Review: Tolkien and the Great War

Previously on An Adventure in Tolkien: Andy Serkis absolutely wrecked me with his narration of LOTR in all the best ways.

I said this in my mini review for this month’s wrap-up, but my favorite thing in the world with reading is to not read a summary for something and make up what the book is in my head so that when I start reading it, I’m surprised by what I’m reading. And that’s exactly what I did here because I saw that this book was about Tolkien’s time in WWI, and I decided that meant we were going to see how WWI was echoed in his legendarium in Middle-earth, and that is just not what this was, and I loved it!

John Garth’s deep dive into Tolkien’s time in WWI is so many things. Often times, it’s almost a daily account of everything that Tolkien did and experienced, which is just incredible because it feels like the only way that Garth could know these things is if he was Tolkien himself, but our beloved John Ronald kept such meticulous notes and preserved so many letters that it is possible for us to see what his daily life was like during the war. But the way that Garth weaves through those individual days reminded me a lot of Humphrey Carpenter’s very familiar, easy way, and it felt like hearing a story from my grandfather.

The book begins long before the war, and while it’s immediately evident that that’s where we’re headed, and where we’re meant to stay for a while, Garth shows us who Tolkien was before because in order to properly discuss all that Tolkien experienced during the war, we need to know Tolkien as a young man, hellbent on finishing his education before he enlists in a war he doesn’t believe in and is horrified by. A lot of this, I’ve already read before in Carpenter’s biography, but it was so nice to read a different perspective of it, and Garth clearly was good friends with Carpenter because he refers to his biography often.

Garth has a very similar style to Carpenter, too, which, while it does feel familiar and gentle, it’s also very dense, and this takes some getting used to. It took me about twenty days to read this because of the style, which was really more just me not reading it for a week straight and diving into a contemporary romance instead, and I probably should have known what style I was getting into just because this is an old white man talking about a world war, but Garth is very fitting for a Tolkien story. He’s long-winded, very detail-oriented, and loves to wax poetic about anything and everything.

Elsewhere Tolkien did recall writing some of the mythology ‘down in dugouts under shell fire’, but it can have been little more than jotted ideas, outlines, or names. The anxieties of war, however, stoked the creative fires. His mind wandered through the world that started to evolve at Oxford and in the training camps, in his lexicon, and in his poems. As he later reflected, ‘I think a lot of this kind of work goes on at other (to say lower, deeper, or higher introduces a false gradation) levels, when one is saying how-do-you-do, or even “sleeping”.’

In a hole in the ground, pg 187

While I did really enjoy reading about Tolkien’s daily life during the war, I was obviously a lot more excited whenever there was a discussion on either Tolkien just writing in general or Middle-earth. And this quote, particularly, is something that resonates with me so much because YES THIS. One of my favorite episodes of The Big Bang Theory is when Sheldon wants to do a menial task so that he can force his brain to focus on something monotonous so the background can work on the real task at hand because that is exactly what writing is like. You’re driving in your car, frustrated by traffic, on your way to work, when you suddenly discover a way to fix a plot hole that’s been niggling at you for months now. And the idea that Tolkien was doing this during the war, slowly building the Middle-earth legendarium while he was in battle or marching through the trenches both breaks my heart and makes me dance with joy a little. Anytime that the insanity of LOTR somehow echoes back to how I write my own books is just so wonderful, but also thinking that he was in such a horrific place that he escaped by mentally writing while “under shell fire”–I just wish I could go back in time and save him from ever having to experience any kind of misfortunte.

There was another paragraph, too, about translating Qenya into English into Goldogrin, and I’m not going to quote it because it was a full page and a half, but it’s on pgs 212-213 in Castles in the air, and it just made me cackle. This man was literally creating several different languages and translating them into each other while he was signaling in the trenches in a world war. Which is really just what this book is in a nutshell. It’s short at only 350ish pages, but it feels like it’s a 600 page tome deep dive into WWI and how it effected not just Tolkien’s life, but the world at large, as well as the ramifications of those effects on literature and the style with which people wrote that literature. There’s so much in this. It’s translating Qenya into Goldogrin while in the trenches, but it’s also breaking apart how Morgoth might have been weaving his way into Tolkien’s writing while he was sick in the hospital and reflecting on all that had come before.

This was such an enjoyable read, though it was definitely a dense one. It’s a highly specific look at WWI that rambles off on tangents about philology and, for some reason, gives an entire outline of the early drafts of The Silmarillion, but if you’re a fan of Tolkien beyond the LOTR trilogy, this is definitely worth it.

Previously: The Lord of the Rings audiobook | Next: The Monsters & the Critics

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