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Revealing the horror and heroism the creator of Middle-earth experienced as a young man, Tolkien and the Great War also introduces the close friends who spurred the modern world's greatest mythology into life. It shows how the deaths of two comrades compelled Tolkien to pursue the dream they had shared, and argues that Tolkien transformed the cataclysm of his generation wh Revealing the horror and heroism the creator of Middle-earth experienced as a young man, Tolkien and the Great War also introduces the close friends who spurred the modern world's greatest mythology into life. It shows how the deaths of two comrades compelled Tolkien to pursue the dream they had shared, and argues that Tolkien transformed the cataclysm of his generation while many of his contemporaries surrendered to disillusionment. The fruit of five years of meticulous research, this is the first substantially new biography of Tolkien since 1977, distilled from his personal wartime papers and a multitude of other sources.


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Revealing the horror and heroism the creator of Middle-earth experienced as a young man, Tolkien and the Great War also introduces the close friends who spurred the modern world's greatest mythology into life. It shows how the deaths of two comrades compelled Tolkien to pursue the dream they had shared, and argues that Tolkien transformed the cataclysm of his generation wh Revealing the horror and heroism the creator of Middle-earth experienced as a young man, Tolkien and the Great War also introduces the close friends who spurred the modern world's greatest mythology into life. It shows how the deaths of two comrades compelled Tolkien to pursue the dream they had shared, and argues that Tolkien transformed the cataclysm of his generation while many of his contemporaries surrendered to disillusionment. The fruit of five years of meticulous research, this is the first substantially new biography of Tolkien since 1977, distilled from his personal wartime papers and a multitude of other sources.

30 review for Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth

  1. 4 out of 5

    Terry

    2.5 – 3 stars _Tolkien and the Great War_ is an obviously well-researched book that goes into explicit (at times I must admit tedious) detail on J. R. R. Tolkien’s involvement in World War I and its possible impact on his then-current and later writings. We begin by observing Tolkien’s earliest close friendships formed at St. King Edward’s Grammar School under the auspices of the “TCBS” (an acronym for Tea Club, Barrovian Society) where the core group of Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilso 2.5 – 3 stars _Tolkien and the Great War_ is an obviously well-researched book that goes into explicit (at times I must admit tedious) detail on J. R. R. Tolkien’s involvement in World War I and its possible impact on his then-current and later writings. We begin by observing Tolkien’s earliest close friendships formed at St. King Edward’s Grammar School under the auspices of the “TCBS” (an acronym for Tea Club, Barrovian Society) where the core group of Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson, and G. B. Smith became close artistic confidantes, encouragers and critics of each other’s work. Convinced that they were a group that would change the world with their work, their dreams were turned to harsh reality with the advent of “the war to end all wars”. We spend the majority of the remainder of the book following Garth as he traces the movements and vicissitudes of the various platoons to which each member of the TCBS was assigned, with a special concentration on Tolkien himself. It’s common knowledge that the Great War winnowed a generation, destroying the optimism of the Edwardian era and putting paid to facile romantic notions of the heroism of war. The ‘innovations’ of technology that made killing men easier than it ever had been before, along with the harrowing conditions of trench life and seemingly incompetent leadership, made this conflict a wake-up call for the world that shattered many illusions. As Tolkien himself noted: “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” In the midst of this carnage and despair Tolkien managed to begin work on the poems and stories that would become the germ for his masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as the accompanying material that would evolve into the posthumously published The Silmarillion. Garth does a fine job giving us details of the World War I experience, but I have to admit that in general I was a bit underwhelmed by this book. I found the prose to be a bit workmanlike, and this wasn’t helped by the sheer amount of detail. I appreciate the thoroughness of Garth’s research, but I did find my eyes glazing over a bit from time to time as troop movements, platoon names, and other details were gone into. Some of the extra biographical detail given on Tolkien was interesting, but I must admit that most of it I already knew, at least in broad strokes, from other sources so I didn’t come away feeling that I had learned anything heretofore unknown to me about the man himself. The main gist of Garth’s critical argument, namely that Tolkien, far from being an anachronistic throwback despite his literary tastes, was actually truly a man of his era who was responding uniquely to the horrors present at the birth of the twentieth century has also been covered by others, especially Tom Shippey in several of his works. I did find the last section of the book the most interesting. In it Garth concentrates almost exclusively on the early writings Tolkien did in what would ultimately become his legendarium of Middle Earth and examines how his experiences in the war may have coloured the world he created, or even been lifted from direct experiences in his life. It is a kind of ‘biographical criticism’ for which Tolkien himself had great distaste and whose value he felt was dubious at best, but I must admit that much of what Garth posits makes sense to me, and I imagine that Tolkien’s youth, coupled with the monumental nature of the events through which he was living, could not help but leave their mark on what he wrote in ways perhaps more apparent than exists in his later, more mature writings. In retrospect my review is probably unduly harsh. This was a fine work of biographical criticism giving great detail about a formative period of a great writer’s life. I think it was simply the fact that I wasn’t utterly wowed by the book, and found some moments slow going, that made it an interesting, though not inspiring, experience for me.

