After a three-year engagement, today John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finally marries Edith Bratt, the love of his life, at St. Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church in Warwick. Having delayed enlistment until he finished his degree at Exeter College, Oxford, Tolkien is now a lieutenant with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion who expects orders for France any time, and is therefore understandably eager to have his long awaited nuptials first.
After all, his prospects are grim. He is a trained linguist, not a natural soldier, and hardly a promising officer. An apocalyptic British offensive is being prepared to leave the north of France a toxic, vermin-infested mudscape of blood, steel, and fire; two of Tolkien’s closest friends will be killed in the next five months before he leaves France as a casualty of trench fever. When he contracts a louse-borne disease in an age before virology or antibiotics, Tolkien becomes unfit for front line service, wavering between relapse and recovery until nearly the very end of the conflict. Tolkien commentators often mention his wartime experiences, but they seldom mention this narrative of enervation — of goodness and light being drained from the world, of life and civilization itself being wasted by confrontation with mythic evil. Wounded by the Ringwraith, Frodo Baggins is never fully healed of his injury; plenty of men will die of their scarred lungs and faces and guts and limbs and minds after the Armistice, too.
Entropy is an opening and consistent theme throughout Tolkien’s Legendarium. The Silmarillion, which tells the story of the First Age of Middle Earth, begins with the gods making the world of Arda and casting light upon it, only to see darkness fall with the arrival of new ages. Galadriel the elf-queen, a being of terrifying power and beauty, becomes dimmer with each fight against evil; the physics of Tolkien’s fantasy magic treat characters as batteries of soul-energy, a limited resource that must inevitably pass away to mark the end of another age. Cities rise and fall in a grand tragedy while other characters suffer endless torment in the war against evil. At the end of his journey, Frodo is finally overcome by the power of the One True Ring, but his mission is unexpectedly and accidentally completed by Gollum, the monster on whom he had taken pity. Middle Earth is thus saved by an act of mercy, an outcome that fits within Tolkien’s Christian moral framework, but a profound sense of loss still echoes throughout his narrative and into its closing.
Battles in Tolkien’s world are epic, yet they rarely go well for protagonists, and military victory always comes at a tremendous cost. Fellowships and brotherhoods and bonds of all kind are shattered by death much like units in combat. Though he will leave France before his brigade is nearly annihilated in battle, Tolkien’s position as a communications officer gives him first-hand experience of attrition: trusted men are slain by shrapnel; equipment is shattered and wires are cut; comrades are mangled by explosives. Like other men, Tolkien mourns his losses and soldiers on as battlefields putrefy; the Dead Marshes, where Frodo and Samwise Gamgee encounter choking gases and perilous despair, seem modeled on the revolting hellscape of Tolkien’s war.
Contrarily, the Shire is easily understood as rural Britain, with its proud values of hard work and a Victorian’s reverence for natural beauty. Saruman’s engines and machines that destroy nature, the fire-spitting steel ‘tanks’ that orcs use to destroy Gondolin, the scream of the Nazgûl having a disorienting effect not unlike ‘shell shock’ — all of these are probably Tolkien’s literary reactions to the industrial age and modern warfare as he experienced them, and in fact they make sense as a literary revolt against such ‘progress.’
His most tragic episodes are his most telling. Published posthumously, The Children of Húrin depicts the downfall of a family in the absence of a father imprisoned by the evil Morgoth — forerunner of Sauron — on a high wall of the mountain overlooking his fortress-lair. Premised on the power of a magic curse, this classic faerie motif resonates with the real plight of prisoners in the Great War, a rather new phenomenon in the world of 1916 thanks to international conventions on the treatment of captive enemies. Elves and dwarves are cast from their homes like war refugees; in returning Thorin and company to Lonely Mountain, The Hobbit tells the tale of a homecoming every bit as unlikely as the Serbian nation now living in exile while Tolkien honeymoons.
There are perhaps endless comparisons of Tolkien’s text with the war he witnesses during the summer of 1916, but to dwell on these does not give full justice to the spirit in which his oeuvre is given to us. Exhorting readers against the dying of the light, lauding the power of myth, and eschewing irony altogether, Tolkien rejects modern literary values; in the fullness of time, he will also reject the counterculture which takes so much inspiration from his pre-Christian, medieval framing and admiration of ecology. Now seen as the father of modern fantasy fiction, his vast, detailed world remains a model for many bestselling authors and has become a fundamental source of shared cultural narrative for most of the English-speaking world.
But like one of his eldritch characters, Tolkien is not a creature of our age, which has already passed as he takes his vows. In real as well as literary terms, the Great War is ending a previous epoch; as he composes his first drafts and alphabets in convalescence, Tolkien does not simply look backwards. He starts over from the beginning.