Saturday, September 08, 2007


Book Notices, January/February 2006
From Touchstone Magazine

By John Garth
Houghton Mifflin, 2003
(398 pages, $14.00, paperback)

As John Garth, London journalist, notes, “how strange it is that J. R. R. Tolkien should have embarked upon his monumental mythology in the midst of the First World War, the crisis of disenchantment that shaped the modern era.” In what A. N. Wilson calls, “Very much the best book about J. R. R. Tolkien that has yet been written,” Garth tells how Tolkien’s experience of love, friendship, and war, were woven into his developing “legendarium.”

“I believe,” Garth writes, “that in creating his mythology, Tolkien salvaged from the wreck of history much that is good still to have, but that he did more than merely preserve the traditions of Faerie: he transformed them and reinvigorated them for the modern age.” To explain this, the author relates Tolkien’s war experience in impressive and original detail, based on extensive historical research.

Tolkien and the Great War focuses on Tolkien’s friendships with school mates who formed a club, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS, which began as a schoolboy exercise in mischief and “drollery” but eventually was refined into an intense four-person order devoted to “fortitude and courage and alliance” that somehow “could change the world.” All four fought in World War I; two survived.

Why was Tolkien not “disenchanted” by this dreadful experience as were others — Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, among writers — of his generation? Garth argues that Tolkien did not see irony as a virtue and that he refused to jettison the past in despair. Tolkien said that life in the trenches was “animal horror,” but in his work, Garth observes, “makes despair or ‘disenchantment’ the prelude to a redemptive restoration of meaning.”

— Frank Freeman

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