  2. 5 out of 5

    BAM Endlessly Booked

    DOES ANYONE REALIZE HOW CLOSE WE WERE TO LOSING TOLKIEN?!?!?? Can you imagine a world without his Hobbits, his elves, his orcs? The man is a genius, not just a literary genius, but an absolute linguistic pedant. I finished this book simply fascinated and now I want to learn Norse, Welsh, Latin, and Greek. Not only have I gained a better understanding of the warfront during WWI, but I also appreciate the gifts Tolkien gave to us more than ever. I will cherish this book. A perfect audio read becau DOES ANYONE REALIZE HOW CLOSE WE WERE TO LOSING TOLKIEN?!?!?? Can you imagine a world without his Hobbits, his elves, his orcs? The man is a genius, not just a literary genius, but an absolute linguistic pedant. I finished this book simply fascinated and now I want to learn Norse, Welsh, Latin, and Greek. Not only have I gained a better understanding of the warfront during WWI, but I also appreciate the gifts Tolkien gave to us more than ever. I will cherish this book. A perfect audio read because all of the foreign and Tolkien vocabulary is pronounced correctly.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Moira Russell

    This is a necessary book - worth reading not just for the inside dope on Tolkien's mythology (which frankly I'm not that interested in, but the book was compelling anyway). This book is also a thoughtful, sensitive, well-written consideration of the WWI generation, and how the pre-War world and the War itself formed Tolkien and his fellowship of four friends. It is the best kind of cultural-literary criticism, especially when Garth talks about how the accepted narrative of WWI became the pessimi This is a necessary book - worth reading not just for the inside dope on Tolkien's mythology (which frankly I'm not that interested in, but the book was compelling anyway). This book is also a thoughtful, sensitive, well-written consideration of the WWI generation, and how the pre-War world and the War itself formed Tolkien and his fellowship of four friends. It is the best kind of cultural-literary criticism, especially when Garth talks about how the accepted narrative of WWI became the pessimistic Graves/Sassoon/Owen poetry. (Fussell does this a bit, but, as Garth correctly points out, he is clearly on the side of the pessimists.) This book also explains Tolkien's personal literary theory more clearly than any book I've read so far, including Carpenter's biography. It was easier for me to understand why Tolkien insisted LOTR was not allegory, i.e. Sauron was not Hitler/Stalin dressed up in a funny medieval hat. Also, clearly one reason Tolkien had such a problem with Lewis's Narnia series wasn't just the mixing together of Christian myths and Santa Claus, but the straight-up allegory of Aslan = Christ. Tolkien wasn't that happy about the modern literary critical technique of mapping personal experience to artwork, either, but I like to think he would have liked this dignified and respectful approach to how his own searing personal battles influenced the mythic ones he wrote out. *** Supplemental reading from John Garth's website: Chronology of Tolkien in the Battle of the Somme Corrections and clarifications Tolkien, Exeter College and the Great War (supplementary chapter) Article: "Tolkien fantasy was born in the trenches" Interview ‘As under a green sea’: visions of war in the Dead Marshes, in The Ring Goes Ever On: Proceedings of the 2005 Tolkien Conference, ed. Sarah Wells (Tolkien Society, 2008), and (in slightly expanded form) in Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings, ed. Eduardo Segura and Thomas Honegger (Zürich: Walking Tree, 2007). Frodo and the Great War, in The Lord of the Rings, 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006). Presented at Marquette University, 2004. Revised version forthcoming in the proceedings of the Hungarian Tolkien Society’s Budapest 2012 conference.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    Not a bad read, composition was quite good. Character development was meh. Very tenuous connection however between WW1 and Tolkien’s writing. In fact Tolkien had formed most of his ‘Silmarillion’ background by the time he left university and stated he did no writing during WW1 as it was a hard thing to do as an officer in the trenches. There is no doubt that war has an impact on anyone’s world view but I don’t think this book shed much light in that regard. I did appreciate the background on Tolk Not a bad read, composition was quite good. Character development was meh. Very tenuous connection however between WW1 and Tolkien’s writing. In fact Tolkien had formed most of his ‘Silmarillion’ background by the time he left university and stated he did no writing during WW1 as it was a hard thing to do as an officer in the trenches. There is no doubt that war has an impact on anyone’s world view but I don’t think this book shed much light in that regard. I did appreciate the background on Tolkien’s prep and university days, which is most of the book, and his time with his circle of friends. My wife tells me that they recently made a movie based on the book. I might check it out as I tend to like period pieces and am a Tolkien fan. 3 stars.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    This book was something quite different from what I expected. Going in I expected a book focused on J.R.R. Tolkien almost exclusively, with discussions of the hells of the Western Front in WWI and then a deeper discussion of the themes of loss or nature and industrialization play out in The Lord of the Rings. I was looking forward to that analysis of the 'coming of the machine age' that Peter Jackson had played up so beautifully in the movie version of The Two Towers. Instead, Garth treats us to This book was something quite different from what I expected. Going in I expected a book focused on J.R.R. Tolkien almost exclusively, with discussions of the hells of the Western Front in WWI and then a deeper discussion of the themes of loss or nature and industrialization play out in The Lord of the Rings. I was looking forward to that analysis of the 'coming of the machine age' that Peter Jackson had played up so beautifully in the movie version of The Two Towers. Instead, Garth treats us to a view into a group of Victorian friends with discursions on the philological and poetic world/myth building that Tolkien was working on at the time. The group of friends are the four self-appointed members of the 'Tea Club and Barrovian Society" (shortened to TCBS for most purposes). The grand name concealed what was no more than a high-school clique. I'm reminded of my own high-school poseur-gang dubbed "the D-Men" although in practice, the TCBS was closer to Tufts University's Film Series club. Each of the four members of the TCBS saw themselves and the group as having the potential to change the world and bring forth works of immortal quality. Garth asserts that the TCBS was purely middle-class, but there is a strong strain of upper-class Victorian exceptionalism in Tolkien's peers views of their world. After being split apart to attend Cambridge and Oxford, the four friends still exchanged letters, poems, writings, and music and periodically met in what were referred to as ‘Councils.’ It’s all very idyllic and the reader can’t quite say whether these young men were destined to be the next Algonquin Round Table or just a group of high-school alumni pen-pals. And then Tolkien’s generation of young academics was swept-up in the Great War. Three of the four TCBS members were young officers leading patrols and assaults in the Battle of the Somme, the fourth was on a battlecruiser in the Battle of Jutland. Only one of the three sent to France came back. Tolkien was infected with lice-borne “trench-fever” and spent second half of the war on home guard duty and medical convalescence. Garth makes a good argument for the power of Tolkien’s experience in the Somme for shaping much of his mythic background for Middle-Earth, particularly the stories that went into his Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the conceptual links between Tolkien’s mythology and books of H. Rider Haggard. In the long Postscript, Garth makes an effort to place the writings of Tolkien in a literary universe defined by post-Great War writing. He makes a case that Tolkien was writing about his wartime experience without falling into the two major camps of war-writing of the period. Tales of Middle-Earth are neither the ‘high diction’ propaganda created by imperial powers in the image of Haggard and [William Morris} to impress their people and drive in recruits nor the studied, modernist, or gritty writings of [author: Robert Graves] or Sigfried Sassoon. Instead, Tolkien sought to create a new style. In the process, he created a whole new genre of popular literature.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tim O'Neill

