With the 100thanniversary of the end of World War I this Sunday, there are so many heartrending stories about the Great War I’ve come across the past few weeks – mothers who lost all their sons, battalions that lost so many men they were disbanded, soldiers who died just weeks or days before the Armistice, and more – too much more.
But the story that has most drawn my attention is the war experience of J. R. Tolkien.
Orphaned at 12, Tolkien had experienced deep loss years before. The War would pile loss upon loss. The recent Tolkien exhibition here in Oxford and John Garth’s book, Tolkien and the Great War, brought that home to me. Both quoted this from his preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings:
By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.
When I first read that at the exhibition, I had to stand aside for a moment to regain my composure.
A theme of Tolkien and the Great War is how the war tore apart what was an inseparable society of four friends at King Edward’s School, one of which was Tolkien. Two died. The other two drifted apart. Tolkien survived because he came down with trench fever after combat on the Western Front in 1916. As a result, he had chronic bad health the rest of the war and served on the British coast instead of being sent back to the front.
Having just finished that book, I highly recommend Tolkien and the Great War to anyone interested in Tolkien’s experience of the war, including his literary output and evolution during those years. I also highly recommend the Oxford exhibition book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, part of which deals with the war years and is very reasonably priced given how lavishly it is illustrated.
We can be thankful that God somehow got J. R. Tolkien, along with his future friend and Inkling, C. S. Lewis, through the Great War. Yet one can hardly imagine what great minds and writers we lost in that cataclysm. That is all the more reason to remember them this Armistice Centenary. We shall remember them. We shall remember them all.