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

Information

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

Summary

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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Review

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

Lovely War by Julie Berry

Information

Goodreads: Lovely War
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: March 2019

Summary

Caught with Ares in a net, Aphrodite begins spinning a tale for her husband, a tale of two romances during WWI.  Hazel is a shy pianist.  James is an aspiring architect heading off to the front.  A chance encounter brings them together, but war may drive them apart.  Meanwhile. Aubrey is a ragtime musician heading off to fight in France.  And he has fallen for Colette, a Belgian girl with a tragic past.  Both couples long to be reunited when the war ends, but all of them know that hope fades fast in the trenches.

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Review

Lovely War is a beautiful, evocative romance, one that explores how the stress of war affects the lives of the young.  Hazel is a quiet pianist who dreams of attending conservatory, but finds herself serving as a volunteer entertainer in France.  James is an aspiring architect who faces the destruction of all his dreams in the trenches.  Collette is a Belgian volunteer trying to find meaning in life after the deaths of her family.  And James is  ragtime musician dreaming he might find more respect as a soldier than he found as a Black man in the U.S.  Their paths cross during the war and they quickly form strong connections.  But they are always faced with the reality that everything beautiful could end in a moment.

Although set primarily during WWI, the book shies away from some of the dark moments.  Death, dirt, and destruction are present, as is the constant racism James experiences as he tries to prove to his country that he is a soldier and a man.  Still, Wilfred Owen would perhaps not recognize this war, which always feels a little like it is being held at a distance.  The story is narrated largely by Aphrodite (with some help from Ares and others) and her concern is the romance, not the war.  Her interest in the fighting extends only so far as it affects the lives of the couples she wants to bring together.

Ultimately, Lovely War becomes a story about the power of love to accept others, even when they feel they are broken.  Each of the characters is changed by the war and each begins to think, at some point, that they are no longer worth loving. Aphrodite’s tale challenges the idea that only the strong, the brave, and the beautiful deserve romance.

Fans of historical fiction and of romance alike will be spellbound by this enchanting story.  It focuses on the characters, drawing readers into the everyday moments that ultimately make life worth living.  A gem among YA novels.

4 stars

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood by Nathan Hale

Information

Goodreads: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood
Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #4
Source: Purchased
Published: 2014

Summary

Nathan Hale condenses the history of WWI into an action-packed graphic novel, focusing mainly on the Western front.  Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale, along with the provost and the hangman, interject to add humorous commentary.

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Review

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales is a clever graphic novel series on various aspects of American history.  The premise is that Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale is about to be hanged when the gallows turns into a giant book that swallows him whole.  He is released with the knowledge of all history and begins spinning tales for the provost and the executioner–each one extending his life, much like Scheherazade.  Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood gives a fast-paced overview of WWI, focusing on the Western front for  purposes of condensation.  It proves an entertaining yet informative introduction to the war to end all wars.

This is the second Hazardous Tale I have read, the first being a biography of Harriet Tubman.  I found Harriet Tubman’s story moving, gripping, and inspiring.  It was a bit of jar to go from one person’s story to a book that determinedly attempts to cover an entire war (even as Nathan Hale protests this is pretty nigh impossible).  Simply keeping track of all the countries and the preliminary politics was daunting, even though Hale (at the irreverent request of the executioner) codes all the countries as different animals for easier identification.  Still, by the end, I felt like I had a better grasp on the war than I’d ever gotten in any history class.

Hale (the author) makes learning history positively fun with his keen sense of humor.  Spy-Hale narrates the history, but the executioner and the provost often interject, appearing in the gutters or in front of the panels to often commentary or ask questions for clarification.  The humor is perfect for the middle school audience I assume the books are targeted towards (though the often violent content matter means YA audiences can read the series and not feel like the history is being written for children).  It also provides sometimes much-needed relief from a topic that spy-Hale continually reminds us was a great tragedy, a loss of life at an unimaginable scale.

The Hazardous Tales are a wonderful way to engage readers with history.  They highlight often unknown aspects of the past, adding depth and complexity to topics that may have been covered superficially in school.  An excellent addition not only to classrooms but also to personal shelves.

3 Stars

One Man’s Initiation: 1917 by John Dos Passos

One Man's InitiationGoodreads: One Man’s Initiation: 1917
Source: Library

Review: In One Man’s Initiation: 1917, John Passos draws on his experience as an ambulance driver in World War I to offer the impressions of young American Martin Howe as he serves in the same capacity in France.  Comprised of a series of sketches dealing with experiences as varied as the destruction of a Gothic cathedral to the camaraderie of sharing a glass of wine, the work illustrates the growing disillusionment of Howe as he witnesses the devastation of war.

The book possesses an understated tone, seldom making direct observations about the events and people Howe witnesses, but expecting readers to understand Howe’s line of thought through illustration.  Howe does occasionally makes references to how silly it is for men to be shooting each other when they really have no quarrel, and, toward the end, engages in an extended conversation about religion, government, and the ability (or inability) of humanity to rule themselves.  The most powerful scenes, however, occur when Dos Passos shows, rather than tells; the readers understand the absurdity of war most when they get to experience it through Howe’s eyes.

One Man’s Initiation: 1917 presents an intimate glimpse into the life of an ambulance driver during World War I.  Although the emphasis lies heavily on the pointlessness of combat, glimpses of light sometimes glance through when Howe meets with the local inhabitants or experiences a rare quiet day in the sunlight.  The juxtaposition of beauty with ugliness, however, ultimately only illustrates more strikingly the irrationality of the whole affair.

Published: 1920

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Goodreads: Leviathan
Series: Leviathan #1

Summary: Prince Aleksander is fleeing for his life after the murders of his mother and father, the rulers of Austro-Hungary. Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy so she can serve in the British Air Service. The First World War is starting, and Alek and Deryn are not sure they are on the same side, but a series of events will bring them together on a surprising adventure.

Review: Leviathan started out slowly, taking time to build a world where Germany and her allies have invented machines that walk like animals and England and her allies rely on enormous fabricated species to do the work of machines. For the first 100 pages, I admit I was somewhat bored. However, after the scene is set, Westerfeld takes readers on a fairly exciting adventure complete with battles between the different Clanker and Darwinist technologies and a plethora of political and personal secrets. The story is populated with a great cast of characters, including Alek and his loyal followers, Deryn, a lady scientist!, and the Leviathan itself. The interactions between them are fascinating and sure to become more complex in the sequel. Though there was only the faintest whiff of a romance in Leviathan, that is obviously coming, too. Overall, Leviathan will be a good read for fans of history or science fiction and will be equally appealing to readers of either gender.

Also included are a number of fantastic illustrations of goose bump-inducing scenes by Keith Thompson and a note on the actual history of WWI for comparison with the story.

Published: 2009

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