    When Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings came at the top of a string of "best/favourite books of the twentieth century" lists in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was predictable harrumphing from some guardians of literary taste. People like Germaine Greer sneered loudly that the hoi polloi simply couldn't be trusted with this sort of thing, though her comments made it clear she had only a vague idea why she was so certain Tolkien's stuff was "tosh". She seemed to think he was a Nazi sympathiser ( When Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings came at the top of a string of "best/favourite books of the twentieth century" lists in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was predictable harrumphing from some guardians of literary taste. People like Germaine Greer sneered loudly that the hoi polloi simply couldn't be trusted with this sort of thing, though her comments made it clear she had only a vague idea why she was so certain Tolkien's stuff was "tosh". She seemed to think he was a Nazi sympathiser (he hated the Nazis), thought his fans carried around teddy bears (that would be Waugh fans, if any at all) and later admitted she hadn't actually read The Lord of the Rings anyway. When pressed, she and other critics were usually very light on specifics, but generally characterised Tolkien as a whimsical escapist whose wispy fantasies were the antithesis of "proper" literature, which was to be heavily character-driven, light on plot, modernist (or post-modernist), gritty, prosaic and tending toward cynicism or at least moral ambiguity. Much of this conception of how modern literature "should" be was born in the the First World War, which was thought to have swept away the kind of romantic, if not openly imperialistic literature of the Victorian Era. The literature that came out of the Great War was primarily in the new mode of the new century, as seen in the writing of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas or David Jones. It tended to subert or invert romantic and patriotic tropes and rejected any form of idealism. Most people would be unaware that Tolkien fought in the First World War, saw action in the Battle of the Somme and was later to observe that "by 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead." Garth's book traces the importance and fierce intensity of those close friendships Tolkien referred to - especially his idealistic schoolboy fraternity dubbed the "T.C.B.S." which he formed with several like-minded literary friends at the King Edward's School in Birmingham. The closest of these were Christopher Wiseman, who served in the Royal Navy and survived the War, Rob Gilson, killed on the first day of the Somme in July 1916 and G.B. Smith, who died of shrapnel wounds in December 1916. Tolkien himself was stricken with trench fever and eventually evacuated from the front lines to convalesce in England. Garth details how the experience of these deaths and the horrors of the Western Front changed the course of Tolkien's writings, moving it from the truly whimsical (and pretty awful) fairy Victoriana of his first published poem "Goblin Feet" (1915) to the far darker stories he began to write for his invented languages while recovering in a field hospital. These were to become the tales of The Silmarillion, which in turn formed the back-mythology for The Lord of the Rings. And once their origins in the mud of the Somme is understood, the dismissal of his work as mere wispy escapism can be recognised as utterly facile. As Garth notes, all of Tolkien's work is set in a war, against the backdrop of a war, in the shadow of impending war or in the bitter wake of a terrible conflict. Victories are often fleeting, always hard-won and never won without terrible tragedy and loss. Bravery is often futile. Sacrifice is regularly in vain. Odds are almost always overwhelming. The most admired virtues are bravery in the face of almost certain defeat, fortitude against all odds, loyalty based on friendship rather than obligation and hope in the face of cynicism and despair. These elements are derived from the experience of a veteran of the Great War, not some armchair romantic. For all his works' many aristocratic lords and mighty warriors, there are two characters for whom Tolkien had special affection. One was The Lord of the Rings's Faramir: a captain who took on impossible missions given by a deluded and out-of-touch superior, who worried for his men while admiring their courage, all while doubting his own bravery and strength of character. Tolkien later wrote that of all his characters, Faramir was most like himself as a young man. The other was Samwise Gamgee, who was famously based on the batmen who attended British officers and who Tolkien admired for their loyalty, steadfastness and courage. Both characters clearly derive from Tolkien's own experience of war. Anyone who has read Tolkien's descriptions of the mounds of the slain heaping the field of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad - the "Battle of Unnumbered Tears" - or the rotting corpses in the pools of the Dead Marshes, or the Pelennor Fields where armoured behemoths lumber across the battlefield while winged terrors wheel and scream overhead knows that this is not escapist fantasy - it's modern war literature. Even his happiest endings have a heavy tinge of sadness and loss and the overwhelming feeling of his work is one of elegy, not whimsy. Garth shows that Tolkien was as much a war poet as any of the other writers who survived the Great War. And, as Tom Shippey argues in his J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000), the reason Tolkien has been embraced by millions in the century since the Great War is that he was very much a man of the world that war shaped, however much this confuses and annoys people like Germaine Greer.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ashley Marie

