How the Horror and Fellowship of World War I Shaped “Lord of the Rings”
By Alex Lauer
via the InsideHook web site
The fandom around J.R.R. Tolkien is like Minas Tirith, that colossal tiered city of Gondor. On the bottom level are the fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, which are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, as The Fellowship of the Ring was first released on December 19, 2001. On the second level are those who have read the main novels, including the source material for this trilogy and The Hobbit. To make it up to the third level, you must, in my estimation, read the seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories.”
As celebrated Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger writes, the essay, originally conceived as a lecture Tolkien presented in 1939, is the author’s “definitive statement about his art.” It’s a substantial discussion of how he defines the genre that encompasses The Lord of the Rings, one much more specific than our modern conception of fantasy, as well as a criticism of those who place the genre in the children’s section. (“If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults,” Tolkien wrote.) “On Fairy-Stories” is also one of the rare instances where Tolkien hints at the brutal, biographical reality embedded in his fictional realms.
“A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood,” Tolkien wrote, “and quickened to full life by war.”
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 and thus was in his prime when World War I broke out and Britain entered the fray in 1914. In school at Oxford at the time, he joined the service after he graduated in 1915 and, after months of training, quickly found himself in “one of the deadliest battles in the history of the world,” as Lora Vogt, curator of education and interpretation at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, tells InsideHook. That would be the Battle of the Somme, which would last nearly five months in 1916 and end with more than one million wounded or killed, with Tolkien taken out of commission by trench fever.
Despite these formative, traumatic experiences, as Vogt says, Tolkien “rarely affirmed” that he directly drew inspiration from them for his stories of Middle-earth. Yet, a century after the end of the Great War, almost 70 years after The Fellowship of the Ring was first published, and 20 years after the films expanded the book’s already colossal influence, it’s clearer than ever that the timelessness of the War of the Ring is inextricable from the author’s service in the Great War.
Read the entire article on the InsideHook web site here:
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