"L'esperança se'ns ha donat en favor dels qui no en tenen". W. Benjamin

15 de juny de 2019

Tolkien and the Great War - Review

Here I post an accurate translation of my review of Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth, as originally posted in Catalan on November 2017. Most of the traffic it received back then was generated by the links Mr Garth so kindly published on his Twitter account and on his official website

Since I'm not on social media, it took me some time to trace back the source of all those visits, and then I noticed they came mostly from a computer-generated translation via Google which, although true to the original content, was terrible as to the wording. Moreover, the quote from the book I used to open that review (page 300 of the English paperback edition) had been translated into Catalan from the English original, which made things even more ridiculous when translated back into English by a machine. That's why I decided I should write a fully human translation of my own from the original review in Catalan. 

I'd like to make clear that, when reviewing, I try to do my best to give an honest and informed opinion, within the limits of my knowledge and writing skills. In this case, I think all the praise for this book is well deserved. Let me repeat that it should be a must-read for all those who care about J. R. R. Tolkien's life and work. Finally, I'd also like to express my gratitude to Mr Garth for the shout-out he gave to my review in Catalan, and my apologies for being almost two years late. 

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As Tom Shippey has pointed out, Tolkien is in good company among later writers who turned away from realism because, as combat veterans, they had seen 'something irrevocably evil'. George Orwell (the Spanish Civil War), Kurt Vonnegut and William Golding (the Second World War) fall into this category. (...) realist fictions hold that there is no absolute evil, only relative degrees of social maladjustment; (...) writers such as Graves, Sassoon, and Owen saw the Great War as the disease, but Tolkien saw it as merely the symptom. 

Tolkien and the Great War (2003) by John Garth is a must-read for anyone who wants to go deeper into Tolkien's work from the point of view of the author's biography, and also with regard to the influence the experience of the Great War had on his work. Six years after Joseph Pearce published, in Tolkien: Man and Myth, the theological approach to Tolkien's work, which is a central topic for its interpretation, Garth gave solution to a major shortfall in the literature about Tolkien until that moment: the experience of Tolkien in the Great War. This experience not only endows Tolkien's work with certain images, but also nurtures existential and metaphysical approaches to good and evil, our role as human beings in the universe, and even the intrinsic ambiguity in the human condition itself. Garth might have offered only the documented story of young Tolkien trapped in the Great War along with his school friends, Christopher Wiseman, G. B. Smith and Rob Gilson. This is a story based on suffering and pain, and uncertainty for the present and the future, but also marked by the ties of a friendship that, for them, transcended the limits of the present moment, after they were parted by the physical distance imposed by military life during the conflict, and later by the death of two of them in the trenches, Gilson and Smith. However, the story doesn't end here. During the war, Tolkien the author, hiding inside Tolkien the soldier, started to put into play his philological ability to invent languages, and his creative talent in order to develop images of places and characters the imaginary languages suggested. And, in these early stories, uprooting and loneliness, the darkness of isolation, and a terror that is usually foggy, damp, cold and desolate like Nordic hell, which triggers fear and frenzy in the mind of this wandering and lonely traveller, have unexpected force. These images of destruction and transience constantly refer to the fleeting quality of existence and, at the same time, closing the circle, to the experience of war. That is why one of the strengths of this book is that Garth doesn't dissociate both analyses, biographical and literary, and thus offers us a deep, extremely detailed and creative essay about the experience of truncated friendship, the breaking of British culture with the old Victorian values, and a generation straddling the line between two ages, irrevocably marked by their wish to change and renew the world and their ultimate inability to put their project into practice. Tolkien is therefore reinserted within a tradition of non-realistic authors who try to make sense of the political absurdities of the 20th Century, and his take on England's medieval past is vindicated, not as opiate escapism, but as angry and combative rejection of the darkest and most threatening aspects of modernity. Therefore, he proposes an alternative way of looking at reality: not from a utilitarian mindset, which understands human beings as means to achieve a goal, but from primeval, unselfish wonder. 

Contents: John Garth presents his work in three parts, as if the story of Tolkien's involvement in the Great War was a tragedy in three acts. First of all, Tolkien's training years take place at King Edward's School in Birmingham and later on at the University of Oxford. The club formed by Tolkien and a group of friends, the TCBS (acronym for Tea Club and Barrovian Society), carried on their friendship ties through the college years and, in the case of Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman, this friendship would last until old age. These are years of optimism and carefree innocence. TCBS members seemed more concerned with changing the world through their aesthetic and philosophical programs than with their academic or professional futures. This period of happiness, although haunted by the uncertainty of a war already foreseen, also includes the long engagement between Tolkien and Edith Bratt. They would marry in 1916, right before Tolkien's mobilization, and when his friends were already serving at the front. The second part of the story describes the "countless tears", or the brutality of the experience at the front. However, the friends kept writing to each other from different places in the British and French geography, and Tolkien received from his companions crucial encouragement in order to keep going with his poetry writing. The third stage began when Tolkien contracted the trench fever at the Somme and was relocated back in England. His long convalescence, also marked by the miseries of war, gave birth to a more ambitious literary project, The Lost Tales, which would become the origin of Tolkien's cosmogony and mythology. 

What I like: Reading this book has been a discovery because in it I've found new information about the origins of Middle Earth, even when I'm not a great Silmarillion fan. It is also an extremely valuable approach to the cultural and historical context of the British generation which got involved in the Great War, and in that sense it gives a very accurate idea of the crucial significance of an event that changed the map of Europe forever. The epilogue is a magnificent and truly original analysis on Garth's part of the tropes, images and concepts in Tolkien's work which derive from the war experience. 

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