Moira Russell's Reviews > Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth
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bookshelves: ebook, on-the-kindle, gifts

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 pessimistic Graves/Sassoon/Owen poetry. (Fussell does this a bit, but, as Garth correctly points out, he is clearly on the side of the pessimists.) This book also explains Tolkien's personal literary theory more clearly than any book I've read so far, including Carpenter's biography. It was easier for me to understand why Tolkien insisted LOTR was not allegory, i.e. Sauron was not Hitler/Stalin dressed up in a funny medieval hat. Also, clearly one reason Tolkien had such a problem with Lewis's Narnia series wasn't just the mixing together of Christian myths and Santa Claus, but the straight-up allegory of Aslan = Christ. Tolkien wasn't that happy about the modern literary critical technique of mapping personal experience to artwork, either, but I like to think he would have liked this dignified and respectful approach to how his own searing personal battles influenced the mythic ones he wrote out.


Supplemental reading from John Garth's website:

Chronology of Tolkien in the Battle of the Somme

Corrections and clarifications

Tolkien, Exeter College and the Great War (supplementary chapter)

Article: "Tolkien fantasy was born in the trenches"


‘As under a green sea’: visions of war in the Dead Marshes, in The Ring Goes Ever On: Proceedings of the 2005 Tolkien Conference, ed. Sarah Wells (Tolkien Society, 2008), and (in slightly expanded form) in Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings, ed. Eduardo Segura and Thomas Honegger (Zürich: Walking Tree, 2007).

Frodo and the Great War, in The Lord of the Rings, 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006). Presented at Marquette University, 2004. Revised version forthcoming in the proceedings of the Hungarian Tolkien Society’s Budapest 2012 conference.
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Reading Progress

April 2, 2013 – Shelved
April 2, 2013 – Shelved as: ebook
April 2, 2013 – Shelved as: on-the-kindle
April 2, 2013 – Shelved as: gifts
April 12, 2013 – Started Reading
April 12, 2013 –
0.0% "'Of every eight men mobilized in Britain during the First World War, one was killed.' Well, I'm sure this won't be heartbreaking."
April 12, 2013 –
0.0% "'By 1918,' Tolkien wrote half a century later in his preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, 'all but one of my close friends were dead.' Totally not heartbreaking!"
April 12, 2013 –
13.0% "One small quibble: the "footnotes" are only underlined bits of text with no numbers at all, so it is impossible to refer back to them in the text. But that is not the author's fault."
April 12, 2013 –
13.0% "'The language of the Kalevala had long been supplanting the earlier primacy of Gothic in his philological heart.' <33 Ron (and this author)"
April 12, 2013 –
17.0% "Aha! FINALLY he mentions Graves's first collection of poetry. No mention of Yeats, tho, who might have influenced early Tolkien?"
April 13, 2013 –
45.0% "' surgeon Major Leonard Gamgee....a relative of the famous Sampson Gamgee who had invented, and given his name to, surgical gamgee-tissue, mentioned by Tolkien as the source of Sam Gamgee's surname in The Lord of the Rings.' (SAM <333 )"
April 13, 2013 –
45.0% "'So far as poetry communicates feeling, (the language of military orders and reports) was the reverse of poetry.' This really is quite quite good."
April 13, 2013 –
45.0% "'The Times's own correspondent, Philip Gibbs, wrote later that the advance of tanks on the Somme was "like fairy-tales of war by H.G. Wells."'"
April 13, 2013 –
52.0% "'The War Office pen-pusher responsible had failed to take note not only that Lieutenant Tolkien was laid up in hospital, but also that his service battalion had effectively ceased to exist.'"
April 13, 2013 –
60.0% "'Left to his own devices it seems quite likely that Tolkien would never have finished a single book in his life. What he needed were publishers' deadlines and a keen audience.'"
April 13, 2013 –
62.0% "'Tolkien's stylistic values reverse Ezra Pound's famous modernist exhortation to "Make it new!" To Tolkien, language accumulated qualities that could not be replaced and ought not to be lightly discarded.'"
April 13, 2013 –
62.0% "'....truth should never be the property of one literary mode, any more than it should be the monopoly of one authoritarian voice.'"
April 13, 2013 –
90.0% "'The pagination of this electronic edition does not match the edition from which it was created' SIGH"
April 13, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Elizabeth wrote: "This is a really nice review, Moira.

Aww thank you! (Not a patch on yours, tho, which I was just rereading - awesome, I wish I could have liked it twice.)

You captured that point about Sauron really well - he was not just Hitler in a funny, medieval hat."

I think that's hard for modern readers to understand, or at least it was for me for a good long while -- Frodo = Christ! Sauron = the Devil! The Ring = I dunno, a nuclear warhead! But Tolkien was really after something quite different. And Garth explained it quite movingly, even beautifully. I was really impressed.

Audra (Unabridged Chick) This almost makes me want to give the LOTR books a try!

message 3: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Audra (Unabridged Chick) wrote: "This almost makes me want to give the LOTR books a try!"

Heh, actually he's talking a lot about Tolkien's writing pre-LOTR and even before The Hobbit. I don't love the LOTR books - I grew up on them, and reread them around when the first movie came out - but even then, this book was still really gripping.

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