Getting Ready for TOLKIEN: John Garth and Other Resources

I don’t know if it is rumour or just the coolness of the social media age, but über Tolkien fan Stephen Colbert has been sent a copy of John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. I can’t verify the veracity of such a claim, but it is a timely legend to emerge. The new Tolkien biopic is released this week, and I am rereading Garth’s book before I catch the film this weekend.

I already talked here about how I have some tentative hope about the film. Recognizing its limitations, and knowing that there are dozens of high-profile nasty reviews already out on the beat, I still want to hope. I know there is the kind of fan that will be disturbed by inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the man, I prefer to be a different kind of fan. Yes, I admit that there are real flaws with Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films, particularly in his beautiful but overwrought Hobbit trilogy. But I love the Lord of the Rings films, and I watch them about as often as I read the books. I love the worlds that Tolkien made and want more of them, whether they are the weather-beaten additions in the Middle-earth history or the fragmented recoveries in film and orchestral interpretation.

I just choose to be that kind of fan. I have not left behind my deep skepticism, but I am pleased to see how some people view Tolkien and how they present him in art. I also tend to love beautifully made biopics. So if people make a beautiful but flawed picture, I think I will be okay. I am not an expert in Tolkien’s biography, but I feel a pretty solid sense of the man, an image in my mind of his character, his habits, his dreams, and some of the hurts and tensions in his life. Over the last few years, I have winced at each step of this Tolkien biopic journey.

But now I am ready for the film.

Unfortunately, I can’t see it yet. Not only is there no chance for any of the preview screens near me, they aren’t even showing the film in my province! I have to travel to another province (like a state or prefecture) in order to catch Tolkien on the silver screen. So as I am left in a holding pattern, I decided to reread John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. I’m actually listening to it, which works as I’m trying to finish up the last footnotes on a PhD, so sitting to read is a luxury. This week Garth’s great voice is my gardening and walking partner.

And it is quite the book. It has already received awards and accolades and good reviews, and Signum University has featured it by shaping a whole class around it, but I want to reassert the sheer good quality of the text. The research depth and erudition are essential for a character like Tolkien, whose fans are exacting (as we will see in the response to the biopic–which will run from rueful distaste to downright offence). The book is filled with dozens of discovered facts, unearthed documents, newly made connections, and precious details from this formative period in Tolkien’s life. In research, Garth sets the gold standard for historiography–and there are, frankly, a lot of great WWI books.

Beyond the great research and the careful historical eye, Garth has created a book that eminently readable. Really, this book is just lovely to read. I miss sitting in a comfortable chair with pencil in hand, but even in the audio edition the lyric facility of Garth’s text beautifully matches the poetic voice that Tolkien is developing in his teens and early twenties. Garth’s prose has gravitas, and yet is light and accessible. If it were fiction, the narrative arc might be more compelling and certainly more tightly connected to thematic points. But even there, the characters are richly drawn when set against the muddy terror of WWI.

John Garth has done other things, including thinking about the “wager” that began Tolkien and Lewis’ public writing career, and a really nice piece about the TCBS, the “immortal four.” His work continues, and I can only hope that he was somehow behind this film–either in consultation or in having his book as a source for research.

Will the film work? I don’t know. The trailer, below, looks okay. Strong production does not make for a well-researched biography, but I do like a well-made film. What the teaser suggested and what this new trailer confirms for me, is that the film is largely about Tolkien’s imaginative formation in the context of friendship (the TCBS), war, and love. I’m open to this kind of story, and the cast looks compelling as a magicized version of real people–though I’m not sure they can pull of the interweaving of fantasy and nonfiction well.

We’ll have to see. If you are hungry for more Tolkien posts, see my collection here. I’ve attached a trailer, as well as a short doc called “Tolkien’s Great War,” which is well done. You can see my review of a Tolkien fan film, Tolkien’s Road, here.

