Thousands in France today are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, a five-month siege during World War I that left more than 1 million men killed or wounded, reports the BBC. One of those who served was a 24-year-old Brit named JRR Tolkien, writes history professor Joseph Loconte in the New York Times. And "though the debt is largely overlooked, Tolkien’s supreme literary achievement, The Lord of the Rings, owes a great deal to his experience at the Somme." Amid the carnage, at times even under shell fire, Tolkien began writing the first drafts of his trilogy about Middle-earth, and Loconte says the influence is unmistakable.
"The descriptions of battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings seem lifted from the grim memories of the trenches: the relentless artillery bombardment, the whiff of mustard gas, the bodies of dead soldiers discovered in craters of mud," he writes. In later years, Tolkien acknowledged that the war, and Somme in particular, shaped his story as he wrote about the dangers of power and the ability of good to triumph over evil. "Tolkien used the language of myth not to escape the world, but to reveal a mythic and heroic quality in the world as we find it," writes Loconte. "Perhaps this was the greatest tribute he could pay to the fallen of the Somme." Click for the full column. (Read more JRR Tolkien stories.)