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

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  1,703 ratings  ·  72 reviews
"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,
Hardcover, 398 pages
Published December 30th 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2003)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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2.5 – 3 stars

_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, an
Moira Russell
This is a necessary book - worth reading not just for the inside dope on Tolkien's mythology (which frankly I'm not that interested in, but the book was compelling anyway). This book is also a thoughtful, sensitive, well-written consideration of the WWI generation, and how the pre-War world and the War itself formed Tolkien and his fellowship of four friends. It is the best kind of cultural-literary criticism, especially when Garth talks about how the accepted narrative of WWI became the pessimi ...more
This book was something quite different from what I expected. Going in I expected a book focused on J.R.R. Tolkien almost exclusively, with discussions of the hells of the Western Front in WWI and then a deeper discussion of the themes of loss or nature and industrialization play out in The Lord of the Rings. I was looking forward to that analysis of the 'coming of the machine age' that Peter Jackson had played up so beautifully in the movie version of The Two Towers.

Instead, Garth treats us to
Recent scholarship has shown just how much JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings was influenced by his own experiences as a soldier in the Great War. Tolkien belongs with a select group of authors including Mervyn Peake, W. Olaf Stapledon and Kurt Vonnegut whose extreme experiences of combat and war could only be sublimated into fantasy. John Garth's book uses new material to write the most definitive and penetrating study of Tolkien since Humphrey Carpenter's definitive Bi ...more
I actually really enjoyed this book. Other books about Tolkien seem to skip over the time he spent in WWI. They talk briefly about it and then move on.
This book was based all around the time he spent in the army and it's effect on his writing. It seemed very logical for his war experiences to be portrayed in his writing some way, so I agree with the author. Also I was happy that they went not only into detail about Tolkien's war experience, but also Rob Gilson's, G.B. Smith's and Christopher Wi
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, forward to The Lord of the Rings

World War I represented everything Tolkien hated: the destruction of nature, the deadly application of technology, the abuse and corrupt
Polymathic J
A good book, but not one that flowed particularly well (at least for me).
I'll be honest: I find Tolkien's writing to be difficult at times, and this book felt like it was written by Tolkien's literary brother. I read the book in fits and starts because it often felt like I was reading a textbook.
Despite this, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. I found it to be a thorough and informative look at Tolkien and the experiences that molded him and his mythology. And for history buffs, it offered a glimps
Tommy Grooms
This is simply the best biographical work on Tolkien I've read yet. It sheds more light on his relationships with the members of the 'TCBS', details what he would have seen during his Great War service, and effectively puts all of his early writings into a evocative chronological context. John Garth makes convincing arguments for how Tolkien's Great War experiences and friendships shaped his writing, and for how his writing should be understood relative to his contemporaries. This book illuminat ...more
Jan 22, 2015 ^ rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Admirers of JRRT and his world, language specialists,
This is an intensely poignant book of two genres: English fiction literature of the first half of the twentieth century (including J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillon”); and World War 1 non-fiction. On the back cover A.N. Wilson is quoted: “I have rarely read a book which so intelligently graphed the relation between a writer’s inner life and his outward circumstances”. That nails it; and a very unusual fascinating combination it makes, too.

We are often told that war ma
Joshua Emil
As of this day of reviewing this book, I have only read The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring. Some factors may have affected in the rating of this book.

This book is not what I really expected. I thought I was going to read War Stories of J.R.R. Tolkien and how that became a factor in shaping Middle-Earth. It was more of a combination of Literary History, Military History and Biography, focusing more on Literary.

