At 7 a.m. on July 1, 1916, the British Army unleashed a hellish assault against German positions on the Western Front in France, along the River Somme. The roar was so loud that it was heard in London, nearly 200 miles away. The barrage—about 3,500 shells a minute—was designed to obliterate the deepest dugouts and severely compromise German artillery and machine-gun power. Crossing No Man’s Land, that dreadful death zone stretching between opposing enemy trenches, would be a song.
Thus, at 7:30 a.m., nearly a hundred thousand British troops—to the sound of whistles, drums, and bagpipes—climbed out of their trenches and attacked. Like other great battles, this one was supposed to break the back of the German Army and hasten the end of the war. But the Germans had endured the pounding and were waiting, guns poised, for the British infantry. “We didn’t have to aim,” said a German machine-gunner. “We just fired into them.” Before the day was over, 19,240 British soldiers lay dead, nearly twice that number wounded. Most were killed in the first hour of the attack, many within the first minutes.
July 1, 1916, marks the deadliest single day in British military history. Sir Frank Fox, a regimental historian, summarized the scene this way: “In that field of fire nothing could live.” The Battle of the Somme would rage on, inconclusively, until November 18, dragging over a million men into its vortex of suffering and death.
Twenty-four-year-old J. R. R. Tolkien, a second lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force, was among their number—an experience that would shape the course of his life and literary career. Tolkien spent nearly four months in the trenches of the Somme valley, often under intense enemy fire. As he recalled years later: “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel its full oppression.” A hundred years hence and the Somme offensive still casts its oppressive shadow across the landscape of the West. It symbolizes not only the human tragedy of an ill-conceived war but the fearsome cost of a mistaken idea: the notion of human perfectibility.
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By the start of the 20th century, attitudes about war and what it could accomplish were bound up with a singular, overarching idea: the myth of progress. Perhaps the most deeply held view in the years leading up to the First World War was that Western civilization was marching inexorably forward, that human nature was evolving and improving—that new vistas of political, cultural, and spiritual achievement were within reach.
Herbert Spencer, who converted Darwin’s theory of evolution into a social doctrine, had much to do with this. So did the success of the scientific and industrial revolutions. “Between 1900 and 1914, technological, social and political advances swept Europe and America on a scale unknown in any such previous timespan,” writes British historian Max Hastings, “the blink of an eye in human experience.”
Confidence in human progress led some to believe that, with the help of modern technologies, wars could be fought with minimal cost in life and treasure. Others argued that rational Europeans would soon dispense with war altogether.
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This “change of spirit” was heralded from virtually every sector of society. Scientists, educators, industrialists, salesmen, politicians, preachers—all agreed on the upward flight of humankind. Each breakthrough in medicine, science, and technology confirmed it. Every invention and innovation was offered up as evidence, from Marconi’s radio transmissions to the Maxim machine gun. Darwin’s theory about biological change had ripened into a social assumption—a dogma—about human improvement, even perfection.
Or so it seemed to Tolkien and to his Oxford friend, C. S. Lewis, also a war veteran. “I grew up believing in this Myth and I have felt—I still feel—its almost perfect grandeur,” Lewis confessed. “It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.” Importantly, the triumph of science and technology left no meaningful role for faith. Science, not religion, was driving human achievement. “Man was responsible for his own earthly destiny,” writes historian Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind. “His own wits and will could change his world. Science gave man a new faith—not only in scientific knowledge, but in himself.”
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Tolkien served as a battalion signals officer with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers until trench fever took him out of the war. It was during this period that he laid the foundation for his mythology about an epic struggle for Middle-earth. Writing from his hospital bed, Tolkien produced a series of stories (later published as The Book of Lost Tales), which would inform his major works: The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. Each involves a violent contest between good and evil—and in each there are hints of the horrors of the Somme.
In The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth is threatened by Sauron, the dark lord of Mordor, who seeks to possess the Ring of Power. The story centers on Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, hobbits from the Shire, and their quest to destroy the ring and save Middle-earth. As they approach Mordor, they encounter a brooding and lifeless wasteland. “The gasping pits and poisonous mounds grew hideously clear,” Tolkien wrote. “The sun was up, walking among clouds and long flags of smoke, but even the sunlight was defiled.” Passing through the marshes, Sam catches his foot and falls on his knees, “so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mire.” Looking intently into the muck, he is startled. “There are dead things,” he exclaims, “dead faces in the water!”
Historian Sir Martin Gilbert, author of a definitive account of the Somme offensive, interviewed Tolkien in the 1960s about his life as a soldier. He notes that Tolkien’s description of the dead marshes matches precisely the macabre experience of soldiers at the Somme: “Many soldiers on the Somme had been confronted by corpses, often decaying in the mud, that had lain undisturbed, except by bombardment, for days, weeks and even months.” In a letter to L. W. Forster written on December 31, 1960, Tolkien confirmed the connection: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to Morannon [Mordor] owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”
Although Tolkien never intended to write a trench memoir, we may suspect that memories of combat informed his description of the “Siege of Gondor” in The Lord of the Rings:
Yet their Captain cared not greatly what they did or how many might be slain: their purpose was only to test the strength of the defense and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places. All before the walls on either side of the Gate the ground was choked with wreck and with bodies of the slain; yet still driven as by a madness more and more came up.
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Like no previous war, the Great War assaulted the concepts of heroism, valor, and virtue. The helplessness of the individual soldier, ravaged by the instruments of modernity, was a recurring motif in the postwar period. Tolkien rebelled against this outlook. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, he was at home in the worlds of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien sought to retrieve something of the medieval Christian tradition, the story of the great and noble quest.
Herein lies the signal achievement of his epic trilogy. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien recovers the mythic concept of the heroic struggle against evil—and reinvents it for the modern mind. “To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism is inadequate,” wrote C. S. Lewis in an early review. “Nothing quite like it was ever done before.”
How did he accomplish it? Although Tolkien’s work appears to lack a religious framework—there are no prayers or deities—its characters are conscious of a universal Moral Law to which they must give account. “How shall a man judge what to do in such times,” asks Éomer. “As he ever has judged,” replies Aragorn. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them.” Lewis declared this to be “the basis of the whole Tolkienian world.”
In the conflict between Mordor and Middle-earth, every soul is tested. Every creature must choose sides in a titanic struggle between darkness and light; moral indifference is never an option. In Tolkien’s vision, heroic sacrifice for a just cause—even against terrible odds—carries its own transcendent meaning.
The vital thing is to remain faithful to the quest, regardless of the costs and perils. Frodo’s mission is to carry the Ring of Power to the fires of Mount Doom and destroy it—before it can destroy him. “I am not made for perilous quests,” Frodo exclaims. “Why was I chosen?” Replies Gandalf: “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.”
Here again Tolkien’s experience at the Somme worked on his imagination. Where did Tolkien get the idea for his hobbits? From being in close company with the ordinary English soldier and witnessing his loyalty and determination under fire. War correspondent Philip Gibbs, a critic of the military leadership, confessed his astonishment at the discipline and valor of the British Expeditionary Force, praising “individual courage beyond the natural laws of human nature as I thought I knew them once.” Tolkien explained that he made his hobbits small in size to reflect the hidden virtues of his fellow soldiers. “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war,” he wrote, “and recognized as so far superior to myself.”