Before the Inklings, there were the TCBSers – the members of the Tea Cake and Barrovian Society, as they called themselves, at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. While many of the school boys joined the group, four stood out – Christopher Wiseman, G.B. Smith, Rob Gilson, and J.R.R. Tolkien, called “John Ronald” by his friends.
Tolkien was two years older than the others, and would leave for Oxford in 1913. But by 1916, all four would be caught up in the defining event of their lives – the Great War, or World War I. Two of the four would survive. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth, first published in 2004, is the story of Tolkien and how he began the literary and scholastic journey that would eventually lead to The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. But it is also the story of the four friends, because their friendship, their debates, their discussions, and their encouragement of one another would be critical in setting Tolkien on his path.
The reader knows from the first page of the prologue that this is an outstanding book: “It is December 16th, nearly the dead of winter. Chill gusts buffet the flanks and faces of the attackers struggling to advance across a bare hundred yards or so of mud. They are a ramshackle group, some of them mere novices. The minute these young men muster a concerted effort, a few veterans press forward with all their energy and skill. But most of the time there is chaos.”
Tolkien is the captain. Garth is describing a rugby game in late 1913, some eight months before the Great War will begin. But that rugby game will not be unlike what Tolkien and his friends will experience in the war. Tolkien himself will not join until the war is well underway. The most significant action he will see is during the Battle of the Somme, the four-and-a-half-month battle lasting from July 1 to Nov. 18 of 1916, the battle that would see some three million men engaged and more than one million wounded and dead. And the end result was, at best, inconclusive – a few hundred yards of mud gained.
Garth explains how Tolkien first became interested in the folklore and languages of the “Old North,” or northern Europe, including the Scandinavian countries. It was early that he started inventing his own languages, including the one that would become “Elfin.” Garth details in depth how important the idea of “place” was in Tolkien’s thinking. And while Tolkien never considered himself a poet, he was writing poetry through his school days, early Oxford days, and into the war period, and poetry helped to crystallize his thinking. The author also calls Tolkien “this most dissident of 20th century writers” – a reference to his focus on Norse and medieval literature, not exactly what most young literature scholars were doing at the time.
Tolkien would be laid low by trench fever, a malady brought on by the bites of lice, one of the worst plagues of trench warfare on both sides of the conflict. Part of his recuperation period is spent at a hospital in Birmingham. The army surgeon working there would give his last name to one of Tolkien’s most famous (and revered) characters – Major Leonard Gamgee. But by this time, Tolkien knows his friends have died, one in battle and the other from a gas gangrene infection. Garth says the death of G.B. Smith would leave a hole in Tolkien’s friendships that would not be filled until he met C.S. Lewis.
Garth has spent more than 25 years in journalism, and has reviewed books for The Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The Observer, The Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He writes regularly for the journal Tolkien Studies and is a frequent speaker on Tolkien and related military subjects. He is also the author of Tolkien at Exeter College (2015). Tolkien and the Great War won the Mythopoeic Award for Scholarship in 2004.
Tolkien and the Great War is one of those rare works that come along once in a very great while. It is a work that has added immeasurably to our understanding of Tolkien and the worlds he created, and also places the impact of the Great War upon him in its rightful context.
Top photograph: a photograph of J.R.R. Tolkien during World War I.