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

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3.70  ·  Rating details ·  6,386 ratings  ·  139 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,
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Hardcover, 398 pages
Published December 30th 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2003)
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3.70  · 
Rating details
 ·  6,386 ratings  ·  139 reviews


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Terry
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
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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
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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
Christopher
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
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Tim O'Neill
Dec 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings came at the top of a string of "best/favourite books of the twentieth century" lists in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was predictable harrumphing from some guardians of literary taste. People like Germaine Greer sneered loudly that the hoi polloi simply couldn't be trusted with this sort of thing, though her comments made it clear she had only a vague idea why she was so certain Tolkien's stuff was "tosh". She seemed to think he was a Nazi sympathiser ( ...more
Stephanie
Jan 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I’ve got chills tbh
Neil R. 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
Laura
Aug 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I can't speak highly enough of this book. The amount of detailed biographical research alone would make it invaluable to anyone interested in Tolkien (or, for that matter, in the experience of the generation of university students who fought in World War I). I only wish we had two or three more volumes coming from him, to cover the rest of Tolkien's life, a deep-dive utilizing the research tools and resources of the twenty-first-century, ala what Mark Lewisohn is doing for the Beatles (ETA: YE G ...more
Tara
Why it took me so long to read this I cannot say. It had been on the back burner for me, and only really pushed to the forefront as I am seeing the author at a conference in a few weeks. To say that this book spoke to me in a way that only a small handful of books have done would be an understatement. I have long been fascinated both by Tolkien and military history, so it was a natural pairing. But beyond that, you cannot read this book without feeling a sense of the utter tragedy of youth and p ...more
Brenton
Jun 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016-books
See a partial review here: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2019/05/...
Elizabeth
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
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Edoardo Albert
Jan 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are three essential works for anyone interested in going deeper into Tolkien’s writing and thought: Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tom Shippey’s philological appreciation, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. While Tolkien, famously and justly, abhorred the mining of an author’s life for the coal seam of his literary material, Garth’s study of Tolkien’s war, and that of the other three members of the youthful coterie that had gathered around him, ...more
Katherine
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
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E.F.B.
Jun 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to E.F.B. by: Mary
Note: I decided to pair the physical copy of this book with the audio version and found reading and listening at the same time was very helpful in keeping my focus and helping me progress through this book without getting slowed down or distracted. The author of the book actually narrates the audiobook, which is something I always really enjoy.


An excellent read for this Tolkien fan! Thanks again for recommending and gifting it to me, Mary! :) <3

This being non-fiction, and me not reading non-f
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Benjamin Phillips
May 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019-books
A very good examination of Prof. Tolkien’s time up to and in the Great War and how it impacted his philology and writing endeavors. Would recommend.
Talbot Hook
Apr 28, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
2014: 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.

2018: Answering the unbidden call to read this again (perhaps it was a necessary way to
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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
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Curtis
Sep 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Tolkien as an artist.
Christen
May 11, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Excellent. Although I come from a class of reader who actively avoids the biographies of beloved authors, nevertheless I feel that this book has enriched my understanding of Tolkien for the better. I feel like I was given a rare glimpse into a group of friends whose idealism was tragically shattered. Their story, and Tolkien's story, moved me.
Laura
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.
Josh
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
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Nicholas Whyte
Oct 21, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
http://nhw.livejournal.com/325040.html[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
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Yvonne Aburrow
Mar 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

This was recommended to me by Dave Llewellyn-Dodds, one of the small community of regular commenters on Brenton Dickieson’s blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia. It is an excellent and well written analysis of how Tolkien’s experiences just prior to, and during, the First World War, fed into his creative process. It does not try to claim that there is any direct allegory (as any serious fan of Tolkien knows, he hated allegory) but rather explores how his vision of Middle-Earth was deepened and expanded by

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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
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Rebecca
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
Erin Miller
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
...more
Emily
Apr 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: inklings-studies
This book was even better the second time through. It’s absolutely full of information and thoughtful dot-connecting.
When I first read it three years ago, I’m sure I didn’t even absorb half of all the excellent content. In the ensuing years I’ve accrued a lot more knowledge about Tolkien’s life and works from other sources, enabling the content of Garth’s book to shine out even more clearly.
Garth’s description of the TCBS members, their ideas, and their experiences in the Great War is moving a
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J.R.R. Tolkien: Group Read July-September 2015: Tolkien and the Great War 18 80 Nov 07, 2015 02:06PM  

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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.” 3 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.” 2 likes
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