France Confers Citizenship, Conscription

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 206th installment in the series.

October 19, 1915: France Confers Citizenship, Conscription 

Following Napoleon’s abortive invasion of Egypt in 1798-1801, the French conquest of Algeria from 1830-1847 marked the beginning of a long-term expansion in North and Central Africa, creating a trans-Saharan empire that eventually encompassed the modern countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, French Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Benin, (acquired from Germany in the First World War), Gabon and the Republic of Congo. These African possessions were the centerpiece of a global empire extending to include Indochina, Madagascar, Pondicherry in India, French Guiana, Syria, and island territories in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 

Student Handouts,Click to enlarge 

Like other European colonial empires during this period, the French Empire was justified by an essentially racist ideology, holding the non-European inhabitants of Africa and Asia inferior to their white rulers, but also with frequent references to France’s “civilizing” mission and the need to spread (Catholic) Christianity. These apparently complementary justifications actually hid a basic contradiction: if the non-white subjects embraced “civilization” and succeeded in becoming fully French in language and culture, did they also become equals entitled to French citizenship and legal rights? 

For most of the empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries the question was moot, either because the subject peoples in question failed to assimilate French language and culture, as in Indochina, or because they were engaged in active resistance to French rule, like the Berber tribes of Morocco (or both). However there was one region where the latent contradiction became a real dilemma: Senegal. 

The French presence in Senegal dated back to the early days of the colonial project: the first French colony in Senegal, the trading port of Saint-Louis, was established in 1659, followed by the conquest of the nearby island of Gorée from the Dutch in 1677. French control was limited to the coastal areas of Senegal until the mid-19th century, when French merchants and colonists began pushing inland along the Senegal River, establishing trading outposts and plantations, soon followed by a French military presence. 

As the colonial administration expanded inwards, French educators and missionaries established schools serving the native inhabitants of the four original European settlements on the coast—the “Four Communes” of Saint-Louis, Dakar, Gorée, and Rufisque—who subsequently assimilated many elements of French culture, including French language, literature, clothing and food (and to a lesser degree Catholicism, as a large number remained Muslim and lived under Islamic law, rather than the French civil code). 

These Francophone coastal populations, known as the “originaires” (originals or natives), in effect became the Senegalese native elite, dominating trade and political relations with the less acculturated ethnic and tribal groups of the interior, principally the Wolof, Fula, and Serer. This was probably no mistake: like the British, the French were close observers of ethnic and regional dynamics and made adroit use of “divide and conquer” tactics to exploit historical differences between their colonial subjects.

Following the liberal revolution of 1848, when the new Second Republic replaced the monarchy of Louis Philippe I, the new French Parliament conferred French citizenship on the originaires in recognition of their acculturation, with the right to elect a representative to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. But the legal rights were contingent on various factors, including whether they choose to keep their personal status under Islamic law or submitted to the French civil code, leaving it ambiguous whether they had full citizenship or some kind of second-class version. Meanwhile the extension of voting rights proved fleeting: just four years later, prince Louis Napoleon overthrew the Second Republic, established the Second Empire, and revoked the Africans’ right to elect a representative. 

The right to elect a representative was restored after the fall of Louis Napoleon and the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871. Unsurprisingly a succession of Senegalese representatives pushed for clarification of the originaires’ citizenship status—but in the decades to come this inconvenient issue was mostly ignored by fellow legislators distracted by much more pressing concerns closer to home, including the upheavals of the Dreyfus Affair and the bitter anti-clerical campaign waged by Republican secularists against the Catholic Church. 

The outbreak of war, and the resulting need for new sources of manpower, offered a golden opportunity to finally obtain full citizenship. Leading the push was the Senegalese representative, Blaise Diagne (below), who offered his colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies a deal: if they conferred full citizenship on all originaires—including those who chose to retain their personal status under Islamic law—the originaires would submit to conscription into the French Army, as required of all male citizens. 

On October 19, 1915 the Chamber of Deputies passed the first of the “Blaise Diagne Laws,” confirming the military obligations of the originaires, followed shortly afterwards by a second law conferring full French citizenship. Diagne was later appointed governor general of military recruitment in French West Africa, and eventually enlisted around 60,000 Senegalese troops in the French Army, mostly for service on the Western Front. Altogether over 160,000 African troops served on the Western Front during the war, with thousands more serving in Salonika and the Middle East. 

