English 525TK: The Lord of the Rings

This is an experimental course in which we will combine close study of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with the study of the Old and Middle English language that fuelled Tolkien's creative process. We will return to Tolkien's discipline of philology, which examines ancient texts in order to understand the language, literature, history, and culture of past societies. Along the way, we will learn to read some of Tolkien's source materials in the original language, reflecting on the structure of the English language itself and how it has changed over time. Finally, we will examine Tolkien's own invented languages to see how he implemented his philological learning in his fiction. Although we will use The Lord of the Rings as our common text for discussion, students will have the opportunity to examine Tolkien's other works as part of their final projects.

Course Objectives

Students in this course will:

  • Acquire a knowledge of The Lord of the Rings, selected works of medieval literature that informs it, and selected items from Tolkien's other works.
  • Acquire knowledge of the historical and cultural background which informs Tolkien's work, as well as a familiarity with the issues that have been discussed in Tolkien scholarship.
  • Learn to read and discuss some of the Old and Middle English texts that inform Tolkien's work in the original languagae.
  • Develop a basic understanding of the historical structure of the English language and of grammar more generally.
  • Demonstrate the ability to synthesise the knowledge and skills gained in the points above as part of a culminating experience for the course.


Course Information

  • Thursday
  • Time: 4:00 PM - 6:45 PM (Course Number 20908)
  • Location: Jerome Richfield 352
  • Office Location: Sierra Tower 803
  • Office Hours:


The primary text for this course will be The Lord of the Rings. We will also be reading other texts from handouts distributed on Canvas.

For your final project, you may need to purchase works by Tolkien, depending on the direction of your project, although many will be in the library.

Coursework and Grading

Your grade will consist of the following elements: preparation and participation, a set of translations, a journal assignment, and a final project.

Preparation and Participation

Preparation and Participation will make up approximately 10% of your final grade according to my discretion. I will assign points based factors such as on-time attendance, classroom participation/disruption, bringing your textbook to class, and so on. For further information on factors that can influence your grade, see under Class Policies below.


Throughout the semester we will be translating some Old and Middle English texts into Modern English. Your translations will be worth 20% of your final grade.


Throughout the semester, you will keep a running journal consisting of significant passages with annotations about why you think the passages are significant. This assignment is worth 20% of your final grade.

Final Project

In the second half of the semester you will design and complete a final project. This can be a traditional literary criticism essay, or it can take another form by prior arrangement with me. You may also choose to do a collaborative project, if you want to take on something ambitious that needs multiple people.

Class Policies

By enrolling in this course you agree to be bound for the purposes of this class by the policies below, which serve as a formal legal agreement. You may reject these policies by dropping the class within the time allotted by the University.


Grades are A, B, C, D, or F and can receive a plus or minus. To receive a grade other than a WU, you must have completed more than half the coursework (no exceptions).

Since students in English courses are expected by society at large to be acquiring writing skills, I privilege grammar, spelling, and editing in my grading. Work containing distracting numbers of typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors will be graded primarily on these criteria on a sliding scale which may supersede any percentages given in the Coursework and Grading section above. That is, the more distracting these factors are, the more they are worth (up to 100% of your grade). A rough guide to what is distracting is any sign that might give an employer pause when evaluating a job application.

Make-Up Tests

I will only administer tests once and am not required to provide you with the opportunity to take make-up tests if you miss them at the assigned time. I will only administer make-up tests if 1) you have a legitimate excuse recognised by the university, 2) I am able to do so without adversely impacting other students either by taking time from my other duties or by creating conditions that would give you an unfair advantage for the purposes of grading.

Extra Credit

In some semesters opportunities may arise for non-required activities such as guest lectures, and I will offer extra credit for attendance at or participation in these activities. I will always offer this extra credit to the entire class. Because my time commitments do not allow me grade extra assignments, I do not award extra credit to individual students for any reason. I keep to this policy very strictly.

