Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earthby John Garth
Although Tolkien denied that the war had anything to do with his popular Lord of the Rings novels, journalist Garth examines the author's experiences as a young officer during the war, both at the Battle of the Somme and then sidelined due to trench fever, arguing that the mark of the war is all over his work. Tolkien's growth as a writer is examined through the war and through letters to school friends, many of whom were not to survive the conflict. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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Tolkien and the Great War
By John Garth
Houghton Mifflin CompanyCopyright © 2003 John Garth
All right reserved.
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 u 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 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
Rhûn 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 unique for all that. To sum
up, I believe that in creating h Tolkien salvaged from the wreck
of history much that it is 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 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.
Many other large debts of gratitude have accrued during the
writing of this book. First and foremost, I must thank Douglas A. Anderson,
David Brawn, and Andrew Palmer for advice and assistance beyond the call
of duty or friendship. Without their help, and that of Carl F. Hostetter and
Charles Noad, this book would never have seen daylight. I would particularly
like to express my gratitude to Christopher Tolkien, for his generosity in
sharing with me not only his father"s personal papers but also a great deal of
his own time; his perceptive comments have rescued me from many pitfalls
and have helped to shape Tolkien and the Great War. For their great
kindness in loaning me letters and photographs of R. Q. Gilson, I would like
to thank Julia Margretts and Frances Harper. For hospitably fielding my
questions about Christopher Wiseman, and for permission to quote from his
letters, I thank his widow Patricia and her daughter, Susan Wood.
David Doughan, Verlyn Flieger, Wayne G. Hammond, John D.
Rateliff, Christina Scull, and Tom Shippey have all given me their expertise
and insight on multifarious aspects of Tolkien"s life and work; the latter"s
critical study The Road to Middle-earth greatly enlarged my understanding of
Tolkien"s work. But for the help of Christopher Gilson, Arden R. Smith, Bill
Welden, and Patrick Wynne, my discussions of linguistic matters would have
foundered. Phil Curme, Michael Stedman, Phil Russell, Terry Carter, Tom
Morgan, Alfred Peacock, and Paul Reed have all helped me to overcome
obstacles to my understanding of Kitchener"s army and the Battle of the
Somme. Thanks must also go to all those others who have taken the time to
answer my endless questions, including Robert Arnott, the Reverend Roger
Bellamy, Matt Blessing, Anthony Burnett-Brown, Humphrey Carpenter, Peter
Cook, Michael Drout, Cyril Dunn, Paul Hayter, Brian Sibley, Graham Tayar,
Timothy Trought, and Catherine Walker.
Of course, none of the above are responsible for any errors of fact
or interpretation that may remain.
For help with archival research, I would like to express my
gratitude to Lorise Topliffe and Juliet Chadwick at Exeter College, Oxford;
Christine Butler at Corpus Christi College, Oxford; Kerry York at King
Edward"s School, Birmingham; Dr Peter Liddle at the Brotherton Library, the
University of Leeds; Tony Sprason at the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum,
Bury; as well as the staff of the Public Record Office, Kew, the Departments
of Documents, Printed Books, and Photographs at the Imperial War
Museum, Lambeth, the Modern Papers Reading Room at the Bodleian
Library, Oxford, and Hull Central Library. Archive material and photographs
have been reproduced with the permission of the governors of the Schools of
King Edward IV and the Rector and Fellows of Exeter College, Oxford. I am
grateful to Cynthia Swallow (née Ferguson) for permission to make use of
material from the papers of Lionel Ferguson; to Mrs T. H. A. Potts and the
late Mr T. H. A Potts for permission to quote from the papers of G. A. Potts;
and to Mrs S. David for permission to quote from the papers of C. H. David.
Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders for other papers
from which I have quoted.
For his meticulous copy-editing, his patience with my stylistic
foibles, and his extraordinary fortitude, I must thank Michael Cox. Thanks
also go to Clay Harper, Chris Smith, Merryl Futerman, and Ian Pritchard for
their help and advice during the course of publication; and to the Evening
Standard, for allowing me time off to complete this book.
Throughout, my newspaper colleagues have helped me keep it all
in perspective. Ruth Baillie, Iliriana Barileva, Gary Britton, Patrick Curry,
Jamie Maclean, Ted Nasmith, Trevor Reynolds, Dee Rudebeck, Claire
Struthers, Dan Timmons, Priscilla Tolkien, A. N. Wilson, Richard Younger,
and especially Wendy Hill have all provided much-needed support and
encouragement at crucial points. Finally, I would like to thank my family –
my parents Jean and Roy Garth, my sisters Lisa and Suzanne, my nephews
Simeon and Jackson, and my niece Georgia – and to apologize to them for
disappearing behind a pile of papers for two years.
Copyright © 2003 by John Garth. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin
Excerpted from Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth Copyright © 2003 by John Garth. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet 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.
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Were we rangers meet...
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.
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.
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