Needless to say, not all originaires were enthusiastic about the idea of serving in the French Army—and this was even more true for the inhabitants of the interior, who didn’t receive citizenship but were often coerced into joining the army “voluntarily” anyway, where they received less pay, lived in rudimentary lodgings, and had no chance of promotion above non-commissioned rank. Either way, as Yorow Diaw, a Senegalese enlistee put it, it was “never good for someone to tell you to ‘come and die.’” 

Another Senegalese soldier, Biram Mbodji Tine, described the coercive measures used by recruiters who visited his rural village: “Many of the young men fled from the village… [But] they used to arrest their fathers [if] they [did not] come back… And often they used to go and enter the army [so that] their fathers [would be] released.” Similarly another conscript, Souan Gor Diatta, recalled: 

When the Tubabs [whites] first came… there was resistance. But the people of the village only had very old rifles—you had to put powder in them and a ball—“muskets.” But they took their muskets to fight with the Tubabs. But when they began to fight—when… they saw that the Tubabs had very modern rifles—they decided to run away. But some of them were killed before they ran. 

As this memory of armed resistance suggests, coercion extended to physical violence in many cases. According to another recruit, if conscripts tried to escape the whites or their native assistants would “beat you so severely that you would never try to escape again.”

However as in every other population affected by the war, there was a range of opinion, and some young West African men went willingly, hoping to secure their social status at home, expand their horizons, or simply have an adventure. Of course, this could bring them into conflict with parents and family members who distrusted Europeans and feared, with ample justification, that they would never see them again. Another soldier from nearby French Guinea, Kande Kamara, remembered his disagreement with his father over his decision to join up: 

When I arrived home, no one was to be found there, only old people and women. Everybody was in the bush, in the valleys and in the mountains. The only time they would come into town was in the middle of a dark night. I secretly packed all my clothes except for what I was wearing and sneakily brought them to my father’s house, because I had already made up my mind to go into the army, even though all of my family was against it. My father told me to go into hiding in the bush… I disobeyed my father, for he thought it was stupid and ridiculous to go to a war I didn’t understand and to fight in another country… I felt that, as one of the elder children of a chief, it was one of my responsibilities to go to war, if [the white people] needed us… He knew he couldn’t be angry, since he’d be angry at the white man.

As this comment indicates, many of the Africans soldiers had no idea what the war was about—which put them in the same boat as many of the rank and file white soldiers fighting alongside them. Kamara recalled the attitudes of colonial troops serving on the Western Front:

We black Africans were very sorrowful about the white man’s war. There was never any soldier in the camp who knew why we were fighting. There was no time to think about it. I didn’t really care who was right—whether it was the French or the Germans—I went to fight with the French army and that was all I knew. The reason for war was never disclosed to any soldier. They didn’t tell us how they got into the war. We just fought and fought until we got exhausted and died. 

In the same vein another Senegalese recruit remarked: “The men who took us to France to fight knew the reasons they were fighting, but we only knew that we had to fight for them. That was the only thing I knew. Personally I was never told the reasons [for the war].”

Even before they arrived at the front, African soldiers underwent a huge transition simply by traveling to Europe. As their elders feared, exposure to new ways of life often loosened their connections with their own culture. Another Senegalese soldier, Demba Mboup, described the culture shock experienced by young men who found themselves suddenly removed from a traditional tribal system based on strict hierarchical divisions, and immersed in a modern, urban, and (at least formally) egalitarian society:

We all joined the same army—the French army… So we did not think about our [previous] way of living, our behavior, our [former] kingdoms. We were bound to follow the French regulations and their way of thinking about all things… There wasn’t any [social] differentiation [with regard to slaves] because we were following another system—another [way of] life—which was the French one. 

Unsurprisingly in an era of endemic racism, the African recruits encountered prejudice and bigotry on a daily basis, beginning in some cases on the long, frightening ocean journey to France, when some white officers and sailors abused their passengers. Here Mboup remembered:

We [sailed from Dakar] on a boat called L’Afrique on May 9, 1916. There was a French soldier with us… [who] was a very very bad man… this French officer said that all the soldiers had to go downstairs—deep inside the ship. And we [were confined for] the [next] six days in the bottom [of the boat near] the keel. [And] we suffered a lot in the bottom of the ship because there was no air. 

