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

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

by John Garth


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* TOLKIEN * Now a major motion picture *

Acclaimed as “the best book about J.R.R. Tolkien” (A. N. Wilson), this award-winning biography explores J.R.R. Tolkien’s wartime experiences and their impact on his life and his writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings.

“To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than in 1939 . . . By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
So J.R.R. Tolkien responded to critics who saw The Lord of the Rings as a reaction to the Second World War. Tolkien and the Great War tells for the first time the full story of how he embarked on the creation of Middle-earth in his youth as the world around him was plunged into catastrophe. This biography reveals the horror and heroism that he experienced as a signals officer in the Battle of the Somme and introduces the circle of friends who spurred his mythology to life. It shows how, after two of these brilliant young men were killed, Tolkien pursued the dream they had all shared by launching his epic of good and evil.
John Garth argues that the foundation of tragic experience in the First World War is the key to Middle-earth’s enduring power. Tolkien used his mythic imagination not to escape from reality but to reflect and transform the cataclysm of his generation. While his contemporaries surrendered to disillusionment, he kept enchantment alive, reshaping an entire literary tradition into a form that resonates to this day.
This is the first substantially new biography of Tolkien since 1977, meticulously researched and distilled from his personal wartime papers and a multitude of other sources.
“Very much the best book about J.R.R. Tolkien that has yet been written.” — A. N. Wilson

“A highly intelligent book . . . Garth displays impressive skills both as researcher and writer.” —  Max Hastings

“It is a strange story that Garth tells, but he tells it clearly and compellingly.” — Tom Shippey

“Somewhere, I think, Tolkien is nodding in appreciation.” — Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News

“Gripping from start to finish and offers important new insights.” — Library Journal

“A labor of love in which journalist Garth combines a newsman’s nose for a good story with a scholar’s scrupulous attention to detail . . . Brilliantly argued.”  — Daily Mail

“Insight into how a writer turned academia into art, how deeply friendship supports and wounds us, and how the death and disillusionment that characterized World War I inspired Tolkien’s lush saga.” — Detroit Free Press

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618574810
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/01/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 426
Sales rank: 291,138
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Garth, winner of the 2004 Mythopoeic Society Scholarship Award, studied English at Oxford University and has since worked as a newspaper journalist in London. A long-standing taste for the works of Tolkien, combined with an interest in the First World War, fueled the five years of research that have gone into Tolkien and the Great War and he has drawn extensively on previously unpublished personal papers as well as Tolkien's service record and other unique military documents.

Read an Excerpt


This biographical study arose from a single observation: how strange it is that J. R. R. Tolkien should have embarked upon his monumental mythology in the midst of the First World War, the crisis of disenchantment that shaped the modern era.
It recounts his life and creative endeavours during the years 1914– 18, from his initial excursions into his first invented ‘Elvish’ language as a final-year undergraduate at Oxford, through the opening up of his horizons by arduous army training and then the horror of work as a battalion signal officer on the Somme, to his two years as a chronic invalid standing guard at Britain’s seawall and writing the first tales of his legendarium.
Travelling far beyond the military aspects of the war, I have tried to indicate the breadth and depth of Tolkien’s interests and inspirations. The growth of his mythology is examined from its first linguistic and poetic seeds to its early bloom in ‘The Book of Lost Tales’, the forerunner of The Silmarillion, envisaged in its beginnings as a compendium of long-forgotten stories of the ancient world as seen through elvish eyes. As well as a critical examination of this first foray into what Tolkien later came to call Middle- earth, I have provided commentaries on many of his early poems, one of which (‘The Lonely Isle’) appears here in full for the first time since its publication in the 1920s, in a small-press book now long out of print. I hope I have given Tolkien’s early poetry and prose the serious consideration they deserve, not as mere juvenilia, but as the vision of a unique writer in the springtime of his powers; a vision already sweeping in its scope and weighty in its themes, yet characteristically rich in detail, insight and life.
One of my aims has been to place Tolkien’s creative activities in the context of the international conflict, and the cultural upheavals which accompanied it. I have been greatly assisted, firstly, by the release of the previously restricted service records of the British Army officers of the Great War; secondly, by the kindness of the Tolkien Estate in allowing me to study the wartime papers that Tolkien himself preserved, as well as the extraordinary and moving letters of the TCBS, the circle of former school friends who hoped to achieve greatness but found bitter hardship and grief in the tragedy of their times; thirdly, by the generosity of the family of Tolkien’s great friend Rob Gilson in giving me unrestricted access to all of his papers. The intertwined stories of Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Christopher Wiseman, and Tolkien – their shared or overlapping vision and even their sometimes incendiary disagreements – add greatly, I believe, to an understanding of the latter’s motivations as a writer.
Although Tolkien wrote often about his own wartime experiences to his sons Michael and Christopher, when they in their turn served in the Second World War, he left neither autobiography nor memoir. Among his military papers, a brief diary provides little more than an itinerary of his movements during active service in France. However, such is the wealth of published and archival information about the Battle of the Somme that I have been able to provide a detailed picture of Tolkien’s months there, down to scenes and events on the very routes he and his battalion followed through the trenches on particular days.
It may be noted here that, although full and detailed surveys of the source material have been published for Smith’s and Gilson’s battalions (by Michael Stedman and Alfred Peacock, respectively), no similar synthesis has been attempted for Tolkien’s for more than fifty years; and none, I believe, that has made use of a similar range of eyewitness reports. This book therefore stands as a unique latter-day account of the experiences of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers on the Somme. Since my narrative is not primarily concerned with matters of military record, however, I have been at pains not to overburden it with the names of trenches and other lost landmarks (which often have variants in French, official British, and colloquial British), map references, or the details of divisional and brigade dispositions.
If nothing else, the phenomenal worldwide interest in Tolkien is sufficient justification for such a study; but I hope it will prove useful to those who are interested in his depiction of mythological wars from old Beleriand to Rhun and Harad; and to those who believe, as I do, that the Great War played an essential role in shaping Middle-earth.
In the course of my research, the emergence of this imagined version of our own ancient world from the midst of the First World War has come to seem far from strange, although no less unnique for all that. To sum up, I believe that in creating his mythology, Tolkien salvaged from the wreck of history much that it isssss good still to have; but that he did more than merely preserve the traditions of Faërie: he transformed them and reinvigorated them for the modern age.
So much has the biographical aspect of this book grown, however, that it seemed best, in the end, to restrict my comments on the possible relationship between the life and the writings to a few observations, and to set out my overall case in a ‘Postscript’. Having read the story of Tolkien’s experiences during the Great War, those who also know The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion and its antecedents, will be able to draw their own more detailed conclusions, if they wish, about how these stories were shaped by the war.
Perhaps this is the way Tolkien would have wanted it, if indeed he had countenanced any biographical inquiry into his life and work. A few years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, he wrote to an enquirer:

