For many readers, encountering J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is like climbing an old tree. The Hobbit, the trunk of the tree,is undoubtedly the best place to start. It is a relatively straightforward quest story, written not only for those who are young in the years of this world, but also for those who are new to Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings is loftier in style, and structurally and thematically more complex. It is ideal for readers who have outgrown The Hobbit without outgrowing hobbits.
To explore more of the tree after The Lord of the Rings, readers must go not up but down. They must leave Gandalf, Aragorn, and the hobbits and dig into the narrative roots of Middle-earth itself. In other words, they must read The Silmarillion, the collection of mythological stories [End Page 128] describing the very earliest ages of Middle-earth that Tolkien had begun long before he ever encountered a hobbit. These tales lay unpublished throughout Tolkien's lifetime, while the story of the One Ring grew through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but they remained (and remain) the underground roots of Tolkien's great tree.
It is possible, in fact, to trace these roots quite far down. Most of the stories in The Silmarillion were first collected in a work called The Book of Lost Tales, the vast majority of which Tolkien wrote immediately after returning from the First World War. But even before these tales took shape, many of their characters and scenes appeared in various unconnected poems that Tolkien wrote before and during the war. (Curiously, he seems to have switched from poetry to prose precisely at the time when he changed from soldier to civilian.) Following the roots even further down, one finds not scattered poems but isolated words and names, all part of a massive lexicon that Tolkien invented and developed concurrently with his early verse. These are the depths to which John Garth digs in his thorough and thoughtful book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.
Like most excellent literary biographers, Garth blends two histories throughout his book, one external and one internal. In the external history, Garth chronicles five crucial years of Tolkien's life, beginning with his last year as an undergraduate at Oxford in 1914, continuing through his army training and his five bitter months on the Somme, and ending with his official discharge from military service after the end of the war in 1918. Throughout this period, Tolkien was an active member of the Tea-Cake Barrovian Society (TCBS), a small circle of school friends who met regularly to drink tea, debate matters both solemn and silly, and—perhaps most importantly—criticize one another's written work. Tolkien was one of four core members of the group; the other three were his dearest friends and best critics. All three of them also went to the Great War; only one survived.
It is strange that no one has thought of writing this book until now. Garth is of course not the first to write a biography of Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter's J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977) was authorized by the Tolkien Estate and remains the standard account of Tolkien's entire life. Other works include Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth (1998) and Michael White's J. R. R. Tolkien (2002). All three of these earlier works are shorter than Garth's, yet they treat Tolkien's entire life. The war years receive scant attention. The cover of each previous biography features some familiar picture of the older Tolkien: a kindly, wrinkled Oxford don in a tweed coat. This man is their real target: the author of The Hobbit [End Page 129] and The Lord of the Rings, the member of the Inklings, the friend of C. S. Lewis. Externally, however, the five years to which Garth dedicates his entire book are undoubtedly the most interesting of Tolkien's life. Carpenter begins his...