However, unlike the Jim Crow regime in the United States, in metropolitan France racism wasn’t enshrined at the institutional level and there were at least some avenues for official redress, as Mboup discovered on arrival. When the ship arrived in France Blaise Diagne greeted the recruits and, hearing about the abuse, had the officer arrested—amazing the Senegalese soldiers, who had never seen a black man assert authority over a white man. 

As this story indicates the recruits definitely faced personal racism, but didn’t necessarily find the situation hopeless, as the authorities—aware that educated recruits would talk about their treatment in letters home, possibly affecting future recruiting efforts—did their best to curb the more egregious outbursts. Meanwhile at least some prejudiced attitudes were simply the result of unfamiliarity with foreigners on the part of ordinary French people, which could change over time. The story told by the Senegalese soldier Ndiaga Niang showed that bigotry was by no means entrenched (and also gives some idea of the rough and tumble life at the front): 

So on this day, I took my cup and I wanted to make “cheers” with a French soldier who was sitting next to me. So I made the “cheers,” [but] the soldier said to me, “don’t touch my cup, you are too dirty!” And [this made] me very angry. [So] I punched him and we began to fight. And when they went to get the captain, the captain told me that I was right, and he told the French soldier that he would be punished. But afterwards, I became very friendly with this same soldier.

Other African soldiers described receiving a warm welcome from French people who were grateful for their service and sympathetic to the psychological impact of leaving their homeland to fight in a strange, faraway country. As with other soldiers suffering from social isolation, friendly families would often “adopt” soldiers, who for their part were very grateful for the taste of home life, helping alleviate homesickness to at least some degree. On that note Mamadou Djigo recalled:

I had a very good [French] friend—his name was Perout… I was his only African friend, [but] we spent a lot of time together. [And] I often went to his house [when on leave]. He invited me… for lunch, or dinner, and sometimes I spent the night… And when his [family] came to visit him, they kissed me before they kissed him—his father, his mother, and his sisters. 

Again like many of their European comrades, some Senegalese recruits formed connections with “marraines de guerre,” or “war godmothers”—Frenchwomen of various ages who took responsibility for the wellbeing of a soldier at the front, sending food, clothing, tobacco, candy, and other necessities along with letters and photos of themselves. Human nature being what it is, inevitably some of these relationships went further, despite efforts by the French authorities to prevent African troops from sleeping with French women (and indeed to keep all troops, regardless of color, separate from “good” civilian women, directing them to official brothels instead). According to Kamara, 

There were some white women who had mattresses and beds and invited you to their bedrooms. In fact they tried to keep you there. They gave you clothes, money and everything. When the inspector came, he never saw you, because you were hiding under the bed or under the bed covers of that beautiful lady. That’s how some soldiers got left behind. None of them went back to Africa. 

Another Senegalese soldier, Mbaye Khary Diagne, provided a somewhat less sensational perspective:

The African soldiers in France had their marraines de guerre too. They were not prostitutes. They were girls of good families who saw us and knew that we were [far from] our countries. [And they realized] we needed some affection and some money… to buy cigarettes with, to go to the movies, and so on. [And we met them] on the streets or in cafes. A French girl saw you and felt very pleased by [your appearance]. And she said to you that she wanted to take you to her house to present you to her parents. And you got [an adopted] French family in that way. [But] it wasn’t necessary to have love affairs [with them]. From time to time some marraines de guerre fell in love with the soldiers they invited home. But generally, they were only friendly relations. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

The 15 Best TV Series Finales of All Time

Ursula Coyote, AMC
Ursula Coyote, AMC

What makes a great TV series finale? It depends on the show, of course. But no matter what series you may be watching, you want a finale that ties up loose ends without being annoyingly completist, gives you heart without seeming overly sentimental, and of course makes you feel just as happy, sad, thrilled, or compelled as you did with each previous episode. It’s a very tricky needle to thread, and some series have undoubtedly done it better than others.

In celebration of what it takes to deliver a great final episode, here are (some of) the greatest series finales of all time.