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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39 Responses to Getting Ready for TOLKIEN: John Garth and Other Resources

  1. Laura Selinsky says:

    I live near a big US city, so I got to see the Montclair premiere and the Colbert interviews of director and stars that followed the screening. I found the film to be respectful and moving. Yes, I know the chronology is fictionalized, but I can’t think of a biography or a portrait that hasn’t been tuned to the dramatic inclinations of the author or artist. The film’s director did give Colbert three books, and one of them was the poems of Geoffrey Bache Smith with the Tolkien preface, I believe the second was the Garth you referenced in your post, and I don’t remember the third.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool story. I doubt the third book was a selection of my best blog posts!
      And cool you enjoyed the film. I really want to enjoy it and will be thinking of it less as “here’s the facts they missed or crabbled” and more like, “here are the themes I’d like to highlight.” I’m actually writing a review for an artist’s collective, so I’ll approach it that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. H.P. says:

    What do you think of the Loconte book relative to the Garth book?


    • To be fair, I read it quickly when it first came out and haven’t gotten back to it. If there’s an audio version I could reread it sooner (hint to the publisher!).
      I read it because I am on faculty with Joe Laconte, so might be a bit biased (though I don’t know him personally–I was mostly impressed with how students felt his support as a teacher). It isn’t the same category as Garth’s book (actually, John and I both lecture at the same university too–but a different one). As a popular read for fans of fantasy literature, you will see in Laconte’s book some of the shaping influences of the war. Laconte’s book is a bedside table book, a beach read or sunny afternoon read. Garth’s book is a pen-in-hand read–though I admit the prose style is quite nice too.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I saw the film on Tuesday and was very pleasantly surprised! There’s plenty of literature, mythology, and even philology. The broad outline is accurate, although the timeline is quite compressed. And YES: the film director handed Stephen Colbert a copy of John Garth’s book during a live interview after the movie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sørina, that’s super cool–and kind of what I’m hoping for. Almost any biopic is going to feel thin next to a book like Garth’s–or even a documentary.
      I’ve sometimes wondered if people confuse biopics for documentaries….
      Cool about Colbert. We gotta get him a copy of Inklings & King Arthur still!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        Oh I’m glad you like The Inklings and King Arthur.

        I also enjoyed The Magical World of the Inklings by Garth Knight.


        • I’m one of the contributors to I&A, so yes I like it! Pleased it did well. I haven’t read the Knight book (great name!) but I have it. Perhaps I’ll bump it up the list.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yewtree says:

            Oh I thought you were referring to Ronald Hutton’s book, but I had incorrectly remembered the title, which is “Witches, Druids, and King Arthur” but it has a chapter about the Inklings in it.

            I must obtain a copy of the Inklings and Arthur, then 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Never heard of that Hutton book (among his many) – or the Inklings paper/chapter – before!

              Sørina has a post with the Table of Contents of The Inklings and King Arthur…

              Which edition of The Magical World of the Inklings do you know? (I’ve only read the first…)

              Liked by 2 people

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Well, from the variously balanced reviews I’ve read so far (including by Michael Ward and Bruce Charlton), I don’t think I want to see it – probably lucky I didn’t manage to wangle a newspaper assignment to review it!

    One context article I read, drew on an interview with Dr. Loconte, whose well-weighed observations included, “Despite its respect for Tolkien’s intellectual life, the film’s writers seem unable or unwilling to explore it with care”, and “there is no hint that Tolkien possessed a faith of his own, or that it was a source of strength and comfort during the tragedy of the war.”

    I wonder if John Garth will review it? I’m glad to hear Dome Karukoski is promoting his book (which I have heard tell appears nowhere in the credits). Maybe the great benefit of the film will be getting folks to read it (or listen to it – what an attractive prospect!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yewtree says:

      I very much enjoyed the John Garth book, so thank you David for mentioning it to me.

      I hope to be able to see the film. A bit disappointing that it doesn’t mention his faith as it was a fairly integral part of who he was, and part of how he became an orphan (since he regarded his mother as a martyr for her faith).

