Understanding Tolkien: The Great Wars Part I

In 1909, Norman Angell published his book Europe’s Optical Illusion (later re-titled The Great Illusion). In it he argued that because of the interconnected business interests of the European nations, war had lost its benefits and was thus highly unlikely in the future.

This merged well with the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the day; many in Europe believed that with the combined influences of science, technology, and business, mankind was advancing beyond his “barbarous” state and was approaching utopia. I mention this to underline the incredible shock that it was for the European world to find, in a few short years, the instruments of their salvation turned to their destruction across the world.

As a student and later a professor at Oxford, Tolkien was a very involved participant in this world that hoped for salvation by progress, though his hopes for salvation rested elsewhere, and he saw the utter destruction of these hopes first in World War I, then World War II, and beyond. These experiences led Tolkien to what I would argue are four separate facts about evil that heavily influenced his writing.

First, evil is ugly, the muddy trenches of the Western Front and the killing camps of the Nazis made that clear. Second, evil is in some way a deep part of man. With the highly educated and prosperous elite of Europe causing so much of the suffering, this was the only conclusion that made sense. Third, technology served to amplify, not suppress, mankind’s capacity for evil and destruction. Fourth, it led Tolkien to understand on a personal level what it meant to resist evil.

The Somme

If one had to point to a single day as the most important in shaping Tolkien’s, and England’s, view of the world in the 20th Century, it would be difficult to find one more compelling than July 1, 1916, the first day of The Somme. We have, to an extent, been jaded to the industrialization and mechanization of warfare through both news media and war movies, but in World War I this was not the case. Generals still thought cavalry charges were effective attacks on machine gun emplacements, frontal assaults on entrenched troops with accurate and rapid firing rifles was still considered best policy. If you are not familiar with the history of World War I, I encourage you to take a moment and look through some of the documentaries on this channel here, especially this 15 minute one on the Somme.


I ask you to watch these because authors cannot be detached from their experiences, and if we want to understand an author, we have to understand to some small degree the world they lived in. Tolkien served as a signals officer to the 11th (Service) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers. During the battle he participated in the assaults on the Schwaben Redoubt and the Leipzig Salient, watching as thousands of his comrades were killed around him.

Like Lewis, who’s Unman in Perelandra shows evil to be petty, gross, and repulsive, Tolkien saw evil too close to imagine it to be a “plausible and pleasant place” as Edmund Wilson wished Mordor had been portrayed in his review “Oo those Aweful Orcs”.  Academics, far removed from the horrors of the World Wars and often willfully ignorant or forgetful of them, have long opposed Lord of the Rings on the grounds that it does not truly wrestle with evil, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The Western Front was undeniably ugly; the constant shelling created a muddy hellscape filled with rats, lice, and poison gas. For the men who lived there, being rotated along the lines, it was a thunderous and authoritative rebuttal of the idea that mankind was somehow “beyond good and evil”, or that the two were simply variations on one another.

On a more petty scale, as The Hobbit was being published in Germany in 1938, the German publishing house wrote to Tolkien asking for clarification of his ancestry, specifically if there were any Jews in his family tree. Tolkien wrote two responses for Stanley Unwin to choose from, one a scathing rebuttal in which he laments “that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” Within the context of the rise of Nazi Germany, it was one more example of the ugliness of evil, this time in the form of racism. (While the true horror of Auschwitz and Dachau were not revealed till after the war, the treatment of the Jews was known, if largely ignored by many, late in the 1930s. It continued to grow and be more recognized as the war continued, while Tolkien was in the heart of writing The Lord of the Rings.) It is difficult to imagine someone describing the early racial riots throughout Germany as “pleasant and plausible”, and it is because Tolkien lived solidly in the real world that he recognized this.  Tolkien thought deeply in philosophy as we will discuss later, but he did not hide from the realities of his time as did many of his contemporaries.

The terrible thing about this ugliness, was that it came directly from man. The horror of World War I did not spring from starvation in England, nor a barbaric backwards culture in Germany. Europe was in great prosperity before the war, and all of Europe, not least Germany, was incredibly well educated, more educated than any comparable population in human history. They were, to borrow a phrase, healthy, wealthy, and wise, at least according to their own reckoning.  So whence then did this evil come?

The unnerving truth, which refused to go away, was that it was a part of mankind. We couldn’t escape it because it was in us. William Golding, author of The Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, wrote

“I must say that anyone who passed through those years [of World War II] without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.” (Hot Gates p. 87)

Tolkien had other beliefs that shaded his understanding of evil, but the overwhelming reality that came out of the Great Wars was that mankind was its own worst enemy, and apparently the more educated and prosperous he was, the greater his likelihood of industrializing the destruction of his fellow man.

In Part II, which will be posted on Monday, I will look at how technology changed the face of evil for the Twentieth Century and finally what the Great Wars taught Tolkien about resisting evil. Next Saturday, in Tolkien and the Ancients, I will look at how Tolkien’s understanding of the Old Stories provided context and perspective for the problems posed by the Twentieth Century. Don’t forget to follow this blog so you don’t miss a thing.

First: Understanding Tolkien: The Three Pillars of His Influence

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