Book Review: Tolkien And The Great War

Tolkien And The Great War:  The Threshold Of Middle-Earth, by John Garth

This particular book will remind its readers about the focus of the recent movie on Tolkien [1] that focused its attention on the TCBS and Tolkien’s school-age friends, a group of friends that was shattered by the death of half of its core members in World War I’s trenches.  This particular book is about the time in Tolkien’s life that is perhaps the most dramatic, given that he spent most of his life as an Oxford don whose rich imagination covered for a general lack of excitement in his life.  Yet having an exciting life is clearly overrated, as this book examines the horror that was faced by Tolkien and his friends and the damage that it did, even as it provided inspiration for some of the greatest literature of the 20th century.  And while this book has comparatively little to say about Tolkien’s more famous work in Middle Earth, it does a good job at showing Tolkien’s early writings that became part of the Lost Tales and other parts of his legendarium about Middle Earth, and also does a good job at uncovering some of the forgotten and obscure early poetry that Tolkien wrote.

This book is about 300 pages worth of reading material, and it begins with a list of illustrations, maps (mostly of the area of the Somme where Tolkien and his friends fought), and a preface.  After that the book is divided into three parts and thirteen chapters.  A prologue begins the first part of the book, which focuses on the “immortal four” of the TCBS group of Tolkien and his school chums, including a chapter about Tolkien’s early childhood (1), his having too much imagination (2), the supposed council of London that tried to keep the group united before World War I (3), the interest of Tolkien in faerie literature (4), Tolkien’s own writing about benighted wanderers (5), and the beginnings of the war (6).  After that the second part deals with the horrific experience of combat (II) for Tolkien and his friends, including chapters on the call to service (7), the early efforts of the British at the Somme (8), the death of half of the TCBS (9), and Tolkien’s struggles as a soldier living in a hole in the ground where he got a nearly fatal case of trench fever (10).  Finally, the book ends with a look at Tolkien’s experience recuperating in England (III), with chapters on Tolkien’s writing while healing up (11), and the successful British defense in 1918 that ended before Tolkien was able to return to active duty (12), after which there is an epilogue about Tolkien’s early writings on Middle Earth as well as a postscript about Tolkien’s loss of lightness in his later writings as well as notes, a bibliography, and an index.

By and large this book is a worthy biography about a focused period of Tolkien’s life, a part of his life that many people know little about.  It is by no means a complete biography of his life, though.  The author does a good job at showing how Tolkien viewed the Germans as having a sense of humanity and pointing out that his decision to go to war was by no means the result of a fierce hostility to England’s enemies but a sense of duty, even if it was a costly one.  Indeed, Tolkien’s identity was a tough one as he had a German name and was proud of his German heritage and had been born as an uitlander in South Africa and as a Catholic to boot, all of which made him somewhat of an outsider among English protestants.  Yet in exploring Tolkien’s complex identity, the author does great service here in providing a picture of the complicated inspiration of literature and life in inspiring Tolkien’s writings, and in pointing out how a group of friends was shattered by the effects of war, and how Tolkien himself struggled mightily to recover his health after his time in the trenches.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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