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.”
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 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.
Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.
By Simon Tolkien
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 578 pp. $27.95