While they slept, I was returned, wounded and heart-sick, to the living.
Years passed and memory faded.
Creating the Centena
Although I am very glad indeed to have been given the opportunity to write a centena, I wonder now if there’s not something at least mildly presumptuous in my choice of subject: J R R Tolkien.
Like generations of gawky adolescents, I found myself, as a teenager, drawn to Tolkien’s fictions and to the world depicted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For all of the agreeable strangeness of Middle Earth – its whimsy and melodrama, its life-and-death struggles – there is something familiar about it too, as though our own reality is being reflected in a warped mirror. I’m not sure that this struck the younger version of me (at the time I was probably more interested in battles and elves) but on subsequent readings this element became increasingly apparent.
When I started to learn more about Tolkien’s life – especially his formative years, decades before he settled into the comfortable stereotype of the crusty professor – I discovered that Tolkien fought in the war, seeing action at the Battle of the Somme as part of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. A battalion signalling officer, Tolkien was in France from June 1916 until he was invalided out. He would have seen much in those months – the first use by the British of the tank; the heroism of the ordinary soldier; any amount of death and suffering. His personal losses were considerable: “by 1918,” he later wrote, “all but one of my close friends were dead”. Such experiences cannot leave a person unmarked and it is all but impossible to imagine that they would not manifest also in their creative output. Tolkien was sceptical of attempts to see the real conflict in the background of his fictional creation: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” he said, “and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”
Nonetheless, it seems hard not to perceive in Tolkien’s work echoes of his wartime ordeal. The section which has always struck me as being especially evocative is the description of the Dead Marshes, filled with melancholy and dread. Part of the ancient battlefield of Dagorland, it is a “dreary and wearisome” place in which the bodies of the deceased can be glimpsed through dark water. Tolkien would say only that “the Dead Marshes … owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme” but I feel that considerably more lies behind these sequences than he ever would admit.
So, however, presumptuous it may be, I wanted to try to speak in Tolkien’s own voice and to have him say in my centena what he never quite articulated in public. I am indebted both to the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum for steering me in the right direction and to John Garth’s superb study, Tolkien and the Great War. The accompanying photograph shows Tolkien in his school cadet force at fifteen, around the same age of many of his readers when they first encounter his great novels.
Lives of the Fisrt World War
You can find out more about J RR Tolkien here at Lives of the First World War
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