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Summary

A new biography exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s wartime experiences and their impact on his life and his writing of The Lord of The Rings.

“To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than in 1939 … by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” So J.R.R. Tolkien responded to critics who saw The Lord of the Rings as a reaction to the Second World War.

Tolkien and the Great War tells for the first time the full story of how he embarked on the creation of Middle-earth in his youth as the world around him was plunged into catastrophe. This biography reveals the horror and heroism that he experienced as a signals officer in the Battle of the Somme and introduces the circle of friends who spurred his mythology to life. It shows how, after two of these brilliant young men were killed, Tolkien pursued the dream they had all shared by launching his epic of good and evil.

John Garth argues that the foundation of tragic experience in the First World War is the key to Middle-earth’s enduring power. Tolkien used his mythic imagination not to escape from reality but to reflect and transform the cataclysm of his generation. While his contemporaries surrendered to disillusionment, he kept enchantment alive, reshaping an entire literary tradition into a form that resonates to this day.

This is the first substantially new biography of Tolkien since 1977, meticulously researched and distilled from his personal wartime papers and a multitude of other sources.

©2011 John Garth (P)2011 HarperCollins Publishers Limited

Critic reviews

"Very much the best book about JRR Tolkien that has yet been written. Even if you are not a Lord of the Rings fan, I commend this book to you. It is all so interesting in itself, and I have rarely read a book which so intelligently graphed the relation between a writer's inner life and his outward circumstances." (A.N.Wilson, Evening Standard)

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A deep insight in the creative process of a genius

Well written, well documented and the narration, by the author (with supposedly no training in this craft) is quite excellent.

During the listening, old pangs of nostalgia felt when I first read Tolkien came up.

Very well done.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

Powerful and profound

One of the half dozen best books ever written about Tolkien; and indeed one of the best books about friendship, war, and the formation and nature of a genius. This audio version is well read by the author, who has a rare gift for speaking poetry. Listening to Tolkien and the Great War moved me to tears more than once, despite that I already owned and knew the paper version - this brings an extra dimension.

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  • Timothy Ortopan
  • 09-05-18

Excellent Text Frustratingly Recorded

The text of this title is remarkable and the performance is also quite good, but for reasons that not clear the audible chapters do not correspond to the actual chapters of the book. This makes it very difficult to alternate reading and listening to the text. The chapters of the recording are seemingly random and are not connected to the subject at all. I find this makes for an incredibly frustrating listening experience. I have no idea why audible would insert the chapter divides this way, but I hope that they never do this again. I have been a member for almost five years and this is the only title I have encountered where this has been done.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Wes
  • 26-04-18

I enjoyed every minute!

Part biography. Part literary analysis. John Garth is a brilliant scholar. He has a deep understanding of Tolkien and his scholarship and literature.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Katie Archambeault
  • 06-08-18

Tolkien and the Great War

An enlightening read into the life and and experiences of Tolkien. It is well worth your time to read this and to have a greater appreciation for his works.

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  • E.F.B.
  • 03-08-18

Excellent biography!

Note: I decided to pair the physical copy of this book with the audio version and found reading and listening at the same time was very helpful in keeping my focus and helping me progress through this book without getting slowed down or distracted. The author of the book actually narrates the audiobook, which is something I always really enjoy.

An excellent read for this Tolkien fan!

This being non-fiction, and me not reading non-fiction nearly as much as fiction, I’m always a little unsure how to write my review. I guess I’ll start by saying that I thought it was very well-written, well-researched, well-paced, and interesting enough that I never once got bored or wanted to skip ahead even though I already knew some of the information being conveyed. There were some new things too, though, such as more details about the TCBS (a close-knit group of friends and writing critique partners Tolkien was a part of in his college days) than I ever knew before and enjoyed learning. I also loved that the author included excerpts of Tolkien’s poetry where appropriate to make points and show how Tolkien’s writings developed over time, and I very much enjoyed reading them and discovering his inspiration for them.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable non-fiction read for me and I happily give it 5 stars.

I would recommend this book both to long time Tolkien fans who are curious about his life, especially his experiences in WWI and their influence on his writings, and to people who are new fans, or maybe not even fans at all, but are still curious about this well-known person and his life. You don’t necessarily have to have read any, much less all of Tolkien’s works in order to get something from this book (though knowing at least some of his works will certainly add depth to what you learn here) as the author tells the audience just as much as is needed in order to show what he’s wanting to show.

Content advisory: I personally would recommend this book for ages 12+ simply because of how intellectual it is and the fact that, unless they were very curious and at an advanced reading level, children younger than that simply probably wouldn’t be interested in a book like this or be able to fully comprehend it to appreciate it. Otherwise, there is very little content of concern for younger readers.

Language: One instance of the word d****d in a brief quote from Tolkien. I don’t recall any other swear words.

Violence: There is talk of war and combat throughout, but the author keeps it very matter-of-fact, never going into icky detail, while still communicating what happened in various battles and such.

Worldviews: Again, the author simply reports the facts and doesn’t give his own opinion on things.

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  • Culpie
  • 11-12-16

Enjoyed the insight

Very interesting to get a deeper look into the great War and it's effect on JRR. Very much enjoyed this book!

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  • Benjamin
  • 04-12-15

Great on every level

Tolkien and the Great War sheds new light on the influence of the Great War on Tolkiens thinking and writing through an astonishing amount of research.

Especially the comparison of him to the well known Great War Poets is enlightening.

The reader does an amazing job at delivering the often harrowing story of the expierience of an entire generation.

The only complaint is the butchering of the pronounciation of german names.

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  • J. Matthew Melton
  • 29-05-15

A touching and revealing narrative

John Garth's reading of his book strikes perfect notes in the moving story of Tolkien and the other brilliant young minds who went to war in 1914. The fall of each of his friends resounds and echoes in Tolkien's own heartrending creations. Garth's recounting of the intimate details of how the War experience shaped Tolkien's work is itself a work of painstaking craftsmanship. His reading is remarkably suited to his subject. Superb.

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  • Troy
  • 25-09-14

Incredible Scholarship

Many a Tolkien fan knows that Middle Earth was forged by the fires of World War I. Some of the Tolkien scholars out there will even know a great deal about what's in this book. But what will separate this book from others is witnessing how Middle Earth evolves in parallel to Tolkien's life and service during the war. Sometimes that evolution is followed line by line, such is the detail level of this volume. Literary geeks, this book's for you.

Casual fans will likely find this book to be easy to follow, but too in-depth for their tastes. If you're one of the 3% of uber-fans who own, understand, and even recite The Silmarillion, you may be on your way to sharing a drink with the author. I personally fall somewhere in between as someone who appreciates the world and its evolution at all levels, loves the history, but often finds it overwhelming at the same time. That's part of why I love it, precisely because it is challenging and welcoming at the same time. For me, this book offered some incredible insight into the creative process and filled in a number of gaps in what I thought I already knew. Regardless on where you stand in your geekdom, it would be next to impossible to walk away from this book without having learned something new and deeply personal.

This is one of those books, however, where the narration is average, just average, really average. It's not bad, just lifeless, which is often the biggest criticism I have when an author reads the work themselves. Some can do it well, most can't or simply don't. In a way, it actually fits, seeing as how Tolkien's readings of his own work were equally as lifeless. I can say that because I've actually heard a couple of recordings, and it sounded like he couldn't wait to break away from the audience and return to world-building. Back to the point, a narrator that doesn't sound like a first-time news reporter would be a welcome addition to a work like this.