    A bit dry in spots, and where it took its time early on, things felt rushed by the end. The postscript is sheer brilliance, however, to the point that it gained a fourth star all on its own. Read very well by the author.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    I’ve got chills tbh

  9. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I can't speak highly enough of this book. The amount of detailed biographical research alone would make it invaluable to anyone interested in Tolkien (or, for that matter, in the experience of the generation of university students who fought in World War I). I only wish we had two or three more volumes coming from him, to cover the rest of Tolkien's life, a deep-dive utilizing the research tools and resources of the twenty-first-century, ala what Mark Lewisohn is doing for the Beatles (ETA: YE G I can't speak highly enough of this book. The amount of detailed biographical research alone would make it invaluable to anyone interested in Tolkien (or, for that matter, in the experience of the generation of university students who fought in World War I). I only wish we had two or three more volumes coming from him, to cover the rest of Tolkien's life, a deep-dive utilizing the research tools and resources of the twenty-first-century, ala what Mark Lewisohn is doing for the Beatles (ETA: YE GODS, HE *HAS* WRITTEN ANOTHER ONE! I'll get on that forthwith!). But I'm incredibly grateful that we have this work, which I feel has enriched my understanding of Tolkien far beyond even what I hoped to learn from it. But beyond biographical detail, Garth also engages in extremely compelling analysis of the impact of the war on not only Tolkien's writing, but his worldview, his academic interests, and so forth (all of which are, of course, intertwined). Even more valuably, he does so while acknowledging Tolkien's own reluctance to admit much inspiration (though of course, an author is singularly unsuited to make those kinds of assessments!) as well as engaging with the many other excellent (and less excellent!) critical pieces to have tackled these questions over the years. There is a real sense of expertise throughout the work, which manifests not as a tone of "know-it-all-ism," but rather in his willingness to acknowledge what we can't know or understand about Tolkien and the people around him, or can only guess at. The mark of a real expert, in my opinion! Stylistically, I was delighted by the tone: readable without being pandering or cheap, academic and knowledgable without being dense, full of love for Tolkien's work but never devolving into fannishness. My only complaint is that I occasionally had difficulty reading scenes because I was tearing up. (Actually, my first emotional meltdown occurred on the dedication page, and my final one on the last page of the main text, when Tolkien signs his last letter to Wiseman "TCBS." So, it was a systemic problem, I guess! Hazards of dealing with stuff that touches on questions so deeply rooted in what it means to be a human, a writer, a person in the modern age, a lover of fantasy, and so forth.)

  10. 4 out of 5

    Katherine

    One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead. — J.R.R. Tolkien, forward to The Lord of the Rings World War I represented everything Tolkien hated: the destruction of nature, the deadly application of technology, the abuse and corrupt One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead. — J.R.R. Tolkien, forward to The Lord of the Rings World War I represented everything Tolkien hated: the destruction of nature, the deadly application of technology, the abuse and corruption of authority, and the triumph of industrialization. It interrupted his career, separated him from his wife, and damaged his health. Yet at the same time it gave him an appreciation for the virtues of ordinary people, for friendships, and for what beauty he could find amidst ugliness. "They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, with weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead." - "The Passage of the Marshes", The Two Towers The dead lying in pools of mud is a powerful image of trench warfare on the Western Front, and is something that Tolkien would have undoubtedly seen during his wartime service. As the autumn rains fell, the battlefield of the Somme turned into a stinking mire seeded with the rotting corpses of men and animals. The dead men that Frodo and Sam see are not physically present – only their ghostly shapes have been preserved –but their forms inspire horror and pity. We are all shaped by the world in which we live. (I used this volume for a presentation on Tolkien and The Great War. I found it very useful and insightful into Tolkien the man and the "Lost Generation")

