Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth
‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’
(letter by G.B. Smith, from ‘a trench in Thiepval Wood’, Somme, 1916)
This solidly-crafted biography charts in meticulous detail the fellowship and harrowing experiences of four friends during the First World War: JRR Tolkien; Christopher Wiseman; Robert Gilson; and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who called themselves the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) formed when they were pupils of King Edwards School, Birmingham. Although Tolkien and the evolution of his legendarium is the ultimate focus, Garth lovingly brings alive the remarkable friendship enjoyed by the TCBS – from school to Oxbridge to the Trenches – and how its camaraderie and intellectual culture provided the terroir for Tolkien in developing the mythos and motivation for Middle Earth. For fans of Tolkien’s Secondary World there is exhaustive detail about its painstaking gestation – from the languages created out of philological interest, to the poems that first started to flesh out the world evoked by them, and then onto the Lost Tales and the first inklings of the Silmarillion. As an account of creative process the book is fascinating by itself and should be of interest to any writer (especially of imaginative fiction). However, what makes the book gripping and resonant is how ‘four went to war and how they fared’. It is a Boys’ Own story that collides with All Quiet on the Western Front. The chummy proceedings of an apparently elite coterie of white, male privilege might seem unappealing, but when one learns the details of their lives – the fact that Tolkien was orphaned and scraping by, for instance; or how they resisted the shallow irony and jingoistic rhetoric of their age; that they loved, and feared, and fell out, and faltered – then they become far more sympathetic. And whatever their politics or predilections, opportunities or opinions, they were human beings, fragile, unique consciousnesses, crushed by the wheels of war. Two of them survived, but were haunted by the trauma of combat and its toll for the rest of their lives – and the two who didn’t are emblematic of the millions of arrested narratives of the Lost Generation. Their unsung song gave Tolkien his MO, if he needed one beyond his philological obsession with invented languages. That he latched onto the ‘lost tales’ of Old English and attempted to stitch together their tantalising fragments, perhaps is telling though of someone who lost his parents, lost his closest friends, and lost the England he knew. The fact that he could have so easily lost his life in the bloodbath of the Somme, as so many did, is chilling. Even though we know he survives it tense to read these sections. One stray bullet or piece of shrapnel and that would have done for him and the books millions have come to love, the ‘book of the century’. And this is the heart of Garth’s argument – that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not mere escapism (although in a world gone mad a desire for that is possibly the sanest thing) but a bold rebuttal of all that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ stood for, and a lifetime’s effort to manifest the vision of the TCBS and all they stood for: aestheticism and accountability, colloquy and friendship, in defiance of the barbarism of the age. Tolkien’s project does not deny reality – he had endured its sharpest edge and was not naïve to its horrors – but seeks to transform it, by articulating its deepest patterns. In his work, the Great War became the Greater War, between cosmic forces of light and dark, good and evil – and, in contradiction to the common misreading of his work as being morally simplistic – he wove in flaws and nuances into his characters and cosmology. His was no mere Manichean universe. He did not believe in the divisive populism of his time, which sought to demonize Germans as the ‘Hun’, or the ‘Bosch’ (deeply aware of his own Anglo-German heritage, and of the common roots of those two nations). Both sides were morally culpable, both were tainted by the obscene crimes of war, and after his experiences in the Trenches he was in doubt as to the futility of armed conflict in resolving anything: ‘The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)…’ Beyond the scrupulous pathology the book offers in its fine scholarship and clear-eyed recounting of events, its strength lies in its defence Tolkien’s world, and by extension, of Fantasy as a genre, in which ‘Nihilism is replaced by a consolatory vision’ (p80). Garth argues convincingly for Fantasy’s robustness and validity: ‘In its capacity to warn about such extremes [e.g. the Totalitarianism that arises from the ashes of the First World War], fantastic fiction has the edge over what is called realism. ‘Realism’ has a knee-jerk tendency to avoid extremes as implausible, but ‘fantasy’ actually embraces them. It magnifies and clarifies the human condition.’ (p223) Fantasy can provide the long-view about what it means to be human: the Epic enables us to resituate ourselves within the myths we live by, reminding us of our soul’s song so easily lost in the white noise of the world. But rather than leading us away from manifest creation, it reunites us with it, with the ‘Secret Fire that burn[s] at the heart of the world.’ (p255) Tolkien, expressing the vision of the TCBS, said, as a 24 year old, that they ‘had been granted a spark of fire … that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.’ That vision has inspired millions, and, in this Age of Endarkenment, it is needed now more than ever.
Tolkien and the Great War: the threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, is published by Houghton Mifflin, 2003
Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2018
(thank you to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for the gift of this book)