Tag Archives: tolkien

Great War Wednesday: In Mordor Where Shadows Lie

"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.


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!

Happy Birthday, Beren!


jrr-tolkienJ.R.R. Tolkien would be 121 — “twelvity-one” in hobbit-speak — today were he still with us in body. I say “in body” because any person moderately interested in the fantasy genre knows full well just how omnipresent Mr. Tolkien is in spirit and influence. I am not, however, of the faction who feel Tolkien created the world of high fantasy. Certainly Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle — to name a few — blazed part of that trail before Bilbo set off on his most unBaggins-like, unhobbitish  journey.

Tolkien, though, picked up their trail and turned it into a superhighway traveled by the “usual suspects” of fairy tales like shape-shifters, dragons, and elves — though Tolkien’s elves wouldn’t have been recognizable to the Grimm brothers, but also by new wayfarers like orcs, wargs, and — of course — hobbits. I can’t say much that isn’t already written in the multitude of volumes in libraries today extolling Tolkien’s works and cutting into the minutiae of Middle Earth. I have nothing in my poor hack writing to add to them. What they cannot do, however, is tell what Tolkien, hobbits, and Middle Earth meant and still mean to me.

I read The Hobbit for the first time thirty years ago when I was a fat, awkward kid in sixth grade. The library at Gray Court – Owings School was a welcome refuge for me since I was nonathletic, unaesthetic, and borderline neurotic. One October afternoon, I had just finished off the last book in the World War II section of non-fiction when Ms. Goodhue, the finest school librarian to ever hold the title, sat me down and asked if I’d ever read any fantasy. I could honestly reply in the negative because I wasn’t really sure what fantasy even was. Without fanfare, she went to the paperback section of the “big kids” side of the library (supposedly for 7 – 8 graders) and brought back The Hobbit. She told me to try the first few chapters and let her know if I liked it.

Much to the chagrin of my 3-6 period teachers AND my grandmother, I read the entire book before bedtime that night, stopping only to take a spelling test and eat supper.


Just in case you’re wondering who in the world is Beren and why is he in the title of a post about Tolkien.

The next day, Ms. Goodhue took my glowing report of how much I loved the book then reached into her book bag and pulled out HER PERSONAL COPY of The Fellowship of the Ring for me to borrow. I read it — and The Two Towers and The Return of the King — by the end of the week. That Saturday, I went to the now-long-defunct Waldenbooks in the now razed-to-the-ground Greenville Mall and bought a matched set of all four books with my entire piggy bank . . . and a little “advance” from Papa Wham. To this day, they sit in an honored place on my office bookshelf. I’ve read and reread those four books AT LEAST sixteen times cover-to-cover in the intervening years. In fact, that set is so precious to me, it nearly caused my beloved Budge and I to “have words.” The movies were due out and she wanted to read the books beforehand so she asked me if she could read MY set. Having seen how she was prone to treat other paperback books she read — crushing their spines and bending pages — I flat-out told her NO to her (and my) utter shock. In my defense, we’d only been married about four years and I did not possess the wisdom and knowledge a husband of more years would have displayed. I immediately recanted and told her she could, but as every woman reading this knows, I couldn’t have PAID her to TOUCH “those books of mine” so I took her to dinner RIGHT THEN and we bought her very own set — which I have not touched to this day.

That incident is just a taste of how The Lord of the Rings has been a thread through my last three decades. I think the major reason is I discovered the books at a time when I was in profound need of seeing someone small and insignificant use wits . . . and a bit of Tookish luck . . . to overcome tons of negative stuff being hurled at him. Even though it had been five years since my parents’ divorce, I was still unable to process why my mother and father were not together. To top things off, Daddy had remarried and so had Mama and now Mama was realizing exactly what the wise aphorism “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” really meant. In short, I was at a time of overwhelming mental and emotional turmoil. Tolkien gave me a place to go. When I was in Middle Earth, I was aware of the dangers, but they were dangers I could face on equal terms with sword and steel instead of lying helpless before words and people more cruel than any orc. Middle Earth was my refuge at a time when I desperately need one and it has sheltered me from many more woes and foes this world has offered.

So thank you, Professor, for turning the horror of WWI’s trenches into a world where a little boy could escape, if but for a little while and join a heroic quest to a Lonely Mountain because, as writer G.K. Chesterton so eloquently stated, ““Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Love you all and hope the new year is off to a great start! Keep those feet clean.

Thoughts on the London Olympics Opening Ceremony


The Olympics always bring memories to me. The earliest one I can remember was the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games. Papa Wham and I actually watched the “Miracle On Ice” when our ragtag group of amateur hockey players defeated the mighty Soviet juggernaut and for a minute, yes, we all DID believe in miracles. I also have distinct memories of Sarajevo ’84 and looking back at how beautiful the city was then it’s hard for me to imagine how devastated it would be fifteen years later.

