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

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  6,220 Ratings  ·  105 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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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. King 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 Gilso
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
BAM The Bibliomaniac
DOES ANYONE REALIZE HOW CLOSE WE WERE TO LOSING TOLKIEN?!?!?? Can you imagine a world without his Hobbits, his elves, his orcs?
The man is a genius, not just a literary genius, but an absolute linguistic pedant. I finished this book simply fascinated and now I want to learn Norse, Welsh, Latin, and Greek. Not only have I gained a better understanding of the warfront during WWI, but I also appreciate the gifts Tolkien gave to us more than ever. I will cherish this book. A perfect audio read becau
Apr 08, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
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
Mar 30, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: spring2010
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
Neil Coulter
I read Tolkien and the Great War as part of a group read with the Tolkien group on Goodreads, and I'm so glad I did. I've read a lot of books about Tolkien, and this is one of the very best. Garth delves into the biographical details of Tolkien's youth and young adulthood, looking especially at Tolkien's friendship with three other schoolmates: G. B. Smith, Rob Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman. Together, these four formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), a brotherhood dedicated to rekin ...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
Apr 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really found this book very interesting. He ties events going on in the war and his friendships to themes and ideas being developed in Tolkien's imaginative world. There are some really powerful ideas to think about.
I probably have in-mind something more like 4.75 stars. This is a phenomenal history, a heck of a book.
Feb 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  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
Nicholas Whyte
Oct 21, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition[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
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
Robert Krenzel
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was inspired to read this book after hearing John Garth speak at the National WWI Museum about how the Somme Battle affected Tolkien's writing. The discussion opened my eyes to how my own experiences of war have shaped my own writing, and I hoped for more insights. It took a while, but this book ultimately delivered.

The author takes us through Tolkien's life, exploring in great detail his relationship with his three friends of the "TCBS." I felt at times this discussion dragged on and chased a
Mar 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jul 26, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Berni Phillips
Oct 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow. When this first came out, I had no interest in reading it. I thought it would be very dry and not all that relevant. Boy, was I wrong!

After reading this, I feel I have a much greater understanding of Tolkien and his works and interests. I knew, of course, that he had fought in WWI and that it had a profound impact on his life (losing most of his friends) and viewpoint. I was not aware that it was during this time that he was doing a great deal of work developing his original languages, Quen
Tommy Grooms
Feb 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Shellie Kennedy
Aug 26, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: tolkien
I guess I'm not a big World War I fan, some of the history information bored me. But I really enjoyed learning about the bond between Tolkien and his closest friends at the time he began writing his mythology. The Inklings are the group who history would remember but it was the TCSB that sparked the imagination which Tolkien would use. These friendships were embedded in his life forever and they were in some ways the strongest. John Garth does an excellent job of weaving Tolkien's personal, scho ...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
Logan Whitley
Mar 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Claudio Escudero
Mar 06, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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!! )
Jul 18, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  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.
Steve Hawley
Aug 31, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
excellent historical work on Tolkien's WWI experience and how/where that may have shaped his sub-creation work on Middle Earth. Really well done and well written.
Laurel Hicks
Superb analysis of Tolkien's place in literature. The best part is the Epilogue.

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.
Anthony Burdge
May 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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
A very interesting and thorough look on the relationship between the First World War (then known as the Great War, or the War to end all Wars) and the creation of the mythology as well as languages of Middle-Earth. It does start out a bit slow, detailing Tolkien's friendships and schoolyears leasing up to the war, but it later shows why Garth starts there. It's not just the war experiences that spark Tolkien's creativity, rather it provided the final piece of the puzzle alongside his deep love o ...more
Paul McDonald
Sep 07, 2017 rated it liked it
Well written and thorough, this also bogs down into the philology and language building of the world Tolkien created. The best parts were the story of Tolkien and his friends in the war. The book dragged through the initial poetry and building of the language. Only for hardcore philology and Tolkien fans. Otherwise, look elsewhere
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J.R.R. Tolkien: Group Read July-September 2015: Tolkien and the Great War 18 79 Nov 07, 2015 02:06PM  
  • Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World
  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
  • The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
  • The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends
  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings
  • Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of a Friendship
  • The History of the Hobbit, Part Two: Return to Bag-End
  • Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life
  • The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings
  • J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth
  • Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism
  • The Journeys of Frodo
  • Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of the Lord of the Rings
  • The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth
  • Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
  • Christian Mythmakers: C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Dante Alighieri, John Bunyan, Walter Wangerin, Robert Siegel, and Hannah Hurnard
  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator

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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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