This is a biography that was well overdue. Using Tolkien's own personal papers, letters and other documents as well as the material provided by Christopher Tolkien in The History of Middle-earth Series, John Garth manages to trace, in often harrowing detail, Tolkien's own wartime experiences at the Battle of the Somme. The first part of the book covers Tolkien's early life and school days, where he made lasting friendships and formed the TCBS group of four like-minded individuals. It is through their eyes and correspondence that we get to know Tolkien, and experience, with him, their deaths on the Western Front.
Garth also links what Tolkien was creating with his languages, poetry and growing mythology with the events in his life, providing insight into how he transformed his experiences into literature and language. For anyone interested in the evolution of Tolkien's mythology and how Tom Shippey could justifiably call him one of the traumatised authors from the Great War, then this book provides that story. The postscript, in particular, shows how his later more famous works - The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - were invigorated and directed by his wartime experiences. Garth wonders that, if there had been no Great War, if Tolkien's legacy would have been merely one of a minor craftsman (like William Morris) or a brilliant academic? "Middle-earth, I suspect, looks so engagingly familiar to us, and speaks to us so eloquently, because it was born with the modern world and marked by the same terrible birth pangs". Garth overwhelmingly demonstrates the truth of this statement.
John Garth narrates his own book and proves to be an excellent reader, bringing the words and descriptions to life. Incredibly detailed, often moving, it is not always an easy listen, but it is a much-needed supplement to Humphrey Carpenter's authorised biography from thirty years ago.