One of the most epic tales in modern literature, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” has enthralled readers for nearly 60 years with triumphant themes of courage and friendship but also destruction and war.
While Tolkien always denied direct parallels to history, his early life and experiences during both World Wars greatly influenced his writing, inspiring an intense love of nature and a deep distrust of that which destroys it — industry and war.
In its Beyond The Movie series, National Geographic explored Tolkien’s influences, speaking to scholars as well as those who knew him personally. We broke out the highlights.
His childhood in a rural community, shown below, played a critical role in developing not only Tolkien's love of nature but also his sense of responsibility for protecting it.
Here, a young Tolkien explores the village. 'Sarehole is a great place for adventures,' Chris Upton, a Tolkien historian said.
'There's the mill ... where Tolkien and his brother climbed over to annoy the miller and found out what was going on.' Every year, the village hosts a Middle Earth Weekend in that spot.
'The Hobbits are actually quite close to the people that Tolkien grew up with as a child,' Alan Lee, one of the film's conceptual designers, said.
Look familiar? 'I think landscapes have a powerful effect on any writer. You can see quite close connections between, say the Sarehole area, and what comes out in the books,' Upton said.
The tentacles of industry had spread to Sarehole. England's industrial revolution peaked a year earlier, destroying much of the countryside.
'All the time that Tolkien was here, I think he was aware the city was getting closer .... We can see many of the great contrasts in 'Lord of the Rings' -- the great contrast between the green of The Shire and the black beyond it,' Upton said.
By 1915, Tolkien (shown fourth from the right) and most of his classmates at Oxford went off to war. He arrived at the front lines, his first assignment, in June 1916.
Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, shown below in a battalion that fought during the Battle of the Somme -- the bloodiest battle in British military history.
By the end of the first day, 38,000 British soldiers had been wounded and 19,000 killed. Patty King, shown below, served with Tolkien as a Fusilier. Infantrymen would be lucky to survive six weeks, he said.
'The front line was a terrible scar running across green, rural, hilly fields. It was a scar composed of mud and blood and blast chalk,' Tolkien scholar John Garth said.
Tolkien's battalion found itself pitted against the new titans of the war industry -- tanks, poison gas, and machine guns.
Even the war-torn sky inspired Tolkien. 'At night, everything around them apart from the sky would disappear. They would advance toward this terrible noise,' Garth said.
One byproduct of war particularly struck Tolkien: the dissolution of class boundaries. 'Officers were selected from men who had been to university, men like Tolkien. The infantry ... were ordinary blokes. In the case of Tolkien's battalion, they were miners and weavers from Lancashire,' Tolkien scholar John Garth said.
The same contrast exists in 'Lord of the Rings' between Frodo and Sam. 'Frodo is a well-to-do, educated, middle class Hobbit, while Sam is his gardener. He's a country-lad, effectively. Whatever bond there is between them is a reflection, as Tolkien said, of whatever bond he saw between officers and ordinary men,' Garth said.
'Some of the very earliest writings Tolkien did of Middle Earth were done with a notebook and pen while he was in the trenches, in the first World War. And that's where Middle Earth was born,' Jackson said.
Many speculate World War II also profoundly impacted Tolkien's writing. In 1939, the same year Germany invaded Poland, Tolkien began a manuscript he titled, 'Lord of the Rings.' His son Christopher served in Britain's army.
'It's clearly articulated by Tolkien himself, about the war, when he said that often small people, ordinary people are called upon to manifest acts of indomitable courage,' Jane Chance, professor at Rice University, said.
'The war is a factor. His imagination was his own, of course, but there was this background of something very much stronger, more sinister, more dangerous, which you get in the book,' Rayner said.
Obvious similarities exist between Saruman -- a wizard who creates an Orc army from blood and iron -- and Adolf Hitler.
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