How Tolkien's time in the WW1 trenches inspired 'The Hobbit'

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This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

The grim battles and fire-breathing beasts of J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit drew inspiration from the author’s own real experiences fighting on the Somme in World War I.

The author had two close friends die in the battle, and fought across ground filled with rotting dead bodies in one of the deadliest battles in human history. 

J. R. R. Tolkien smokes a pipe in his study at Merton College
English writer J. R. R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892 - 1973) in his study at Merton College, Oxford. Source: Getty Images

One million people were wounded or killed at the Somme in the summer and autumn of 1916. 

The vast battles of Tolkien’s books and much of the grim imagery of Middle Earth were inspired by his World War I experiences, says John Garth, author of the biography Tolkien and the Great War.

Garth said in an interview with the Mirror, "I think he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partly because he was trying to exorcise the trauma he suffered. It was part of the healing process.”

Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ went on to sell 100 million copies after being released on, September 21, 1937, inspiring countless imitators and a series of hit films. 

War memorial with headstones
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields, a war memorial to missing British who died in the First World War. Source: Getty Images

Tolkien had described to his children the experience of being attacked with poison gas and said that his experience of the trenches was ‘animal horror’.

Garth said, “He rarely spoke about the war. That is classic of so many veterans who could not or would not speak about it. He had been through the worst experience anyone could be expected to go through.”

Tolkien was sent to the Somme aged 24, as a signals officer. 

He wrote at the time, “Junior officers were being killed off a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife was like a death.”

Black and white photo of soldiers marching during WW1
First World War, 1916. English soldiers on the Somme. Source: Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Tolkien survived in part because he arrived at the Somme days after the battle began and therefore missed the fighting with the heaviest casualties.

On the first day, when soldiers were instructed to attack German trenches, there were 57,470 British casualties of whom 19,240 were killed. 

Among the dead was Tolkien’s friend Lieutenant Robert Gilson, who saw his commanding officer shot dead in no-man’s-land and was ordered to take his place. 

A still from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (New Line/Warner Bros.)
The battle scenes and grim imagery from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books were inspired by his experiences in the trenches (Pictured: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) Source: New Line/Warner Bros

He was killed by an exploding shell while charging German lines. 

Tolkien fell ill with ‘trench fever’ contracted from lice in his uniform and was sent back to Britain to recover. 

The illness probably saved his life: he never returned to battle, and returned to his old life as an academic in Oxford. 

As he recovered, he wrote stories featuring ‘gnomes’, and other mythical creatures. 

He had also written fantastical tales in the trenches, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire,” the author said in an interview. 

He later admitted that some of the landscapes of his fantasy world, such as the Dead Marshes, filled with corpses, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”

Author Joseph Loconte, who wrote, ‘A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War’ says that Tolkien’s humble, heroic hobbits, who change the world, show Tolkien believed in the capacity of the individual to resist evil, even in the worst of times.

Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world. Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

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