  11. 4 out of 5

    Neil R. Coulter

    I read Tolkien and the Great War as part of a group read with the Tolkien group on Goodreads, and I'm so glad I did. I've read a lot of books about Tolkien, and this is one of the very best. Garth delves into the biographical details of Tolkien's youth and young adulthood, looking especially at Tolkien's friendship with three other schoolmates: G. B. Smith, Rob Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman. Together, these four formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), a brotherhood dedicated to rekin I read Tolkien and the Great War as part of a group read with the Tolkien group on Goodreads, and I'm so glad I did. I've read a lot of books about Tolkien, and this is one of the very best. Garth delves into the biographical details of Tolkien's youth and young adulthood, looking especially at Tolkien's friendship with three other schoolmates: G. B. Smith, Rob Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman. Together, these four formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), a brotherhood dedicated to rekindling the enchantment of the world through their creative output (especially prose and poetry). The TCBS began as a group for conversation and clever pranks, but as these four men grew up together the TCBS became a refuge, a place of hope in the midst of a world at war. All four members eventually enlisted and served in the Great War, and as the grueling tedium and horror of trench warfare (and naval warfare, in Wiseman's case) took their toll, the men's letters to one another display a poignant yearning for even a brief time togehter, that the hope of the TCBS might enable them to endure through the war and dream of a better world after. Gilson and Smith died in the war, which effectively ended the TCBS. Wiseman became a school headmaster, and Tolkien . . . well, of course we know what he did after the war. This story is significant because it was during these years that Tolkien began creating the Elvish languages and the history that goes with them. The encouragement of the other TCBS members helped give Tolkien the motivation to pursue his poetry and prose, and the dreams he shared with the TCBS--that beauty in writing might re-enchant the world, opening people's eyes to the "faerie" all around us--obviously resonated within him for the rest of his life. John Garth's telling of this story is even and well reasoned. He presents the details as he has put them together, drawing from letters, wartime documents, other literature of the time, and other scholarship on Tolkien. There is surely a temptation for the biographer to make many presumptions, drawing connections between Tolkien's life experiences and his writings, and much of this would seem reasonable. However, Garth generally restricts himself to simply presenting the facts, and the book is stronger because of this. Throughout the book, he suggests that Tolkien's experiences may possibly be visible here and there in his fiction, only rarely in an obvious or direct way, but he respects Tolkien's own disdain for bringing the author's biography into his works. For me the most fascinating parts of Tolkien and the Great War are Garth's Epilogue and Postscript, which are really distinct essays considering Tolkien's work as a whole, from a critical standpoint. Garth shares some wonderful insights into Middle-Earth: for example, the interesting parallel between Melkor's destruction of the Two Trees, using the shadowy cover of Ungoliant, and Beren's theft of the Silmaril, using the shadowy cover of Luthien's enchantment. How many times have I read The Silmarillion and yet not made that connection! Probably the greatest part of Garth's book is the Postscript, in which he defends Tolkien's writing against the attacks of critics, showing how Tolkien's archaic, seemingly backward-looking epic-creating is every bit as valid and appropriate a response to World War I as the trench memoir and poetry of disillusionment and disenchantment. Garth proposes that the literature of disillusionment in the decade following the war in many ways hijacked the actual feelings of the returning soldiers, giving the war in hindsight an emotional color that might not be entirely accurate. Tolkien, in contrast, created a literature that acknowledges the horrors and confusion, while still affirming that every act of heroism and bravery is valuable in itself, regardless whether the ultimate outcome seems to make any sense. The Beren/Luthien and Turin stories act as pictures of two ends of a spectrum of understanding war. In the story of Beren and Luthien, heroism and bravery result in victory, as well as the maturity of the heroic characters (though even in that story, the ending is tainted by the evils of war, greed, and selfishness). In Turin's story, the hero is ennobled through his dogged pursuit of justice and righteousness, even though he is also often rash and his decisions are fated to go awry to the very end; but the confusion and darkness that results from the hero's actions don't make his actions the less noble. Garth's Postscript ought to be required reading for any Tolkien fan, and I highly recommend the whole book especially for readers who have spent some time with The Book of Lost Tales, the History of Middle-Earth series, or even just The Silmarillion. Tolkien and the Great War is simply a fantastic Tolkien book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tara

    Why it took me so long to read this I cannot say. It had been on the back burner for me, and only really pushed to the forefront as I am seeing the author at a conference in a few weeks. To say that this book spoke to me in a way that only a small handful of books have done would be an understatement. I have long been fascinated both by Tolkien and military history, so it was a natural pairing. But beyond that, you cannot read this book without feeling a sense of the utter tragedy of youth and p Why it took me so long to read this I cannot say. It had been on the back burner for me, and only really pushed to the forefront as I am seeing the author at a conference in a few weeks. To say that this book spoke to me in a way that only a small handful of books have done would be an understatement. I have long been fascinated both by Tolkien and military history, so it was a natural pairing. But beyond that, you cannot read this book without feeling a sense of the utter tragedy of youth and promise swallowed up in the trenches, and how no one from that generation, least of all the veterans who survived, escaped unscathed. Tolkien himself disliked literary criticism based on biographical exploration of the author, but we are all products of our environment and experiences. WWI changed Tolkien, and as Garth speculates, likely changed the trajectory of his writing. Consider this book part biography, part literary analysis. I think it is worth a read alone for the postscript: an examination of the prevailing narrative of Great War writers (disenchantment and disillusionment), and where Tolkien fits in that narrative. It also presents a strong argument against fantasy as "escapism", of which Tolkien has long been accused. I promise you will see Tolkien's work, especially what he produced in these war years, in a totally new light.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    I actually really enjoyed this book. Other books about Tolkien seem to skip over the time he spent in WWI. They talk briefly about it and then move on. This book was based all around the time he spent in the army and it's effect on his writing. It seemed very logical for his war experiences to be portrayed in his writing some way, so I agree with the author. Also I was happy that they went not only into detail about Tolkien's war experience, but also Rob Gilson's, G.B. Smith's and Christopher Wi I actually really enjoyed this book. Other books about Tolkien seem to skip over the time he spent in WWI. They talk briefly about it and then move on. This book was based all around the time he spent in the army and it's effect on his writing. It seemed very logical for his war experiences to be portrayed in his writing some way, so I agree with the author. Also I was happy that they went not only into detail about Tolkien's war experience, but also Rob Gilson's, G.B. Smith's and Christopher Wiseman. They did talk about JRR grief at the death of Rob Gilson. But I was disappointed that they didn't go into his grief over G.B. Smith's death, since I know he had a closer relationship with GBS then he did RG. It was really cool, to see the timeline of what he wrote, during what. And how he revised it. It was an enjoyable read, I recommend it.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Brenton

