Peter Jackson recently revived the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit for the big screen to much fanfare.
Strangely, one of his next projects was a documentary on World War I, which most might consider an odd leap. However, the jump isn’t as strange as you think. Despite J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories being wrapped in fantasy, there was an ugly reality which likely influenced him.
Tolkien served in the Great War and happened to be stationed at one of the worst battles imaginable. The visions of human walls of men charging into battle and falling wasn’t imagined in his case. Moreover, he may have written about a Fellowship of the Ring, but also took part in a fellowship itself tested by war.
As you review his stories with the war in mind, it’s hard not to see inspiration for some of the terrible images he created. The Dead Marshes, Mordor, and fortified citadels really existed. They weren’t special features of Middle Earth; they existed on our very own earth. Moreover, some have even gone as far to find examples of shell shock or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the chapters of his book.
Today the world classifies this work in the category of fantasy, and many might think it geared towards children or young adults. However, the subject matter involves visions difficult for many adults to deal with. As you’ll soon see, it wasn’t a far leap for Peter Jackson between Tolkien’s stories and his eventual documentary on WWI.
Second Lieutenant John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Tolkien (in 1916, aged 24) — Wikipedia Creative Commons
“Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.”
— Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth
If there’s one thing that’s inescapable in Tolkien’s work, it’s war. This was highly reflective of Tolkien’s life. As a young man in his 20’s he’d volunteer for The Great War in its full lack of glory. Although many did go by choice, there were repercussions if you didn’t.
If one didn’t enlist to go to the war, they could become victim to the Order Of The White Feather. This was a group of women who would harass young men in England, calling them cowards.
Their favorite method of torture was to surround them, ostracize them, and hand them a white feather — a sign of cowardliness. This harassment would follow these young men wherever they went.
In the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, detailed descriptions of large battles between armies fill the pages. In initial reading, one might think these descriptions as part of medieval fantasy. However, large gruesome battles and loss was something Tolkien had firsthand experience with.
After completing his studies at Oxford, he received a commission as a 2nd lieutenant and took part in the Battle Of The Somme. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the first day of the battle was the deadliest day in the British Army’s history.
Waves of close-grouped British soldiers left their fortified encampments and attacked German trenches. Over 19,000 of them died in a single day. In addition, the land also suffered under the barrage.
In the Lord Of The Rings Mordor is described as a desolate and unwelcoming land that was full of poison pits. Tolkien saw this place personally in France. Shells rained down on the land creating a landscape that looked like the surface of the moon.
Poison gas shells also fell, contaminating whatever water gathered in the shell-created pits. Consequently, the author’s creation of Mordor doesn’t sound far off from the battlefield.
Aerial View Of Passchendaele Before & After Bombardment — Wikipedia Creative Commons [Public domain]
“…but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. 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 upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows…”
— Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
Before the war Tolkien also formed a fellowship with three other children in his early years at school.
Like the Lord Of The Rings, this fellowship was tested in battle. Tragically he lost two of his three best friends at the Somme. According to John Garth in his article in The Daily Beast, the group “dreamed of making art that would create a better world.” One group member encouraged Tolkien to publish, so the dreams of the group would survive.
The author himself caught a disease in the trenches and was removed from the battle. It would be a rare time in history that someone would be considered “lucky” to come down with an illness.
The Dead Marshes — Passchendaele
“In the end, what separated Passchendaele from the great paroxysms of bloodshed that preceded it was one gruesome fact no one had planned for: in addition to falling victim to German fire, thousands of British soldiers, nowhere near the sea, drowned.”
— Historian Adam Hochschild, The Great War Project
In the Two Towers portion of the Lord Of The Rings, there’s a terrifying section of the story.
It involves the creature Gollum leading the hobbits Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes. In the pools of water they pass lay the dead pale bodies of soldiers from an ancient time. Their paralyzed faces stare through the water for eternity — left there as a bizarre monument to the long-passed battle.
As a soldier in WWI, Tolkien would have been painfully aware of the battle at the Belgian town of Passchendaele in 1917. It was most infamously known for the incredible rain that fell as the battle approached.
According to The Great War Project this area got a burst of rain it hadn’t seen in 30 years. Belgium is well below sea level already, so this torrent of water created horrific conditions.
Historian Adam Hochschild explains that more than four million shells fell on the ground creating a lunar landscape of sorts. He also adds that the British soldiers’ coats weren’t waterproof. Water and mud caked on them and may have added 30 to 40 pounds of weight.
Sinking into watery mud and drowning on land was a serious possibility. In fact, this was the fate of several soldiers and according to Hochschild, farmers still find their bones today.
“‘…They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.’ Frodo hid his eyes in his hands. ‘I know not who they are; but I thought I saw there Men and Elves, and Orcs beside them.’”
— Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
Warriors laying in watery graves for eternity on dry land sounds a little too close to reality to be solely a creation of Tolkien’s mind. I found no direct connections saying that his description of the Dead Marshes was a reference to Passchendaele. However, Tolkien does admit to using geography from the war as inspiration for the Dead Marshes, according to Michael Livingston in his article in Mythlore Magazine.
PTSD And Frodo’s Return Home
"There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and
a long burden. Where shall I find rest?"
Frodo Baggins, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
In Livingston’s article mentioned above, he concentrates heavily on the main character, Frodo, and his return home.
There are repeated mentions where the hobbit appears to behave like one suffering from PTSD. Although in those times, they’d likely refer to it as shell shock.
Frodo repeatedly stares vaguely off in the distance at points and appears to relive traumatic events. Nightmares and refusal to even wear a sword are part of the main character’s life as he tries to settle home. Livingston also shows many examples of Frodo mentioning his wounds will never heal.
While the other hobbits return to life in their home of the Shire, Frodo does not. Livingston mentions the hero of the entire story takes no part in normal life — keeping to himself and out of sight. In a conversation with his friend Sam, Frodo mentions the Shire was saved, but not for him.
In times of troubles sometimes one must lose something, so others can keep it. Eventually Frodo leaves his home in search of some kind of peace.
It leads one to wonder if Tolkien infused his character with bits of soldiers he knew. The words of Frodo sound a little too familiar, almost like the descriptions of the Dead Marshes.
The Reality In Fantasy
Tolkien’s works will always be classified as fantasy, however, there’s painful reality in them if you choose to look.
Fortified cities, fellowships tested by battle, and poisonous lands with marshes of the dead really existed. Both hobbits and soldiers also struggled to come home, forever changed by their experiences in battle.
Wizards, orcs, and dragons may very well be a lavish façade over a very human story. In the end, Tolkien did publish, and it appears the ideals of his fellowship survived.
Their memory changed the world in a different way. It forever enshrined the Great War in a tale to be passed along to young readers — although they may only understand its significance much later.