Tolkien and the Great War
EditorJohn Garth
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectJ. R. R. Tolkien
Publication date

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth is a 2003 biography by John Garth of the philologist and fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien's early life, focusing on his formative military experiences during the First World War.


John Garth read English at St Anne's College, Oxford. He trained as a journalist and worked for 18 years on newspapers including the Evening Standard in London. He then became a freelance author while continuing to contribute newspaper articles.[1]


Publication history

Tolkien and the Great War was published in 2003 by HarperCollins in the United Kingdom and Houghton Mifflin in the United States. It has been translated into Chinese, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish.[2]


Tolkien and the Great War is written in three parts. The first examines J. R. R. Tolkien's early life, his childhood friendships and society, and his early imaginative writings. The second describes his military experiences in the trenches of the Western Front. The third looks at his growing fantasy writings including "The Lonely Isle" of Tol Eressëa.

The book is illustrated with a detailed chronology, maps, and photographs.


Tolkien fought with the Lancashire Fusiliers (pictured) on the Western Front in 1916.
Tolkien fought with the Lancashire Fusiliers (pictured) on the Western Front in 1916.

The Tolkien scholar Janet Brennan Croft, reviewing the book for World Literature Today, wrote that Garth had ably portrayed Tolkien's early life with his close friends, using their own papers and their British Army company records. She found the first part of the book "somewhat leisurely", but the account of Tolkien's training and battlefield experience was "gripping".[3]

Luke Shelton, editor of Mallorn, the journal of the Tolkien Society, called Tolkien and the Great War an excellent book on how the First World War might have shaped Tolkien's thought.[4]

The scholar Brian Rosebury, reviewing the work for Tolkien Studies, states that Garth meets the dismissive critics of Tolkien "head-on, denying, or at least minimizing, the alleged distance between Tolkien's creativity and the 'genuine' myths and legends of pre-modern peoples", making use of the "remote and dispersed" materials, such as the Earendel line of evidence, available to "create a redemptive vision for the present", just as, he notes, the Beowulf poet did. In Rosebury's view, Garth's close examination of Tolkien's formative years supports the arguments defending his approach against the attacks made upon him.[5]

Chad Engbers, in The Lion and the Unicorn, writes that Garth, "like most excellent literary biographers", combines internal and external histories throughout, and comments that it is "strange" that nobody had thought of writing a biography of Tolkien's war years before, all the earlier biographies such as Humphrey Carpenter's, Joseph Pearce's, or Michael White's focusing on the "older Tolkien, a kindly, wrinkled Oxford don in a tweed coat".[6]

Will Sherwood, writing in the Journal of Tolkien Research, calls the book, along with Croft's 2004 War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, "essential, landmark publications on the topic [that] have sparked further [re]searches into Tolkien's wartime experiences."[7]


  1. ^ Garth, John. "About". John Garth. Retrieved 24 January 2021.
  2. ^ "John Garth on Tolkien: publications". John Garth. Retrieved 24 January 2021.
  3. ^ Croft, Janet Brennan (2005). "[Review] Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth". World Literature Today. 79 (1 (January-April)): 93.
  4. ^ Shelton, Luke (8 March 2019). "The Best (and Worst) Books for Tolkien Biography". Luke Shelton. Retrieved 24 January 2021.
  5. ^ Rosebury, Brian (2005). "Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle-earth (review)". Tolkien Studies. 2 (1): 268–271. doi:10.1353/tks.2005.0029. ISSN 1547-3163.
  6. ^ Engbers, Chad (2005). "Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (review)". The Lion and the Unicorn. 29 (1): 128–133. doi:10.1353/uni.2005.0006. ISSN 1080-6563.
  7. ^ Sherwood, Will (2019). "'Something Has Gone Crack': New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War (2019), edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger". Journal of Tolkien Research. 8 (1). Article 5.