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Paperback Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth Book

ISBN: 0618574816

ISBN13: 9780618574810

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

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Book Overview

* 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...

Customer Reviews

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Escape to Middle-earth

This is a book for Tolkien specialists, combining a partial biography of the writer with highly academic literary criticism. Tolkien experienced combat and suffering directly when serving in World War I, while two of his closest friends and many of his acquaintances died on the Western Front. In this book Garth ties the writer's wartime experiences to his later mythology, with a high degree of believability. Things get off to a rather slow start as Garth describes Tolkien's teen years and the close circle of schoolmates (in a literary fraternity called TCBS) who would encourage his writing. The influence of friends is surely unmistakable, but Garth takes the cheeky intellectual snobbery of the fraternity way too seriously, slowing down the early parts of this book. We then continue into Tolkien's war years, and then the biographical portion of the book ends when he was discharged in 1918 at just the age of 26, at which point he had only published a few poems. Garth then shifts into a fascinating study of the often surprising and unexpected influence of the war on Tolkien's vast Middle-earth mythology. Note that Garth sticks mostly with Tolkien's earlier works, The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion, while only brushing upon the later but more famous The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The point is that in the earlier works Tolkien was still constructing his literary worlds rather than expanding and perfecting them, and that was when his war experience loomed the largest. Tolkien experts are probably going to disagree with some of the details in Garth's literary analysis. But his larger point can't be denied. Tolkien's universe of mythological creatures and heroic epics was far from mere escapism, which is a frequent inaccurate criticism. Instead, Tolkien was making crucial points about war, friendship, industrialization, and tyranny, in the guise of some of the most epic literary creations the world has ever seen. [~doomsdayer520~]

Essential new information, but not for the casual fan

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was a writer whose creativity flourished best in the company of other intelligent and talented men. His adult friendship with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings and their influence on the composition of his major works has been well documented (See Carpenter's biogaphies of Tolkien and the Inklings, especially), but Tolkien's need for male camaraderie was highly developed even in his youth. As the back cover of Garth's new book points out, his early friends were so important to him that he made a point of mentioning in his preface to The Lord of the Rings that all but one them died during World War I.Up till now, comparatively few details have been known about these earlier associates and their influence, but John Garth has ably remedied this lack in his Tolkien and the Great War. By weaving together extracts from Tolkien's own school and wartime papers, diaries, poetry, and letters, the papers of Tolkien's friend Rob Gilson, and relevant company histories and service records, Garth has drawn us a portrait of a tight-knit group of four talented and artistically ambitious young men on the verge of adulthood under the growing shadow of war. We see how they encouraged each others' grand dreams of artistic glory, critiqued each others' work and philosophy, and thought of themselves as the core of a future movement. They seem daringly hubristic at times in their conviction of their own future importance; however, the worldwide popularity and influence of Tolkien's works has certainly fulfilled their promise, blighted though it was by the deaths of Gilson and G.B. Smith during the Battle of the Somme and a distance between Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman after the war. While the details of Tolkien's relationships with these other young men are a goldmine for those interested in his artistic development and the formation of his legendarium, the pace of the first third of the book is somewhat leisurely, and readers unfamiliar with the background mythology and hoping for more on The Lord of the Rings may find it slow going. The tempo picks up towards the middle, and the most gripping writing in the book describes Tolkien's training and battlefield experiences and the tragic deaths of his friends. Garth's "Postscript" concludes the book with a thoughtful analysis of the impact of Tolkien's friendships and wartime experiences on his writing. If one accepts that World War I was a major influence on Tolkien, as indeed it appears to have been, then the great critical question which arises is why his artistic reaction to the war differed so dramatically from the two major literary movements which sprung up in the post-war years - modernism and the ironic war memoir - and what value, if any, there may be in his chosen epic style. Garth attributes Tolkien's choice in part to his scholarly interest in Germanic languages and medievalism, as well as his conservative preference for the traditional, but also shows t

Namarie To All That

This chronicle does two things, and it does them well. First, it brings Tolkien's three closest friends (G. B. Smith, R. Q. Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman) into clearer focus than previous accounts have done. Second, it provides the most full account in print of Tolkien's World War I service. In that war, Smith and Gilson were killed. Garth dispels the idea that Tolkien worked on early versions of his Middle-earth fantasy while in the trenches. "You couldn't write," Tolkien said. "You'd be crouching down among flies and filth." It was, he said, "animal horror." Garth shows that Tolkien grieved for the loss of his friends and needed months to recuperate from the "trench fever" that got him sent home from France, but did not become spiteful and embittered by the brutality of the war, unlike Robert Graves, author of Good-bye To All That. Although Garth is exceptionally careful, for a modern biographer, about suggesting transferences or transmutations of his subject's experiences into his subject's writing, he guesses that, if not for Tolkien?s wartime experiences, Tolkien might have become known for the writing of relatively insubstantial fantasy in the vein of William Morris.

