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The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Explore your questions about The Lord of the Rings

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Battle of the Somme
World War I's Battle of the Somme
(Photograph by Corbis)

Battle Scene from Lord of the Rings
Battle scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
(© 2001 New Line Productions, photograph courtesy New Line Cinema)

Factory in Britain
Factory in Birmingham, England
(Still image from National Geographic Television)

English countryside
(Still image from National Geographic Television)

Mordor, seen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
(© 2001 New Line Productions, photograph courtesy New Line Cinema)

The Shire
The Shire, seen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
(© 2001 New Line Productions, photograph courtesy New Line Cinema)



  • World War I and World War II
  • Industrialization and Pollution
  • Tolkien's Linguistic Training
  • The Impact of The Lord of the Rings

  • World War I and World War II

    World War I broke out while Tolkien was a student at Oxford University. After finishing his degree, Tolkien joined the Lancashire Fusiliers as a second lieutenant.

    In 1916 Tolkien was sent to France, where he and his fellow soldiers faced the terrifying new mechanisms of modern warfare—machine guns, tanks, and poison gas—fighting in some of the bloodiest battles known to human history. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme, a vicious engagement in which over a million people were either killed or wounded.

    In the trenches of World War I, Tolkien began recording the horrors of war that would later surface in The Lord of the Rings. Later that year he caught trench fever, an illness carried by lice, and was sent back to England. During his convalescence, he began writing down the stories and mythology of Middle-earth, which would form the basis for The Silmarillion.

    "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience," Tolkien acknowledged, but he strongly denied that his story was an allegory for World War I or II.* Although The Lord of the Rings was written during World War II and follows the rise of a great evil threatening to envelop the world, the ring was not meant to symbolize the atomic bomb. Likewise, the characters Sauron and Saruman, although both tyrants, are imaginary characters and are not meant to represent Hitler or Stalin.

    As professor Daniel Timmons notes, the beginnings, the processes, and the ends of The Lord of the Rings and World War II are wholly different.

    In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote, "By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead." The reader cannot help but notice that the Dead Marshes of Mordor is eerily reminiscent of World War I's Western Front and its utter devastation of life.

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    Industrialization and Pollution

    The industrial revolution, a period of rapid change beginning in Britain around 1750 and lasting well into the 1800s, transformed the cultural and physical landscape of England.

    Handmade products crafted in small-town shops gave way to urban factories and mechanized production. Textiles, shipbuilding, iron, and steel emerged as important industries, and the country's population increasingly migrated to urban areas to work in the factories. Coal fueled these industries, polluting the air with black smoke and dotting the countryside with mining spoil.

    Although born well after the industrial revolution, Tolkien witnessed the lasting effects of industry on the environment, first as a child in Birmingham and later as an adult in Oxford.

    Tolkien's concern for nature echoes throughout The Lord of the Rings. Evil beings of Middle-earth dominate nature and abuse it to bolster their own power. For example, Saruman, the corrupt wizard, devastates an ancient forest as he builds his army.

    The Elves, in contrast, live in harmony with nature, appreciating its beauty and power, and reflecting a sense of enchantment and wonder in their artful songs.

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    Tolkien's Linguistic Training

    J.R.R. Tolkien devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, especially the study of language. He was an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon for much of his professional life.

    Tolkien's ability with languages inspired his studies in philology, the branch of linguistics concerned with the relationships and ancestry of languages. Tolkien worked as a philologist throughout his life, publishing articles on Anglo-Saxon texts, such as Beowulf, and co-editing an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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    The Impact of The Lord of the Rings

    While recent opinion polls have ranked The Lord of the Rings as one of the most popular literary works of this century, Tolkien's publisher initially thought this "work of genius" would lose money. And when Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy initially appeared in 1954-55, they received mixed critical response.

    Some commentators, such as C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, declared the trilogy a masterpiece. Others, such as Mark Roberts and Edmund Wilson, thought it was juvenile trash. Auden remarked that people seemed to either love Tolkien's work or hate it. Although there were opposing views, the books sold reasonably well and exceeded the publisher's initial expectations.

    In the 1960s the popularity of The Lord of the Rings exploded when a pirated version became available in America and as themes of resisting political corruption and preserving the natural environment resonated with the challenges readers faced in their own lives. Moreover, a sort of cult appeared, with people wearing buttons labeled FRODO LIVES or GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT. Many clubs, specialty journals, and other fantasy books appeared.

    The enduring appeal of the books is obvious today. As in the 1960s, people are reading The Lord of the Rings in cafés, in subways, and at bus stops; and millions worldwide continue to be enchanted and inspired by Tolkien's massive work.

    Watch J.R.R. Tolkien's publisher, Rayner Unwin, talk about his discovery of The Hobbit and his contribution to The Lord of the Rings.

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    Return to Tolkien time line

    *Quoted from The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, (Revised Edition, by Jane Chance, copyright 2001) by permission of the University Press of Kentucky