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TOLKIEN AND THE GREAT WAR
THE WAR TO 'END ALL WARS' and the TECHNOLOGY THAT FOLLOWED IN WORLD WAR II
"By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead."
WERE HUGE, THEY
WERE SO BIG
THAT THEY WOULD
EAT A WOUNDED
BRED BY THE TENS
Of course Tolkien hated World War I--any war. How could he not? In this so-called "war to end all wars," humanity managed to unleash the latest technological horrors resulting in...
--1.65 MILLION BRITISH SOLDIERS WOUNDED
--240,000 HAD A LIMB AMPUTATED
-- 12 MILLION TOTAL CASUALTIES
Tolkien's service in World War I is described by Carpenter in his Biography:
Tolkien wrote the following as he was composing the LOTR:
One has indeed personally to come under
the shadow of war to feel fully its
oppression; but as the years go by it seems
now often forgotten that to be
caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous
an experience than to be involved
in 1939 and the following years. By 1918,
all but one of my close friends were dead.
...and to his son, Christopher years later in 1944 (mankind's next attempt to fight the war to end all wars.):
I sometimes feel a appalled at the thought
of the some total of human misery...The millions
parted. Fretting...quite apart from torture, pain
death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish
were visible, almost the whole would be enveloped
in a dense dark vapour...and the products of all
will be mainly evil...It is full Maytime by the
trees and grass now. But the heavens are full
of riot. You cannot even hold a shouting
conversation in the garden. How I wish the
'infernal combustion' engine had never been
invented. Or (more difficult since humanity
and engineers are both nitwits and malicious)
that it could have been put to rational uses..
Excerpts from The Silmarillion and LOTR dramatize the horror..
Now Melkor began the delving and building of a vast fortress...That stronghold was named Utumno...the blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the Spring of Arda was marred. Green things fell sick and rotted, and rivers were choked with weeds and slime, and fens were made rank and poisonous, the breeding place of flies; and forests grew dark and perilous, the haunts of fear...
(from Of the Beginning Days)
Tolkien's description of Mordor echoes the trenches, and importantly this is from Sam's point of view...
Indeed the whole surface of Gorgoroth [NW Mordor] was pocked with great holes. As if, while it was still a waste of soft mud, it had been smitten with a shower of bolts and hugh slingstones. The largest of these holes was rimmed with ridges of broken rock, and broad fissures ran out from them in all directions.
(From The Return of the King / "Mount Doom")
POSTSCRIPT ON THE GOOD and ANOTHER READ
(As an aside, it is worthy of Tolkien's convictions to observe that out the midst of all this horror, Sam finds pity..for Gollum: "...now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum's shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.")
A good parallel short story is Hemingway's Soldier's Home (1925). The angst experienced by Krebs in many ways mirrors Tolkien's pessimism about the future of man especially given the awesome destructive power of technology. Tolkien's anguish, unlike Krebs (His name means ?), may be mintigated by Catholicism, but nonetheless the horrors Krebs brings "home" forever changes his life as did Tolkien's experiences.
Tolkien and the Technology of World War II
For Tolkien, the evils of technology should be self-evident. In his letters (#102) to his son, Christopher, 9 August 1945, he noted, "The news today about "Atomic bombs"(.pdf) is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men's hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining...." Yet he added, "But one good thing may arise out of it I suppose...Japan out to cave in." And finally, "Well we are in God's hands."