From The Blog

Interview: John Garth on Tolkien’s Wars and Middle-earth

With classes at Mythgard Institute starting in less than two weeks, I reached out to the lecturers for our fall courses – Amy H. Sturgis, John Garth and Nelson Goering – with some questions about what we can expect to find in their classes.

In this interview, Prof. Garth provides some additional thoughts about his class Tolkien’s Wars and Middle-earth.

 

Thinking of Tolkien as a “wartime author” is different than most people approach his work, especially those who haven’t delved very deeply into his personal history or academic circumstances. What initial research or original insight led you to want to look more closely at the influence of war on Tolkien and his writings?

I came at the topic sidelong. For an unrealised project on Tolkien’s invented languages, I was looking closely at the chronology of composition of his Middle-earth writings, especially the 1914–17 poems published with The Book of Lost Tales. At the same time I was reading a couple of novels about the First World War: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which vividly recounts one fictional officer’s experience in the Battle of the Somme, and Regeneration by Pat Barker, which deals with the very real war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. I was struck by how far Tolkien’s writings differed from theirs – broadly, enchantment rather than disenchantment, fairies rather than fusiliers, eucatastrophe rather than irony – and I wanted to know why. Coincidentally, just as I decided to look into it, First World War officers’ records were made publically available at the UK National Archive for the first time. I thought I had enough for a fanzine article, but things soon got rather out of hand….

 

The name of the course you’ll be teaching for Mythgard, “Tolkien’s Wars and Middle-earth,” implies that you’ll be looking beyond the subject of your book, Tolkien and the Great War, into World War II and possibly beyond. What aspect of this later point in Tolkien’s experience are you most looking forward to presenting that you haven’t had the opportunity to share widely yet?

We’ll be looking at how his status as a war veteran, non-combatant and father of servicemen both revived his memories of his own military service and altered his perspective on war. I’ve previously spoken on why a visit to his old school in Birmingham may have helped in the writing of the famous Dead Marshes sequence; but we’ll also be looking at the whole of Book 4 of The Lord of the Rings as the sequence most closely marked by the First World War experience, thanks to this revival of memories. Beyond that, we’ll be examining Tolkien’s responses to 1930s totalitarianism, the Spanish Civil War, and the alteration of the urban and rural environment under the demands of war and of returning servicemen.

 

Given the distance of history, do you think that there’s a fundamental difference in interpretation or response to Tolkien’s work between audiences who read it when the wars were still relatively recent and audiences today, which are made up largely of people who were born after those wars?

I do, and I firmly believe that distance has brought much greater clarity to the outlines of Tolkien’s war influence. The world wars were inescapable in their impact on everyone who lived through them (and on many born in the following generation too). For readers in the 1950s, it was difficult to see beyond the Second World War – a problem Tolkien recognised and deprecated. I don’t think it a coincidence that I was writing Tolkien and the Great War at the same time Janet Brennan Croft was writing War in the Works of JRR Tolkien. By 2000, the time was ripe for such examinations, partly because the completion of The History of Middle-earth gave new impetus to Tolkienian textual studies, and partly because the legacy of the First World War was undergoing a thorough reexamination by new generations of historians. It’s great now to be able to look at Tolkien alongside the “canonical” Great War writers, and recognise his response as a viable alternative, another voice in a great dialogue on that war and on war in general.

 

I especially want to thank Prof. Garth for taking the time out of his holiday to prepare his response to these questions. I know many people are looking forward to his class, which begins in just a little over a week from today.

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