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The Lord of the Rings | Context


World War I and the Military-Industrial Complex

Tolkien fought in the trenches in World War I and witnessed the destruction caused by tanks, flamethrowers, and machine guns, all technologies developed and used during the war. Growing up near Birmingham, an industrial city, he also saw the dirty reality of the Industrial Revolution and its harmful effects on the natural world, including the polluting effects of coal mining.

Tolkien's negative view of industrialization can be easily seen in the actions of the wizard Saruman, who destroys large areas of ancient, beautiful forest as he makes war on the land of Rohan. Love of the unspoiled world is also reflected in the beauty of Rivendell and Lothlórien. This is where Elves, with their deep connection to the natural world, live in harmony with their environment. The hobbits live in the peaceful Shire, where they enjoy peace until Saruman, the representative of destructive industrialization, brings into it his corrupting influence.

Tolkien's Love of Languages

Tolkien had an early affinity for and ability to learn languages. His mother taught him German, Latin, and French. He continued learning German and Latin in school, adding Greek and Middle English to his repertoire; at university, he learned Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. He once participated in a debate in which he spoke entirely in Greek, and his degree from Oxford University focused on philology, the study of language. Using this extensive knowledge, Tolkien invented new languages for Middle-earth, including Quenya, the language of the High Elves, which bears some resemblance to Finnish; The Black Speech, or language of Mordor; and Dwarvish.

Personal Relationships

Tolkien's romance with his wife, Edith, was a cornerstone of his life, and this relationship provided the template for the romance of Beren and Lúthien, mortal man and Elf maiden, described in Tolkien's work The Silmarillion, which forms the backstory of The Lord of the Rings. This mortal–Elf relationship is also reflected in the romance of Aragorn and Arwen. Tolkien described the crucial meeting of Beren and Lúthien, in which he sees her dancing and is smitten, as being inspired by a time when Edith, walking with Tolkien in the woods, danced for him.

Wartime relationships among men also gave rise to important characters and relationships in The Lord of the Rings. In particular, the character of Sam Gamgee was inspired by the many young men from farming families who fought as common soldiers, unlike Tolkien, who was an officer. These soldiers, known as "batmen," would each travel with an officer and take care of that officer—cooking, doing laundry, and carrying supplies. The relationships between officers and their batmen were often quite close and intensely loyal.

Tolkien's relationship with academic peers had an influence on the development of The Lord of the Rings, as well. He actively participated in informal social and literary clubs such as the T.C.B.S. (the Tea Club and Barrovian Society) at King Edward's School and later, the Inklings at Oxford. These meetings gave Tolkien a chance to read aloud parts of The Lord of the Rings and other works he was writing at the time, which were subject to his colleagues' suggestions and critiques. Tolkien said C.S. Lewis helped him finish The Lord of the Rings, saying, "only by [Lewis's] support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end."

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