      But if Sørina liked the film, I’m fairly optimistic.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Let me ‘plug’ John Garth’s complementary little book, Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth (64pp) – as I think I’ve done, in general, here, before! It’s only 64 pages, and full of illustrations, so it’s ‘light-weight’ in comparison to Tolkien and the Great War (though about the same price!), but I’m glad I got it:

        Also really interesting – and further complementary (and, this time, very detailed) – is his essay, ‘“The road from adaptation to invention”: How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914’, for anyone who can get access to it :

        Verlyn Flieger refers to it in her book-form edition of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo (2015). I’m now following up the hint in Tolkien’s letter of c. October 1914 to Edith that this story is “somewhat on the lines of Morris’s romances with chunks of poetry in between” to listen to the audiobook of The House of the Wolfings while I peel potatoes, wash up the crockery, etc….

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yewtree says:

          I bought the Exeter College one as well 🙂


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I now see John Garth has links on his site to articles (both published on the feast of St. George) in The Guardian and The Telegraph with reference to the movie (“I speak to…about the Tolkien Estate and the Fox Searchlight biopic Tolkien” – and a photo of a new version of his book cover including “‘Tolkien’ Now a Major Motion Picture”) – with a substantial quotation or two each… I like “As a biographer, I expect I’ll be busy correcting new misconceptions arising from the movie. I hope that anyone who enjoys the film and is interested in Tolkien’s formative years will pick up a reliable biography”! (Hint, hint…)

            Liked by 1 person

  5. ChrisC says:

    Prof. Dickieson,

    While it look like D.L. Dodds has justifiably beaten me to this, I still thought I’d share two items. One relates to the film (and still doesn’t put it in a good light). The other is a surprise alternative that comes directly from the Tolkien family itself.

    The first is a notice in the guardian that the Tolkien family has disavowed the T Biopic.

    The second, more positive news is that Prof. Tolkien’s grandson, Simon Tolkien, has perhaps beaten cinemas to the punch when it comes to telling the life of the author of “LOTR” in a fictionalized format. He’s written a book called “No Man’s Land”, and like Garth’s critical study, it aims to tell about how the War and his grandfather’s academic interests blended into his writings on Middle Earth.

    The official publisher’s page describes it as: “Inspired by the real-life war experiences of the author’s grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien, No Man’s Land delivers a Dickensian, page-turning novel of Edwardian England and World War I”.

    In addition, Simon Tolkien has given not one, but two interviews on his book. both link can be seen below:

    And also here, courtesy of the Prancing Pony Podcast:

    With any luck, I hope this takes some of the burden off things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Wow, many thanks for those links! I enjoyed The Inheritance, and remember reading with interest about Orders from Berlin (2012) before it appeared, and wondering about possible ‘Inklings’ dimensions to it – but sadly have not yet caught up with it, or with No Man’s Land!

      He reprints his published 2003 reminiscence about his grandfather on his website:

      Liked by 1 person

    • Chris C, thanks so much! I have been wondering about Simon T for a while, so I just ordered the book you recommended. I’m kind of pumped, actually.
      And I wouldn’t admit it out loud, but I’d be thrilled to one day warrant a Prancing Pony guest interview! Cool podcast.


  6. I have the original edition of Garth’s book (a 2012 paperback of the 2003 original). It’s certainly thoughtful; and, I think, a compelling biography. There’s no question about the infusion of the First World War into LOTR; this was brought home to me when I wrote my own social history of the New Zealand experience on the Western Front. I’ll certainly be looking out for the Tolkien movie when it comes to New Zealand, though it does sound as if it is an adaptation rather than a documentary. To the extent that certain license is needed when making any film (a point I heard, directly, from Phillipa Boyens, the co-writer of the LOTR movie script) I guess I’ll be looking for the emotions and the concepts rather than the point-detail. The question is whether those concepts and personal themes have been properly portrayed. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Interesting points making me think of the movie, in part at least, in terms of the ‘fictionalization of the Great War’ in comparison with David Jones’s superb ‘In Parenthesis’ and how Tolkien draws on his experience ‘mythopoeically’, as well as the more ‘realistic’ fictionalizations of people like Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Ford Madox Ford, and Remarque (to mention a few ‘classics’) – though here, ‘later generation’ (like Simon Tolkien’s, or Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy – third-generation, in both those cases). Maybe a reason to see it… I wonder if Dome Karukoski has forbears who fought in, .e.g., the ‘Winter War’? (I see Wikipedia has an article, ‘Winter War in popular culture’!)

