Tolkien and the Great War Review

Innumerable commentators, critics, fans and, lately, even film-makers have suggested that Tolkien’s oeuvre was deeply affected by his experiences in the Great War (1914-18) and particularly at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (when he served as a signals officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers). And now John Garth, a newspaper journalist and Tolkien fan determined to investigate the matter, has written a focused biographical studying of J.R.R’s wartime experiences.

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Drawing on Tolkien’s letters and papers, Garth has set about reconstructing his movements and the development of his writing during (and the years immediately before and after) the First World War. In doing so he also introduces the circle of close friends – the TCBS (or Tea Club and Barrovian Society), made up of Christopher Wiseman, G. B. Smith and Robert Gilson – with whom Tolkien shared many of his early writings and embryonic mythology. Indeed, the central narrative of the biography, and by far the most interesting aspect, is the interplay of this group (all friends since school), and the tragedies visited upon them by the war; it is, if you like, the tale of a strong and sincere “fellowship” broken by the horrors of circumstance.

Garth offers a good deal of detailed research in his restoration of these events and paints an especially evocative and horrifying portrait of trench warfare: the mud, the cold, the rats and the ever-present danger of death or injury. Occasionally his chronological narrative is a little confusing, and he jumps back and forth more than is really necessary, perhaps in pursuit of dramatic effect. But this negative feature is generally outweighed by a strong sense of the individual and Garth’s willingness to pursue the character’s of Tolkien’s friends and acquaintances to interesting ends. Indeed, by delving into the records and correspondence of the TCBS and illuminating Tolkien’s war years he has gone some way to revealing motives behind the epic workings of Middle Earth. He also offers somewhat fruitful and interesting discussions of Tolkien’s early poetic work and the earliest “Lost Tales”, attempting to weave narrative and critical strands together. There is the added appeal of lengthy quotations from poems long out of print (and in one case, never printed).

However, if you’re looking for a book about “The Lord of the Rings” or a general biography, I advise you to look elsewhere (and perhaps to start with Tom Shippey’s accessible “J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century” or the full biography by Humphrey Carter). Garth makes it clear in his introduction that his book’s focus ends in the late 1910’s and he only intimates connections between Tolkien’s war experiences and the full body of work in a separate, rather short Postscript. The better-known works, such as “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion”, are mentioned only in passing. As such a general familiarity with the genesis of the Middle Earth mythology would be helpful to any reader, since Garth assumes at least some acquaintance with the sequence.

Furthermore, although I respect Garth’s decision to focus solely on the Great War period and not to complicate his analysis with Tolkien’s later life and works, this leaves something essentially lacking. That something is critical vigour. While Garth’s descriptive narrative is wholly satisfactory, his discourse on the fiction is relatively disappointing and his unwillingness to exploit his position of hindsight inadequate. As a result his conclusions rarely reach that point of epiphany, which, for me, indicates good commentary and I was left feeling a lack of homogeneity or closure.

After some consideration I decided upon a comparatively average 6.5 rating, not because I didn’t enjoy or value the book (I did) but because it didn’t satisfy a yearning for true Tolkienalia. Instead, it left me eager to research the First World War and the intellectual life of other members of the TCBS, and to pursue Janet Brennan Croft’s academic study “War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien”.