    See a partial review here: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2019/05/... See a partial review here: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2019/05/...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Edoardo Albert

    There are three essential works for anyone interested in going deeper into Tolkien’s writing and thought: Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tom Shippey’s philological appreciation, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. While Tolkien, famously and justly, abhorred the mining of an author’s life for the coal seam of his literary material, Garth’s study of Tolkien’s war, and that of the other three members of the youthful coterie that had gathered around him, There are three essential works for anyone interested in going deeper into Tolkien’s writing and thought: Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tom Shippey’s philological appreciation, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. While Tolkien, famously and justly, abhorred the mining of an author’s life for the coal seam of his literary material, Garth’s study of Tolkien’s war, and that of the other three members of the youthful coterie that had gathered around him, the TCBS, is both an appreciation of the subtle weaving of thought, experience and action, and an examination of that generation, raised at the height of Empire, who bled out in the holocaust of the First World War. If anything, the two members of the TCBS who died in France, GB Smith and Robert Gilson, are portrayed even more vividly than Tolkien himself. It is clear that Tolkien was a writer who particularly required the frank and unvarnished feedback of men whom he admired and who resonated with him: most famously CS Lewis, who cajoled and encouraged the writing of The Lord of the Rings but, Garth’s book shows, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman similarly played midwife to the birthing of Middle-earth through their talks, discussions and shared ideals. For someone who has always been solitary in his creative endeavours, I find this aspect of Tolkien’s work fascinating and inscrutable. I’m also, I think, rather jealous. Would that I might say, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”

  16. 4 out of 5

    Edward

    Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth is a broad-ranging biography of the creator of Middle-earth. Despite its title, the book covers J. R. R. Tolkien’s entire life. It starts with his time at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where he became steeped in languages and met the three friends with whom he formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (or TCBS), a tight-knit club with world-changing literary ambitions. The four members of the TCBS are the focus throughout the account of the First Wor Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth is a broad-ranging biography of the creator of Middle-earth. Despite its title, the book covers J. R. R. Tolkien’s entire life. It starts with his time at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where he became steeped in languages and met the three friends with whom he formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (or TCBS), a tight-knit club with world-changing literary ambitions. The four members of the TCBS are the focus throughout the account of the First World War. After the war, the book summarizes Tolkien’s life up until his death in 1973. It ends with an essay which argues that Tolkien’s work was influenced by the Great War. Prior to reading Tolkien and the Great War, I had dismissed this (as I thought) outlandish claim portrayed in, for example, the 2019 film Tolkien. Now, however, I am utterly convinced. ‘The Immortal Four’ members of the TCBS: G. B. Smith, J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman and Rob Gilson In addition to these biographical details, the book charts Tolkien’s literary output up to around 1919 and the development of his mythology. The book also contains fascinating analyses of early Quenya and Sindarin (or Qenya and Goldogrin as Tolkien called them at the time). These examinations provide just enough detail to satisfy someone with an interest in languages but remain general enough not to put off a non-specialist. Tolkien and the Great War is an excellent and very informative book about the life and influences of J. R. R. Tolkien. It is essential reading for any Tolkien fan, although it is perhaps not the best starting point for someone unfamiliar with the general details of Tolkien’s life (I would recommend Humphrey Carpenter’s book J. R. R. Tolkien: a biography as a good introduction to Tolkien’s life).

  17. 5 out of 5

    Frank

    After seeing the Tolkien movie and having read a biography some years ago, I decided to try this, as it was the basis for the movie and of course gives you the non Hollywood gloss over. Still a very reviting and at times sad story of Tolkien's school friends. WWI was a true hell and is portrayed here. After seeing the Tolkien movie and having read a biography some years ago, I decided to try this, as it was the basis for the movie and of course gives you the non Hollywood gloss over. Still a very reviting and at times sad story of Tolkien's school friends. WWI was a true hell and is portrayed here.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    This is the book (I think) the movie "Tolkien" mostly draws from. This focuses mostly on Tolkien's school years and developing the friendship of the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), which at the core was him and three other boys. They all wanted to change the world through their art--poetry, music, writing, language. Even after they went to different universities they stayed in close contact, and then the war began. Two of them enlisted right away, but Tolkien resisted because he really wa This is the book (I think) the movie "Tolkien" mostly draws from. This focuses mostly on Tolkien's school years and developing the friendship of the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), which at the core was him and three other boys. They all wanted to change the world through their art--poetry, music, writing, language. Even after they went to different universities they stayed in close contact, and then the war began. Two of them enlisted right away, but Tolkien resisted because he really wanted to finish his studies at Oxford. But once he finished, he enlisted as a junior officer as well. The book has three main themes. First, the friendship of the four boys, which is described very well thanks to the author's access of the letters of three of them. Second, the war itself, mostly the Somme, which three of them were involved in (including Tolkien--the fourth was in the Navy so didn't have to be part of the Somme) and two died during the battles. Tolkien got trench fever and was sent back to England to recover. The author did a really good job of showing how bleak and basically pointless that battle was. Third, he covers Tolkien's developing mythology, how it started from his love of languages and "lost tales." These tales were fragments of northern legends, most of which hadn't been written down. Tolkien imagined what they could have been about, and how the evolution of language affected how they were told. His first poems and stories were really him filling in the gaps of these lost tales. As he was recuperating from his fever, he started writing the story of the Fall of Gondolin and the voyage of Earendil. All in all, a very thorough look at this part of Tolkien's life. It was very sad, but also very interesting to see the germs of his legendarium get started, and how his friendships helped shape that.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Laurel Hicks

