How Tolkien's time in the WW1 trenches inspired 'The Hobbit'

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English writer J. R. R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892 - 1973) in his study at Merton College, Oxford, 2nd December 1955. He has been Merton Professor of English Language and Literature since 1945. Original Publication : Picture Post - 8464 - Professor J R R Tolkien - unpub. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
English writer John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) in his study at Merton College, Oxford. (Getty)

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The grim battles and fire-breathing beasts of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit drew inspiration from the author’s own real experiences fighting at the Somme in World War I.

Tolkien had two close friends die in the battle, and fought across ground filled with rotting dead bodies in one of the deadliest battles in human history. 

A million people were wounded or killed at the Somme in France in the summer and autumn of 1916. 

Watch: Tolkien fan gives dog-eared copy of The Hobbit amazing Shire makeover

The vast battles of Tolkien’s books and much of the grim imagery of Middle-earth were inspired by his World War I experiences, says John Garth, author of the biography Tolkien And The Great War.

Garth said in an interview with The Mirror: "I think he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings partly because he was trying to exorcise the trauma he suffered. It was part of the healing process.”

Tolkien’s The Hobbit has sold 100 million copies since being released on 21 September, 1937, and has inspired countless imitators and a series of hit films. 

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields, a war memorial to missing British who died in the First World War and an Anglo-French cemetery. Thiepval, France. August 2012.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. (Getty)

Tolkien described to his children the experience of being attacked with poison gas and said his experience of the trenches was "animal horror".

Garth said: “He rarely spoke about the war. That is classic of so many veterans who could not or would not speak about it. He had been through the worst experience anyone could be expected to go through.”

Tolkien was sent to the Somme aged 24, as a signals officer. 

He wrote at the time: “Junior officers were being killed off a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife was like a death.”

First World War, 1916. English soldiers on the Somme. (Photo by Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
English soldiers on the Somme in 1916. (Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A still from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (New Line/Warner Bros.)
The battle scenes and grim imagery from JRR Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit books were inspired by his experiences in the trenches. Pictured: Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002). (New Line/Warner Bros.)

Tolkien survived in part because he arrived at the Somme days after the battle began and therefore missed the fighting with the heaviest casualties.

On the first day, when soldiers were instructed to attack German trenches, there were 57,470 British casualties of whom 19,240 were killed. 

Among the dead was Tolkien’s friend Lieutenant Robert Gilson, who saw his commanding officer shot dead in no-man’s-land and was ordered to take his place. 

He was killed by an exploding shell while charging German lines. 

Tolkien fell ill with "trench fever" contracted from lice in his uniform and was sent back to Britain to recover. 

The illness probably saved his life: he never returned to battle, and returned to his old life as an academic in Oxford. 

As he recovered, he wrote stories featuring "gnomes" and other mythical creatures. 

He had also written fantastical tales in the trenches, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire,” he said in an interview. 

He later admitted that some of the landscapes of his fantasy world, such as the Dead Marshes, filled with corpses, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme”.

Joseph Loconte, author of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, And A Great War, says the humble, heroic hobbits, who change the world, show Tolkien believed in the capacity of the individual to resist evil, even in the worst of times.

Tolkien wrote in The Lord Of The Rings: “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world. Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”

Watch: Wood artist builds incredible ‘Hobbit house’ in his back garden

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