On October 21, 1916, J.R.R. Tolkien was at the front with the Lancashire Fusiliers in an underground shelter, very close to the enemy's line. They were waiting for the order to attack and there was absolute silence between the soldiers. In the distance you could hear the noise of the fighting.
Tolkien was in the middle of the battle of the Somme, wondering if he would come out alive from that terrible bloodbath. Fortunately for lovers of literature – and unlike many of his colleagues – Tolkien not only survived the contest, but took many valuable experiences of it, which later transformed into scenes or literary characters of stories located in Middle-earth . Many years later, that moment of tense waiting before the battle found a distant echo in the Abyss of Helm, in one of the truly epic moments of The Lord of the rings, when the troops of the rohirrim they await the dawn and the moment when they must leave their refuge to face the enemy.
There are more examples. Garth tells us that, during the attack the next day, one of the ordinance carrying messages through the German bombing was later decorated for his bravery, and Tolkien himself admitted in one of his letters that the courage of the servants and soldiers The trenches of the trenches made him feel very inferior to them. One of Tolkien's most memorable and beloved characters, Sam Gamyi, was modeled on those men. Another example: when Tolkien and his companions returned from the battle a few days later, they found several tanks crawling to the front. An account in the German press, collected by Garth, described the British tanks (which were used for the first time in 1916) as a mixture between a reptile and a diabolical machine, which spat fire and sowed terror and death in its path. In "The fall of Gondolin", written months later, the forces of Morgoth destroy the legendary Elvish city with the help of "iron dragons", who carry orcs in their entrails.
After his participation in the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien returned from the trenches to recover, afflicted by the fever of the trenches. His country was still intact, but Tolkien's world had changed forever. As a distraction, he began to compile a glossary of the poetic and mythological words of the qenya, one of their invented languages. It may seem a peculiar way of dealing with the confusion and pain of those days, but we can find one of their motivations in the TCBS, the group of friends that had formed around Tolkien in his school days in Birmingham. It was a group of friends, full of creativity, who wanted to change the bland art of the present and "re-ignite an ancient light in the world". The war showed the seriousness of the efforts of some of them. Tolkien received the news of the death of Geoffrey Bache Smith, another member of the group, in December 1916. Shortly before, Smith had written to him: "May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things that I I tried to express a lot of time after I was not there to say them, if that is my destiny ".
Still deeply affected by Smith's death, Tolkien set to work. In the glossary he compiled during the first phase of his convalescence, he named it "Eärendil" first. The name had fascinated him from the moment he found it, two years earlier, in a poem written in old English. The poem, which spoke of the evening star, said: "Hail Earendel, the most luminous of the angels, sent to men on Middle Earth." Now Tolkien set out to discover the lost context in which an angel named Eärendil flew over Middle-earth to help men. The result was "The fall of Gondolin", the first story located in Middle-earth, where many of his life experiences came together, from loneliness and the search for beauty and love, his passion for languages and poetry ancient – and the war that threatened to destroy all that. Tolkien himself would later say that his love of fairy tales (his term for fantastic literature) was awakened by philology and developed entirely by war. It was also a way to honor the memory of his dead friends, and the ideals that had marked his friendship with them.
Both "The Fall of Gondolin" and "Beren and Luthien" (which he wrote shortly after) are stories in which characters of great talents and passions fight against the forces that threaten to destroy the world – and conquer. Tolkien does not avoid suffering, pain and destruction, the death of great friends or the apparent decline of a beautiful ancient civilization, but unlike many contemporary poets and writers offers a way out of confusion and pain, based on the beauty of the natural world, art and the dialogue between death and immortality. True, the tanks he saw in 1916 turned into iron dragons that spit fire and ravaged the city of elves, but there was also room to explain how Tuor escapes from the ruins of Gondolin with his wife Idril and his son Eärendil, and how it takes one of the Silmarils to heaven, lighting a new star that provides hope to the inhabitants of Middle Earth.
"The fall of Gondolin" led to other literary explorations, focused on discovering more details of the world that had taken shape in his mind. In this way, the war marked the beginning of a vast network of legends and stories. "Beren and Lúthien" was his literary interpretation of a moment during his convalescence, when his wife Edith danced for him in a forest near Roos in Yorkshire. Again, it was not just a counterpoint to the "No Man's Land" and the destruction that Tolkien had witnessed at the front; It also helped to delve into the history of the Silmarils, which in turn would end up evoking the entire universe of gods, men, elves and dwarves portrayed in The Silmarillion. And so on.
The image of the "No Man's Land" would return in other Tolkien works. He himself wrote that the Ciénagas de los Muertos owed something to the North of France after the Battle of the Somme, and we can also see features of the same scene in the desolation of Smaug, the dragon of The Hobbit. However, the main contribution of the war in Tolkien's imagination is that it helped him to shape several of his experiences and transform them into literature. He highlighted the fragility of the human being in the face of death, and the suffering that we are capable of inflicting on ourselves with the help of modern technology. Tolkien endorsed the task of taking the legacy of his friends and his own aesthetic convictions to posterity, saving fragments of the past and joining these fragments in a beautiful literary tapestry full of beauty and harmony – unlike what T.S. Eliot in his famous poem "The Baldy Land" – making it accessible to a modern and disenchanted reader in a world that the war had left in ruins.
By Martin Simonson, Tolkien's translator into Spanish.
More information about the biography of Tolkien in the book TOLKIEN AND THE GREAT WAR (John Garth) The mythical author's life is again news thanks to the Fox movie Tolkien, already in theaters.