    Besides showing how Tolkien’s war experiences and the fellowship of young scholars of whom Tolkien was a part helped shape The Lord of the Rings, John Garth gives a superb analysis of Tolkien's place in literature. The best part is the Epilogue. “Just when the old ways of telling were being misused by the military propagandists and rejected by the trench writers, Tolkien envisioned ‘The Book of Lost Tales’, a sequence of stories salvaged from the wreck of history. That he saw the value in traditi Besides showing how Tolkien’s war experiences and the fellowship of young scholars of whom Tolkien was a part helped shape The Lord of the Rings, John Garth gives a superb analysis of Tolkien's place in literature. The best part is the Epilogue. “Just when the old ways of telling were being misused by the military propagandists and rejected by the trench writers, Tolkien envisioned ‘The Book of Lost Tales’, a sequence of stories salvaged from the wreck of history. That he saw the value in traditions that most others rejected is one of his gifts to posterity: truth should never be the property of one literary mode, any more than it should be the monopoly of one authoritarian voice. Tolkien was not immune to epochal change, however. He did not simply preserve the traditions the war threatened, but reinvigorated them for his own era.” “The distillation of experience into myth could reveal the prevailing elements in a moral morass such as the Great War, show the big picture where trench writers like Robert Graves tended to home in on the detail. Tolkien is not the first mythographer to produce a grave and pertinent epic in time of war and revolution. However else they differ from him, in this John Milton and William Blake are his forebears. When the world changes, and reality assumes an unfamiliar face, the epic and fantastic imagination may thrive.”

  20. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Phillips

    A very good examination of Prof. Tolkien’s time up to and in the Great War and how it impacted his philology and writing endeavors. Would recommend.

  21. 4 out of 5

    E.F.B.

    Note: I decided to pair the physical copy of this book with the audio version and found reading and listening at the same time was very helpful in keeping my focus and helping me progress through this book without getting slowed down or distracted. The author of the book actually narrates the audiobook, which is something I always really enjoy. An excellent read for this Tolkien fan! Thanks again for recommending and gifting it to me, Mary! :) <3 This being non-fiction, and me not reading non-fict Note: I decided to pair the physical copy of this book with the audio version and found reading and listening at the same time was very helpful in keeping my focus and helping me progress through this book without getting slowed down or distracted. The author of the book actually narrates the audiobook, which is something I always really enjoy. An excellent read for this Tolkien fan! Thanks again for recommending and gifting it to me, Mary! :) <3 This being non-fiction, and me not reading non-fiction nearly as much as fiction, I’m always a little unsure how to write my review. I guess I’ll start by saying that I thought it was very well-written, well-researched, well-paced, and interesting enough that I never once got bored or wanted to skip ahead even though I already knew some of the things being conveyed. There were some new things too, though, such as more details about the TCBS (a close-knit group of friends and writing critique partners Tolkien was a part of in his college days) than I ever knew before and enjoyed learning. I also loved that the author included excerpts of Tolkien’s poetry where appropriate to make points and show how Tolkien’s writings developed over time, and I very much enjoyed reading them and discovering his inspiration for them. Overall, this was a highly enjoyable non-fiction read for me and I happily give it 5 stars. I would recommend this book both to long time Tolkien fans who are curious about his life, especially his experiences in WWI and their influence on his writings, and to people who are new fans, or maybe not even fans at all, but are still curious about this well-known person and his life. You don’t necessarily have to have read any, much less all of Tolkien’s works in order to get something from this book (though knowing at least some of his works will certainly add depth to what you learn here) as the author tells the audience just as much as is needed in order to show what he’s wanting to show. Content advisory: I personally would recommend this book for ages 12+ simply because of how intellectual it is and the fact that, unless they were very curious and at an advanced reading level, children younger than that simply probably wouldn’t be interested in a book like this or be able to fully comprehend it to appreciate it. Otherwise, there is very little content of concern for younger readers. Language: One instance of the word d****d in a brief quote from Tolkien. I don’t recall any other swear words. Violence: There is talk of war and combat throughout, but the author keeps it very matter-of-fact, never going into icky detail, while still communicating what happened in various battles and such. Worldviews: Again, the author simply reports the facts and doesn’t give his own opinion on things.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    This isn't a complete biography of Tolkien but instead a detailed account of the careers of Tolkien and his three closest friends, collectively "the TCBSites" during WWI which goes on to discuss how the war affected Tolkien's creative output, making a convincing case that it is here, rather than in WWII we should look for the influence of real events on Lord of the Rings and other works by the most influential figure in 20th Century fantasy literature. Tolkien's childhood and school days are rec This isn't a complete biography of Tolkien but instead a detailed account of the careers of Tolkien and his three closest friends, collectively "the TCBSites" during WWI which goes on to discuss how the war affected Tolkien's creative output, making a convincing case that it is here, rather than in WWII we should look for the influence of real events on Lord of the Rings and other works by the most influential figure in 20th Century fantasy literature. Tolkien's childhood and school days are recounted in fair detail but his post-WWI life is treated in the most cursory fashion. This really is what the title suggests it is. The excruciatingly detailed account of WWI got me, dare I say it? - bogged down in the middle but over-all this is a good, readable book that acheives its aims. The "Postscript" looking at Tolkien's work as and in relation to other literary responses to WWI offered an interesting new perspective to me regarding Tolkien's motives, influences and aims and the descriptions of the basic principles of comparative philology added understanding of how and why language and legend were so intertwined in Tolkien's mind. Fans of Tolkien with an interest in the man, motives and influences behind the stories should read this.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Really enjoyed. Could have used some tightening in parts. The audiobook was fantastic.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Talbot Hook

