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Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 28 March 2006
An interesting analysis and certainly the most detailed outline of Tolkien's wartime experiences I've come across. Rather too willing to view Tolkien's early poetry uncritically though - Tom Shippey takes a more balanced approach and admits it isn't very good, even if it is useful for looking at Tolkien's development. Also rather unfair on the 'War Poets' in the final section, notably Wilfred Owen. Nonetheless, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in knowing more about the genesis of Tolkien's ideas and the influence of the First World War upon him.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
From his first encounter with the name Éarendel (in Cynewulf's otherwise unappealing 'Crist', which also mentions 'middle-earth'), Tolkien said 'I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep.'

With Peter Jackson's multi-million dollar Hobbit trilogy mid-way through and the centenary of WWI - the 'Great War' - rapidly approaching, John Garth's book on Tolkien's early life and his experiences in that conflict, is ripe for the reading, both for admirers of Tolkien and his literary and imaginative work, those generally interested in the continuing evolution of our culture, and perhaps especially those who think of Tolkien as a reactionary and escapist. Personally I think Garth does a splendid job of examining these early formative years of Tolkien's life and their complex interweaving into some of the most traumatic episodes of the previous troubled and bloody century.

Admirers of Tolkien's achievements, and Garth is clearly one such, will doubtless find themselves largely in agreement with his sympathetic and nuanced readings of both the author's evolving corpus and it's broader context. Certainly he succeeds in his stated aim of giving 'Tolkien's early poetry and prose the serious consideration they deserve'. He's frequently at pains to counter the increasingly common views from certain quarters that Tolkien is merely a backwards looking nostalgic escapist. I think Garth succeeds in making a solid case to rebut the most simplistic of such charges of this type as are laid at Tolkien's door, also noting that 'No one has defended Tolkien more eloquently against the charge of 'escapism' than Tolkien himself.' In On Fairy-Stories Tolkien suggests that 'peril, sorrow and the shadow of death', vital ingredients of his work, and hardly the stuff of naive world-rejecting escapism, 'can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.'

The book is split into three parts, as was the LOTR - against Tolkien's own wishes - and as Jackson has now done with The Hobbit. In Garth's case the tripartite subdivision makes sense, both as homage in form to the masters work (and despite the fact that Tolkien hadn't intended his book to be so divided), and on its own terms. Part one takes the story from birth and origins through school and university up to the advent of war, part two deals with the wartime experience, and part three looks at Tolkien's work immediately after the war, both on its own terms, and in relation to his wider lifetime achievements. Throughout all this, tying it all together, there's the theme of the TCBS (the 'Tea Cake & Barrovian Society'!) - Tolkien was a very clubbable fellow - following the fate of four friendships, begun in school, and how these were affected by war and influenced Tolkien's life and work. The unravelling of this unifying thread is a large part of the drama and interest of this book, so I'll not spoil it by saying too much about that.

Garth brings a refreshing seriousness and breadth of vision, both qualities Tolkien had in abundance, to his very engaging study, often drawing attention to ideas and undercurrents obscured by the massive success of this maverick writer's 'legendarium'. For example, a recurrent theme throughout Tolkien's early development was his desire to go off the beaten-track, as with his attraction to obscure Finnish myth and language: 'Tolkien was following, in his own idiosyncratic way, the contemporary vogue for primitivism that had attracted Picasso to African masks.'

Then during the war, 'while others were burnishing their martial couplets, he eulogised a 'wandering spirit' at odds with the majority course, a fugitive in a lonely pursuit of some elusive ideal.' And from as early a work as 1915's Kortirion, Tolkien, like another Catholic whose works seem more joyfully pagan than they do Christian, Jack Kerouac, 'struck the first note of the mood that underpins his entire legendarium: a wistful nostalgia for a world slipping away.' But as Garth rightly points out, 'Tolkien was no mere nostalgist', and it's the maverick myth-maker, whose 'stories salvaged from the wreck of history', the 'romantic and ... individualist' who 'opposed ... orthodoxies' that has always fascinated me.

Garth weaves a beguiling web of fact to retell the story of the formative years of a master of enchanting fiction, and shows that far from being pure escapism, Tolkien's works are as bound to their present context as any other, if very informed by the past, and very different and individual in their response. Anyone for whom the success of Tolkien obscures his appeal should read this. If 'enchantment... [is] a magic that is sung', then Tolkien was a master-singer, and his themes of both bondage to and 'liberation from the chains of circumstance makes his stories especially vital in an age of disenchantment.'
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 13 May 2011
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
John Garth's book is a revelation. I say this after having read, across decades, many accounts of Tolkien's background materials, and the Humphrey Carpenter biography and his "Inklings" book, and more.
Garth is familiar with Tolkien, his closest friends, and the broad context of World War I and the British Army's role in France and Belgium.
What emerges is a clear outline of the earliest fragments of Tolkien's mythology.
I had always thought Middle-earth, along with Tolkien's created languages of elves and dwarves and others, was a response to the losses of the Great War. Instead, it was beginning even before Tolkien joined the Army.
There may be more detailed, and more extended explorations of Tolkien's war experience. (I have seen examples listed in Amazon, with helpful reviews.)
But Garth's study is readable, convincing, freshly insightful, and profoundly satisfying, as a standalone monograph for a general readership in Tolkieniana.
Very highly recommended!
John Gough - Deakin University - jagough49@gmail.com
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2004
Having only read Humphrey Carpenter's biography of JRR Tolkien prior to this one I don't think I came to a full appreciation of how deep the Great War's influence on Tolkien was until I read it. As the Amazon review says, this is for people who have read deeper into Tolkien than LOTR - its for people who at least know the structure of the works contained in the 12 volumes of the History of Middle Earth Tolkien's son Christopher has been painstakingly putting together since the death of his father.
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on 2 January 2015
I bought this as a Christmas gift for my adult son, who is a great Tolkien fan and also because of its topical nature with the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1. My son was delighted to receive it. I am unable to comment on its content as he has barely started it, but i think it is a must for any Tolkien fan.
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on 23 January 2015
I took the book to a meeting on 11 11 2014 and John signed it for me with the date. I will give this to yank friend .He will wet himself when he looks at the book.Peter
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2004
Garth's book is a very specialized study, more specialized even than the title suggests. Garth is good in discussing Tolkien's military experiences, but he is not useful in connecting these to Tolkien's works. For a much better discussion of Tolkien and the Great War, see Croft, War and the Works of J R R Tolkien
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on 19 January 2015
Fascinating and nicely written.
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