Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

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Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Tolkien and the Great War


Goodreads: Tolkien and the Great War
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2005


John Garth traces the influence of Tolkien’s early friendships and his experiences in WWI, and how they shaped his mythology.

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John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War is groundbreaking look at the ways in which J. R. R. Tolkien’s early friendships and experiences in WWI influenced his later mythology. Most works tend to focus on Tolkien’s later years, the influence of C. S. Lewis and the Inklings on his writing, and the development of Middle-earth through various drafts. Garth, however, argues that the roots of Tolkien’s work can be found in his grammar school and college days, as well as in his response to the War to End All Wars. Tolkien and the Great War is a thought-provoking analysis that positions Tolkien’s work, not as an aberration during a period of disenchantment, but as an alternative response to the hopelessness espoused by so many canonical WWI writers.

Much has been made of J. R. R. Tolkien’s friendship with C. S. Lewis and his involvement in a writing group known as the Inklings. Before the Inklings, however, was the T.C.B.S or Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the core members of whom were Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Gilson, and Christopher Wiseman (after whom Tolkien would name one of his sons). The four engaged in deep philosophical and theological arguments, not always agreeing, but always pushing each other towards greater understandings of their positions. Tolkien believed, along with the others, that the members of the T.C.B.S. were destined for greatness. Part of that greatness would be re-Christianizing society through art. It is this friendship, and that belief, that would ultimately, Garth suggests, form the core of Tolkien’s mythology.

WWI, however, was not a good time to be young, especially for young men in pr just out of college. Tolkien was in a demographic whose chances of survival during the war were significantly lower than most. Before the war’s end, Smith and Gilson would both be dead. Garth notes that Tolkien later refers to the loss of all but one of his closest friends when responding to critics who saw The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for WWII. Tolkien, Garth argues, wants readers to look farther back, back to WWI.

Garth’s analysis of The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth as WWI writings is especially interesting because, as Garth notes, the WWI writers we have canonized (such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen) present a philosophy much different than Tolkien’s. For such writers, WWI was a pointless waste of life. Their poems are full of disillusionment and bitterness. However, Garth reminds readers that not all veterans of WWI saw the conflict in this light. Some resented the idea that their sacrifices were pointless and others wished to see and remember the honor and the glory. Tolkien’s work, understood as part of the outpouring of WWI literature, seems to straddle these perspectives, offering a vision of world where victory seems doomed from the start, but where Men and their allies fight on anyway. It is a medieval perspective, made relevant again by the experiences of Tolkien’s generations. Fighting may be ugly and it may be pointless, but there is honor and goodness left in the world, as well.

Tolkien and the Great War is a masterful piece of Tolkien criticism, challenging the way in which readers view Tolkien’s life work. It is a must read for anyone interested in Tolkien’s biography or in his work.

5 stars

6 thoughts on “Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

  1. Greg says:

    This sounds great, and the examination of WWI and the feelings of futility vs hope definitely make me want to know more, especially given the often- remarked upon “long melancholy” atmosphere that many people refer to in LotR. The sense that evil can never be fully defeated in this life but it can always be fought and there is good in doing so.

    I’m also pretty unfamiliar with Tolkien’s early life so that makes me want to explore this as well.


  2. marydrover says:

    This review is absolutely stunning, and it’s made me want to read this immediately! I’ve read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, but this sounds like such a fantastic companion to Tolkien’s work that I might just be begging for it for my birthday on Sunday!


  3. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I am much more inclined to read this now that I’ve read JRR Tolkien: A Biography. Carpenter explores the same timeframe Garth does with, certainly less, detail and makes many connections to how these moments of Tolkien’s life heavily influenced the mythology he ended up writing. I find it most interesting that Tolkien admired the Germans but felt they were manipulated to doing wrong in the world. I see this in the influence the Ring has on mortal men. There are so many little details to explore; I look forward to reading this one day.


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