was not an allegory, the general feeling of fear and despair had seeped into his writing:

The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 34

The blog "Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien" has an entry titled "Is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien an Allegory?", containing the following summary:

At the end of the day we must agree that there was not only SOME allegory in Tolkien’s fiction, but that he was aware of the allegorical nature of those stories or portions of stories; and in typical Tolkien fashion he may sometimes have danced around the truth, either because he was not fully prepared to concede that his fiction was “just allegory” (which it most certainly was not) or perhaps he was occasionally somewhat impish in sharing his viewpoints with readers and commentators. I sometimes get the feeling that Tolkien found himself twitching the nose of the dragon (the stodgy academic community that often challenged his work) just to see if he could make it sneeze.

So what I am hoping for in asking this question is simple: what did Tolkien write (or say) about the connection between his writing and his experience in WWI especially, (but not limited to) the Somme?


Note 1: In his comment (below his answer), Jason Baker brings up an important point that bears repeating, and since he says it more clearly and concisely than I could ever hope to, I will quote him (almost) in full:

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Tolkien's writing was influenced by his experiences in the war. But there's a difference between the parallels that exist and the ones Tolkien will admit to; there tends to be more of the former than the latter... In general Tolkien preferred to talk about the mythic influences over the historical ones.

Note 2: For those who might think that I am imagining connections that aren't there, hee are some of the MANY articles that have been written on this subject (indeed, entire books have been written about the influence Tolkien's experiences in the war had on his work):

The Shell-shocked Hobbit: The First World War and Tolkien's Trauma of the Ring (includes a speculative diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (first identified - and labeled "shell shock" at the time - among soldiers who, like Tolkien, had fought on the Somme) for Frodo).
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+shell-shocked+hobbit%3A+the+First+World+War+and+Tolkien%27s+trauma+of...-a0154698400

JRR Tolkien and World War I - Nancy Marie Ott
http://greenbooks.theonering.net/guest/files/040102_02.html

National Geographic - INFLUENCES ON THE LORD OF THE RINGS World War I and World War II
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/ngbeyond/rings/influences.html

BBC - How Was Lord of the Rings Influenced by WWI?
http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgr9kqt

Tolkien Gateway Entry - World War I
http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/World_War_I

Why World War I Is at the Heart of ‘Lord of the Rings’
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/29/why-world-war-one-is-at-the-heart-of-lord-of-the-rings.html

Fellowship of the Ring 60th Anniversary: How the Masterpiece Reflects JRR Tolkien's WW1 Involvement
http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/fellowship-ring-60th-anniversary-how-masterpiece-reflects-jrr-tolkiens-ww1-involvement-1458711

War experiences of veteran J.R.R. Tolkien in 'The Lord of the Rings'
http://www.greatwar.nl/frames/default-tolkiene.html

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    <comments removed> Comments aren't the place for ongoing discussion, that's what chat is for. – user1027 May 19 '15 at 1:36
  • I greatly admire your extensive and well built references. This is an excellent example of a well thought out and well written question. Thank you. – EngrStudent Aug 27 '15 at 2:31
  • @EngrStudent - No, thank you. I was just lucky that two of my favorite subjects came together in this question - I spent a couple of years studying WWI, and I'm very passionate about it; for the past few months, I've been obsessed with Tolkien. It was a perfect storm, so to speak. – Wad Cheber Aug 27 '15 at 2:35
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Tolkien famously hated allegory. In fact the draft Letter 181 begins:

Thank you for your letter. I hope that you have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings? Enjoyed is the key-word. For it was written to amuse (in the highest sense): to be readable. There is no 'allegory', moral, political, or contemporary in the work at all.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 181: To Michael Straight (Draft). January or February 1956

So don't expect to find many direct parallels; or at least not many that Tolkien will admit to.

The question already highlights that Sam's character, and his relationship with Frodo, was taken from the relationship between an officer and his batman1:

“My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 187: To H. Cotton Minchin (Draft). April 1956

I wouldn't think it a stretch to say that all of the Hobbits are in some way modelled after English soldiers. If Sam is the archetypical lower-class batman, then the other Hobbits are the archetypical young officers: naive Englishmen with over-romanticised views of adventuring, who quickly learn the error of their ways. But if Tolkien was thinking of this at the time, I can find no record of it, so I won't pursue the thought any further.

The question also notes the similarity between the Dead Marshes and the battlefields of France, particularly the Somme. Tolkien himself acknowledged this similarity in Letter 2262:

The Lord of the Rings was actually begun, as a separate thing, about 1937, and had reached the inn at Bree, before the shadow of the second war. Personally I do not think that either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape. The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 226: To Professor L. W. Forster. December 1960

It's worth noting that Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme, as he reveals in Letter 43:

Bolted into the army: July 1915. I found thesituation intolerable and married on March 22, 1916. May found me crossing the Channel (I still have the verse I wrote on the occasion!) for the carnage of the Somme.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 43: To Michael Tolkien (Incomplete). March 1941

Moving onto new territory, it's no secret that the first pieces of what would become The Silmarillion were written in wartime; in fact The Fall of Gondolin was written shortly after the Battle of the Somme, as Tolkien reveals in the postscript to Letter 165:

But the mythology (and associated languages)first began to take shape during the 1914-18 war. The Fall of Gondolin (and the birth of Eärendil)was written in hospital and on leave after surviving the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The kernel of the mythology, the matter of Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren, arose from a small woodland glade filled with 'hemlocks' (or other white umbellifers) near Roos on the Holderness peninsula – to which I occasionally went when free from regimental duties while in the Humber Garrison in 1918

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 165: To the Houghton Mifflin Co. June 1955

As far as influence, in Letter 73 he indicates a cathartic element to his writing, trying to work out some of his issues by transforming them into myth:

As for what to try and write: I don't know. I tried a diary with portraits (some scathing some comic some commendatory) of persons and events seen; but I found it was not my line. So I took to 'escapism': or really transforming experience into another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalië (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on; and it has stood me in good stead in many hard years since and I still draw on the conceptions then hammered out. But, of course, there was no time except on leave or in hospital.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 73: To Christopher Tolkien (Incomplete). June 1944

I'm going to close out this answer with the words of Tolkien himself, arguing against trying to dig too deeply into the roots of historical experience:

An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, , but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.