Preparation and Participation

Enrolling in this class requires a commitment to participate in a community of learners in which you agree to contribute to and not to detract from the learning environment. In order to receive full credit for participation, you must do the readings in advance, bring assigned textbooks to each class, be prepared to discuss the materials, and complete all assignments. You must also arrive to class regularly, arrive on time, and remain in the class room for the duration of the class period. For disruptive behaviour, I reserve the right to increase the proportion of your final grade allotted to participation, as I feel appropriate.

Inappropriate Use of Technology in Class

Ringing and/or vibrating cell phones in class disrupt my concentration and that of your fellow students, inevitably lowering the quality of the learning environment. If your cell phone goes off in class, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or to ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate.

If you have a computer or smart phone in the classroom, it will be very tempting to check your e-mail, read Facebook, or generally surf the web for purposes unrelated to the class. Resist. If I catch you engaged in these activities, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate.

Academic Honesty

It is extremely important that all aspects of your work are come by honourably. Efforts to gain an advantage not given to all students are dishonest and regarded as an extremely serious matter by the academic community. Consequences range from probation to expulsion. University policy stipulates that plagiarism, the submission of another person’s work as your own, is a violation of academic honesty, even if it arises out of ignorance or oversight, rather than deliberate cheating. Enrolling in this class means that you agree to abide by my decision regarding the appropriate action to take in cases of academic dishonesty. If you have any questions about plagiarism, paraphrasing, quoting, or collaboration, please consult me.


CSUN values an inclusive learning environment, where we respect the varied perspectives and experiences of a diverse community. Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining a respectful space to express their opinions. Professional courtesy and consideration for our classroom community are especially important with respect to topics dealing with differences in race, color, gender and gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability, and age.

As a “responsible employee” at CSUN, I am required by federal and state laws to report incidences of harassment and discrimination to the campus Title IX Coordinator if they are disclosed to me. If you have experienced harassment or discrimination and do not want the Title IX Coordinator notified, instead of disclosing the experience to me, you can speak confidentially with CSUN’s Care Advocate by calling (818) 677-7492. For more information regarding your university rights and options, please visit the University’s Title IX website at http://www.csun.edu/title-ix.

Add/Drop Policy

Students should make sure that they follow the university’s add/drop deadlines, outlined in the Schedule of Classes. According to university policy, drops are only allowed after the set date when “a) there is a serious and compelling reason–specifically the student’s emotional or physical health or financial condition is clearly in jeopardy, and b) there is no viable alternative–including repeating the class”. Students will need to provide documentation on official letterhead–a letter, on official stationery, from a doctor or an employer–to support their reasons. No adds will be allowed unless a student can provide documented proof–e.g., a clerical error–for the reason for the tardiness. Please make sure to meet the deadline!

Withdrawals and Incompletes

The standard grade if a student fails to complete the work for a class is a “WU”. This is the equivalent of an “F”, but the grade may be changed if you re-take the course at a future time. This grade is also assigned to students who have not attended after the first few classes of the semester but have not officially “withdrawn” from the course.

I may assign an Incomplete (“I”) if and only if you meet all of the following conditions:

  • You have completed the vast bulk of the assigned work;
  • You are passing the class;
  • You fill out and bring to me a Request for an Incomplete form (also available from the English Department office), on which I detail exactly what is still needed for completion of the course.
  • I can make no exceptions to this policy, even if it affects your financial aid.

Once you take an incomplete, you have a year from the date recorded on the form to complete the requirements of the course and have your grade changed; therefore, you should submit work early enough to allow me to grade your work and fill out the necessary forms to assign you a new grade.

Keep in mind that, after you take an Incomplete, any grading of your work becomes an added burden on my busy timetable during the following year. Therefore you should not expect the normal amount of comments on your work or any extra teaching beyond my normal office hours.

