Tolkien showed the redemptive power of individual human action
Ninety years ago, Allied commanders launched the World War I offensive lastingly remembered as the Battle of the Somme.
At 7.30am on 1 July 1916, officers blew their whistles to signal the start of the attack.
As 11 British divisions clambered out of their trenches and walked slowly towards the enemy lines, German machine guns opened fire, causing wholesale carnage.
The first day of that battle was the bloodiest in the whole history of the British Army. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties; almost 20,000 were dead, including 60% of all the officers involved.
One of those who survived that horrific first assault, and who endured the prolonged ghastliness of the months of fighting that followed, was the young JRR Tolkien.
The Allied plan had been to launch a coordinated Anglo-French assault. The British would attack along a 15-mile front north of the meandering river Somme. Five French divisions would attack along an eight-mile front through rolling farmland south of the Somme.
When he describes the desolation of the battlefield, strewn with the mangled corpses of friend and foe, at the end of combat, we sense that Tolkien has himself witnessed that bleak devastation
To ensure a rapid advance with minimal resistance, Allied artillery had been pounding German lines for a week beforehand, firing over a million and a half shells at the enemy.
British soldiers recalled later how throughout the night before the battle, the entire length of the English trenches shuddered and vibrated from the reverberating shock waves of uninterrupted big gun bombardment of the enemy lines.
The saturation bombardment was supposed to annihilate the opposing forces, leaving their positions undefended. Cavalry units would then pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans. But open preparations for the assault gave clear advance warning of an impending attack, and German troops simply moved into underground concrete bunkers and waited.
Almost five months later, the Allies had advanced only five miles, at a cost of over half a million lives. Early in 1917 the Germans fell back from their positions for strategic reasons. Their withdrawal made a mockery of the months of bitter battle and appalling loss of life. It had all been for 'a few acres of mud'.
Intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter.
At the Somme, the new, devastatingly efficient weapons of mass destruction - the tank, mustard-gas and the machine gun - marked the beginning of mechanised warfare on a huge scale. War would never be the same again.
The poet Wilfred Owen was killed in the final week of World War I at the age of 25. His poems - which I first read at school - offered searing testimony to the way this new kind of war ended any possibility of romanticising personal sacrifice, or elevating the individual in combat to the status of hero.
For me his Anthem for Doomed Youth captures better than any military history an absolute disenchantment, no matter how "good and true" the cause:
"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns?
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle?
Can patter out their hasty orisons."
A more mundane kind of eye-witness account - but as compelling - comes from an extraordinary collection of audio-recordings of the recollections of ordinary serving soldiers, to be found on the Imperial War Museum website as part of a virtual Somme commemoration.
Pte Don Murray, for instance, recalls how, as he and his comrades walked towards the enemy lines, the Germans appeared from their bunkers: "They just wound up their guns on automatic affairs and fired... and of course they just mowed us down."
And he goes on to evoke the sense of numbing isolation, still vivid to him all those years later, he says: "And it seemed to me eventually there was just one man left, I couldn't see anybody at all, all I could see was men lying dead, men screaming... and I thought what can I do, I was just alone in a hell of fire and smoke and stink."
Tolkien had just graduated from Oxford with a first class degree in literature when he saw his first active service at the Somme. From July 1916 until he was invalided out with trench fever at the end of October, he experienced the full relentless ghastliness of day after day of trench life under fire - the discomfort, the cold, the mud, the lice, the fear, the unspeakable horrors witnessed.
He had taken comfort from the fact that he was fighting alongside his three oldest and dearest friends from his school-days - a quartet of gifted would-be-poets who hoped to become outstanding literary men. But by November, two of those friends were dead.
Tolkien and the one other surviving member of their "club" were never able to rebuild a closeness shattered by the enormity of what had occurred - by the sense of total loss, the obliteration of the band of friends almost before their creative lives had begun.
Imagination is a uniquely human attribute. Freely exercised, it allows each of us to transform our everyday experience, elevating it into something more consolingly meaningful. How, then, does the human imagination cope with trauma of the kind Tolkien and his fellow-soldiers experienced in 1916?
We might expect those months of unremitting horror in the trenches of the Somme to have fed into, and coloured, the ferocious battles and scenes of slaughter in Tolkien's three-part Lord of the Rings (begun in the 1930s), or in the Fall of Gondolin which he began writing while convalescing in the spring of 1917.