I remember Mary-Lou Retton capturing all our hearts. I also remember little Kari Scruggs bravely vaulting on her broken foot to assure the gold medal for the women’s team. I watched Kurt Angle when he was a “real” wrestler; that gold medal he wears to the ring is real, you know. I saw the unbelievable happen as Roulon Gardner beat the unbeatable Alexander “The Experiment” Karelin to win wrestling gold.

In short, I really love the Olympics and getting to watch the opening ceremonies last night with Budge and the other half of our family at Deuce and Cam’s house was about as good as it gets. Long before the parade of nations ended, I thought about blogging what I felt, so here, in no certain order, are my musings on the XXX Olympiad’s opening pageant.

  • I quickly got sick of hearing how “No one could possibly top the scope and spectacle of Beijing.” Danny Boyle can stand proudly because this opening was every bit as spectacular and beautiful as ’08 AND he accomplished his vision all while dealing with labor unions AND volunteers who really were volunteers, not conscripted peasants worrying about getting shot if they messed up.
  • Was I the only one who — whenever anyone mentioned Danny Boyle’s name — kept wanting to belt out “The pipes, the pipes, are calling?”
  • Brazil does not produce ugly women. No female rating less than a 9 on the International Hottie Scale was walking in their entourage. I’m convinced the place is like ancient Sparta only instead of the elder warriors, a group of gorgeous supermodels are on call at the hospitals to inspect each newborn girl for completely overboard hottness and any who don’t measure up are sent to Puerto Rico.
  • Staying with the hottness theme, I don’t have a homosexual bone in my body, but Daniel “007” Craig is one fine, fine looking hunk of manhood.
  • Why does every other country’s costume show something to do with their culture or heritage or the way the world views them while OUR made in China United States costumes look a lot like military uniforms, right down to the fatigue pants and bere- . . . oh, I get it.
  • His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh looks extremely fit and well for approaching 92.
  • Speaking of the Royals, I think it was right sporting of Queen Elizabeth to go along with the festivities and allow an effigy of Her Royal Highness to skydive behind Mr. Bond into the stadium. Also, she’s not much for long speeches is she? “I now pronounce the Games of the XXX Olympiad open.” Sits. Poker face.
  • Those poor people banging on all those drums have GOT to have sore arms this morning.
  • I hope everyone sitting at home poking fun at the tiny delegations of countries like Burkina Faso and Tonga realized at some point those folks were IN THE OLYMPICS while they — armchair critics they are — never will be.
  • Anyone else wonder how many people soiled themselves when all the pyrotechnics blew up near the end? Worst part was just about the time you got your sphincter back on the chain, the bloody things went off again!
  • Whoever designed the Olympic Flame Cauldron needs to be knighted or raised to the peerage or something. That is the most beautiful flame holder in any Olympics I’ve ever seen. I just wondered how many times some guy was running around in the dark making sure all the “petals” were placed and attached correctly.
  • Anyone else think it was kind of Matt Lauer and company to cover Sir Paul’s quavering opening bars of “Hey, Jude” as being “choked up?” Paul isn’t a bass or a baritone and as anyone who heard Pavarotti or Domingo sing late in their careers knows higher pitched male voices don’t weather age as well as the lower registers. Still, “Hey, Jude” sung and played by the man who wrote it isn’t a sight to be missed. I hope Ringo was at the show and somewhere John and George were smiling.
  • Those youngsters need to brush up on their “na, na, na, NA, NA, NAAA . . . NA, NA, NAAAAA, Hey Judes!!” Sing it like you mean it kids and while you’re at it, learn if you’re a guy or a girl and sing at the right time!!
  • I’ve got to get some music by The Arctic Monkeys. That “Come Together” cover rocked.
  • BTW, where the crap was Sir Elton John? WTH?
  • Why can’t we Americans act like we’ve been somewhere before and walk in gracefully waving instead of lampooning around and snapping pictures non-stop on our cell phones? Really, people?! You’re in front of the Queen AT THE OLYMPICS for pete’s sake, show some respect.
  • How is it one of the probably four white girls in all of Zimbabwe has won 7 of the 8 medals in the country’s history? I may be wrong, but I’m betting she’s an immigrant or, worse, a colonial left over.
  • Why did so many of the countries have a taekwondo fighter, a judoist, or a shooting sports participant as their flag bearers? Were they afraid someone was going to run out and take the Armenian flag or something?
  • Speaking of the flags, Glastonbury Tor — the little green hill with all the flags on it? It’s a real place. Google it.
  • Finally, was it just me, or did anyone else hope the whole time the steel workers were “forging the ring” someone would pull a master prank and project a huge red eye on top of one of the smokestacks while hacking the sound system to boom out “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them …” After all, J.R.R. Tolkien was about as British as they come even if he was born in South Africa.

Enjoy the Olympics everyone! They really are one of the few times the best things about this crazy world actually come to the front and displace all the violence and sadness we see in the news every day.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.