The schedule below is an approximation and may be adjusted over the course of the semester. Please check back for changes. In addition to the readings listed below, it is recommended that you read Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages and Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories". The former provides essential background on the literary period that was Tolkien's primary inspiration, and the latter is perhaps the fullest expression of his literary theory.

Date Assignments
Jan. 22 Introduction and Background
Jan. 29 Reading:
Feb. 5 Reading:
Feb. 12 Reading:
Feb. 19 Reading:
Feb. 26 Homework:
Mar. 4 Reading:
Mar. 11 Reading:
Mar. 25 Reading:
  • The Lord of the Rings, Book IV
Apr. 1 Reading:
  • The Lord of the Rings, Book V
Apr. 8 Reading:
  • The Lord of the Rings, Book VI
Apr. 15 Reading:
Apr. 22 Final Projects Workshop
Apr. 29 Final Projects Workshop
May 6 Final Projects Workshop
May. 13 Final Projects Due


Dictionaries and Linguistic Resources

Works by J.R.R. Tolkien

The following is list of the most significant publications for the study of The Lord of the Rings. Some works appear in multiple anthologies and reprints, making it hard to cite which edition or year of publication you will find. However, the publication dates given here give some sense of the order and period in which Tolkien produced his works. Many of Tolkien's essays and minor works can be found in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (Acacia Press, 1997) and A Tolkien Reader, 2nd edn. (Ballantine, 1989).

  • The Hobbit, first edition London 1937, fourth edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
  • 'Leaf by Niggle', first published in The Dublin Review, January 1945, 46-61; also published in Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Major, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1975.
  • Farmer Giles of Ham, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950; also published in Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1975.
  • 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm's Son', first published in Essays and Studies 6 (1953), 1-18; also published in Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Major, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1975.
  • The Lord of the Rings, in three volumes:

    I. The Fellowship of the Ring, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin 1954, second edition 1966; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954, second edition, 1967.

    II. The Two Towers, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin 1954, second edition 1966; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955, second edition, 1967.

    III. The Return of the King, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin 1955, second edition 1966; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956, second edition, 1967.

A considerable amount of Tolkien's work was published after his death by his son Christopher and others. The most important of these is The Silmarillion (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), which Tolkien was working on at the time of his death, and Humphrey Carpenter's edition of Tolkien's Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). In addition, Christopher Tolkien has been steadily publishing his father's working drafts of all his texts along with considerable editorial commentary:

  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).

The History of Middle Earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983-; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984-) in twelve volumes. The early drafts of The Lord of the Rings are published as The Return of the Shadow (1988), The Treason of Isengard (1989), The War of the Ring (1990), and Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age, the Notion Club Papers and the Drowning of Anadune (1992).

Also relevant are two of Tolkien's editions on Old English poems, edited for publication after his death, the introductions of which give insight into his literary ideas:

  • The Old English Exodus, ed. Joan Turville-Petre, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
  • Finn and Hengest: the Fragment and the Episode, ed. Alan Bliss, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 

Reference Works

Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Wayne Hammond and Douglas A. Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, Winchester: St Paul's Bibliographies; New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books, 1993.

Judith A. Johnson, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien: Six Decades of Criticism (Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature 6), Westport, Conn., and London: Green, 1986

David Day, The Tolkien Companion.

David Day, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon and Schuster, 1992).

Colin Duriez, The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to his Life, Writings, and the World of Middle Earth.

Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-Earth (Houghton Mifflin).

John and Priscilla Tolkien, The Tolkien Family Album.

Richard West, Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist, 2nd edn. (Kent State, 1981).


Reviews dealing with the reception of The Lord of the Rings can be found at the reviews page.

The most recent scholarship on Tolkien's work is to be found in the journal Tolkien Studies, which is in the Oviatt Library (PR6039.O32 Z488 or online).

Important books are listed below. Note that this list is somewhat dated.

T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth (Allen & Unwin, 1982; second edition, Grafton, 1992).