An Essential Addition to the Tolkien Canon

John Garth has produced a fine work which will be enormously useful for many years to come. It appeals on two levels: first to Tolkien enthusiasts who are always eager to learn more about our favorite author's life and sources of inspiration, and secondly to anyone interested in World War I and the experiences of the ordinary soldiers who fought and died in it. The book begins in pre war England with J.R.R. Tolkien and his small cluster of friends. Beginning with their schoolboy days at King Edward's School in Birmingham and continuing through the beginnings of their academic careers at Oxford and Cambridge, Tolkien (John Ronald in those days) had a close friendship with a group of highly intelligent kindred souls who formed the TCBS, or Tea Cake and Barrovian Society. Partly literary and partly just for fun, the TCBS must have been one of hundreds of similar societies founded in the semi-cloistered world of schoolboys. Unlike most such groups, the TCBS lived on in the hearts of its participants, four of whom, John Ronald Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Robert Gilson, were particularly close. They encouraged each other in their literary and artistic pursuits and by their early twenties were already producing work which boded well for their futures.Then World War I broke out. Tolkien, Gilson, Wiseman, and Smith were sucked into the British armed forces along with thousands of other men, Wiseman into the navy, the others into the army. Gilson and Smith were killed in 1916 (Smith's letter to Tolkien about Gilson's death, ending with "My dear John Ronald whatever are we going to do?" is one of the saddest things I have ever read.) Tolkien and Wiseman survived and never forgot their dead friends. We also see the quiet, loving influence of friends and family, particularly that of Edith Bratt Tolkien, on the two survivors.The heart of this book deals with the influence of the War on Tolkien's writings on Middle earth. I will never be able to read of the Fall of Gondolin again without thinking of the Somme, and never think of Eressea without remembering Tolkien returning home on a hospital ship to see the green hills of England once more. So much of Tolkien's heart and inspiration is revealed in this book that it should be shelved alongside his own masterpieces.

A Fresh Look at the Roots of Tolkien's Work

"Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth" by John Garth is not a full-scale biography of Tolkien, it is rather an examination of his experiences during World War One and the influence of those experiences upon the development of his writing and concepts behind Middle Earth. Tolkien himself wrote little directly upon that war, so the reader should not expect a blow-by-blow account of life in the trenches and hospitals. But Garth has pieced together a reasonably comprehensive picture of the events witnessed by Tolkien and uses this platform for exploration of the writings and, in particular, Tolkien's relationships with a close-knit group of school-friends known as the "TCBS" -- The Tea Club and Barrovian Society, originating as a cluster of like-minded youths at King Edward's School in Birmingham, youths with lofty artistic ambitions and a belief that destiny would indeed carry them to artistic heights. Tolkien and three close friends were the heart of the TCBS, although there were other associates who shared their views. The alliances of the TCBS continued even after its members went off to Oxford and Cambridge and, after the war began, into the army and navy. By the end of the war, as Tolkien was to later comment, all of his close friends but one was dead, and he himself was a partially invalided veteran of the horrific Battle of the Somme. But the war did not kill the ideals of the TCBS and in many respects Tolkien was to carry them onwards. It is easy today to view the First World War through the lens of unremitting disenchantment and disillusion that dominated the literary picture of that conflict in the late Twenties and Thirties, yet as Garth shows, such a perception is inadequate. Charles Carrington, an officer in a sister unit to Tolkien's own, was to later write of his assessment of such literature: "Book after book related a succession of disasters and discomforts with no intermission and no gleam of achievement. Every battle a defeat, every officer a nincompoop, every soldier a coward." As Garth writes: "The disenchanted view of the war stripped meaning from what many soldiers saw as the defining experience of their lives." It is clear that Tolkien did not belong to this school of utter disenchantment. Instead, he championed a world view that amid the great horror and wide despair, hope and courage and good could endure, always challenged but never wholly extinguished. And this, mind you, is not the wishful thinking of a schoolboy, but a considered worldview of a man who has seen the horror at first hand. Garth believes that it not coincidence that battle plays a central or climatic role in Tolkien's stories.The main literary focus of "Tolkien and the Great War" is not "The Lord of the Rings", written decades later, but instead such earlier writings as "The Book of Lost Tales" that went into creating the world behind LOTR. Garth discusses the style of prose (and poem) chosen by Tolkien for his works, a s
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