Literary History:
John Garth explains the pieces of literature that in
Even if you're not a fan of Tolkien, this is a facinating biography of Edwardian England. The biography follows Tolkien and his three best friends, all incredibly talented and literate in a way that only this generation really was, having met at public school at the height of Britain's classical public school system. The biography charts the origins of both his fiction and his scholarship (Tolkien held one of the most prestigious chairs at Oxford and his scholarship on medieval language is still ...more
Jkimballcook Cook
This was definitely worth reading. Garth doesn't spend a lot of time connecting the dots between Tolkien's WWI experience and his mythology, other than to discuss how the major themes of his mythology were influenced by the events of the war. He does get into a few of those discussions, but he mostly just describes the war experiences, outlines possible influence and lets you draw your own more specific conclusions. For this reason, it is probably better to read this book when you already have a ...more
Best book I've read read on Tolkien. Deeply affecting telling of the tale of him and his close friends, most of whom perished in the Somme. Deeply sympathetic reading of his early work and the genesis of the mythology that would culminate in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Best of all, the writer actually bothers to "place" Tolkien in the writing of his time (William Morris, Ezra Pound, Graves, Owen & Sassoon -- the most curious omission is Yeats.) Garth tells the story of Tolkien's ea ...more
Fantasy Literature
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 beca ...more
Apr 03, 2013 Terence rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Tolkien fans (obviously)
I finished this Tuesday and since I have to take it back to the library on Friday, I will have a real review by then.

To tide you over till that happy day - This is a well-written, fascinating look at a particular moment in Tolkien's life that deepened my understanding of Tolkien's work and made me appreciate them even more.

Highly recommended.
Dr. Andrew Higgins
One of the most important and thoroughly researched works on the early Tolkien. I highly recommend this and especially hearing John Garth read it. A must for any lover of Tolkien.
Troy Rodgers
This review is for the audiobook, found via Audible, which is not an edition offered to choose from.

Many a Tolkien fan knows that Middle Earth was forged by the fires of World War I. Some of the Tolkien scholars out there will even know a great deal about what's in this book. But what will separate this book from others is witnessing how Middle Earth evolves in parallel to Tolkien's life and service during the war. Sometimes that evolution is followed line by line, such is the detail level of th
Anthony Burdge
John Garth’s
Tolkien and the Great War:
The Threshold of Middle-earth
Previously Published in Issue 10, Spring 2004, Journal of the Northeast Tolkien Society

Seeing John Garth’s new biography of J. R. R. Tolkien shelved next to many great books on the subject, a prospective reader wonders what Garth could add to the wealth of information. The question evaporates rapidly; reading Tolkien and the Great War is like slipping over a precipice of the Emyn Muil and free-falling into muddy march next to Bat
Mr. Garth seeks to demonstrate how Tolkien's life experiences would one day inform the creation of Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth.

For this forensic investigation, he traces the evolution of Tolkien's thoughts and influences, Mr. Garth excavates and examines every small detail of Tolkien's early writings and biographical information searching for clues. Periodically, he compares the non-fiction event to the fictional representations.

As the book title suggests, Mr. Garth is most interested i
Jan 27, 2009 Jake rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jake by:
As with so many books on my shelf, I am unsure how exactly I came across this one. Clearly, it isn’t hard to determine WHY I would be interested in it. Tolkien is one of my favorite authors, and despite that, I know very little about the man’s life. This book promised to offer an interesting look at a reasonably significant portion of that life, and how it was influenced by one of the most significant events of the twentieth century.