T.A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

Robert Eaglestone, ed., Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic (London: Continuum, 2006). I have an essay on Service in The Lord of the Rings in this volume.

Glen Goodknight, ed., Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, 1992.

Randel Helm, Tolkien's World.

Neil Issacs and Rose Zimbardo, ed., Tolkien: New Critical Perspectives (University of Kentucky Press, 1981).

Rayner Unwin, The Making of the Lord of the Rings.

Jane Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, rev. ed. (UPK, 2001).

Jane Chance, Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, rev. edn. (UPK, 2001)

Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, ed, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (Houghton Mifflin, 1997, rpt. 2000).


Coming up with an exhaustive (or even up-to-date) list of links to material on the web would be a horrendous task. I list only a few useful links here. Remember to beware of anything you see on the web!

Background Sources

This is not an exhaustive list of literary influences on Tolkien but a few of the most influential texts along with other useful reading on early English literature. For a more complete list of Tolkien's sources, see Appendix A of T.A. Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth.

Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. S.J. Bradley (London: J.M. Dent, 1982; Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1982, reprinted 1995).

Beowulf. The text is available in multiple translations. Tolkien wrote a preface for the translation by J. R. Clark Hall and C.L. Wrenn. I would recommend avoiding Seamus Heaney's 'translation', which makes the poem sound Irish.

The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Kalevala, translated by Keith Bosley (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Norse Poems, ed. Paul B. Taylor and W.H. Auden (London: Athlone Press, 1981).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975). The translation by Marie Boroff available in most anthologies of British literature is also excellent.

Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Dent, 1987).

Also, check out the Electronic Beowulf.


This page contains a series of short essays on various topics related to Tolkien's life and work.


J.R.R. Tolkien was a staunch Catholic, and his religion heavily influenced his life and career. His mother Mabel was born an Anglican, but after the death of Tolkien's father, converted to Catholicism in 1900. Many of Tolkien's father's family were Baptists, and strongly opposed to Catholicism. Mabel was cut off from both families, who stopped providing the single mother any kind of financial support. In 1902 she moved Tolkien and his brother Hilary to Edgbaston outside Birmingham to be near to the Birmingham Oratory and its associated St Philip's School. The Oratory had been established in 1849 by Henry Newman, then a recent convert himself. Newman was one of the leaders of what became known as the Oxford Movement which attempted to reform the Church of England by returning to many of the doctrinal and liturgical practices which existed before the Reformation. When the most radical proposals of the Oxford Movement were rejected by the hierarchy of the Church of England, Newman and many of other Anglicans converted to Catholicism. Those who remained within the Church of England became known as Anglo-Catholics. The Oxford Movement remained influential in twentieth- century Oxford, and T.S. Eliot was a notable convert to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927.

At the Oratory Mabel was befriended by Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who would become Tolkien's guardian two years later when she died of diabetes. Nine years afterwards Tolkien was to write: 'My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.' The quote indicates something of the connexion Tolkien made between his mother's faith and his own. In some way, Tolkien's deep devotion to Catholicism reflected his love for his mother.

Tolkien's Catholicism would again affect his life in 1908, when he was sixteen years old. He met his future wife, Edith Bratt, and by the summer of 1909 they were in love. Father Francis forbade Tolkien from seeing her, ostensably because she was a distraction from his efforts to gain acceptance to Oxford, but perhaps also because she was an Anglican. Tolkien had to wait until 1913 to contact her, when he reached the legal age of majority — twenty-one. They announced their engagement only after Tolkien had convinced Edith to convert to Catholicism, not an easy thing because she had been heavily and publicly active in her local Anglican Church. Tolkien wrote: 'I do so dearly believe that no half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly'. When Edith converted, she was promptly cut off by his family.

