How J R R Tolkien remembered the Somme

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Today is the centenary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, infamous for slaughter on an unimaginable scale.

JRR Tolkien, creator of Real Middle-Earth and much loved books like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was there.

Scrape your fingers along your greasy scalp,

pick out scabs, bits of lice with your nails.

You are a signal officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers

and your wife of 4 months, Edith,

sings and dances across the Channel

from the blood and death and mud

which is the Somme.

A shell-broken man bleeds on a stretcher,

gestures, gargles: you understand

and take his locket from around his neck.

The weight of words press full on you,

even when they are not words, just wet sounds.

It’s difficult to sleep; when you do,

you dream of a mariner

blown so far into the endless ocean

he’s accepted death. But he does not die:

he’s pulled off the deck of his ship,

taught, by beautiful natives of an alien isle,


A week after your battalion gets shredded on the wire

you interrogate a captured German officer,

map out enemy locations.

He accepts your offered water,

corrects your pronunciation,

suggests red ink for the man-traps.

In twenty years you will argue Beowulf

is not a pagan fragment or a poor allegory

but is a poem of lights opposing outer-darkness

where a man struggles against the beast

again and again and again

and is overwhelmed.

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