    2014: This book is really the first I've read that has bothered to cover this period of Tolkien's life in such depth, and it is terribly sad. Aside from the well-documented loss of innocence and waste of life so present in the works of the period's major poets, it chronicles the history of the TCBS, and the ultimate annihilation of their collective aspirations and mutual feelings. How very depressing that is. 2018: Answering the unbidden call to read this again (perhaps it was a necessary way to 2014: This book is really the first I've read that has bothered to cover this period of Tolkien's life in such depth, and it is terribly sad. Aside from the well-documented loss of innocence and waste of life so present in the works of the period's major poets, it chronicles the history of the TCBS, and the ultimate annihilation of their collective aspirations and mutual feelings. How very depressing that is. 2018: Answering the unbidden call to read this again (perhaps it was a necessary way to capture the centennial end of the Great War, as I first read this book at its centennial beginning?), I still find myself in the same emotional state as four years ago, largely unchanged, though perhaps more melancholic. It is one thing to have friends die (to which I am no stranger), but when their dreams and memories die, that is another thing entirely; it is almost more tragic, this facet of mortality, and Garth does a truly excellent job of detailing these years of Tolkien's life and thought. The elegiac history and legacy of these four men is a complicated one, on a very personal level, and I have never been quite able to escape the pull of their literary vision for humanity. But I do wonder: Is it possible to have such a society anymore? I don't know, but I do hope so.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Adam Balshan

    4 stars [Biography] Exact rating: 3.75 #5 in its genre, out of 29 Writing: 3.5 stars Garth writes well, and in a pleasing register, but does not quite ascend into profundity. Use: 3.5 stars Even a reader who cares nothing for Inklings fantasy will find literary quality in much poetry. And if one cares nothing for poetry, the book is thirdly a compelling memoir of WWI. Truth: 4 stars Rare truth is found in analyses of war and existentialism, desolation and romance, and in Tolkien's arc from a baccalaurea 4 stars [Biography] Exact rating: 3.75 #5 in its genre, out of 29 Writing: 3.5 stars Garth writes well, and in a pleasing register, but does not quite ascend into profundity. Use: 3.5 stars Even a reader who cares nothing for Inklings fantasy will find literary quality in much poetry. And if one cares nothing for poetry, the book is thirdly a compelling memoir of WWI. Truth: 4 stars Rare truth is found in analyses of war and existentialism, desolation and romance, and in Tolkien's arc from a baccalaureate contra mundum to a soldier's staid apprehension of good and evil. The content is so bountiful that I wanted to begin a second reading immediately after finishing! Plot: 4 stars Deep. Garth provides a month-by-month account of Tolkien in the trenches, on maneuver, and in convalescence, and the spurts of writing in the seams. Tolkien's influences from companions, topography, ancient epic, or modern forerunner, are catalogued in well-paced detail.

  26. 5 out of 5

    PhilomathicJ

    A good book, but not one that flowed particularly well (at least for me). I'll be honest: I find Tolkien's writing to be difficult at times, and this book felt like it was written by Tolkien's literary brother. I read the book in fits and starts because it often felt like I was reading a textbook. Despite this, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. I found it to be a thorough and informative look at Tolkien and the experiences that molded him and his mythology. And for history buffs, it offered a glimps A good book, but not one that flowed particularly well (at least for me). I'll be honest: I find Tolkien's writing to be difficult at times, and this book felt like it was written by Tolkien's literary brother. I read the book in fits and starts because it often felt like I was reading a textbook. Despite this, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. I found it to be a thorough and informative look at Tolkien and the experiences that molded him and his mythology. And for history buffs, it offered a glimpse into England's past from a perspective not likely to be found elsewhere. Definitely worth the read, but don't expect to blast through it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Christen

    Excellent. Although I come from a class of reader who actively avoids the biographies of beloved authors, nevertheless I feel that this book has enriched my understanding of Tolkien for the better. I feel like I was given a rare glimpse into a group of friends whose idealism was tragically shattered. Their story, and Tolkien's story, moved me. Excellent. Although I come from a class of reader who actively avoids the biographies of beloved authors, nevertheless I feel that this book has enriched my understanding of Tolkien for the better. I feel like I was given a rare glimpse into a group of friends whose idealism was tragically shattered. Their story, and Tolkien's story, moved me.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    I really found this book very interesting. He ties events going on in the war and his friendships to themes and ideas being developed in Tolkien's imaginative world. There are some really powerful ideas to think about. I really found this book very interesting. He ties events going on in the war and his friendships to themes and ideas being developed in Tolkien's imaginative world. There are some really powerful ideas to think about.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Curtis

    Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Tolkien as an artist.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Derelict Space Sheep

    Garth’s knowledge of Tolkien’s writings leads at times to an overwhelming focus on the minutiae of his invented languages and mythology. The strictly biographical aspects are more accessible, giving a good sense of (educated) life pre- and during the First World War.

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