The other day, thanks to +Jeremiah Burns, I read a BBC article on a 98 year old woman whose mother gave her the middle name of 'Somme' in remembrance of the horrific battle in which her father had died some months before she was born. It was a moving piece. The woman, Tiny Somme Gray, said she could not sign her name without thinking of the father she had never known. Her mother did not speak of her husband's death, she told the BBC, or visit the local WWI memorial on which his name was inscribed. But she made certain her daughter went there and would always remember. The depth of her sorrow is clear even now, as is the depth of the love and friendship she must have shared with her husband.
Since we were just reading the first version of the story of Túrin in our class on The Book of Lost Tales, Part II at Mythgard, I was reminded of that story, in which Túrin's father, Húrin, goes off to fight in the battle that came to be known as the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.1 But in addition to a son, Húrin left behind Morwen, his wife who was carrying their child. Since Húrin did not return from the battle and no news of his fate could be learnt, Morwen named their daughter 'Nienor, which is Mourning' (Unfinished Tales, 73).2
Stories like this must have been all too common in WWI. Thousands of children, conceived on a brief visit home or a briefer honeymoon, must have been born to wives who waited in what was most likely stoic dread for the word that their child would be born too late to know its father; or, if these wives were not left pregnant, many of them must have wondered if they would ever have children at all. Among these women was Edith Tolkien, who married Tolkien 99 years ago today, on 22 March 1916, but 'May found [him] crossing the Channel ... for the carnage of the Somme' (Letters, no. 43, p. 53). He was 'a Second Lieut. on 7/6 a day in the infantry where the chances of survival were against you heavily' (Letters, no. 43, p. 53). Their first child, John, was born in November 1917:
She married me in 1916 and John was born in 1917 (conceived and carried during the starvation-year of 1917 and the great U-boat campaign) round about the battle of Cambrai, when the end of the war seemed as far-off as it does now [in 1941].(Letters, no. 43, p. 53)
Even a quarter of a century later everything is seen in terms of the doubt and peril of the war (which seemed to be repeating itself, only worse in March 1941, when England stood entirely alone). What must it have been like for Edith in 1916 and 1917, with letters and telegrams arriving in every town in Britain every day to transform a woman's worst fear into sorrow? I have heard it said that people hated the very sight of the telegram delivery man.
It was a time of horrors that shattered the mirror of complacency in which Europe had long admired itself. Old Poets, like Yeats, felt it in The Second Coming.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And Young Poets felt it more so, men like Siegfried Sassoon, a contemporary of Tolkien, who also served in France and wrote many increasingly bitter poems about the war.
Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
I could easily find and cite a hundred more poems -- not to mention short stories and novels -- that would bludgeon this point home, but the wonder here is that Tolkien did not become lost as so many others of his time did.3 And I at least always hear an echo of the disillusionment and despair that inform these poems in Frodo's words to Sam in Mordor:
'No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star, are left to me now. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.'(RK 6.iii.937-938)
Frodo knew 'the hell where youth and laughter go.' And so, therefore, did Tolkien. Frodo never returned from that dark wood. Sam and Tolkien did. When you read the WWI poets you see the way they feel about England, and how much a part of their affection for their homeland some vision of the English countryside is. This is especially true early on in the war. But if you know your Tolkien, it is clear that his vision is much the same as theirs. His found expression in the Shire.
Because of his faith, because of the stories he began to write down during the war, and probably just as importantly because of his friendship and love with his wife, Edith, who subsequently vanishes from our view into the life of raising her children, and whose presence is lost in the impossible whirlwind of her husband's stories and teaching and better known friendships with C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, Tolkien was able to transform that experience into something greater. And I don't mean something as pseudo-intellectual as 'he transformed his experience into The Lord of the Rings.' No, if anything his writing was a tool for him as much as it was a tale for others. He transformed his experience into a full and round and thoughtful life. And again I do not mean he sat down to write as a form of therapy. That was just a large part of the way he approached the world and understood it.
What do most of us know of Edith? Not much. But if all we know is just one thing, it is that when she died Tolkien had 'Luthien' inscribed on the headstone, to be joined by 'Beren' when he died two years later. He even said at one point in a letter to his son, Christopher, that Edith had provided the inspiration for the Tale of Beren and Luthien (Letters no. 340, pp. 420-421). This is of course all quite romantic and charming. But if all we do is look warmly upon it, and think how sweet it is, we are missing something very important. The relationship of Beren and Luthien changed their world. They were not just lovers in the old or new sense of the word. Through their love and friendship they worked together and accomplished what all the armies of Men and Elves could not; and their love and deeds had an effect that rippled down the ages, and more than once gave birth to hope in darkness. In that respect it is the most important Tale of Middle-Earth, and the Great Tales never do end.
That is what love and friendship, as Tolkien sees them, can do.
We should not neglect where the Tale went in remembering the sweetness of where it came from.
1 British killed and wounded at the Somme between July and November 1916 numbered over 350,000. I have long thought that these casualties, combined with Tolkien's memory of Homer, who said that the destructive wrath of Achilles μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ἔθηκε (Iliad 1.2) -- 'put unnumbered woes on the Achaeans' -- was the inspiration (hardly the proper word for something so grim) for the name 'Unnumbered Tears.' μυρία means 'numberless, countless, infinite.' I would be quite surprised if I were the first to point this out.
2 I take a liberty here, using the more familiar, later forms of the names Húrin, Morwen, and Nienor. In The Book of Lost Tales, Part II they are called Úrin, Mavwin, and Nienóri.
3 For the WWI poets, see Santanu Das, The Cambridge Companion to the Poets of the First World War (2013); Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (2013); Max Egremont, Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew (2014); and John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: On the Threshold of Middle-Earth (2004).