Great War Wednesday: In Mordor Where Shadows Lie

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"Crossing the Dead Marshes" by Ted Naismith

“Crossing the Dead Marshes” by Ted Naismith

On either side and in front wide fens and mires now lay, stretching away southward and eastward into the dim half-light. Mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hung stifling in the still air. Far away, now almost due south, the mountain-walls of Mordor loomed, like a black bar of rugged clouds floating above a dangerous fog-bound sea.  “The Passage of the Marshes,” Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien.

The Battlefield at Passchendale

The Battlefield at Passchendale

Conditions are unbelievable , on either side stretches a quagmire , a solid sea of slimy mud . everywhere there are dead horses and mules ,smashed ambulances , ammunition limbers and guns.  There are great shell holes of muddy water into which mules and horses sink to their bellies and wagon wheels to the hub. Well , if this is La Belle France they ought to give it to Fritz. Somme Mud, Pvt. Edward Francis Lynch

If JRR Tolkien had possessed a more robust physicality or a somewhat better equipped immune system, the world may today be ever poorer for we likely would never know such creatures as hobbits ever existed. Luckily for us, Tolkien was not a strong man physically nor given much to feats of daring. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, Tolkien recalled, “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” In fact, Tolkien would put off joining up until he finished his undergraduate work at Oxford by which point questions concerning his patriotism were “becoming outspoken from relatives.” Once he reached the trenches, the young officer proved extremely susceptible to “trench fever,” a lice-borne disease which resulted in his being invalided home on three occasions, one of which came the day before his entire battalion was wiped out in battle.

Tolkien reached the Western Front as a newly minted second lieutenant signal officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers just in time to take part in the months long unspeakable carnage we know today as The Battle of the Somme. The privations young Tolkien endured and the hideous brutality and slaughter he saw made their way into his imagination and eventually worked out again in his writings of Middle Earth. Probably the easiest influence for us to grasp today is the sights of the battlefields he saw every day. It is hard to read the descriptions of the slag pits and blasted craters of the plains of Mordor without envisioning the wasted, churned, and cratered landscape of the Somme.

The genesis of the Dead Marshes lay in the bodies littering the mud of the Somme.

During the episode told in The Two Towers where Frodo and Sam, led by Smeagol, cross the Dead Marshes, Tolkien lets slip another of the nightmares he witnessed on the front lines. Frodo falls headlong into one of the sodden pools and screams when he sees dead faces staring back at him. As he and Sam look closer, they see these dead faces of men, elves, and orcs are all about them. On the Somme and in the trenches in general, the dead were a constant companion to Tolkien and his comrades. Incessant shelling and sniping made it impractical if not impossible to recover the bodies of the killed and so they were left in the open to fester and rot until another shell impact might bury them under fresh mud. Indeed, stories are extant of men weighted down under packs and weapons losing their footing in No Man’s Land and drowning in the sucking mud of the Somme and elsewhere.

Another facet of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien admits to crafting based somewhat on his war experiences is the complex and devoted relationship between Frodo and Samwise. The British army in World War One was a microcosm of British society at large and that society was rigidly structured on class. Officers came from the upper middle classes and the gentry while the “Tommies” or regular enlisted soldiers drew their ranks from the lower classes and the working classes. Officers were forbidden to “fraternize” with their commands, but each officer, no matter how lowly his rank, had a batman assigned to his care. These batmen were the officers’ personal valets and saw to the officers’ needs and provided what creature comforts they could muster. The batmen were also invariably drawn from the lower classes of enlisted and for many of the upper class officers, they were the only members of the “other half” of society those officers knew.

2nd Lt JRR Tolkien, 1916

2nd Lt JRR Tolkien, 1916

Frodo, the privileged heir, to the riches of Bag End had his own batman — the sturdy, implacable, and altogether devoted gardener Samwise Gamgee. More than once, Sam’s low born skills and good common sense carried the day and kept his dear Mr. Frodo out of scrape after scrape. In fact, had Sam not decided to take the Ring from the comatose Frodo in Shelob’s dark lair, the Quest of Mount Doom would doubtlessly have ended in abject failure.

Upon the four companion’s return to the Shire following the War of the Ring, they were marked out as many of the veterans who returned from the Great War were. Merry and Pippin had been in battle, but not subject to quite so much of the hardship as Sam and Frodo. As a result, they were much more eager to tell the tales of their adventures and to draw swords to defend the Shire when the need arose. Sam, like the brave but honest VC winner, would recount his exploits when asked, but his was the bravery which needed no bravado. Meanwhile, Frodo, the most wounded of all his compatriots, sought only peace and release from the horrors he had witnessed and the pains which he endured. He is the picture of the one million British soldiers who returned from the Great War missing at least one limb; he represents the untold number of “shellshock” victims who suffered in silence and madness following their service.

Finally, Tolkien writes about how the War of the Ring signaled the end of an age. The old order passed away, burned up in the fires of combat. So too did the First World War usher in systemic societal changes in ways the Second World War never did. The Great War swept the newest empire in Europe as well as two of the most ancient monarchies into the dustbin of history. Tolkien lived long enough to see the changes his war brought about — redrawing of not just maps, but of social orders and systems of governments.

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Tolkien with his three closest friends. Only Wiseman would survive the war.

Unfortunately for Tolkien, he was one of only two members of his closest circle of friends to survive the War and the magnitude of such loss weighed heavily upon him for the rest of his days. He remarked once, with some hint of understandable bitterness, “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; . . . By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” That one friend, Christopher Wiseman, likely owed his survival to fortunate enlistment in the Royal Navy; he became the godfather and namesake of Tolkien’s youngest son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien.

So it was that JRR Tolkien, a gentle man of great imagination and feeling, saw and suffered in the pits of the charnel house which was the Western Front and while other men may have turned to drink or in the last ditch, suicide, to quiet the horrors screaming out in their minds, Tolkien — linguist, professor, and dreamer — turned to the pen instead and the world is a much richer place because Middle Earth and the Baggins’ of Bag End survived.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

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