J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most important British writers of the 20th century. And he managed this as an eccentric amateur. A professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien’s first love was languages, and his creation of Middle Earth was in part an excuse to find a place for languages he had invented from scratch. But if The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were simply academic oddities, they would have none of the fame they do today. They delve deeply into Tolkien’s past, and especially his experiences in the trenches of the First World War, where almost all his best friends lost their lives. They also demonstrate Tolkien’s profound — and correct — fear that the 20th century would become a bloodbath.
First World War
The First World War suffuses Tolkien’s work. He was 22 when it broke out, and by 1916 he was on the front line at the Battle of the Somme. The “dead marshes”, the site of an ancient battle through which Frodo, Sam and Gollum pass, is a direct allegory of the war on the Western Front. It was during his time in hospital after catching trench fever that Tolkien first started to dream up his fantasy world.
Huge crowds flock to WW1 Remembrance artwork
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Somme ‘nightmare’: debate rages 100 years on
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Battle rages over meaning of first world war
As Europe prepares to commemorate the ‘Great War’, disputes have grown about how to interpret the conflict: is the row unseemly, or a valuable debate about history’s meaning?
The One Ring, and the other rings of power, represent the corrupting ability of power. The race of men are most susceptible to its influence, but even the wizards are not immune. Gandalf refuses to carry the ring when Frodo offers it to him, while his counterpart Saruman is entranced by the ring’s power and joins forces with Sauron because of it.
Stars speak up about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse
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World’s most powerful cyber weapon is discovered
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Clinton poised to be most powerful woman ever
In a few months, Hillary Rodham Clinton could be elected to the highest office of the USA — and, by extension, the world. Would that make her the most powerful woman ever in history?
Good and evil
The Lord of the Rings is a classic struggle between good and evil. This universal theme is obvious as Frodo seeks to destroy evil, and evil seeks to destroy Frodo. But while the overarching storyline is simply good versus evil, there are also characters whose very selves are split between the two, such as Gollum, Boromir and Denethor. And like all good novels, no character is flawless.
War crimes revealed in Syria’s largest city
Amnesty reports that civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo are being bombed, targeted and tortured in the country’s civil war. Is all this the result of some individuals’ evil nature?
Murder ‘superstar’ Charles Manson dies at 83
What made Charles Manson so evil? He never killed anyone himself, but the murders he ordered earned him unrivalled notoriety. Are masterminds like him worse than those who do their bidding?
Halloween fun trivialises evil, say Christians
But does it? For most of us, Halloween is a time of fun and fancy dress, but the Church of England says it is an “uneasy celebration of the dark side of life”. Is something sinister going on?
Tolkien was a profound technophobe. His conservative nature and beliefs can be seen throughout his works, especially in his depiction of The Shire, which is an allegory of pre-industrial rural England. The chapter named “The Scouring of the Shire” sees the industrial technology imported by Saruman as an evil threat to replace the traditional crafts of the hobbits.
Welcome to the future: air taxis and robodogs
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The future: godlike elites and useless masses
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Robots threaten 15m UK jobs, warns Carney
The governor of the Bank of England has said automation could soon leave half of Britain’s workforce unemployed. A portent of a dire future? Or could a world without work be liberating?
Tolkien’s works have many Christ-like figures. Gandalf’s return to life closely mirrors the resurrection of Jesus. And like Jesus, who carried his cross for the sins of mankind, Frodo carried a burden of evil on behalf of the whole world. Another Christian theme found in Tolkien’s works is the redemptive nature of suffering, apparent in the dreadful ordeal of Sam and Frodo in Mordor.
‘No resurrection’, say one in four Christians
As Easter weekend arrives, a survey has found that a quarter of British Christians do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Does this matter? Or is religion all symbolic anyway?
‘Beginning of the end’ for Western religion
Should we care that organised religion is dying out in Western societies? A survey published earlier this week revealed that levels of religious belief in Britain are at an all-time-low.
Reformation still divisive, 500 years on
Was the Reformation a mistake? Forget Halloween — tomorrow marks 500 years since one of the biggest events in history: Martin Luther triggering the split between Catholics and Protestants.