Belo Horizonte, Brazil on August 10, 2014 :
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
These lines were written by an expert on holes in the ground since he had spent a considerable amount of time in them during the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien had been a reluctant soldier very to the chagrin of his family that had rather seen him volunteer immediately than to enlist in a program that delayed recruitment until after he finished his degree in July 1915. The holes he got acquainted with as a Second Lieutenant in WWI France were no hobbit holes, but filled with lice and drenched with blood and death.
Tolkien’s battalion was almost completely wiped out. Had one of the lice not given him trench fever that led to his evacuation to England in November 1916 where he spent the remainder of the war at the home front or in hospitals, Tolkien might have been very well killed himself – well before The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and even well before his work at the Oxford English Dictionary in which he researched the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter w like walrus.
In his later years he stated that it was this experience and not World War II that is reflected in his work:
“One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Tolkien was by far not the only writer, poet or illustrator to be drawn into this war. His later friend C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and other stories, also served at the Somme though later. A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard fought in the Great War before they gifted us with Winny the Pooh. F. Scott Fitzgerald came to the European battlefields with the US Army. The Canadian John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields while fighting with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the second battle of Ypres…
When I compiled a list of artists, composers, writers, poets, and illustrators who were combatants I gave up after filling two pages with name after name. And these were only those who lived to grow into their talent or had had time to leave us a glimpse into what they could have been before they died. I wonder, considering all we put at stack every time we fight, that out of this reason alone we don’t stop and look for better ways to solve our problems. We could use all the brainpower and creativity we safe.
My thanks go out to Raquel and her whole family, who endured for over two month my question whether the From Berlin With Love bags finally arrived (longest any of the letters took) and then shared them with her community.