The book’s structure is a bit difficult to describe; part biogr
Very good literary history about J.R.R. Tolkien and the influences in his life that led him to create Middle Earth. Tolkien is often dismissed by the literati as being unsophisticated ("Why aren't there any gay hobbits? Orcs = racism!" etc.), but these are the same people who think Jan Austen is a gripping read, so I feel free to ignore them. Tolkien's world, influenced by his experiences in World War I, remains compelling, of universal appeal, and just damn fun to read about. Long after the vas ...more
Andrea Hickman Walker
This is an amazing book. I've never really read much about the First World War. Anyone who's so much as glanced at my non-fiction shelves or GoodReads stats will note a decided preponderance of works relating to the Second World War, but nothing on the First. Everything I know about the First World War is due to Sue Harsant, who taught me history in high school (and I shall never forget her complaining after an exam/test/assignment that we should not simply say Ferdinand, because she might think ...more
I really didn't like this. I thought the book jumped from topic to topic instead of having any kind of logical flow and because of that it didn't hold my interest. At some points I felt like I needed to have read other biographies about Tolkien just to understand what this guy was talking about. I didn't even know he had written a bunch of faerie poetry.
There was too much focus on Tolkien's friends, who had a big influence on his writing but so much of it was not relevant to the topic I thought
Nicholas Whyte[return][return]This book carries a recommendation by A.N. Wilson to the effect that it's "the best book about Tolkien that has yet been written". While I don't think it is actually better than Tom Shippey's work, it is none the less a very good book, moving well beyond the cliches of equating the Dead Marshes to the Somme. It basically concentrates on the story of the friendship between Tolkien and three of his schoolmates, G.B. Smith, Rob Gilson and Christ ...more
A wonderful Christmas gift from my brother, who realizes and encourages my being a huge nerd.

This is an interesting look at J.R.R. Tolkien's formative years in public school, college, and being sent to the trenches of the Western Front and his participation in the Battle of the Somme. It is interesting how these periods just before and after his deployment were incredibly productive, especially in regards to honing his interests and creating the languages and mythologies which would be fleshed o
Dec 17, 2007 Don rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all Tolkien fans
John Garth's _Tolkien and the Great War_ -- which I'm halfway through now -- tells in detail of Tolkien's friendships with three other schoolmates from their equivalent of high school, the friendships kept up with when they were some at Cambridge, some at Oxford universities. All four went to war, three in the British army, one in the navy. So far, one of them has been killed at the battle of the Somme, where Tolkien is also active. The detailed descriptions of the uncomfortability of training, ...more
Matt Poland
Certainly the best book about Tolkien's work and creative development that I've read, but also right up there with The Guns of August as one of the best books about the First World War. The balance between history, biography, and criticism is finely kept throughout. The long Epilogue and Postscript, which carry on after the story of Tolkien's service is told, seem less well-balanced, but they are also where Garth makes his most thorough and trenchant arguments about how Tolkien's work should be ...more
Logan Whitley
An excellent work that is the result of years of research on the author's part. Tolkien's life during WWI is depicted perhaps as accurately as possible. Garth delves deeply into Tolkien's life and mind in an attempt to understand the incredible man whose imagination fathered Middle Earth. If you are an avid Tolkien fan who desires to know the man whose books are permanently etched in history among the greats, this is a good place to start.
This is probably the only book I will ever be able to classify as both 'military' and 'non-military' history. It's true, WWI is discussed often, including in the book's title, but it's really just a framing device to tell the story of the beginning of JRR Tolkien's writing. It worked really well. The book was good; I love the poems that were included. I knew Tolkien was a poet, but I'd never made any effort to read any of them outside of LOTR; I may have to go pick up a poetry book now. I was ex ...more
Claudio Escudero
Excelente libro. Trata con delicadeza y profundidad la influencia que tuvo la Gran Guerra en él y en su grupo de amigos íntimos. Describe la pérdida de inocencia en su trabajo y como el azar - su enfermedad - permitió que las generaciones posteriores contáramos con su obra (cuantos talentos se llevó la guerra y nunca sabremos!! )
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“To put the last point another way, writers such as Graves, Sassoon, and Owen saw the Great War as the disease, but Tolkien saw it as merely the symptom.” 1 likes
“Tolkien came to regard the tale of Beren and Tinuviel as 'the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, "the wheels of the world", are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak'. Such a worldview is inherent in the fairy-tale (and Christian) idea of the happy ending in which the dispossessed are restored to joy; but perhaps Tolkien was also struck by the way it had been borne out in the Great War, when ordinary people stepped out of ordinary lives to carry the fate of nations.” 0 likes
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