Tolkien and the Great War is an amazing, fantastic book, providing an intimate portrait of World War I as experienced by the well-known author J.R.R. Tolkien. It also shows how the events of the war served as the genesis of many of his greatest creations, from the Marshes of the Dead to Samwise Gamgee and beyond.
Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson, and G. B. Smith formed a tight-knit friendship as schoolboys at King Edward’s School in Birmingham that continued after graduation. All were intellectually driven in one way or another and they passed each other’s work around for comments and advice. However, their world irreparably changed with the onset of the First World War. Tolkien was the last of the bunch to join up, because he wanted to finish his degree at Oxford first. But the gloom of the war was everywhere, and it was impossible for him not to be affected. Eventually he was sent to France, where he would see many of his friends met their ends, before coming down with trench fever and being invalidated back home.
It was with this backdrop that Tolkien began developing the languages, cultures, and mythologies that would bring him fame. There are many excerpts of his early works (mostly poetry) in the book to support the thesis, and it is remarkable how much his experience crept in and influenced his creation (note that much of this disappeared in later edits). But although the focus is on Tolkien, and to a certain extent on those in his inner circle, the book would also serve well as an introduction to the everyday soldier experience, one of violence, incompetence, banality, and heroism.
Especially worth noting is the Postscript, which attempts to place Tolkien’s writing in respect to that of his contemporaries, such as Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen as well as other veterans of other wars who also turned to fantasy to express the evil they’d seen in war, such as George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut. Although he may seem an outlier to the canon of Great War writers, it is more that he made the same decisions they did, only chose differently. To quote:
“The book recounts the piteous predicament of the soldier down in the battlefield mud, but it also tackles the themes that Wilfred Owen ruled off-limits: deeds, lands, glory, honour, might, majesty, as well as courage, under such stress that they often fracture, but are not utterly destroyed. Mindful, no doubt, of the schism of war literature into propaganda and protest, Lewis called The Lord of the Rings ‘a recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike’ that presides at ‘the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment.'” (p. 312)
Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the First World War, J.R.R. Tolkien, or the power of friendship when the whole world falls to pieces. There is much to appreciate, even for those with little interest in dwarves or fairies.
Review by Jennifer Stewart, Library Assistant, Corsicana Campus