      If you will indulge a lazy question from someone embarrassed to say he has not yet caught up with your work – do any of the great ‘Antipodean’ English Lit. (especially Oxford and mediaeval) scholars feature in it? (I can’t recall whom among them I’ve read of, as serving, much less writing about their service).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi – I have covered New Zealand literature in my material to the extent that it impinges on social history – the ‘cultural cringe’ and the twentieth century notion that intellectual validity could only be achieved, for Kiwis, in London. Hence Mansfield’s arrival in the Bloomsbury sect. I’ve also covered NZ’s First World War writings, notably the work of our ‘war poet’ equivalent, Robyn Hyde. She was a very talented but also very troubled writer. The problem in NZ has always been a quest for self-identity and the supposition that there was, somehow, a mid-century Kiwi ‘voice’ to be found. Personally I think it was, in the work of Barry Crump among others, but they were not regarded as serious literary figures (books with titles such as ‘Bastards I Have Known’ were unlikely to win literary prizes). To me, socially, that also summed up New Zealand’s nature as a society at the time.

        In terms of the great medieval scholars here – well, there was only one: Peter Munz, who’d studied at Oxford under Popper and Wittgenstein. I studied philosophy post-grad under him, decades ago.

        Please feel free to check my stuff out. Following in the footsteps of my illustrious Kiwi forebears and their use of London to authenticate their status back in NZ, my academic military history was received at the RMC Sandhurst with such acclaim that one of the senior lecturers there nominated me as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College in London. They, in turn, thought what I submitted of sufficient scholarship to elect me a Fellow, something only three other New Zealand historians have managed of late, to my knowledge. I am, alas, sometimes conflated with the Matthew Wright of the same name who teaches at the University of Exeter (I was approached for comment on ancient history, just a few months ago) – but he’s not me. My list is here:


    • Hi Matthew, thanks for the note. I do like your work, but I haven’t commented in a while. Keep writing!
      Your thoughts on the film would be interesting because you are a writer of history. It is an adaptation, but there should be a resonant truth behind the biopic that matches the general truth of the history, if that makes sense. I think you have it right.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! I’ll certainly be looking out for the movie when it gets to NZ. Half the cinemas in the area I’m in have been condemned for earthquake safety reasons, along with most of the parking buildings, which renders movie-going a bit of a luxury.


  7. Kim Broadie says:

    I am intrigued by the Inklings. I’m a CS Lewis fan. Glad you’re calling attention to Tolkien at al


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  10. Catherine Conners says:

    I just saw the movie, and while I did enjoy it, I thought it was very light on many of the biographical aspects I was fully expecting to see, particularly on his own very deep faith life and his actual writing. It focused more on his relationships with friends and with Edith – which were, however, very well done. One thing I will say is that I hadn’t expected the war scenes to be so graphic or so intense, and while as a history teacher I have seen many war films and clips, a friend that came with me was disturbed by the images of the trenches – I think in equal parts because she is sensitive to that kind of thing and because she just hadn’t expected a movie like that to make them so intense. I think they did add to the picture of his life and the influence of the war on his understanding of human nature and human goodness in the face of overwhelming darkness, but for her sake and for others, I do wish they hadn’t done quite so much of it. I was also hoping it would get up to the Inklings, but given their treatment of the first part of his life, I think perhaps I am glad they didn’t – since I know much more about that part of his life and I would have been more disappointed if their portrayal was not true to what I know. I definitely think it is worth seeing – but possibly not worth seeing again.


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