1. The Sopranos // “Made In America”

“Made In America” is, infamously, the episode of television that made millions of viewers briefly think that their cable had just gone out at some crucial moment, when in reality what happened was creator David Chase simply decided one seemingly random moment was the exact second where Tony Soprano’s journey would end. The series finale of The Sopranos spent the better part of its runtime wrapping up a mob war that crippled the family, and then devoted its final minutes to a family dinner set to Journey. Fans still debate the meaning and merits of the final scene, but the sense of palpable unease Chase built up in those last moments—signifying Tony’s perpetual state of watching his back—were a brilliant way to end a show that began as a meditation on existential dread in the first place.

2. Six Feet Under // “Everyone’s Waiting”

The final minutes of “Everyone’s Waiting” are among the most famous in the history of television, and even if the rest of the episode had been a disappointment, they would still rank among the greatest farewells in the medium. As it is, Six Feet Under's final episode with the Fisher family is a gripping, heartfelt, and bitterly funny gem, all building to that last montage. As Sia’s "Breathe Me" plays, we see the deaths of every member of the main cast, which reminds us that death takes many forms beyond mere tragedy, all culminating in the last breaths of Claire. Just thinking about it is enough to make fans of the show burst into tears.

3. Breaking Bad // “Felina”

Few series finales have ever faced such high expectations and managed to rise to meet them so powerfully as Breaking Bad did with its final episode in 2013. “Felina” has everything you could ever want from a Breaking Bad send-off: Walt’s final conversation with Skyler, that incredible revenge shoot-out featuring the rigged machine gun, Jesse’s defiant cry of freedom as he drives away, Walt’s collapse, and that little smile of victory on his face. Some series finales deliver what you want; others deliver what you need. “Felina” somehow manages to do both.

4. M*A*S*H // “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”

M*A*S*H was on longer than the Korean War was actually fought, and was more than 250 episodes into its run by the time “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired and became one of the most-watched television events in the history of the medium. You’d think the staff of the 4077th might have run out of things to say after such a run, but the series finale manages to be absolutely jam-packed, featuring everything from Hawkeye’s dark repressed memories to Klinger’s wedding. It all builds to that final shot of “GOODBYE” written in stones, which still ranks as one of the most iconic moments in TV history.

5. The Americans // “START”

The Americans quietly became one of the best shows on TV before finally winning a bunch of awards for its final season, and with good reason. The final adventures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as they contemplated a return to Russia and an end to their double lives in America were among the best the series ever delivered, all building to a final episode that stuck the landing in every possible way, from the thrills of their final escape to the emotional payoff of their daughter Paige’s big decision.

6. The Wire // "-30-"

The Wire was never going to end anything in a clean, cut-and-dried way, but its series finale did mange to wield the various talents at play in the series to end everything on an ambitious and fairly comprehensive note. The finale reckoned with many of the same questions the entire series did—from the nature of justice to the fragility of power systems and how far people will go to keep them in place—as it worked to resolve the homeless serial killer hoax, illegal wiretapping, and the all-important future of Tommy Carcetti. One last montage reminds us that life goes on in Baltimore, whether the show’s characters have reshaped it for the better or not.

7. Seinfeld // “The Finale”

The series finale of Seinfeld is also among the most divisive in the history of television, and it all begins with an amusing swerve. The show leads off by making us think Jerry and George are about to embark on a typical sitcom sendoff, bidding New York City farewell as they head to California to make a television series, but then the real plot kicks in as the show’s quartet of main characters is arrested for literally doing nothing as a man is carjacked.

The brilliance of the show’s protagonists getting in trouble for the very same thing they’d been doing for nine seasons in a “show about nothing” then pivots to a trial that does play by the sitcom rule of allowing old fan-favorite characters to come back as witnesses, then launches into a wrap-up that mocks the characters, the show’s fans, and the show’s own place of seeming importance in the pop culture landscape. Sitcom finales are usually more like curtain calls; "The Finale" was a provocative final joke.

8. Battlestar Galactica // “Daybreak Parts 1-3”

The finale of Battlestar Galactica might be a little too metaphysical in nature for some viewers, but there’s something about the sense of totality running through it that makes it a perfect sendoff for a series that always placed everything on the line with every single story it told. As the surviving humans of the fleet finally defeat their Cylon enemies, Starbuck sends them to a new home, and they agree to abandon all of their old technology and live among the primitive humans already present on what turns out to be our Earth. It’s a beautiful blending of victory, bittersweet goodbyes, seismic changes to everyone’s lives, angels, the future, and—believe it or not—“All Along the Watchtower.”

