“Tolkien’s Great War”: A Film by Elliot Weaver & Zander Weaver

john garth great warAs we sit on the centennial of the Great War, WWI, we find ourselves in a moment of cultural reflection. It really was a brutal conflict: 35-40 million casualties, followed by the Spanish flu and its 50-100 million deaths. The war resulted in a few inches of gained ground, a defeated country whose children were more than ready to follow someone like Hitler, entire systems of mechanized and globalized warfare, and a generation of lost artists, writers, inventors, physicians, teachers, lovers, and friends.

Yet, it was also out of this war that some of the greatest of these great lights formed the century that birthed our own. In particular, in the period of WWI, Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium found its earliest readers and its deepest imaginative roots.

For J.R.R. Tolkien, the Great War was a powerful period of formation and loss. Early in the war he completed his degree before heading to the Somme. The war saw the shattering of his fellowship of writers formed at King Edward’s School, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). Two of his dearest friends died at the hands of the enemy, and Tolkien struggled in the years after the war with Shell Shock (PTSD).

Loconote Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarSome time ago I posted a film called “Tolkien’s Road“–a fun indie project that fictionalizes Tolkien’s post-war distress and weaves it into the writing of his legendarium. I find compelling John Garth’s treatment in Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth (2003). I have also queued up to read for the first time A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918 (2015). Meanwhile, I am working on a story that Lewis wrote as a teenager waiting for war. There is certainly an interest in discovering to what degree WWI formed the mythopoeic authors that we love.

Another resource has emerged that I think readers will enjoy. Produced and directed in 2014 by Elliot Weaver & Zander Weaver, alum of Tolkien’s King Edward’s School, Tolkien’s Great War is a half hour documentary that captures J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences during the First World War. In interviews with people like John Garth, you will see intimate details of Tolkien’s experience, including the formation of the TCBS, the letters Tolkien exchanged with his wife and friends, and the struggles that Tolkien faced in integrating his experience with his writing.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/110810980″>Tolkien’s Great War</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/ellianderpics”>Elliander Pictures</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Thanks to David Llewellyn Dodds for discovering the piece. For more information, visit kes.org.uk/great-war-exhibition

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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27 Responses to “Tolkien’s Great War”: A Film by Elliot Weaver & Zander Weaver

  1. robstroud says:

    As a retired military chaplain, and veteran of two conflicts (though spared direct exposure to combat), I have spent much time with combat veterans.

    Battle leaves no man, or woman, unchanged.

    Understanding the impact of the war on Tolkien, and Lewis as well, is essential for understanding the grand arc of their life stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks! (But “discovered” has the humble sense of ‘noticed John Garth’s commendation of “the splendid 2014 documentary” in his latest post, about their complementary film on Robert Gilson’.)
    I note (though I have not yet watched) their other Great War films available online: ‘The Price of Freedom’ (in a couple cuts, at their website, ellianderpictures.co.uk) and ‘July 1st 1914: Why the Plan Failed’.

    Joseph Loconte’s book is one I have yet to catch up with – but there seem to be a couple talks by him of about an hour each related to it, on YouTube (which I haven’t caught up with, yet, either).

    Learning of the Weavers got me looking around for related things on YouTube, and I have watched an interesting complementary short film loaded in two parts which is part of Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive project: “Tolkien’s War Part 1” and 2 (at the “WW1Lit” channel/account). It takes us to the site of Tolkien’s action in the Battle of the Somme as it is today, interspersed with maps and historical footage.

    (It’s amazing what’s ‘out there’, online!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Once you get going… Also on YouTube, I note Ryan Reeves with a half-hour lecture, “Lewis and Tolkien: War, Fantasy, and Modernism” and another of similar length by Janet Brennan Croft, “J.R.R. Tolkien & the Great War” (at the “OkStateLibrary” channel/account).


      • There is a lot on the Interweb–and I generally avoid a lot of it or my life would be lost. But I did enjoy this piece. Thanks!


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’m often making notes on things I hope to get back to… (Then, I’m sometimes hoping to find the notes, again…)

          I did enjoy this, too, and am now half way through the Rob Gilson one, and enjoying it (in its serious way) very much, as well!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read Garth’s book – must check out the videos. There is no doubt in my mind that LOTR, for sure, was First World War infused in very direct ways, quite apart from the more abstract intrusion it made into Tolkien’s mythos, such as the jealousy everybody had of elves’ immortality. To soldiers on the Western Front, the ordinary lifespan of those not facing sudden death became, in effect, immortal. But the literal intrusions were crystal clear. The Dead Marshes, for example, were a precise description of the western front trenches (a point I made in my own book on the Western Front). A lot of the ‘Orc talk’, particularly between squads that were marching, was actually ‘soldier talk’. And his battle reactions – particularly Sam’s reaction when he watched Faramir’s men ambush the Haradhrim – were pretty much what happened to the Tommies (and every other combatant) on their first brush with real combat. It’s a wonderful extra dimension to the book and so much both of LOTR and other of Tolkien’s writing makes a lot more sense when we realised that the WW1 trench experience – his own, naturally – has been so closely infused.


