Since the appearance of John Garth’s excellent Tolkien and the Great War in 2003, a number of scholars and writers have explored the role and influence of war on the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and other members of the Inklings. In reviewing Mr. Garth’s book when it came out, I noted that the author wielded a proper love and admiration for his subject. “Middle-earth, I suspect, looks so engagingly familiar to us, and speaks so eloquently, because it was born with the modern world and marked by the same terrible birth pangs,” he wrote. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings “stands as the fruition of the TCBSian [Tolkien’s first literary group—while in high school] dream, a light drawn from ancient sources to illuminate a darkening world.”
The influence of war on a writer is by no means a new theme. After all, the origins of western literature can be found in the Iliad.
Tolkien himself admitted several times toward the end of his life that the war shaped him profoundly.
“The war made me poignantly aware of the beauty of the world I remember,” Tolkien remembered in 1968. “Miles and miles of seething, tortured earth, perhaps best described in the chapters about the approaches to Mordor. It was a searing experience.” Distraught by the effects of the war on himself, his friends, and western civilization, Tolkien conceived The Silmarillion in “grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.”
Here is Tolkien’s description of the passages to Mordor across the Dead Marshes:
Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-land, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces, some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were chocked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light (Tolkien, The Two Towers).
C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s closest friend in his adulthood, suggested that only an actual soldier in the Great War could have written this.
As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, the importance of that war’s impact on Tolkien’s circle has become of vital interest to those who love and study the Inklings. Indeed, over the past decade especially, it would be nearly impossible to write a serious book about anyone of the Inklings without taking into account the effect the war had on that member, in particular. Of the major Inklings, only Charles Williams avoided military service.
Shortly after Mr. Garth published his monumental Tolkien and the Great War, Sir Martin Gilbert, a personal friend and colleague of Tolkien at Merton in the early 1960s, wrote the definitive The Somme, following, at least in part, the exploits of the author of the Middle-earth mythology in the trenches of that modern horror.
This year, two books dealing with Tolkien and his experiences in the war have appeared and are worth our attention. One has garnered immense praise and publicity, while the other has been nearly ignored. Justice would demand exactly the opposite reactions, but such are things in this vale of tears.
The book that has attracted so much attention is A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War by historian Joseph Loconte. The book that has failed to gain the attention it so justly demands is Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, edited by Janet Brennan Croft.
I do not know Mr. Loconte, and I very much hate denigrating a book—a book that presumably came into being out of some love for a subject I love so dearly—but, try as I might, I can find almost nothing redeeming in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. It has the feel of a book rushed to press simply because: 1) the author needed to publish something; and 2) the press wanted to capitalize on the centenary of World War I. Mr. Loconte’s book possesses neither love nor imagination. Not only does he have almost nothing new to contribute to the discussion on Tolkien and Lewis, but he also, in some critical ways, actually regresses the ongoing conversation about the Inklings. Never in the book does the author seem to grasp the essence of Tolkien or Lewis, their unrelenting drive to discover (or rediscover) what is beautiful, or even to present a chronological narrative that makes logical sense. “Yet for two extraordinary authors and friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Great War deepened their spiritual quest.” This seems to be the thesis of the book, though, of course, Tolkien had converted to Catholicism as a young boy and was raised by Newman’s priests after his mother died, and Lewis despised Christianity until a conversation with Tolkien late in 1931. Lewis and Tolkien would not even meet until 1926, nearly a decade after their experiences on the war-torn continent. The leaps that Mr. Loconte has to make are simply bizarre. Taken as a whole, it feels like a poorly-constructed and poorly-researched sermon, complete with Bible exhortations and wrong-headed moral lessons. Rarely does a book make me so angry.
The other book, Baptism of Fire, is simply gorgeous. It actually radiates goodness, humility, and longing. A life-long lover and scholar of Tolkien and a professional librarian, Janet Brennan Croft has been exploring the varied works of Tolkien and the Inklings throughout her professional life. Well versed in the biography of Tolkien and those of his companions, as well as the bibliography surrounding every member of the Inklings, Croft brings together a series of essays and contributors that actually advances our understanding of the Great War and of the Inklings. From the opening lines of her introduction to the fine considerations of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (Frodo), modern heroism (Faramir), medieval heroism (Children of Hurin), deception (Smeagol and Deagol), nationalism, and a myriad of other topics, Baptism of Fire captivates the soul and the imagination of the reader throughout. In the second half of the book, authors consider the works of other writers such as G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, and E.R. Eddison, and the influence the Great War had upon each.
Many reviewers are falling all over Mr. Loconte’s book while ignoring Ms. Croft’s. My advice: Do just the opposite. If you want the best look at Tolkien and the First World War, get Mr. Garth’s book. If you want to look at the same subject after twelve years of research and scholarship, read Ms. Croft’s book. Do not waste your money on anything else.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. His newest book, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, arrives on book shelves November 5 and is now available for pre-order.