Over the Top
No Man’s Land
By Simon Tolkien
Nan A. Talese, 2017
It takes courage for a writer to venture into the much-trampled field of World War I literature. From its first chroniclers—Vera Brittain, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and their many contemporaries—to a host of more recent writers from Timothy Findley to Pat Barker, the Great War has inspired memoirs, poetry, and fiction of the highest order. To choose the First World War for your subject is deliberately to enter the lists against these predecessors—and to take on, as well, the challenge of finding a new story to tell, or a new way to tell the story, about one of the most familiar of all modern histories.
The risk of seeming inadequate, or derivative, or both has not deterred Simon Tolkien, whose No Man’s Land is an ambitious, thoroughly researched novel in which the protagonist’s journey to adulthood, including his passage through the crucible of war, is used to evoke the transformation of a world struggling towards modernity. In many ways this is, of course, the quintessential narrative of the Great War. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a gripping tale, though. Indeed, one of the essential contributions of imaginative literature is to personalize the confusion and horror and loss of the war—to help us see and thus mourn the often unbearably young people whose individual lives constituted what we now see, looking backwards, as a vast and crowded historical panorama. Tolkien makes just this point himself through his protagonist, Adam Raine:
He had an unusual understanding for his age that history whether ancient or modern was not the dry study of the dead but rather a voyage of discovery into the lives of men and women who had been alive just as much as he was alive now.
Adam joins a parade of characters whose stories are, in this way, at once individual and representative.
Tolkien packs his novel with plenty of action and angst from the history of early 20th century England. If anything, No Man’s Land is too replete with incident, too conspicuously an attempt to dramatize an era. The novel opens in London in 1900, with Adam’s impoverished parents struggling to support their family. One of Adam’s earliest memories is watching men repossess “the piano that stood in pride of place in the front room of their small house.” “It doesn’t matter,” his mother Lillian says, attempting to console his father Daniel; “We don’t need it.” “Life should be about more than grubbing around, trying to stay alive,” Daniel replies. Daniel is a builder and a political radical who instills a longing in his son for social justice. “I want a better world for you to live in,” he tells Adam after taking him to see a Salvation Army hall where rows of destitute men are allowed to sleep on the benches as long as they stay upright. “It’s better than the public library,” Daniel explains, “where they have to sleep standing up, hanging on to the newspaper stands.” These men, he goes on,
have worked hard all their lives but have now outlived their purpose. Chewed up, spat out and left to die by the capitalists who’ve got no use for them any more.
It is a time of rapid change that is breaking apart the old order, for better and for worse: though these discarded men are being left behind, a new generation of workers is demanding “better pay; better hours; better conditions,” and Daniel Raine is eager to be a part of it, in spite of the danger. In the end it is Lillian, though, and not Daniel himself, who pays the price for his union activism, and Daniel and Adam are forced to move north, to the coal-mining town of Scarsdale where Daniel can get work.
Scarsdale is no refuge from class divisions or labor conflicts, however, and here too they eventually create a catastrophe that is political in its form but, for Adam, intensely personal in its results. In his new job, Daniel acts as a “negotiator between the union and the owners,” particularly Sir John Scarsdale:
The essence of the problem was that Scarsdale was an old pit. In its day it had filled the coffers of Sir John’s father and financed handsome improvements at Scarsdale Hall . . . But since the turn of the century productivity had steadily fallen. In response the miners had dug deeper and the narrow Oakwell seam had recently yielded good coal, but the greater depth brought more risks and the need for increased expenditure on safety.
Daniel is soon disliked by the miners, who thought they were getting a “firebrand strike leader” only to find he insists on seeing both sides and seeking compromise. “The trouble is,” he explains to Adam, after a strike fails to bring workers the wage increases they demanded
Sir John hasn’t got enough to give them what they want. The mine’s old and the coal’s not good enough to fetch good prices and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Facts are facts.
A disaster in the mine escalates tensions and the miners march on and then torch Scarsdale Hall. When Daniel tries to intervene, it seems to many of the miners to confirm him as a traitor to their cause: “’E’s not one o’ us; ’e’s Sir John’s lackey,” one of them shouts. Defying their demand that he choose class over humanity, Daniel rushes into the fire to save first Sir John then his elderly mother—only to be swallowed up in the flames himself.
This second great loss yields an unexpected benefit for Adam: grateful for Daniel’s sacrifice, Sir John takes the orphaned boy into his household to raise alongside his own sons. The arrangement brings Adam many benefits, both socially and educationally, but it also creates resentment: his love of books and learning had already made him an outsider in the village, and now he is set apart literally as well. Conversely, his lower-class background proves an obstacle between him and Miriam, the lovely but timid vicar’s daughter he loves and longs to marry.
When he goes to Oxford, Adam finally finds himself in his element:
Coming back through the garden gate in the twilight he would stop for a moment at the entrance to his staircase staring at his name painted white on the jet-black board outside, feeling a sense of pride that made his heart beat fast. He was a scholar; he had earned the right to live and work in this extraordinary place; he was beholden to no man.
But when war breaks out, the world changes for Adam once more. At first, he resists the pressure to enlist, but a raid on Scarborough, where he has been visiting with Miriam, fills him with motivating rage:
Germans! Adam hated them with a visceral intensity that twisted his gut. Scarborough was defenceless—there were no warships here or batteries of guns making it a legitimate target; only fishing boats and donkey rides and bathing huts. The bombardment was a war crime: a repeat of the barbarism they had inflicted on Belgium back in the summer. Adam had no doubts now about the terrible atrocities he had read about in the newspapers. This was a war about the survival of civilization; it was a war he was going to have to fight.
