INFLUENCES ON THE LORD OF THE RINGS
In 1916 Tolkien was sent to France, where he and his fellow soldiers faced the terrifying new mechanisms of modern warfaremachine guns, tanks, and poison gasfighting 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.
Industrialization and Pollution
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.
Tolkien's Linguistic Training
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.
The Impact of The Lord of the Rings
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.
The Tolkien Society
An educational British charity devoted to furthering interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and his works
The Mythopoeic Society
An international educational non-profit organization for the study and discussion of fantasy and mythic literature
Elvish Linguistic Fellowship
A special interest group of the Mythopoeic Society.
Houghton Mifflin Books
U.S. publisher of The Lord of the Rings trilogy