Tolkien’s WWI Memories in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Directed by Peter Jackson | Action, Adventure, Fantasy | PG-13 | With Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen | New Line Cinema | Runtime: 200 minutes | Box Office: $1.1 billion | Rotten Tomatoes score: 95%


Perhaps the best way to convey meaning to an audience is to weave it throughout an epic tale of monsters, men, and small amazing creatures.


Upon first glance, the events of the World War I and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) have little in common. But upon closer inspection, the story of hobbits, elves, and golden rings alludes to scenes of mud-covered corpses of fallen soldiers, and veterans whose homes are unrecognizable when they return from war, after all the change both the soldiers and home fronts have undergone.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the three Lord of the Rings books, The Hobbit, and other celebrated works, delayed service in World War I so he could complete his English degree at Oxford University. After less than a year of service, he was discharged for trench fever, surviving the Battle of the Somme, a conflict that ended after four months with a death toll of over a million, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Many of his childhood friends were less fortunate. During an interview with BBC, his grandson Simon Tolkien recalled that despite this tremendous burden, “he had left no written record and, like many veterans, he had apparently rarely spoke of his order.”  But that which was never openly expressed can be found in traces in his fictional Middle-earth.

In lengthy and fantastic battle sequences, Jackson uses exotic monsters and weapons to show the fear that many young men experienced after they arrived at the front. As Saruman’s army of orcs attack the white city of Gondor, the orcs launch the corpses of fallen men into the city to spread panic and mayhem, for the same reason that armies released gas into trenches during World War I, a horror that spread deadly poison, but more importantly destroyed the enemy’s morale. By contrasting earlier scenes of a clean, orderly citadel with one whose filthy streets are lined with bodies, Jackson shows the destruction of any comfort once soldiers arrived at the chaotic front.

Those on the homefront―whether it be England, Germany, or the Shire―found it difficult to understand the horrors that soldiers of the battlefield the front experienced. As a result, they could offer little solace to those who suffered from shell shock and post traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives, surrounded by people who could offer little help. The veterans’ silence, along with the fact that most soldiers were too young to have children who would remember when they died, earned them the name “the Lost Generation,” coined by Gertrude Stein. Like many other veterans, Tolkien struggled to readjust to the home and life he left behind. Jackson shows this alienation through Frodo Baggins’s final moments on screen. In many aspects, Frodo Baggins epitomizes their condition through his struggle to remain in his comfortable Hobbit-hole in the Shire. As Frodo sets sail for the Undying Lands at the end of the third film, The Return of the King (2003), a white light shines, implying that he is headed for a better place than the home that can no longer be.

Despite the differences between the collapse of the Eye of Sauron and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, neither erased the damages of war. Tolkien’s message is more discreet than many other authors who wrote of World War I, and it comes across in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of his famous series so subtly that audiences may hardly realize that a moving tribute to the Lost Generation lies behind the story of Middle-earth.