From there, Tolkien takes Adam, and us, to the Western front.
The war sections are at once the most predictable and the most engrossing sections of No Man’s Land. The mud, the blood, the gas, the broken and decomposing bodies, the alternation of numbing tedium with ghastly violence—all are familiar from every other story of the trenches, but such scenes never lose their power to shock and horrify:
A screaming shell fell short, spraying red-hot shrapnel over the soldiers at the far end of the line. One, a boy with apple-red cheeks, had risen up in terror at the last moment and the shards tore into his abdomen, ripping him open as with the full swing of an axe. He stayed kneeling for a moment with a strange yearning expression on his face and his hands clutching at the air and then toppled over dead. . . .
Adam ran. Into a hailstorm of bullets that was scything down the grass on the upward slope. Its freshly cut smell filled his nostrils and some separate part of his brain remembered England on a summer’s day: the softness of the newly mown lawns; the promise of peace in the air. Men on either side of him were falling. some had been shot; others had tripped over the ubiquitous, often invisible shell holes that pockmarked the ground. Adem fell into one, a larger crater already occupied by an injured man who was lying on his back, alternately beating the ground and clawing at it with his hands as he screamed out his agony, pulling his knees up over his wound in a vain attempt to protect himself from what had already happened.
Talking to Sir John on a brief leave home, Adam knows he can never convey the merciless reality of the front, but he finally interrupts Sir John’s well-meaning armchair strategizing. “You can’t win because of the guns,” he tries to explain:
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.
After the war, the world has changed, and so, again, has Adam’s place in it. Aptly enough for a novel organized around Adam’s individual Bildungsroman, No Man’s Land ends with Adam’s bookishness now turned, self-consciously, into an ambition to write his own account of the war. “It’s hard work,” he tells Miriam, “but I keep going because I want people to understand what our soldiers went through.” “You have a gift,” Miriam reassures him, “for making people and places come alive.”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of No Man’s Land itself. Tolkien’s desire to convey the lived experience of this turbulent period in a vivid and memorable way is palpable, and the novel does incorporate many ingredients with plenty of dramatic potential, but only during the war chapters does the urgency of the action itself override the book’s overall laboriousness. From the beginning, the construction of the plot is effortful: one thing follows another without any sense of thematic necessity or literary revelation—in spite of, and sometimes because of, Tolkien’s frequent overt signals that a particular detail or moment is significant. Here’s Daniel and Adam first leaving London for Scarsdale, for instance:
An hour later father and son left the house for the last time. Adam knew that he wouldn’t be coming back, at least not for a long time, not until he’d become an older, different person revisiting childhood memories when they were no more than dust in the wind.
I have never been an advocate of the much touted “show, don’t tell” rule—what lover of 19th-century fiction could be?—but the many such heavy-handed moments in No Man’s Land reminded me that poor telling can be a blight, not just if it falls, as here, into cliché, but when it hammers too hard on an image that could have been quietly effective if left to speak for itself:
And as the darkness began to blur into the soft misty grey lights of the early dawn, a lark began to sing somewhere out in no man’s land, and Adam and Seaton fell silent, unable to comprehend how such exquisite music could exist in such a terrible place.
Tolkien is sadly prone to such interference with his own storytelling, as if he doubts either his ability to convey or ours to notice resonance. He overwrites:
Nothing was secure. The war had taught Brice that lesson as it came hurtling down like an unexpected meteor out of the clear blue summer skies of 1914: first a distant speck, and then a black thundercloud shutting out the sun, and finally a roaring cataclysm that had devoured his generation.
He would have liked to start earning his living without delay but he knew that he needed a first-class honours degree from a top university to open the doors to success in life, and so he worked hard, getting up in the dawn light every morning to study.
He doubles down on the obvious:
He was thinner and paler and more weather-beaten than she remembered and she could see the bones in his face. The wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes could have easily belonged to a man twice his age. But he wasn’t disfigured or maimed. The wounds that he was carrying were all inside.
His people talk like two-dimensional movie characters:
“This battalion will have need of good officers soon. The time of our trial is fast approaching, and I have seen what happens in battle. This war is not like other wars—it’s worse than you can ever imagine.”
The effect is cumulatively tedious, as are the unnecessarily convoluted and melodramatic plot twists that multiply towards the novel’s end.
Yet despite, the novel’s weaknesses, I found myself sympathetic with No Man’s Land. The Great War is an intrinsically great story, but great novels are very hard to write, even in a field less densely populated with brilliant rivals. Though I believe Tolkien finally fails in the attempt, at least aesthetically, I admire his courage in giving it a try, and I appreciate his sincerity and commitment. Somehow I believe he has given us everything he’s got—which is not something you can count on from every writer. It was brave of him to raise his head above the parapet, and I don’t mean to snipe at him with my criticisms. No Man’s Land is not a very good novel—not only of its kind, but at all. But its story is nonetheless a valuable one, and there might be something to be learned from its telling, for Tolkien, or for the next novelist venturing into the fray, and for the reader who hasn’t yet read The Wars or All Quiet on the Western Front but gets a hint here of what might be done and why it matters, and so reads on.
Rohan Maitzen is an English professor in Halifax, Nova Scotia. An editor at Open Letters Monthly, she also blogs at Novel Readings.