John Ronald Ruel Tolkien is perhaps the 20th century's most influential writers, a man who defined the literary fantasy genre. Like any writer, exceptional or common, his inspiration for his “Lord of the Rings” epic was derived from many places and people throughout his life.
While enrolled at King Edward's School in Birmingham, England, Tolkien became close with three beloved friends who called themselves the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society.” It was this group of four friends—akin to four hobbit companions—who sought to conquer the world through poems of fantasy as from the venerable times of old. In December of 1914, the four friends called a meeting which they entitled the “Council of London.” It was at this council of literary aficionados that Tolkien had a revelation, a revelation in which Middle-earth was spawned.
In this expansive world of Middle-earth, Tolkien crafted rich histories for the various ethnic groups and races, many of which tapped into our real-world cultures and histories. One such region of Middle-earth is Rohan, home of the horse lords. The culture and fair-haired people bear very Celtic nuances and were inspired from the Anglo-Saxon race. Prior to World War I, Tolkien was a member of the King Edward's Horse Battalion. Tasked with breaking in new horses, this position gave him an immense understanding and a deep appreciation for them. When the time came to populate Middle-earth, the esteemed horse masters played a pivotal role in the battle against Sauron.
But Rohan symbolized a deep-seeded desire in Tolkien’s life. A keen student of history, Tolkien asserted that if the Saxons had established a cavalry during the struggle against the Normans (and in particular the Battle of Hastings), then the English most likely would have driven the Normans back to their country and emerged victorious. Thus the major French influence that took hold of Great Britain, a merging Tolkien considered an outright disgrace, would have never occurred. Suddenly Rohan becomes the image of nobility and splendor that Tolkien strongly thought belonged to the Saxons.
The Shire, meanwhile, contains many characteristics of Ireland—lush, green, rolling hills, and a race of tranquil people whose speech is markedly similar to the Irish. The dwarves on the other hand (Middle-earth's most daring, bold, battle-hardened race) embody the Scotts—rough, tenacious, often slovenly, beards down to their waist. In battle they bring to mind images of William Wallace’s struggle against English domination.
Tolkien was an avid student of Latin and Greek. During his undergraduate years at King Edward's, he came into possession of Charles Eliot's “Finnish Grammar.” Coupled with his attraction to the Welsh dialect, these languages served as the basis for the Elvish language. In the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien provides an account of the loving relationship between Berén and Luthien, an Elf who relinquished her immortality for a mortal. Berén beholds the elf dancing in a forest glade, and he immediately concludes that she is the most beautiful thing his eyes have ever beheld.
This fictional story was largely inspired from Tolkien's marriage to Edith Bratt, a woman who received more love and adoration from Tolkien than anything else in his life. Before their marriage, Edith took Tolkien into a forest where she sang and danced for him. This beautiful image stuck with the author for the rest of his life, and served as the basis for one of Middle-earth’s most passionate romances. When Edith died, Tolkien had “Luthien” engraved on her tombstone.
By 1914 war had broken out across Europe, and the entire T.C.B.S. (Tolkien's group of friends) was soon engulfed in the bloody conflict. The four friends—again, like four hobbits— found themselves separated by war. On one December night in 1916, Tolkien's closest friend G. B. Smith wrote a letter to him just before going out on patrol:
“My chief consolation is, that if I am scuppered tonight, there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.”
Smith was killed that night. By the war's end, all but one of Tolkien's friends perished.
It was through his experiences in the Great War that Tolkien was able to incorporate into his book the devastation of battle. Prior to the war, he had always considered men atop garish horses bearing ornate armor as the epitome of nobility and honor in warfare. The role that horses had in combat for centuries was unparalleled to anything else.
However, major technological advancements came about during World War I. The horse was quickly replaced by metal; the sword replaced by the gun; and all honor and chivalry was removed from war. How could a war that could deal death from a distance be compared to the respectable fighting of old? Tolkien suddenly saw the last ounce of honor being stripped from warfare. The “fires of industry” that Isengard produces in “The Two Towers” is Tolkien's image of the rape of sophisticated conflict.
The kingdom of Gondor experiences a devastating attack in “The Return of the King.” This siege embodies the depletion of nobility from warfare. Mordor comes in staggering size, and with them come the machines of war—siege towers, catapults hurling flaming balls, a battering ram that makes light work of Gondor’s protective gate, giant creatures capable of squashing men, and even fire that can undo brick. When Rohan—the image of nobility—arrives in radiant splendor, they’re mowed down by the giant elephant-like creatures just as the machines of war (tanks and planes) altered traditional warfare.
“The Lord of the Rings” is, in actuality, an account of how things were, how things are, and how things could have and should have been. Tolkien’s feelings and perceptions manifest themselves throughout three books that chronicle the War of the Ring. Each new generation takes away something different. Each unique individual finds something personal to them. Each reader—just as Bilbo passed his story to Frodo, who passed it to Sam saying “there’s room for a little more”—adds something further to the story. Those words ring true in Tolkien's world as well. To the reader, he says, “Here is my work. Read it, absorb it, add to it, and pass it along. The last pages are for you. There's room for a little more.”
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