    • I think there are a couple of key points here–the infusion and immortality. You actually write military history, so I think your comment has poignancy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am in the curious position of writing a lot of technical social history, of having been formally trained in fiction writing, of having done post-grad study in the philosophy of history (at the hands of a student, himself, of both Popper and Wittgenstein), and of having then become known for military history in large part because a publisher offered me a multi-book contract which I was NOT going to refuse, and it went from there. My military academic work was received at the RMC Sandhurst with the result that, on merit of that, I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College in London. My background? I first read Tolkien’s The Hobbit aged 11, The Lord of The Rings a year or so later. It has been an interesting journey in which Tolkien (and, I have to add, Lewis’s Narnia stories) have been constant and relentlessly inspiring companions, and my understanding of them has evolved over the years as my own understanding of the world has changed. A rewarding relationship. In a way I suppose not too surprising: irrespective of where my mercurial interests have led me, my first enthusiasm was always for the sense of wonder instilled by such authors. It still is.


        • There are probably some people for whom there is a very direct path from college entrance to a career at 50–a predictable line of intentionality. Most of us, though, when asked how we got into our current position, look back on our career and say, “wow, that looks entirely unlikely.” It is unlikely: it happens only to us.
          Your story is very cool. I can see the link from imaginative fiction to history. Frankly, I think that’s what Tolkien was great at: creating a stable secondary world with detail like our own primary world so the elfland elements fit in seemlessly.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. ChrisC says:

    A pretty good documentary, although I think Garth’s book goes into a bit more detail.

    Mention is made of Tolkien going into the war with much more “open eyes” than everybody else. Whether that’s true, or whether he was just as brash and idealistic as the others, I think that his experiences in the trenches may have contributed to what could be the main theme of both “The Hobbit” and “LOTR”.

    If i had to sum it up, then I’d have to call the theme “The Choice of Romanticisms” or (borrowing from Barfield) “Romanticism Come of Age”. What I mean by that is I think the war may have forced Tolkien to consider whatever ideals he valued and see how they measured up against his own experiences. From that I think he might have taken away the idea that a lot of what he always thought important in the Romantic Tradition of storytelling was durable enough to withstand even the horrors of war.

    At the same time I think he might have learned to appreciate the idea of the old literary trope where the scales fall from the protagonist’s eyes and that person then learns that while the things they value may be true, their relationship to them is not as they believe it to be. For instance, a protagonist who thinks he’s essentially the good guy in the narrative is soon revealed to be a lot more anti-hero-ish, and then the rest of the story them having to deal with those implications. From that perspective, one idea of Romanticism has been shattered, but it’s also possible in those circumstances for another, perhaps better and more mature Romanticism to take it’s place (at least if the story is a Comedy).

    I can’t help thinking Tolkien must have gone through something like that with the First World War, and that in a large sense, his entire oeuvre is about trying to rehabilitate a false sense of Romanticism by trying to find whatever might be the real one.

    At least there’s one way of looking at it.


    • I think this is a strong response. Lewis had the scales falling experience: this is war, this is what Homer wrote about. His own autobiography of war in Surprised by Joy leaves me wondering if Lewis had really dealt with the reality (i.e., did his eyes really open?).
      I am reading through Tolkien’s letters, now in 1944. He is writing to his sons in battle, and shows two things that surprise me: 1. How committed he was to writing often (I suspect he appreciated letters during the war and remembered doing so). 2. How positive he is about the war, including his own desire to go. I don’t know how that informs our reading of his experience.
      But I am attracted to your idea of Tolkien’s resolution with truth and imagination in WWI.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “How positive he is about the war, including his own desire to go.” Rereading this comment after finishing watching the Rob Gilson documentary, a quotation from Gilson’s father’s reply to Tolkien’s condolence letter after Rob Gilson’s death leaps to mind – about how he wishes that old fellows like himself, who’d already had such a ‘good innings’, could take the place of the young men in battle (in what he clearly considers a just and worthy cause).


        • Perhaps I connected with that because I feel very much the same. The idea of age frightens me more than giant spiders in the dark.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I’m still at a fairly early edge of “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”, but am noticing some ripples of apprehension… But my heart seems to be more noticeably going out to young people (which includes more and more of you…).


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