“Washington Post” - Dennis Drabelle, January 26, 2017

J.R.R. Tolkien’s war experiences inspire his grandson’s novel, ‘No Man’s Land’

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

[If you’re besotted by the Victorian world, beware the era’s reality]

Simon Tolkien’s protagonist, Adam Raine, has come a long way to mourn idealism. After his mother’s untimely death in London, Adam was whisked off to a coal-mining town in the north, where his father, an impoverished laborer, 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, as one might expect, 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, that’s because it is. But in Tolkien’s hands the not-so-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 (don’t even think about lying down). “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 theater in which a beautiful chanteuse entertains them, flirts with them, and then comes down from the stage to shame the holdouts among them into signing up for the army.

[‘The Fellowship’ explores the spiritual roots of Tolkien and the Inklings] The author Simon Tolkien

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.

Nonetheless, “No Man’s Land” holds the reader’s interest, mainly because Simon Tolkien is a careful plotter who keeps his story moving along. In his hands, it becomes a haunting fictionalization of a pivotal episode in a hellish war.

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"NPR" - Brian Castner

I would argue that the most successful novel of the First World War is not A Farewell to Arms, or even All Quiet on the Western Front, but rather one that's rarely classified so: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Like several other British veterans of the trenches — CS Lewis and David Lindsay come to mind — Tolkien chose to explore the inhuman horrors of the Great War through the allegory of mythology. In fiction, poetry, or memoir, he never explicitly addressed his time on the Somme.

And neither does a new novel by his grandson, no matter the "inspired by the real-life experiences" copy on the dust jacket. Simon Tolkien dedicates No Man's Land to his grandfather, inviting the question: Is this the book that J.R.R. was unable to write? In style, theme, and tone, the answer is no. But who can blame Simon for not even trying to put words in the mouth of his legendary relative?

Our protagonist is Adam Raine, no stand-in for J.R.R. except in the most basic ways. Raine grows up on the streets of London, moves to coal country in northern England, and then is taken in by the landed lord of the manor. His story is one of serial strife — the picket lines, union strikes, mining accidents, grinding want, and Downton Abbey politics of early 20th century Britain — even before he enters the war. "Luck ain't a word we knows the meanin' of," says a working class friend.

This is not a war book, then, but rather David Copperfield Goes to War. Only in its central third does this novel of manners and civil discord do an about face and march directly to the front lines in France. The shift is sudden, as if the book, like British society, didn't believe the war would really come until it did.

This is not a war book ... but rather David Copperfield Goes to War.

Simon Tolkien is at his best capturing the jingoism of early-wartime England, the smothering sense of duty and obligation heaped on young men, the peer pressure and public calls of cowardice, old women in the streets lecturing able-bodied boys to get to the front. It is a sentiment completely foreign to contemporary American culture — now, we deem not enlisting the smart choice, like Donald Trump (as he declared in an election debate) is smart not to pay his taxes. But Raine and every one of his friends eventually sign up, if only because "anythin's better than that bloody mine," as one says. Raine's victimhood shifts, from class and poverty to idiot generals and the guns; trapped in the system, one tragedy after another befalls him.

Raine finds the Great War by turns grisly and romantic. 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." And yet, at the same time, he sees his fellow 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, no matter how out-of-step it feels today, knowing how two world wars will turn out.

In the book's last third, coincidence and cliché play an unfortunately large role. But such quibbles miss the point. This is a page-turner, an opera, a costume drama to binge watch. Simon Tolkien knows how to keep a story moving, and he does it well.

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"Daily Express”

After years in London’s slums and Yorkshire’s mines, Adam Raine at last gets the chance to fulfil his potential when he wins an Oxford scholarship. But his dreams are shattered by the outbreak of war in 1914.

In this emotionally charged novel, Tolkien brings to the fore the social injustice, poverty and attrition of war in early 20th-century England. The scenes underground in the mines of Scarsdale are every bit as shocking as the harrowing descriptions of trench warfare when Adam and his comrades are repeatedly sent over the top.

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"Richmond Times

Perennially popular, sweeping historical novels capture the imagination, require a lengthy commitment and offer entertaining and educational pleasures to those willing to invest the time.

So fans of the genre should be prepared for a thumping good read in Simon Tolkien’s “No Man’s Land,” which spans the first fifth of the 20th century as it explores, with intelligence and power, a rapidly changing world.

“No Man’s Land” represents a break - and a risk - for Tolkien, whose four previous novels embrace crime fiction: the courtroom drama “Final Witness” and the trilogy featuring Inspector William Trave: “The Inheritance,” “The King of Diamonds” and “Orders From Berlin.”

Tolkien - a grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien of “Lord of the Rings” fame — proves equal to the challenge as he tells the story of Adam Raine, a child born into poverty in London. His father, Daniel, is a construction worker who fights for labor rights; his mother, Lilian, dies as a consequence of her husband’s crusade.

Grieving - and aware that London holds nothing for them - the two travel to the north of England, where they find lodging with a cousin. Daniel takes an aboveground job at a mine and continues his efforts on behalf of the workers, only this time with conciliation rather than confrontation.

But another tragedy ensues, and Adam is taken into the home of local aristocrat and mine owner Sir John Starling, where he finds himself welcomed by his host and his older son, military officer Seaton, but loathed by Sir John’s wife and their younger son, Brice. Complicating the situation is Brice’s unwanted attention to parson’s daughter Miriam Vale, whose affection for Adam is returned.

After winning a scholarship, Adam enrolls in Oxford University, where he succeeds academically but finds himself at odds socially with the more privileged undergraduates. When duty calls, he enlists in the British army shortly after his 18th birthday in November 1914 and soon lands in France, where World War I rages.

As the Battle of the Somme begins in 1916, “No Man’s Land” reaches a climax - but not yet a conclusion - as Tolkien fires his prose with the precision of a sniper in describing horror and heroism:

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“Booklist” - Jen Baker

Tolkien, grandson of J. R. R. Tolkien, breaks from his edge-of-the-seat suspense novels in this moving fictional tribute to both his grandfather and the men who fought and died in the Great War. Loosely based on John R. R. Tolkien’s life, the two halves of the story describe “no man’s land” in both the coal mines of northeastern Derbyshire and the trenches in France. Through an act of astonishing bravery, Adam Raine saves another boy’s life during a mine accident, echoing the courage of his father, who dies a hero in a fire at the mineowner’s home. This is the turning point in Adam’s life:he’s adopted by the mine owner and given a chance at worldly success and at wooing the parson’s daughter. The war’s abrupt intervention, and the machinations of Adam’s disgruntled enemies during his absence at the Front, provide a heartwrenching tension, while the pace quickens dramatically throughout the gut-turning episodes of trench warfare. The author’s visceral account of the Battle of the Somme underscores the individual suffering and courage involved—an unforgettable paean and a gripping war story, with a sensitive perspective on the home front. This compares in depth of feeling and insight to Elizabeth Speller’s The First of July (2013) and to Jeff Shaara’s well-researched, absorbing To the Last Man (2004).

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