You may remember the previous monthly segment, on the blog section of my website, in which I provided a commentary on ideas, people, books, or films that I had explored in the past month. Well, I have decided to change it into an aspiring literary journal of sorts, and this will now reside in The Arts section of my website, beginning 2020. The title of this segment is The Last Word.
This month on The Last Word, we shall be taking a closer look at two closely related texts. For the fiction half, No Man’s Land, by Simon Tolkien, and for the non-fiction half, The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter. Both of which are truly fantastic vignettes of 20th century British life.
Simon Tolkien certainly lives up to (or writes up to, I guess) his name. No Man’s Land is one of the most accurate and heart-wrenching accounts of the trenches I have ever read. He is the first son of Christopher Tolkien (son of J.R.R. Tolkien, editor of the History of Middle-earth, and numerous other posthumous works of Tolkien) and was born in Oxford in 1959. He went on to study modern history at Trinity College, and then began a fifteen-year career as a criminal lawyer. After four somewhat successful fiction novels (from 2000 onwards,) he launched himself into No Man’s Land. The book honours the memory of his grandfather, J.R.R.Tolkien, who fought on the Somme between July and October 1916, and it was released concurrent with the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The novel details the emotional vignette of Adam Raine, a poverty-stricken child surviving in episodes of labor unrest in London, the strikes in coal mining communities, class distinctions, and of course, the soul-shredding front lines of World War One. Although the experiences of Adam Raine only vaguely resemble those of his grandfather, the novel pays tribute to his grandfather’s experience, and how it can change or destroy a person.
Historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres for many years now, however, No Man’s Land was a book which drew me in like no other. The heartfelt prose (very reminiscent of Tolkien himself) is combined with a historical authenticity like no other, taking shape in the vivid settings of urban London and the coal mines:
“Through an open door Adam glimpsed the blazing red fire of a blacksmith’s forge and the acrid coal smoke mixed in his nostrils with the tarry, oily smell of the huge steam engine that was powering the headstock pulleys.”
This already contributes greatly to the flavor of the story, but Simon Tolkien excels once again by coupling it with numerous accents and styles of speech. Particularly among these is the Yorkshire accent, which takes a fair bit of getting used to:
“‘But you now you paid for it?’ He paused for effect before answering his own question. ‘You did. That’s who.’ Ev’ry last fuckin’ penny of it, with back-breakin’ toil an’ with yer blood.’”
He is brilliant at capturing the entire attitude of his setting, using sprawling swathes of historical knowledge and local quips that are specific to people and settings. And it’s not only the physicality, Simon Tolkien also manages to capture smothering senses of duty and lifestyle at the time, which are seen clearly in the contrast between the coal miners and the upper class Scarsdale household.
Now while this first half of the novel is fascinating in itself, the brutality and swiftness of the war stunned me as a reader. A previously romantic and grim story now turns into an almost hopeless and violent one, with the despair of the front line and the trenches, accompanied by spiralling relationships:
“You can’t win because of the guns,” said Adam with a sigh. “Machine guns, mortars, field guns, howitzers: it doesn’t matter how much courage soldiers have, how much will; flesh and blood can’t pass through bullets and shells, or at least not in sufficient numbers to have any effect. The guns win in the end and they always will. Not us, not the Germans – the guns.”
There’s also a section in a chapter where the soldiers on corpse-recovery duty vomit in their gas masks because the flies, “clustered so thickly on the rotting flesh that they looked like black fur, were so drunk from feasting that they crawled rather than flew away, leaving their white maggot progeny behind.” But while Simon Tolkien does an excellent job describing the trenches, he also takes time to talk about meaning, inside and out of the trenches. As quoted above, with the guns being the true victors, and also seeing the soldiers “go over the top again and again, inspiring their men with a nonchalant bravery that left him open-mouthed with admiration.” There is truth in this duality between visceral warfare and virtue, no matter how out-of-step it feels today, knowing how two world wars will turn out.
My heart ached throughout this book, but my petty meanderings above pale in comparison to the book itself. I implore you to do yourself a favor and pick this up sometime.
Moving onto a more jovial book, we have the wonderfully written The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends, by Humphrey Carpenter. Seeing as Carpenter was the biographer of Tolkien, and was involved heavily in research around it him, it makes sense that he would be the one to finally summate and introduce us to the famous Inklings, a writing group whom Tolkien himself was a pivotal member of. It was a very important book in establishing the identity of the Inklings in the public mind – and it has many virtues. Carpenter was able to weave countless tidbits of information and history in this expansive narrative, primarily about Lewis and Williams, with a fair bit of Tolkien (note that there is less emphasis on Tolkien, as Carpenter had published the authorized biographer just a year earlier, and The Inklings group itself influenced Tolkien’s work less than it did the others.) What I like about this book is that while it introduces the group to readers, it also gives a very deep background on the members, and the lives they lived, giving us an excellent background and context to the stories we know and love.
“The Inklings were a gathering of friends – all of them British, male, and Christian, most of them teachers at or otherwise affiliated with Oxford University, many of them creative writers and lovers of imaginative literature – who met usually on Thursday evenings in C.S. Lewis’s college rooms in Oxford during the 1930s and 1940s for readings and criticism of their own work, and for general conversation. “Properly speaking,” wrote W.H. Lewis, one of their number, the Inklings “was neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections.” An overlapping group gathered on Tuesday (later Monday) mornings in various Oxford pubs, usually but not always the Eagle and Child, better known as the Bird and Baby, between the 1940s and 1963. These were less formal meetings, and contrary to popular legend the Inklings did not read their manuscripts in the pub.” (Taken from The Mythopoeic Society.)
One of my favorite chapters of this book (aside from the wonderful retelling of Lewis’ walking habits, and Tolkien’s quirky conversations) is a truly brilliant recreation of an Inklings meeting attended by Jack and Warnie Lewis, Tolkien, Havard, and Williams. Although this is a recreation, it seems to be a fairly accurate one, derived mostly from Warnie Lewis’ diaries and taking passages from writings and projects that were being worked on or published by the members at the time (e.g, the chapter concerning the Mines of Moria in The Lord of the Rings.)
There is slightly less to talk about here than No Man’s Land, seeing as it is a relatively straight-forward narrative, but it does it’s job very well. Not only the prose clear, and reminiscent of something like The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, or Surprised by Joy, but it also gives an excellent literary and historical background to the stories that we have come to love. Carpenter gives in depth histories of each and every member, and then intertwines them together as the famed group began to take shape.
That’s it for January, 2020, on The Last Word. Hopefully future segments will be longer as I improve and expand my literary awareness.