Tolkien's Desk

I had a chance to see the desk at which J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” It’s on display at the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois.

The world-famous fantasy epic, Lord of the Rings, might never have been written if the author had not come down with a fever.

The author of the trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien, was an officer for the British army during World War I. But when he came down with “trench fever,” he was taken out of the action before his battalion went into battle on May 27, 1918—a terrible battle where nearly all of the battalion’s men were killed or taken prisoner. Therefore, trench fever may very well have saved Tolkien’s life, writes Joseph Laconte in his new book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.

Tolkien, a devout Christian, may have been saved from that particular battle, but he still experienced the brutality of war up close in World War I. These experiences, Laconte says, laid the groundwork for his fantasy story about the wars between orcs and goblins on one side and humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits on the other.

Tolkien had his first experience being under fire while his battalion was in the village of Bouzincourt, about three miles from the front lines. Germans began to bombard the little village, and explosives rained down on them, like the flames of the dragon Smaug when the creature attacked a small village in Tolkien’s book The Hobbit.

According to Laconte, Tolkien said he began planning out the world behind his great fantasy trilogy while he was a soldier in World War I. This fantasy world began to come together while Tolkien was working by “candle light in bell-tents” and even “down in dugouts under shell fire.”

World War I was a confusing war, as nations were drawn into the conflict through a complex web of treaties. The war, which raged from 1914 to 1918, was not as clear-cut as World War II, where nations came together to battle an obvious evil: Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Nevertheless, whatever people might have thought about the war, Tolkien admired the courage of the British soldier. In fact, Laconte says that his admiration for the working-class British men who fought so hard in the face of great slaughter, may have inspired his creation of the humble hobbit.

Laconte quotes a passage from Lord of the Rings, in which Tolkien writes, “I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.”

Hobbits may be small, but they show the “amazing and unexpected heroism” of ordinary men. Tolkien had the same view of the British soldiers around him; they were ordinary men performing extraordinary acts of heroism.

“Ordinary people doing extraordinary things” is a message all of us need to learn as we face our own battles—both flesh-and-blood battles and spiritual battles.

My wife has never been a fan of fantasy stories, so she never saw the appeal of Lord of the Rings. But one week she decided to sit down and watch the three Lord of the Rings movies from a different perspective, and it made all the difference in the world. She decided to view the epic story as a spiritual battle between the forces of darkness and light—not just a battle between dwarves and goblins.

It helped her to appreciate the story for the first time.

We all fight spiritual battles, and we all feel small and ordinary in our lives, no more consequential than a hobbit on a large battlefield. But each of us has an important role to play; we are all like Sam Gamgee, the humblest of hobbits who carried his friend Frodo on his shoulders when Frodo was too weary to go on. Sam Gamgee, a loyal and brave hobbit, was like one of those courageous everyday soldiers in World War I.

Sam went on to play a major role in Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring of Power and stop the evil march of Sauron. In fact, their accomplishment together paved the way for the Return of the King, which is the title of the third book in the trilogy.

We too serve a King, who will someday return. And we all have a part to play in the great battles in life. As Tolkien makes clear in Lord of the Rings, sometimes these great battles choose us; we don’t go out looking for them, any more than those ordinary British soldiers went looking for battle in the early part of the Twentieth Century.

The question is: How will we respond when the battles come down on us?

But I call upon God; and the Lord will save me…He will deliver my soul in safety from the battle that I wage, for many are arrayed against me.” (Psalm 55:16, 18)

By Doug Peterson

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