How WWI inspired The Lord of the Rings

No Man's Land by Simon Tolkien
PHOTO: HarperCollins

For the 125th anniversary of his birth, Simon Tolkien describes how the Great War lives on in JRR Tolkien's stories.

My grandfather, JRR Tolkien, died when I was 14. He remains vivid to me but through child-like impressions - velvet waistcoats and pipe smoke; word games played on rainy afternoons in the lounge of a seaside hotel or standing on the windy beach down below, skipping flat black pebbles out across the grey waves; a box of matches that he had thrown up in the air to amuse me, rising and falling as if in slow motion through the branches of a horse chestnut tree.

These memories did nothing to illuminate who my grandfather was or how he thought beyond a sense of wise benevolence arching over me like that tree.

Nothing except for his religion: I remember the emotion in his voice when he recited prayers with me in the evening - not just the Hail Mary and the Our Father but others too - and the embarrassment I felt at church on Sundays when he insisted on kneeling while everyone else stood, and loudly uttering responses in Latin when everyone else spoke in English.

There was a clue here to his personality: an impressive confidence in his own opinions and a steely self-belief that had nothing to do with the avuncular, affectionate grandfather that I knew.

I was too young of course to wonder then about how he reconciled the pantheistic world that he had created with his own fervent Christianity.

Later I came to realise that my grandfather was not just the author of The Lord of the Rings but also an intellectual giant, who spoke and read numerous languages and was a world-renowned expert in his chosen field.

My father has devoted himself tirelessly to editing my grandfather's unpublished writing for publication in the 43 years since his death and this has so far run to more than 20 books.

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