When the July Crisis of 1914 unravelled itself into all out war Tolkien was still studying English Language and Literature at Oxford. Wanting to finish his degree, he joined the Officer's Training Corps so his enlistment could be delayed until after graduation. Then, after receiving top honors and marrying his fiancee, Edith Bratt, he was shipped off to France in June of 1916. While sailing across the English channel he wrote this poem titled, "The Lonely Isle".
O glimmering island set sea-giirdled and alone -
A gleam of white rock through a sunny haze ;
O all ye hoary caverns ringing with the moan
Of long green waters in the southern bays ;
Ye murmurous never-ceasing voices of the tide ;
Ye plumèd foams wherein the shore and spirits ride ;
Ye white birds flying from the whispering coast
And wailing conclaves of the silver shore,
Sea-voiced, sea-wingèd, lamentable host
Who cry about unharboured beaches evermore,
Who sadly whistling skim these waters grey
And wheel about my lonely outward way -
For me for ever they forbidden marge appears
A gleam of white rock over sundering seas,
And thou art crowned in glory through a mist of tears,
Thy shores all full of music, and thy lands of ease -
Old haunts of many children robed in flowers,
Until the sun pace down his arch of hours,
When in the silence fairies with a wistful heart
Dance to soft airs their harps and viols weave.
Down the great wastes and in gloom apart
I long for thee and thy fair citadel.
Where echoing through the lighted elms at eve
In a high inland tower there peals a bell :
O lonely, sparkling isle, farewell !
Tolkien probably thought it was his final farewell to England, the "sparkling isle". Thanks to the machine gun, large-scale artillery, and outdated battlefield tactics the casualty-rate was enormously high and his battalion would be going to the front lines. To make matters even more difficult, Tolkien was a Signalling Officer and, as anyone knowledgeable about the First World War will tell you, good communication was not a hallmark of the struggle. Broken equipment, unsecure or cut wires, compromised codes, and weather conditions often meant resorting to messengers, visual signalling, or even pigeons. Tolkien had to endure and overcome many of these challenges during his service in the months of June-October, 1916. Yet through all the gunfire, shelling, carnage, and loss of all but one of his closest friends, Tolkien's creative mind kept thinking and that's when he started to develop the seeds of his mythology. By October of that year he contracted trench-fever and was shipped back to a hospital in England where he wrote of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin. It was the start of a long creative journey that would continue for the rest of his life.
While I could continue discussing the influences World War I had on Tolkien and his stories for pages and pages I think it would better for you to investigate the subject for yourself. Hopefully this post has piqued your interest in Tolkien's story a bit and/or perhaps even let you take a moment today to remember and reflect on all the sacrifices millions of men made in the War to End All Wars.
For further reading:
- BBC iWonder Guide: How Was The Lord of the Rings influenced by World War One? Presented by John Rhys-Davies
- J.R.R. Tolkien and World War I, an essay by Nancy Marie Ott
- Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth