J.R.R. Tolkien’s war in­spires grand­son’s novel


The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - DEN­NIS DRABELLE Den­nis Drabelle is a for­mer con­tribut­ing edi­tor of the Wash­ing­ton Post Book World. Wash­ing­ton Post

The phrase “no man’s land” con­jures up the zone be­tween op­pos­ing trenches on the Western Front of the First World War.

“No Man’s Land” is also the ti­tle of Si­mon Tolkien’s barn­burner of a novel, which, ac­cord­ing to its dust jacket, was “in­spired by the real-life ex­pe­ri­ences of his grand­fa­ther” in the same war.

That would be J.R.R. Tolkien, fu­ture Ox­ford don and author of “The Lord of the Rings” tril­ogy.

Dur­ing the war, land was con­sid­ered “no man’s” in the sense that nei­ther side con­trolled it; both cov­eted it, how­ever, and French or Bri­tish soldiers who ven­tured into it were likely to be picked off by Ger­man snipers (and vice versa).

Of all the no man’s lands, per­haps none have been made so much of as the ones along the River Somme in north­east­ern France. More than a mil­lion men on both sides were wounded or killed there dur­ing an epi­cally bru­tal stale­mate that dragged on from early July to mid-Novem­ber of 1916. The pithy Bri­tish his­to­rian A.J.P. Tay­lor summed up the fight­ing this way: “Ide­al­ism per­ished on the Somme.”

Si­mon Tolkien’s pro­tag­o­nist, Adam Raine, has come a long way to mourn ide­al­ism. Af­ter his mother’s death in Lon­don, Adam was whisked off to a coalmin­ing town in the north, where his fa­ther, an im­pov­er­ished labourer, had kin. There Adam stood out from and was mocked by the other boys for his citi­fied ways and na­tive in­tel­li­gence.

Af­ter liv­ing for a time with equally poor cousins, he prof­ited from one of those cus­to­dial up­heavals beloved of Vic­to­rian fic­tion: be­ing taken into the house­hold of a rich man — in this case the lo­cal coal mag­nate, Sir John Scars­dale — not as a ser­vant, but as a kind of third son.

Of the two sons by birth, the el­der, Seaton, is a paragon who be­friended Adam im­me­di­ately. Then there is the younger, Brice, a spite­ful cow­ard who loathes Adam, not least be­cause the par­son’s beau­ti­ful daugh­ter much prefers him to Brice’s odi­ous self.

If this sounds soap-op­er­atic, it is. But in Tolkien’s hands the notso-fresh sce­nario be­comes en­gag­ing, es­pe­cially when he in­serts pun­gent pe­riod de­tails.

We visit a “penny sit-up,” a joint where for a penny a home­less man can sleep sit­ting up in a chair. “It’s bet­ter than the pub­lic li­brary,” Adam’s guide ex­plains, “where they have to sleep stand­ing up, hang­ing on to the news­pa­per stands.”

We watch a “knocker-up­per” at work, go­ing from house to house, wak­ing up coal min­ers for their shifts by tap­ping a pole against their bed­room win­dows.

And we squirm as young English­men are lured into a the­atre in which a beau­ti­ful chanteuse en­ter­tains them, flirts with them, and then comes down from the stage to shame them into sign­ing up for the army.

The Great War, in other words, is un­der­way, and Adam, now a stu­dent at Ox­ford, joins up, too.

Over the next hun­dred pages or so, Tolkien vividly por­trays trench war­fare, Somme-style, in all its de­hu­man­iz­ing mis­ery.

Here, in one of the milder pas­sages, we see how petty rules and poor equip­ment com­bine to make the grunts’ lives worse than they need be:

“The bread was hard and stale and toast­ing had be­come dif­fi­cult since the ad­ju­tant had come down hard on bay­o­nets be­ing used as toast­ing forks; the tea tasted of the petrol that seeped into the wa­ter as it was car­ried up to the front line each night in old fuel cans; and the flies were get­ting worse as the weather im­proved so that the soldiers had to con­stantly wave their hands over their food as they were cook­ing or eat­ing it to keep them off.”

Tolkien has a bad habit, how­ever, of not trust­ing his read­ers. He of­ten tells us things we’re well aware of, as when the now-mar­ried Brice coos over his young son.

The para­graph de­scrib­ing this touch­ing in­ter­lude ends, “It was the best, most self­less mo­ment in Brice’s life.” Yes, it was, but by now his dis­tended ego has been on dis­play so many times that we’ve al­ready spot­ted this ex­cep­tion to the rule.

But Si­mon Tolkien is a care­ful plot­ter who keeps his story mov­ing along.

In his hands “No Man’s Land” be­comes a haunt­ing fic­tion­al­iza­tion of a piv­otal episode in a hellish war.

“No Man’s Land,” by Si­mon Tolkien. Talese/ Dou­ble­day. 578 pp. $27.95

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