World War I represented everything Tolkien hated, Nancy Marie Ott notes — the destruction of nature, the deadly application of technology, the abuse and corruption of authority, and the triumph of industrialization — and this colored his own image of the War of the Rings:
The parallels between the landscapes of No-Man’s Land and Tolkien’s landscapes of nightmare are striking. Mordor is a dry, gasping land pocked by pits that are very much like shell craters. Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins even hide in one of these pits when escaping from an Orc band, much as a soldier might have hidden in a shell hole while trying to evade an enemy patrol. Like No-Man’s Land, Mordor is empty of all life except the soldiers of the Enemy. Almost nothing grows there or lives there. The natural world has been almost annihilated by Sauron’s power, much as modern weaponry almost annihilated the natural world on the Western Front.
The desolation before the gates of Mordor is another savage landscape inspired by the Western Front. It is full of pits and heaps of torn earth and ash, some with an oily sump at the bottom. It is the product of centuries of destructive activity by Sauron’s slaves, a destruction that Tolkien stated would endure long after Sauron was vanquished.
Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-lands, more loathsome by far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes.… Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails on the lands about.
— The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 2: “The Passage of the Marshes”
The sickly white and grey mud mentioned in this passage is very like the terrain of No-Man’s Land on the Somme, where the underlying chalk bedrock was churned up by artillery bombardment and turned the ground grey and white.
The landscape of the Dead Marshes is also inspired by the Western Front. As Frodo, Sam, and their guide Gollum cross the Marshes, they see the ghostly, rotting forms of the dead soldiers of a war that had swept across the region thousands of years before. As Frodo tells Sam and Gollum,
“They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, with weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.”
— “The Passage of the Marshes”, The Two Towers
The dead lying in pools of mud is a powerful image of trench warfare on the Western Front, and is something that Tolkien would have undoubtably seen during his wartime service. As the autumn rains fell, the battlefield of the Somme turned into a stinking mire seeded with the rotting corpses of men and animals. The dead men that Frodo and Sam see are not physically present — only their ghostly shapes have been preserved — but their forms inspire horror and pity.
The landscape of Ithilien is in some ways like the landscape of rural France in the area behind the front lines. Although there is evidence of the nearby conflict — a few damaged buildings, some shell craters, and the general debris of war — the landscape is otherwise natural and unspoiled. It has not fallen fully under the dominion of war. So too is Ithilien, the deserted province of Gondor that had recently fallen under the dominion of Sauron. Although Sauron’s Orcs have been at work, Ithilien retains some of its natural beauty. Sam and Frodo’s feelings rise when they reach Ithilien, much as the spirits of soldiers rose when they were relieved of their tours in the trenches and could return to the comforts of the rear areas.
Another similarity between Ithilien and the rear areas in France is their close proximity to areas of deadly danger — either to the front or to the frontiers of Mordor. Behind the lines, the sounds of the bombardment were never far off. On the horizon the flashes of gunfire and the smoke and dust thrown up by the explosions might appear like a mountainous wall — similar to how Sam and Frodo see Mount Doom erupting in the lands beyond the Mountains of Shadow.
Sam and Frodo’s relationship harks back to Tolkien’s war-time experience, too:
Tolkien had a great deal of respect for the privates and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) with whom he served in France. Officers did not make friends among the enlisted men, of course; the system did not allow it and there was a wide gulf of class differences between them. Officers generally came from the upper and middle classes; enlisted men usually came from the lower classes. However, each officer was assigned a batman — a servant who looked after his belongings and took care of him.
Tolkien got to know several of his batmen very well. These men and other men in Tolkien’s battalion served as inspiration for the character Sam Gamgee. As Tolkien later wrote, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.” Sam represents the courage, endurance and steadfastness of the British soldier, as well as his limited imagination and parochial viewpoint. Sam is stubbornly optimistic and refuses to give up, even when things seem hopeless. Indeed, the resiliency of Hobbits in general, their love of comfort, their sometimes hidden courage, and their conservative outlook owe much to Tolkien’s view of ordinary enlisted men. These traits enabled British soldiers not only to survive their tours of duty on the terrible battlefields of France, but to bravely attack and counter-attack the Germans.
The officer/batman paradigm also describes some aspects of Sam and Frodo’s relationship. It is clearly not a formal one in a military sense, but it goes beyond that of an ordinary, civilian master and servant. Their relationship encompasses the closeness of soldiers who have been in combat together and who have depended on their comrades for their lives. Sam is steadfastly loyal to Frodo. He looks after Frodo’s physical comfort — cooking, fetching water, and so forth — and helps Frodo on his quest as much as he possibly can, even carrying him up the slopes of Mount Doom when Frodo’s strength gives out. He loves Frodo although he does not completely understand him. Sam also defends Frodo from danger when he is attacked by Shelob and rescues him from the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Sam and Frodo had been through terror and were tested against the lure of the Ring together, and were closer than a master-servant relationship would imply.
The Lord of the Rings is about the passing of an age:
Most of Europe had known peace for over a generation before 1914. Europeans had made great strides in the sciences and the arts. Socialists preached the brotherhood of the working classes. Progress was considered to be proper and inevitable. Exciting new technologies would bring great benefit to people. World War I saw the destruction of this world. European society was wrenched into new patters as the war grew bloodier and the entire population became involved in the war effort. After the war, Europe never returned to what it was before. Science and technology had proved to be easily misused in the cause of war. Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had fallen, their leaders unforgiven by the citizenry whose sons had been fed to the Moloch of the industrialized battlefield. Much that was beautiful in Europe lay in ruins. Millions of young men who would have contributed much to society were dead or maimed, their families and communities overwhelmed at dealing with this trauma. Noncombatants everywhere had suffered greatly. There was personal grief at the deaths of loved ones, and grief at the death of a way of life. In many ways, the new Modern age seemed a lesser one.
The Lord of the Rings is suffused with a similar sense of grief and sorrow. It too is about the end of an era. The age of the Elves is finished and the time of the dominion of Men is at hand. After the War of the Ring, the last of the Noldor or High Elves return across the sundering seas to the Blessed Land of Valinor. The passing of the High Elves represents the loss of the highest traits of humanity: artistry, craftsmanship, nobility, splendor. All outcomes of the war are fraught with sorrow. If the One Ring is found, Sauron wins and will cover Middle-earth in a new darkness. If the One Ring is destroyed, Sauron is vanquished but the Elves will suffer great loss. Though necessary to defeat evil, the destruction of the One Ring will cause the three Elven Rings to fail because their power is based on it. As Galadriel says to Frodo,
“Do you not see how your coming to us is as the footsteps of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away.”
— “The Mirror of Galadriel,” The Fellowship of the Ring
After Sauron’s defeat, the Elves will fade and pass into the West, the Dwarves will eventually dwindle, and much knowledge and beauty will be lost. Aragorn as King of Gondor will be left holding the pieces in an attempt to preserve what he can of the era that has ended and pave the way for the coming dominance of Men in Middle-earth. There is grief at the passing of the Elves and grief at the end of a way of life that had existed for thousands of years. The new Fourth Age of Middle-earth will be a lesser one.