Tolkien News

Tolkien’s War Experiences Explored in Upcoming BBC Radio Documentary

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Tolkien, circled, was sent to France as part of the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Photo copyright: Birmingham Mail.

J. R. R. Tolkien mined his own experience on the front lines during World War I when he created the scenes of terrible battles and heartbreaking loss in The Lord of the Rings. The Birmingham Mail reported on February 23, 2014, that BBC Radio will broadcast a documentary about Tolkien’s early life on Tuesday, February 25. The documentary will look at Tolkien’s experiences including his years as a student at King Edwards School in Birmingham through World War I. The broadcast is one story in a compilation of 1400 stories collected by the BBC to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI. Starting on February 24, people will be able to browse hundreds of these stories online on the World War One at Home project at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww1.

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British infantrymen before an advance during the Battle of the Somme. Photo copyright: Birmingham Mail.

Tolkien formed a close bond with his school friends, Chris Wiseman, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Rob Gilson, the son of King Edwards School headteacher Cary Gilson. The four were inseparable and were considered gifted authors. In their school days, the four would meet to give each other constructive criticism of their work. Calling themselves the Tea Club Barrovian Society, the four young men vowed to become great writers.

But the Great War came, and the world changed. As a fresh Oxford graduate with a First Class degree in literature, Tolkien answered the call to duty in 1914, along with Gilson, Wiseman, and Bache Smith. As a member of the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, Tolkien served in the terrible Battle of the Somme from July to October 1916.  The carnage he witnessed left an indelible mark, and later emerged in the author’s descriptions of the battles of the people of Middle-earth against the tyranny of evil.

By November 1916, Gilson and Bache Smith were dead. Tolkien and Wiseman returned from the front alive, but shocked and deeply distressed by what they had witnessed in the war. Their friendship was shattered by their experience and was never rebuilt.

Pete Morgan will present the story on BBC WM 95.6 in his breakfast show on Tuesday, February 25, at 8:15 AM. You can read the full article in the Birmingham Mail here.

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