St Aloysius — Tolkien's
	parish church
St Aloysius — Tolkien's parish church

Tolkien's Catholicism also coloured his intellectual life and may have influenced his famous dislike of 'modern' literature from Spenser and Shakespeare onwards. These, of course, were the first great authors after the Reformation, when England abandoned the Catholic Church, and Tolkien may have felt that these authors were impoverished or diminished, like the Church of England, which he called 'a pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs'. But the most famous intellectual application of Tolkien's Catholicism is to be found in his relationship with C.S. Lewis. Lewis became Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College in 1926. Lewis had been brought up in Ulster in Northern Ireland as a Protestant. In adolescence he had embraced agnosticism, but was gradually leaning back towards religion when he met Tolkien. The two spent a great deal of time discussing Christianity. In an episode in 1931 which Tolkien wrote about in his poem 'Mythopoeia' — and which Humphrey Carpenter later dramatised in the chapter entitle 'Jack' of his biography of Tolkien -- Lewis was persuaded by Tolkien's arguments and became a Christian. However, Tolkien's success would later turn to disappointment, for Lewis became, not a Catholic, but an Anglican. Lewis went on to become a public apologist of Christianity in print and on radio. Tolkien would later write on this: '[Lewis] would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up again, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant'.

All this does not represent a direct influence of Tolkien's Christianity on his writing. In fact, Tolkien recognised that much of his early work was incompatible with Christianity, particularly the material in The Silmarillion (The Lord of the Rings he described as consciously planned with religious compatibility in mind). At the time of his death, he was struggling to re-write material from The Silmarillion to make it compatible with Christian philosophy.

One way in which Christianity obviously influenced Tolkien's writing is in his treatment of the centuries-old debate over the nature of evil. The official Church position was formulated in 410 AD by St Augustine in his De Civitate Dei (The City of God). In Book XII, Augustine asks why the angels who rebelled against God are miserable. He concludes that the condition of blessedness comes from cleaving 'to Him who supremely is', which amplifies one's own being. In turning away from God, the angels therefore diminished their own existence. He then turns to his classic treatment of the nature of evil:

If the further question be asked, 'What was the efficient cause of their evil will?' there is none. For what is it which makes the will bad, when it is the will itself which makes the action bad? And consequently a bad will is the cause of bad actions, but nothing is the cause of a bad will. For when the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil — not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.

I know likewise that the will could not become evil, were it unwilling to become so; and therefore its failings are justly punished, being not necessary but voluntary. For its defection is not to evil things, that is to say, not towards things that are naturally and in themselves evil, but the defection of the will is evil because it wills contrary to the order of nature, abandoning that which has supreme being for that which has less. For avarice is not a fault inherent in gold, but in the man who inordinately loves gold to the detriment of justice, which ought to be held in incomparably higher regard than gold. Consequently he who inordinately loves the good which any nature possesses, even though he obtain it, himself becomes evil in the good, and wretched because deprived of a greater good.

And thus we are driven to believe that the holy angels never existed without a good will or the love of God. But the angels who, though created good, are nevertheless evil now, became so by their own evil will. And a will cannot be made evil by a good nature, unless there is a voluntary defection from good; for not good, but a defection from good, is the cause of evil. These angels, therefore, either received less of the grace of the divine love than those who persevered in the same; or if both were created equally good, then, while the one fell by their evil will, the others were more abundantly assisted, and attained to that pitch of blessedness at which they became certain they should never fall from it — as we have already shown in the preceding book. We must therefore acknowledge, with the praise due to the Creator, that not only men, but primarily and principally of angels it is true, as it is written, 'It is good to draw near to God' (Ps. 73:28).

From: St Augustine, On the Two Cities: Selections from the City of God, ed. F.W. Strothmann (New York: Fredegar Ungar, 1957).


