'One who dreams alone'

A pale, drawn man sits in a convalescent bed of a wartime hospital. He takes up a school exercise book and writes on its cover, with a calligraphic flourish: 'Tuor and the Exiles of Gondolin'. Then he pauses, lets out a long sigh between the teeth clenched around his pipe, and mutters, 'No, that won't do anymore.' He crosses out the title and writes (without the flourish): 'A Subaltern on the Somme'.

That is not what happened, of course. Tolkien produced a mythology, not a trench memoir. Middle-earth contradicts the prevalent view of literary history, that the Great War finished off the epic and heroic traditions in any serious form. This postscript will argue that despite its unorthodoxy - and quite contrary to its undeserved reputation as escapism - Tolkien's writing reflects the impact of the war; furthermore, that his maverick voice expresses aspects of the war experience neglected by his contemporaries. This is not to say that his mythology was a response to the poetry and prose of his contemporaries, but that they represent widely divergent responses to the same traumatic epoch.

Literature hit a crisis point in 1916, in the assessment of critic Samuel Hynes: 'a "dead spot" at the centre of the war' when 'creative energies seemed to sink to a low point' among British writers. G. B. Smith and his poetry were both languishing on the Somme; 'sheer vacancy is destroying me', he said. A very different writer, Ford Madox Ford, was in a similar rut at Ypres, asking himself 'why I can write nothing - why I cannot even think anything that to myself seems worth thinking'.

John Garth
Tolkien and the Great War
Harper Collins (2003)

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