19 Mar 2019 5:10 PM +00:00 UTC

5 Things You Didn't Know About Tolkien's Service During World War I


At the beginning of March, Fox Searchlight released the first full-length trailer for the upcoming J.R.R. Tolkien biopic, which is appropriately titled, Tolkien.

Starring Nicholas Hoult, the film centers on the formative years of the legendary fantasy author, which includes the time he spent fighting for Britain in World War I prior to crafting such works as The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, while many of us know that Tolkien fought in WWI, not everyone knows a whole lot about the details of his military career.

Of course, the film will surely fill in some of those gaps. In the meantime, though, we here at Epicstream have compiled a list of five things you didn’t know about Tolkien’s service during World War I:

  1. He Deferred His Enlistment

    When World War I began, countless men from not just Britain but from across the globe immediately enlisted in their countries’ respective militaries, but not Tolkien. In fact, his family was quite surprised to learn that, rather than join the British Army, Tolkien delayed his enlistment until after he earned his college degree. It wasn’t until 1915 – a full year after the start of World War I – that Tolkien finally enlisted, at which time he was swiftly placed into the temporary position of second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers.

  2. He Communicated With His Wife in Code

    One of Tolkien’s many accolades is that he created entire languages for his literary works. However, while in the army, he also developed a secret code, comprised of dots, which allowed his wife Edith to track his whereabouts during the war. At the time, the British Army enforced strict postal censorship, so had Tolkien blatantly written out where he was, he would have surely faced disciplinary action. Thanks to his ingenuity, though, he was able to let his wife know his location and give her peace of mind without ever tipping off his superior officers.

  3. He Didn’t Like Being in Charge

    Some people thrive on being in a position of power. For Tolkien, though, it was an unenviable task. In 1916, he was the commanding officer of enlisted, working-class men, and while he felt a connection to them, military protocol prevented him from fraternizing with lower-ranked soldiers. He was even quoted as saying, “The most improper job of any man ... is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

  4. He Suffered From Trench Fever – But It May Have Saved His Life

    It wasn’t just the battles that resulted in casualties during World War I, but the conditions soldiers were forced to live in. Case in point: In 1916, Tolkien came down with a condition known as trench fever, which was an ailment transmitted by body lice that plagued many soldiers during the war. Due to the disease, Tolkien was placed on medical leave and sent back to England, and during this time, a number of his close friends from school were killed in action. In fact, nearly his entire battalion was wiped out and had he not been invalided as a result of the trench fever, he very well may have suffered the same fate.

  5. An Encounter During His Time as Lieutenant Inspired a Key Piece of The Silmarillion

    Arguably the greatest love story in all of Tolkien’s works is that of Beren and Lúthien. Stemming from The Silmarillion, the tale is something akin to that of Aragorn and Arwen – Beren is a mortal human warrior and Lúthien is an immortal Elf Maiden of Doriath. However, had Tolkien not served during World War I, it’s possible their story never would have been told. You see, while serving as a temporary first lieutenant in England, Tolkien and his wife Edith went on a walk in the woods, and Edith began dancing for him in a small clearing. Tolkien credits this encounter as the inspiration for the first meeting between Beren and Lúthien.