John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is often thought of as a fantasy writer. But Tolkien’s experience in World War I developed his extraordinary poetic imagination into one that is deeply realistic. That imagination reveals a reality that is more than we see around us in the conflicts that beset us and that we are often forced to join, however much our eagerness for ease and comfort may make us wish otherwise.
Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892. His father died when Tolkien was three, and his mother returned to England where the family entered the Catholic Church. Tolkien’s mother died when he was 12, so he entered his teenage years intimately familiar with death, yet with a faith begun in childhood that would sustain him throughout his life.
He loved languages from an early age, and their study would become his profession as a scholar. That love extended especially to poetry, and as an adolescent Tolkien formed a poetry club with friends Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith, and Christopher Wiseman; the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society” would fill some of the void left by the early deaths of Tolkien’s parents.
After marrying Edith Bratt in 1913 and studying English in London, with World War I underway, he entered the Lancaster Fusiliers as an officer. The brutality of World War I and its trench warfare are widely known if impossible to grasp. Some 15 to 18 million people were killed on all sides. The United Kingdom lost around one million men in combat or combat-related deaths, while the country as a whole lost 2% of its total population. In the United States today, that proportion would mean over six million dead.
Tolkien fought in the infamous (even by Great War standards) Battle of the Somme in 1916, which claimed one million men killed or wounded. Tolkien was relatively fortunate: while he saw death and maiming all around him, he contracted trench fever and did not die, though he required two years of convalescence. By 1918, two of the four members of Tolkien’s poetry club were dead, and he remarked that he had only one close friend left in the world.
Such horror, confronted by someone of deep poetic sensibility, can lead in very different directions. For most of the World War I era of European poets, the direction was dark. The poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the armistice that halted the fighting, is the paradigm example:
Tolkien’s own work might easily have gone down this road, a depiction of reality that was essentially nihilistic. But animated by his faith, Tolkien saw and developed in his work a vision of reality that was the antithesis of nihilistic, one that was abundant in truth, beauty and goodness, and which carried the possibility of a redemption that transcended even the human catastrophe of trench warfare.
To realize his poetic vision, Tolkien used his own study of language and myth to develop a life-long project of the place called Middle Earth, most famously narrated in the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with its hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards, and their encounters with the creatures of the dark force that seeks to spoil the goodness of the realm. These stories are not without conflict, battle, death, and all the tragedies of what we usually call the human condition. But they show as well the possibility, and even the inevitability, of a final triumph of what is good.
Tolkien employed a full artistic range to talk about, illustrate, and “poeticize” Middle Earth. His Silmarillion, which he worked on all throughout his life, describes the creation and story of Middle Earth before the time of The Hobbit and Ring adventures, and his correspondence with readers reveals his willingness to discuss all aspects of this place as if it were very much a real place. In important ways, of course, it is a very true depiction of what is, of the reality of things seen and unseen in our time and place.
Tolkien’s illustrations for his works often showed grand vistas that used greens and the soft tones of earth to evoke an impression of natural abundance. Their features are different enough from what we see around us most days to let us know we are not looking at photographs of our globe, yet they are within our imaginative boundaries for what a good place should look like. They often depict the long paths that Tolkien’s pilgrim characters would have to traverse.
Tolkien’s poems fit into his stories to make a point integral to the lives of the characters, but they are also well-written as stand-alone poems that one can read without reference to the circumstances of the tale where they appear. One example is "I Sit and Think," whose closing lines are excerpted below:
You can read the full poem here.
No doubt, at dark moments later in his life, Tolkien sat and thought of the friends and fellow soldiers lost in World War I. But he knew that there was more to the story than could be seen by mortals in the worst, or best, of human experience. Tolkien’s poetic imagination, and his place called Middle Earth with its strange but familiar characters and scenes, have helped generations see a greater reality that is not a fantasy but what we are ultimately supposed to know.
Joseph R. Wood serves as a research and seminar Fellow for Cana Academy. This blog post is based on his Cana Academy VISIONS presentation at Hubbard Hill Retirement Community in Elkhart, IN, March, 2018.