Tolkien in uniform
Tolkien in uniform

Norman Cantor, who confesses his dislike of The Lord of the Rings, argues in his book The Making of the Middle Ages that Tolkien's contribution to our understanding of the Middle Ages is in the way that he brings to our attention to horrors of medieval warfare. He could not be more wrong. Whatever Tolkien's portrayal of warfare may be, it is not a realistic portrayal of war as it occurred in medieval Europe. But Cantor was correct in discerning that Tolkien is an important writer about war.

When The Lord of the Rings became popular in the early 1960s, the baby boom generation naturally connected it with their parents' experiences in World War II and with the Cold War (starring the Ring as the Atom Bomb). Such equations annoyed Tolkien deeply, as he pointed out in his preface to the second edition. Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings during the war and no doubt perceived the 'applicability' (to use his term). It has also been said that the horrors of Mordor and the Scouring of the Shire are reflexions of Nazi Germany or the Communist Soviet Union. However, it is much more likely that they reflect the real presence of both fascism and communism in British (and American) politics before the Second World War. In this Tolkien may be grouped with George Orwell (author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) who responded to what appeared to be a realistic possibility of the development of totalitarianism in Britain.

Tolkien's formative experience was in the First World War, when he himself had fought in the trenches. No short summary can give a sense of the horrors of one of the bloodiest wars in history. For good accounts of the war, try the Trenches web site or the BBC History page. The chapter entitled 'War' in Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien is also good. The First World War had a profound impact on the poetry of the first decades of the twentieth century. It is useful to compare Tolkien's work to the poems of writers like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke. For more information, see Oxford University's excellent Virtual Seminar on World War I Poetry.

Tending the wounded
	of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, 1 July 1916
Tending the wounded of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, 1 July 1916

Tolkien's own experience of the war was profound in a number of ways. He served as a signal officer for the Lancashire Fusiliers and arrived at the front in France in June of 1916. As an officer, Tolkien would have been assigned a batman, servant to take care of his kit. Soldiers had to endure long periods in close contact under dreadful traditions in the trenches, and the comraderie of the trench later influenced Tolkien's writing. As he put it, 'My "Sam Gamgee" is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself'. The Battle of the Somme began on 1July, when British soldiers climbed out of the trenches and advanced towards the enemy line. They had been told that the German defences were destroyed by Allied bombing, but they were not, and German machine guns mowed them down. Tolkien was not there for the initial barrage; his company did not go into action until 14 July, and that was well for him, since twenty thousand Allied troops were killed on the very first day of the battle. When Tolkien arrived, the trenches and surrounding area were littered with mutilated and decaying corpses. The stench was intolerable. We may recognise these sights in the nightmarish vision of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings.

The road to Guillemont,
	August 1916
The road to Guillemont, August 1916

The devastation to the landscape made an equal impact. Grass and corn were destroyed, and the earth became a sea of mud. What trees remained were stripped of their leaves and branches. Here too Tolkien may have seen a vision of Mordor. Tolkien saw battle on several occasions but had managed to remain unhurt until the end of October, when he contracted 'trench fever', a disease carried by lice. He was sent to hospital, and, when the fever did not abate, eventually sent back to Birmingham to convalesce. After he had recovered, he managed to secure a posting in Oxford in order to complete his education. But Tolkien did not escape entirely unscathed. His best friends from his school days, Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith both perished in the war. Their loss was a terrible blow to him, as they were his intellectual comrades in arms. Humphrey Carpenter poignantly titles his chapter on this episode of Tolkien's life 'The Breaking of the Fellowship'.

A second point may derived from Cantor's recognition of Tolkien as a war-writer. War was also a topic frequently described by medieval authors, or, more specifically, battle, and the performance of the hero in battle. Anglo-Saxon and early Scandinavian literature embraced a heroic ethic, one which continued in modified form as chivalry in the later Middle Ages. The heroic values of courage and sacrifice are treated extensively in medieval literature, and these values had never seemed more relevant than in the First World War. But that was a modern war, in which men were mown down by the thousands by machine gun fire or asphyxiated by poison gas, rather than dying gloriously in battle. Tolkien's contribution to our understanding of the Middle Ages may well be in the way he draws attention to the value of medieval notions of heroism in today's society.