Fellowship of the Ring Foreword to the Second Edition


1 Not Batman, batman

2 This is the entire letter.

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    +1. Your answers are always terrific. And you are so knowledgeable about all things Tolkien that I can't think of many people who would be better equipped to answer this: Is that ALL he had to say about the influence of his time in the war - especially on the Somme (I knew he fought there, and mentioned it in my original question; I've read a lot about WWI, particularly the Somme, Verdun, and Ypres/Passchendaele) - on his writing? I get the impression that he downplayed the role his ordeal had in shaping his stories, but the influence is very apparent to me. – Wad Cheber May 17 '15 at 19:36
  • I read constantly, almost always non-fiction (LotR is the first fiction I have read in at least 4-5 years). I spent 2-3 years reading about WWI a few years back. When I read, I keep a pencil handy and make notes in the margins, underline stuff I find interesting, etc. I have made several notes in LotR about parallels to WWI. Some are minor details- for instance, the Orc knife Pippin uses to cut his bonds is saw-edged. British soldiers in WWI hated the original German bayonet because it had a saw edge and caused grisly wounds. They would mutilate Germans caught carrying them. – Wad Cheber May 17 '15 at 19:52
  • I might be making too much of this, but then again, Tolkien would definitely remember the infamous "sawback bayonet". I'm trying to leaf through the books again to find my other WWI notations. If I find them, I'll add the relevant quotes to my question. – Wad Cheber May 17 '15 at 19:54
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    @WadCheber I don't think it's a stretch to say that Tolkien's writing was influenced by his experiences in the war. But there's a difference between the parallels that exist and the ones Tolkien will admit to; there tends to be more of the former than the latter. This is all I could find (although I'll take another look when I get home in a few hours), but in general Tolkien preferred to talk about the mythic influences over the historical ones – Jason Baker May 17 '15 at 20:38
  • @JasonBaker - you said it better than I could have done. There are too many parallels to count, but the ones he admitted to are dwarfed (no pun intended) by those he didn't. – Wad Cheber May 17 '15 at 20:46
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This is not an attempt to answer my own question, merely an attempt to supplement the previously accepted answer without endlessly expanding my question. It is clear, despite his familiar claims to the contrary, that Tolkien's personal life experiences deeply influenced his work. He occasionally- though rarely- admitted as much, and when I say he wasn't being entirely forthcoming, I am absolutely not accusing him of lying.

I suspect that his reluctance to discuss, or even admit, the degree to which his experiences affected his work has much to do with the fact that many of the relevant experiences were traumatic and deeply personal in nature- particularly with regard to his wartime experiences. He saw unspeakable things and most of the people he was closest to were killed in the war. In fact, he once wrote that by 1918, all but one of his friends were dead. After he was invalided home due to a disease he picked up in the trenches, his unit was wiped out in a disastrous attack on the German lines.

And while World War I was "his war"' so to speak, and had a far more personal impact on his thinking, he wrote Lord of the Rings during the dark days of World War II. His son fought in the war, and it would have been impossible for any Brit living at the time to avoid being seriously affected by the conflict, especially with German bombers flying overhead.

So he clearly inserted elements of his own wartime service, and the general experience of WWII, into his writing. We should not fault him for being reluctant to speak openly to strangers, critics, readers, and the press about the degree to which his nightmarish experience in WWI affected his work. He was entitled to his privacy, and he was under no obligation to reveal his motivations and inspirations to complete strangers, simply because they bought his books. He had every right to keep such things to himself.

In my personal opinion, he told us most of what we need to know in his books. However, this does not ot hat it is wrong to inquire about what he himself had to say about the impact his life experience had on his work. That is part of the joy of immersing oneself in Tolkien's world, and a token of his enduring impact on modern literature.

It seems clear that Tolkien took more inspiration from his own life than he liked to admit, at least until his later years.

From Wikipedia:

Although Kitchener's army enshrined old social boundaries, it also chipped away at the class divide by throwing men from all walks of life into a desperate situation together. Tolkien wrote that the experience taught him, 'a deep sympathy and feeling for the Tommy; especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties.' He remained profoundly grateful for the lesson. For a long time, he had been imprisoned in a tower, not of pearl, but of ivory.

Reading the previous quote, it is impossible to miss the close resemblance between the "plain soldier from the agricultural counties", in Tolkien's words, and the unassuming little hobbits of the rural (i.e., agricultural) Shire - particularly Samwise Gamgee.

When he was stationed at Kingston upon Hull, he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock. After his wife's death in 1971, Tolkien remembered,

"I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos."

This incident inspired the account of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien.

When Edith died, two years before Tolkien himself, he had the name "Lúthien" inscribed on her headstone, just below her own name. After his own death a short time later, his children buried him beside her, and added his name to the stone, followed by the word "Beren".

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