J.R.R. Tolkien and the Great War

Sometimes, stories find you when you least expect them. I began this column thinking that I would find Tolkien’s experiences in war as an almost superficial influence on his later stories, only to find the complete opposite. Tolkien went to war and underwent pure horror. He witnessed a terrible war from the front lines, and found most of his friends dead when he left. It’s little wonder that he felt that his creative spirit was dampened by it.

That aside, I found the story of Tolkien and his three close friends to be the most emotional and heartbreaking episode of his life, and I can’t help but wonder how much it will change how I read certain parts of the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.

Interestingly, this piece comes shortly after Veteran’s Day (Armistice Day elsewhere), commemorating the end of WWI. I hadn’t realized that this piece would come out at the same time.

Read J.R.R. Tolkien and the Great War over on Kirkus Reviews. We’re not done with Tolkien yet, so stay tuned through December!

Here are the sources that I used and would recommend:

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This massive volume was an invaluable resource in determining where Tolkien went during his time in combat. It’s detailed down to the day in most cases, with an overwhelming amount of information.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This second companion book was also great for background information on Tolkien’s friends and some of his influences.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter: This book was one that I came across years ago, and it still remains one of the definitive biographies of the author, with a comprehensive and readable detailing of his life and works.

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth: This volume is dense, but an invaluable resource on how World War I impacted Tolkien’s life and later works.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey: This book provided some good background information on Tolkien and his influences in the War.


4 thoughts on “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Great War

  1. People draw parallels between LoTR & WW2 although JRRT was a veteran of WW1 but not of WW2. Those may be making LoTR out to be more of an allegory than it really is, or than JRRT intended.

  2. Tom Shippey’s Tolkien books are fantastic. They always make me feel much stupider than I believe I am but also thrill me at the same time. Shippey and others talk in a decent amount of detail in the extras on the extended edition LOTR discs about the effect of the war and the tragedy of the loss of his friends and how those events influenced so much of what he wrote and even his passion for continuing the dreams that they all had when they were in school together. I think having that insight does make reading the books a different experience.

    • I only went through Shippey’s book briefly – there was a lot of information there! I didn’t think to look through the extras, although they’re probably a good opening source.

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