On 21 September 1937, the publication of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit – widely regarded to be one of the best children’s books of all time – catalysed a new literary craze. The short adventure story about a little hole-dwelling creature and his adventures in an increasingly sinister wider world has never been out of print, and gave rise to endless other works of fantasy, including The Lord of The Rings.
Beneath the surface of the relatively light-hearted novel, however, are darker themes. A soldier during World War One, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was haunted by his observations of war: man’s inhumanity to man, tribalism and the alien, jagged landscape left in the wake of violence, all of which are themes that echo loudly throughout his work.
Here’s how Tolkien’s literary creations were influenced by World War One.
His grew up in South Africa and England
Tolkien was born and raised as a child in British South Africa. An oft-cited fact states that a bite from a baboon spider gave him a lifelong hatred of the insect, which later showed up as a terrifying creature in his novels; however, he stated he had no memory of the bite.
What was meant to be a prolonged holiday in England changed into a permanent move after his father died in South Africa when Tolkien was three. A precocious, literary child, Tolkien was encouraged to read and write by his mother. However, she died when Tolkien was twelve, leaving him orphaned and having to build a new life at boarding school in Birmingham. While there, he developed a particular fascination with invented languages, and founded a secret society along with three friends that led to a dedication to writing poetry.
In 1911, just before starting at Oxford, a trip to Switzerland with school friends gave rise to a lifelong fascination with sublime, unblemished landscapes which he cited as directly inspiring landscapes in The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, he stated that Bilbo’s journey across the misty mountains was inspired by the Swiss landscape, ‘including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods.’
He fought at the Somme
By the time Tolkien graduated with a first-class degree in English in 1915, the complexion of the world had changed, and he was already under pressure to enlist in the army. The following year, as a healthy young man, he was ordered to join a regiment in France as an officer.
His baptism of fire came at the famously brutal Somme. Tolkien was immensely fortunate in surviving all the assaults that he led, and perhaps more fortunate still when he contracted trench fever and had to be invalided home for the rest of the war.
In the dark fetid trenches – in constant fear of death – he had begunto write new fantastical languages and his creations of high fantasy began to take shape. Before the end of the war his battalion had been almost completely wiped out, and, as he would sadly recall in old age, all but one of his close friends died during the war.
He wrote stories in his free time
After the war, Tolkien settled down to raise a family with Edith – who he adored, and later became the inspiration for Middle-earth characters Lúthien Tinúviel and Arwen Undómie – and become an academic, specialising in old English texts like Beowulf. In his down time he enjoyed writing stories for his children, and doodled the first line of The Hobbit whilst marking some papers some time in the early 1930s.
By the end of 1932, the story was finished, though never designed for wider publication. Instead Tolkien shared it with his friends, including C.S Lewis, and a student of his called Elaine Griffiths, who liked the manuscript so much that she showed it to the publishers George Allen and Unwin in 1936.
The novel was an immediate success
Much to Tolkien’s surprise, when Mr Unwin’s ten-year old son enjoyed the tale, it was published in September 1937. All the original copies, which were designed and illustrated by the author, sold out in weeks, and new print runs were almost constant until paper rationing began during World War Two.
The book was such a success that Tolkien was soon approached about a sequel: The Lord of The Rings. In anticipation of the second work’s darker tone and themes, Tolkien revisited The Hobbit to ensure that both were thematically and stylistically consistent.
For instance, in the original scene that depicts Bilbo winning the ring from Gollum, the latter hands it over amicably. In his revision of the scene, Tolkien includes Gollum’s extreme anguish to highlight the corrosive power of the ring.
A war influence?
In the eighty years since The Hobbit was published it has been subject to endless literary criticism, as writers have tried particularly to understand the impact of World War One upon Tolkien’s work.
However, another interesting influence comes in the form of Norse mythology. Many of the names in the book, including Gandalf, are taken from old sagas, as are the races of trolls, elves and dwarves. Even Tolkien’s famous Middle Earth is derivative of the Midgard of Norse mythology, or the realm of men where we all reside.
It is in part the mixture of old and new, however, that makes The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings so timeless. In both works, the overall hero is not a great sword-wielding warrior, but a small and mostly unremarkable hobbit – the classic every-man who displays forms of heroism that are not those of Beowulf but are equally effective.
Many critics link this in some way with World War One, where mechanised conflict meant that displays of strength and obvious courage were much less valuable. Almost every account of the opening battles of the war is furnished with a brave officer, sword in hand, riding in front of his men in defiance of the enemy, only to be shot dead almost immediately.
The dragon Smaug, the overarching villain of The Hobbit, also illustrates this theme. Though he is almost exactly like the intelligent yet malevolent dragon in Beowulf, he has the most modern anachronistic dialogue of any character, and descriptions of the terrible ‘desolation of Smaug’ bear a strong resemblance to the ravaged earth of no man’s land.
These depictions of supernatural earth-shaking forces of destruction are present in the historical and fantastical works of many survivors of the war, who had to live in a newly fragile world.