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation // “All Good Things…”

“Encounter at Farpoint,” the series premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a famously slow, bloated affair that was a sign of things to come for the relatively weak first season. “All Good Things…” brilliantly repurposes that story as a time travel saga in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) learns that Q, the alien being who put humanity on trial back in the premiere, is continuing his test of the human race by placing Picard in three different eras of his life. It’s a brilliant conceit that makes an elegant circle out of the series while also allowing Picard to give viewers a grand tour of the series’ entire history, including his own future.

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer // “Chosen”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer spent weeks setting up its series finale, laying out a last stand that would either end Buffy and her gang of allies forever or wipe Sunnydale off the face of the Earth—or both. The final battle itself has since been dwarfed by more epic series like Game of Thrones, but what makes “Chosen” so magical isn’t its fight scenes, but its heart. With her own army of potential Slayers at her back, Buffy asks Willow to perform a spell that will give them all the powers of a Slayer, leading to one of the most empowering montages in the history of television. Then, even while mourning absent friends, Buffy is able to look toward tomorrow.

11. Newhart // “The Last Newhart”

So many sitcom series finales are all about final goodbyes. Very often characters leave their longtime TV homes for somewhere new, leading to tearful farewells or at least a final moment for everyone to spend one last day together. Newhart absolutely blew that premise up with a twisty, joke-filled finale that includes the entire town being turned into a resort, a five-year time jump, and that brilliant final scene which reveals all of Newhart to have been the dream of Dr. Bob Hartley, Newhart’s character from The Bob Newhart Show. The level of ambition is admirable. That the ambition translated to genuine laughs is wonderful.

12. Twin Peaks: The Return // “Part 17 and Part 18”

Twin Peaks famously ended its early ’90s run with a cliffhanger, which then led to the joyous reception that accompanied The Return, an 18-hour monument to creative freedom which everyone hoped would finally provide some answers. In true David Lynch fashion, though, the answers we got were often difficult to parse. And by the time it was all over, we were left with even more questions. The final two hours of The Return are among the most mind-meltingly intense episodes of television ever devised, all building to a daring and stunning final scene that still has fans talking.

13. The West Wing // “Tomorrow”

The West Wing played the long game with its series finale thanks to a year-long election storyline, which meant that its final episode was always going to be the combination of both an end and a beginning. The intense election story—which included a live debate episode—culminated in the inauguration of a new president, and a farewell to Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, but the sense of transition inherent in the plot managed to imbue the series with a new sense of potential energy as it made the turn toward home. Watching “Tomorrow,” you can’t help but fantasize about what it will be like for Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to be together in the White House again, changing the world in all new ways. That emotional weight meant that, after seven years, we actually all felt like we could use a little more of The West Wing.

14. Halt and Catch Fire // “Ten of Swords”

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire
Bob Mahoney, AMC

Halt and Catch Fire never got the audience it deserved when it was airing, which means many people likely don’t know just how brilliant and daring the show got in its final seasons, which included a time jump, a shocking death, and the dawn of the internet age. “Ten of Swords” is all about closing old chapters and starting new ones, and sends the show’s trinity of remaining major characters in promising new directions, even as they all come to terms with the fact that they can never again recapture what they once had.

15. 30 Rock // “Last Lunch”

30 Rock was one of the most acclaimed comedies of its era in part because of its outright refusal to ever be straightforward about anything. Every plot was jokes on top of jokes and references on top of references, creating a show that rewards viewers who can’t get enough of rapid fire wit (and deserves rewatching). “Last Lunch” continued that tradition while also managing to inject some genuine emotion into the affair, as Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) reconcile their friendship in a half hour packed with so many gags and callbacks you could watch it half a dozen times and still not catch everything.

10 Surprising Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about The Lord of the Rings author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th), here are 10 of them.

1. Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. Tolkien felt many of his fans were "lunatics."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. Tolkien loved his day job.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. He was quite romantic.

At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. Tolkien's relationship with C.S. Lewis was complicated.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. Tolkien enjoyed clubbing.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. He wasn't blowing smoke about those war scenes.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. Tolkien invented languages for fun.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. Tolkien been published almost as prolifically posthumously as he was when he was alive.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. Tolkien called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus."

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

This piece originally ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER