J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was a writer whose creativity flourished best in the company of other intelligent and talented men. His adult friendship with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings and their influence on the composition of his major works has been well documented (See Carpenter's biogaphies of Tolkien and the Inklings, especially), but Tolkien's need for male camaraderie was highly developed even in his youth. As the back cover of Garth's new book points out, his early friends were so important to him that he made a point of mentioning in his preface to The Lord of the Rings that all but one them died during World War I.
Up till now, comparatively few details have been known about these earlier associates and their influence, but John Garth has ably remedied this lack in his Tolkien and the Great War. By weaving together extracts from Tolkien's own school and wartime papers, diaries, poetry, and letters, the papers of Tolkien's friend Rob Gilson, and relevant company histories and service records, Garth has drawn us a portrait of a tight-knit group of four talented and artistically ambitious young men on the verge of adulthood under the growing shadow of war. We see how they encouraged each others' grand dreams of artistic glory, critiqued each others' work and philosophy, and thought of themselves as the core of a future movement. They seem daringly hubristic at times in their conviction of their own future importance; however, the worldwide popularity and influence of Tolkien's works has certainly fulfilled their promise, blighted though it was by the deaths of Gilson and G.B. Smith during the Battle of the Somme and a distance between Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman after the war.
While the details of Tolkien's relationships with these other young men are a goldmine for those interested in his artistic development and the formation of his legendarium, the pace of the first third of the book is somewhat leisurely, and readers unfamiliar with the background mythology and hoping for more on The Lord of the Rings may find it slow going. The tempo picks up towards the middle, and the most gripping writing in the book describes Tolkien's training and battlefield experiences and the tragic deaths of his friends.
Garth's "Postscript" concludes the book with a thoughtful analysis of the impact of Tolkien's friendships and wartime experiences on his writing. If one accepts that World War I was a major influence on Tolkien, as indeed it appears to have been, then the great critical question which arises is why his artistic reaction to the war differed so dramatically from the two major literary movements which sprung up in the post-war years - modernism and the ironic war memoir - and what value, if any, there may be in his chosen epic style. Garth attributes Tolkien's choice in part to his scholarly interest in Germanic languages and medievalism, as well as his conservative preference for the traditional, but also shows that the mythic mode, in skilled hands, can be the ideal way to find and communicate the human meaning hidden in a shattering and world-changing event like the Great War.
As other reviewers have suggested, read Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien first. Readers of Garth's book will also find it easier going if they are familiar with at least the Silmarillion.