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

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  808 ratings  ·  53 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,...more
Hardcover, 398 pages
Published December 30th 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2003)
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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...more
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...more
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...more
Sep 04, 2014 ^ 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...more
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...more
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
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...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
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.
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.
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...more
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...more
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...more
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 inf...more
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...more
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
Talbot Hook
This book is really the first I've read that has bothered to cover this period of Tolkien's life in such depth, and it is terribly sad. Aside from the well-documented loss of innocence and waste of life so present in the works of the period's major poets, it chronicles the history of the TCBS, and the ultimate annihilation of their collective aspirations and mutual feelings. How very depressing that is.
Theo Logos
Tolkien and the Great War reads unevenly. Large sections are almost unbearably plodding, while others are vibrant, providing flashes of insight into the genesis of Tolkien's genius.
For me, the best of this book is saved for last. In the author's postscript, he argues that, far from being mere escapism, Tolkien's writings were a valid counterpoint to the modernism that emerged from the Great War. Rather than discarding the romantic forms that Paul Fussell labelled as; "tutors in high diction to t...more
Jack Hope III
A very interesting look at the famous author and his school friends before and during World War One. Compared to the slaughter at the Battle of the Somme, I see how modern warfare is often described as "surgical" in it's precision. I recommend this biography to anyone with a an interest in JRR Tolkien, and less so for those interested in a history of the "Great War." John Garth spends a lot of the book discussing Tolkien's early poetry and epic prose, so those only interested in the general hist...more
Very interesting look at Tolkien and his friends' lives in the years leading up to WWI, and day to day accounts of Tolkien's four months on the front, including his reaction to the deaths of several of his close friends. It is well-written and compelling.

I found Garth's Epilogue on Tolkien's immediate post-War, invalid-status writings, especially the poetry, Cottage of Lost Play, and Book of Lost Tales to be especially relevant to the course I'm currently taking.* Been reading the same stories i...more
An incredible work, that almost makes me wish I had stayed an English major all those years ago. Although I have read Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, this book makes me want to work my way through the Silmarillion and the Book of Lost Tales--something I've been reluctant to do. Probably the best part of this book is not the extensive and detailed biography of Tolkien during the Great War years but the concluding essay which places Tolkien's work in the context of other Great War writers (Owen,...more
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
  • Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World
  • The History of the Hobbit, Part One: Mr. Baggins
  • The Monsters and the Critics and other essays
  • The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
  • The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion
  • Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of a Friendship
  • Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism
  • The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends
  • Meditations on Middle Earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings
  • Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues : Exploring the Spiritual Themes of the Lord of the Rings
  • Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life
  • A Gateway to Sindarin: A Grammar of an Elvish Language from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
  • The Journeys Of Frodo
  • The Maps of Tolkien's Middle-earth
  • The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings
Tolkien. La luce e l'ombra

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“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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