A reconstruction of
	the Anglo-Saxon helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial
A reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon helmet from the Sutton Hoo burial


Cultural developments since the end of the Middle Ages had made little impact on the face of the English landscape. The major change was the loss of the great, ancient forests, sacrificed to the building of the largest naval force in the world. But the nineteenth century brought the Industrial Revolution, the building factories, new houses, quarries, and coal mines, as well as new roads and railways cutting through the countryside. Much of the population moved to the urban areas, many which grew as large as London had once been. The changes, encouraged by rapid advances in technology, were not embraced eagerly by everyone. As early as 1812 workers in the textile mills of Leicestershire erupted in violence in protest over their replacement by labour-saving machines. The rioters were called Luddites (named after a farm labourer who had destroyed such machines in the late 1700s), a word which has since become synonymous with opposition to industrial change. Despite such reactions, the pace of change could not be stopped. The English countryside had been largely transformed by the time of Tolkien's birth in 1892, and, although it was still possible in places to experience England as it had once been, these places were rapidly disappearing.

Tolkien has been called by the Los Angeles Times "a neo-Luddite who never owned a car" (19 December 2001). Of course, only an Angeleno could connect not owning a car with Ludditism. In Tolkien's Oxford, nearly everything was within easy reach by bicycle or bus. To add to the irony, the name of the dragon Smaug in Tolkien's The Hobbit is frequently mispronounced by readers as 'smog' (a word which first came into being in 1905, only about 30 years before Tolkien began the book). But the charge has some truth. Tolkien bitterly resented the effect of industrialism on the countryside, as well as on its traditional way of life. This is nowhere more evident than in his representation of the Shire, the culture of which is deliberately evocative of the England of the late 1800s. The chapter on "The Scouring of the Shire" is Tolkien's response to the effect of industrialism and its lifestyle. However, Tolkien's attitude may be detected more subtly in his portrayal of Saruman's Orthanc ('cunning mind'). However, the heavily archaic nature of Tolkien's interests and writing may also be seen as a typically Victorian response to the social and physical changes England underwent as a result of industrialism. For instance, the Gothic style, which represented the high-point of medieval art and architecture, was extensively copied during the nineteenth century, including the famous Houses of Parliament in London. Artists and writers turned to medieval stories for their inspiration, notably Tennyson in his poem "Idylls of the King" and Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones in many of their paintings. The decorative arts were influenced by medieval designs, most notably in the work of William Morris, also a translator of Old Norse sagas. In general, the retreat into archaism typified the arts of the late nineteenth century. The advent of Modernism in the 1920s changed all that, and it is Tolkien's refusal to jump on the bandwagon which has opened him up to criticism.

Wake Green Road — The Dell
Wake Green Road — The Dell

Tolkien's dislike of the effect of industrialisation on the English landscape is particularly worthy of note, evident as it is in his creation of the prehistoric forests of Fangorn, Mirkwood, and the Old Forest. The conflict between the Ents and the Entwives may also be approached from this direction. However, it must be said that the primaeval mountains and forests of Middle-Earth are not representative of the English countryside, either as Tolkien knew it, or as it had once been. These we must attribute to his imagination, though perhaps also to dramatised American landscapes (Tolkien had an boyhood devotion to tales of 'Red Indians'). It is thus perhaps no accident that even Tolkien's worst critics have praised him for his description of landscape, and that the makers of the recent film of the The Lord of the Rings felt that reproducing it was one of their primary responsibilities. Tolkien has also been embraced by the environmental movement since the sixties; in this he may connect with our own turning from industrialism and longing for an older, more 'natural' existence.


The pictures on this web site are taken from a variety of sources. They are intended only for use by this English 495 class and should not be re-distributed more widely. The original graphics can be found in the following sources.