Glimpses of the battlefield do occur within Tolkien's epic tapestry - Morgoth's monstrous iron dragons surely owe something to the tanks first used in combat in World War I, which terrified the horses of the cavalry. When he describes the desolation of the battlefield, strewn with the mangled corpses of friend and foe, at the end of combat, we sense that Tolkien has himself witnessed that bleak devastation.
But in the main, Tolkien's imagination swerves away from Wilfred Owen's despair, mining the depths of his own sense of waste and loss, to salvage from it emotional, spiritual and moral meaning. This imaginative determination finds its way deep into the narrative fabric of his tales of Middle Earth.
In spite of the horror of total war, Tolkien chooses in his writing to focus his attention on the redemptive power of individual human action offered unconditionally as part of a common cause. Frodo Baggins is each of us aspiring to do good within modest limits.
"I should like to save the Shire, if I could," says Frodo early in his quest. "Though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words."
Tolkien's epic works are large-scale memorials to the modest struggles of ordinary people doing their best for good against the forces of inhumanity. They are a brilliantly achieved exemplar of the way the human imagination can configure a better future even in the aftermath of senseless, bloody destruction.
As such they sustain and offer solace. In 1940, Tolkien spoke of how "to be caught in youth by 1914" was a "hideous" experience. "I was pitched into it all just when I was full of stuff to write, and of things to learn; and never picked it all up again."
Yet his enduringly popular works - especially the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings - have given generations of readers an Ariadne's thread for their emotional yearnings, guiding them through the labyrinth of an ordinary life - giving it shape, giving it meaning, and above all, giving them hope.
Here is a selection of your comments.
Yes, well written! You mention The Hobbit and LOTR, but anyone wanting to feel the real depths of JRRT's despair should read The Silmarillion.
John Humphries, Songkhla, Thailand.
I haven't read the Gondolin material, but it's not the battle descriptions that shine in LOTR - they are rather mannered - so much as the descriptions of older battlefields, of Mordor and the Dead Marshes. He makes plain the desolation and the haunted, poisoned wreck left by ancient battles; if the Western Front lies anywhere in his work, it's surely there.
Grant, Salisbury, UK
Just a quick word on what a great piece of journalism I think this is - bringing something (now) so distant into sharp relief by explaining its derivative nature towards something that we have all (mostly) seen on the big screen in the past couple of years.
In my opinion, if it makes one more person attempt to comprehend the scale of what has gone before - and importantly, what we can learn from it - then this piece will have served a good end.
Elliott Gough, Horsham, West Sussex
This is a very good article from a true Tolkein fan. People often try to liken The Lord of the Rings to the events of WWII, which Tolkein always tried to play down (even writting as such in the prologue to the Fellowship). Suggesting that his view of war, heros, humanity and inhumanity stem from his involvement in WWI is far more likely.
Mark Beal, York
Very good article . An aspect of Tolkien's work that is not always appreciated in certain quarters . Namely mine and Jrr's old Regiment , The Lancashire Fusiliers (our website chatroom)
Bill Duggan, Swindon , Wilts
Many years ago I corresponded with Tolkien's son, a schoolmaster like myself. He said the Dark Riders in his novel were based on a real recurring nightmare from the Forst World War. Tolkien, riding a good cavlary horse, had somehow got lost behind the German lines,and, imagining he was behind his own trenches, rode towards a group of mounted cavalrymen standing in the shade of a coppice.
It was only when he drew nearer he realised his mistake for they German Ulhans, noted for their atrocities and taking no prisoners. When they saw him they set off in pursuit with their lances levelled at him. He swung his horse round and galloped off hotly pursued by the Germans. They had faster steeds but Tolkien's horse was a big-boned hunter.
They got near enough for him to see their skull and crossbone helmet badges. Fortunately for Tolkien (and us, his readers)he raced towards some old trenches which his horse, used to hunting, took in its stride. The Uhlans' horses weren't up to it and they reined in leaving Tolkien to get away to his own side.
He was terrified and the cruel faces of those Uhlans and their badges haunted him in nightmares for a long time afterwards. Years later, when he was writing his novel, the Dark Riders were the result of that terrifying chase.
Revd John Waddington-Feather, Shrewsbury