I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author’s works . . . and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest. But only one’s Guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’ [Letters, 288].

I do not claim any divine insight into Tolkien’s mind, and I do not pretend to put him on the psychiatrist’s couch. I have not gone hunting for shock and scandal, but have focused at all times on matters that seem to me to have played a part in the growth of his legendarium. I hope that this story of the passage of an imaginative genius through the world crisis of his times will cast a little light on the mysteries of its creation.
At all points, matters of opinion, interpretation, and exegesis are my own, and not those of the Tolkien family or the Tolkien Estate. I thank them, however, for permission to reproduce material from private papers and the published writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Copyright © 2003 by John Garth. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Table of Contents

Contents List of Illustrations ix Maps x Preface xiii part one The immortal four 1 Prologue 3 1 Before 11 2 A young man with too much imagination 38 3 The Council of London 54 4 The shores of Fae¨rie 71 5 Benighted wanderers 89 6 Too long in slumber 114 part two Tears unnumbered 139 7 Larkspur and Canterbury-bells 141 8 A bitter winnowing 152 9 ‘Something has gone crack’ 169 10 In a hole in the ground 186 part three The Lonely Isle 203 11 Castles in the air 205 12 Tol Withernon and Fladweth Amrod 224 Epilogue. ‘A new light’ 253 Postscript. ‘One who dreams alone’ 287 Notes 315 Bibliography 369 Index 381

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Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tolkein himself was notoriouly closed mouthed about his personal influences and how they impacted his literature. The author does a fine job of dissecting and noting how the young John Ronald's pre-war and wartime experiences and relationships influenced his mythology at a critical point in its genesis. Along the way, we are reminded of the cost of life and potential creativity caused by the Great War of 1914-1918.
AmandaMae More than 1 year ago
Since reading J.R.R. Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS I have been interested in the TCBS; who they were and how they influenced Professor Tolkien. This book introduces the members of the TCBS and the impact of World War I on their membership and the creation of Middle-Earth. An important addition to the study of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Garth is a beautiful man with a beautiful mind and an absolutely breath taking book that displays his hard work and dedication. This book is truly appreciated by a toklkien fan
kukulaj on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings forty years ago or so. I have also watched the recent movie version of The Lord of the Rings. I am not really any kind of Tolkien fan. I liked those books well enough but just never chose to plunge in to any kind of serious study. My sweetheart recommended this book to me, and that mostly because of the focus on WW1. Actually even more than WW1, this book focuses on a small circle of friends, formed in their teenage years, that included Tolkien. The core was just four young men. They surely had high ideals and high hopes, which were all quite badly treated by the war.So the point of the book is to show how Tolkien expressed those ideals and their fate in the world through the legendary world he created. The focus is not on The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but on the early predecessors, even before the Silmarillion. Garth walks us though many of these stories in enough detail that one can follow along with no prior exposure to them, at least for the most part. From time to time I did start to feel a bit left out, as Garth shows how story elements foreshadowed later Tolkien works that I am not familiar with. But for the most part this book demand too much Tolkien-ology of its reader.I must say that I think Garth is quite successful with his argument here, that Tolkien was not running away from the harsh reality of his time but rather presented it in a medium that allowed him to get his points across effectively. Garth puts Tolkien in the company of Milton and Blake - they all created fabulous epics to portray the crises of their times.The crisis that Tolkien was confronting is one that we are still confronting, though probably we are now in a different phase of the progress of industrial domination. WW1 was probably the most dramatic rise of industrial might. E.g. the British fleet was converted to petroleum shortly before the war. WW2 must have been the triumph, with nuclear weapons etc. Now we are in the decline of industrial power, with the desperate struggle to maintain power that it entails. Maybe this makes Tolkien even more important today. Tolkien portrayed an alternative. Now that some alternative or other is becoming inevitable, not merely possible, our challenge is to choose, to steer our path toward some one of the better alternatives open to us. The noble virtues latent in the common man, this vision of Tolkien might show us a priceless vital way forward.
JNSelko on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fills a gap in the understanding of J. R. R. Tolkien's works.
picardyrose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author says Tolkien wasn't inspired to write :Lord of the Rings" because of the war. He had returned to his lifelong interest, the creation of language and myth. But I think the loss of his friends in the war is the reason he didn't kill off Merry and Pippin, as I would have.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Were we rangers meet...