Tolkien and the Great War is an obviously well-researched book that goes into explicit (at times I must admit tedious) detail on J.R.R. Tolkien’s involvement in World War I and its possible impact on his then-current and later writings. We begin by observing Tolkien’s earliest close friendships formed at St. Edward’s Grammar School under the auspices of the “TCBS” (an acronym for Tea Club, Barrovian Society) where the core group of Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson, and G.B. Smith became close artistic confidantes, encouragers and critics of each other’s work. Convinced that they were a group that would change the world with their work, their dreams were turned to harsh reality with the advent of “the war to end all wars”.
We spend the majority of Tolkien and the Great War following Garth as he traces the movements and vicissitudes of the various platoons to which each member of the TCBS was assigned, with a special concentration on Tolkien himself. It’s common knowledge that the Great War winnowed a generation, destroying the optimism of the Edwardian era and putting paid to facile romantic notions of the heroism of war. The “innovations” of technology that made killing men easier than it ever had been before, along with the harrowing conditions of trench life and seemingly incompetent leadership, made this conflict a wake-up call for the world that shattered many illusions. As Tolkien himself noted: “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.” In the midst of this carnage and despair Tolkien managed to begin work on the poems and stories that would become the germ for his masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as the accompanying material that would evolve into the posthumously published The Silmarillion.
Garth does a fine job in Tolkien and the Great War of giving us details of the World War I experience, but I have to admit that in general I was a bit underwhelmed. I found the prose to be a bit workmanlike, and this wasn’t helped by the sheer amount of detail. I appreciate the thoroughness of Garth’s research, but I did find my eyes glazing over a bit from time to time as troop movements, platoon names, and other details were gone into. Some of the extra biographical detail given on Tolkien was interesting, but I must admit that most of it I already knew, at least in broad strokes, from other sources. I didn’t come away feeling that I had learned anything heretofore unknown to me about the man himself. The main gist of Garth’s critical argument, namely that Tolkien — far from being an anachronistic throwback despite his literary tastes — was truly a man of his era who was responding uniquely to the horrors present at the birth of the twentieth century has also been covered by others, especially Tom Shippey in several of his works.
I did find the last section of Tolkien and the Great War the most interesting. In it Garth concentrates almost exclusively on the early writings Tolkien did in what would ultimately become his legendarium of Middle Earth and examines how his experiences in the war may have coloured the world he created, or even been lifted from direct experiences in his life. It is a kind of “biographical criticism” for which Tolkien himself had great distaste and whose value he felt was dubious at best, but I must admit that much of what Garth posits makes sense to me, and I imagine that Tolkien’s youth, coupled with the monumental nature of the events through which he was living, could not help but leave their mark on what he wrote in ways perhaps more apparent than exists in his later and more mature writings.
In retrospect my review is probably unduly harsh. This was a fine work of biographical criticism giving great detail about a formative period of a great writer’s life. I think it was simply the fact that I wasn’t utterly wowed by Tolkien and the Great War, and found some moments slow going, that made it an interesting, though not inspiring, experience for me.