J.R.R. Tolkien’s Trench Fever and “The Hobbit”

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Generations of readers (and now moviegoers) have fallen in love with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  The novel — which is properly titled The Hobbit, or There and Back Again — tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, an unlikely hero uprooted from his home to fight a war in a desolate landscape.  What many people don’t know is that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (born in S. Africa in 1892), based at least some of the book on his experiences as a soldier in WWI’s Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme is famous due largely to the staggering number of casualties over its four-month course. 58,000 British troops died on the first day of the battle — July 1, 1916 — alone.  The engagement would eventually claim the lives of some 420,000 English, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German soliders.  Tolkien himself lost two of his closest friends during the conflict.

Tolkien enlisted in 1915 as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and spent four months in the trenches.  At that point he fell victim to the typhus-like condition known as “trench fever” and returned to England.  He spent the rest of the war in hospital or home service camps, where he eventually recovered sufficiently to be promoted to lieutenant.

Although Tolkien had conceived of the idea for The Hobbit before enlisting, his wartime experiences deeply affected its final form.  Tolkien’s attitude toward war is perhaps best reflected in the words of The Hobbit’s protagonist, Bilbo Baggins.  After the Battle of the Five Armies has finally been won, Baggins proclaims:

“Victory after all, I suppose! Well, it seems a very gloomy business.”

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