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Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth Hardcover – December 30, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Millions of new captives of the Lord of the Rings saga have been roped into J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world as the result of Peter Jackson’s three-part cinematic interpretation of the great 20th century fantasy. John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War will certainly captivate an elite segment of those recent converts, but it is written more for those who have long been enthralled by Middle-earth and its fantastic denizens. While many early readers found parallels between World War II and the Lord of the Rings fairy-tale, Garth reaches back to World War I to find the deep roots in Middle-earth. Prior to the Great War, Tolkien was a scholar with a deep passion for language and fables. In fact, he formed a literary circle with a few friends dubbed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Its members had the misfortune of coming of age just as the war was reaching a fevered pitch; Tolkien, a second lieutenant in the British army, survived the bloody Battle of the Somme, which took the lives of two of his closest friends. Garth adeptly chronicles how the devastation Tolkien witnessed helped shape the mythic tale that was already brewing in his mind. Written with a seriousness one associates with the time it chronicles, Tolkien and the Great War is a erudite but eminently readable exploration of how the harsh reality of the early 20th century colored one of the beloved fantasies of the modern era. --Steven Stolder

From Publishers Weekly

This dense but informative study addresses the long-standing controversy over how J.R.R. Tolkien's WWI experience influenced his literary creations. A London journalist, Garth is a student of both Tolkien and the Great War. He writes that when war broke out, Tolkien was active in an Oxford literary society known as the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), along with three of his closest friends. Finishing his degree before joining up, Tolkien served as a signal officer in the nightmarish Battle of the Somme in 1916, where two of those friends were killed. The ordeal on the Somme led to trench fever, which sent him home for the rest of the war and probably saved his life. It also influenced a body of Northern European-flavored mythology he had been inventing and exploring in both prose and verse before the war, toward its evolution into The Book of Lost Tales and in due course Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. This book could not pretend to be aimed at other than the serious student of Tolkien, and readers will benefit from a broad knowledge of his work (as well as a more than casual knowledge of WWI). But it also argues persuasively that Tolkien did not create his mythos to escape from or romanticize the war. Rather, the war gave dimensions to a mythos he was already industriously exploring. Garth's fine study should have a major audience among serious students of Tolkien, modern fantasy and the influence of war on literary creation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 415 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (December 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618331298
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618331291
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #770,479 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
"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.
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Format: Hardcover
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~]
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