A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918

Posted by jack_miller | Published 7 months ago

With 422 ratings

By: Joseph Loconte

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Had there been no Great War, there would have been no Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Narnia, and perhaps no conversion to Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

The First World War laid waste to a continent and brought about the end of innocence—and the end of faith. Unlike a generation of young writers who lost faith in the God of the Bible, however, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis found that the Great War deepened their spiritual quest. Both men served as soldiers on the Western Front, survived the trenches, and used the experience of that conflict to ignite their Christian imagination.

Tolkien and Lewis produced epic stories infused with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation. Giving an unabashedly Christian vision of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment, the two writers created works that changed the course of literature and shaped the faith of millions. This is the first book to explore their work in light of the spiritual crisis sparked by the conflict.

For a certain group, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis are such a part of the literary, imaginative, and spiritual landscape that their insights are taken for granted. The timeless qualities of their work have divorced it from any consideration of the time in which the two men lived and wrote. Familiarity has bred contempt. What Joseph Loconte attempts in A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is to place Tolkien and Lewis firmly back into their historical context, to throw their work into relief by looking at the world in which they wrote. Central to all of this is the war.

The two men, who became fast friends as professors at Oxford, would seem to have had little in common. Lewis was an Irishman of Ulster Protestant extraction and, by the time he went to war, a confirmed atheist. Tolkien was a devout cradle Catholic reared in England. For both men, the experience that most shaped them was the war.

Loconte begins the book by examining the world into which they were born and through which they approached the war. He gives time to explaining the Idea of Progress, the belief in the steady upward march of Europe’s scientific, enlightened culture, and its embodiment in social policies like eugenics. He looks into Freudian psychology and the marriage of the era’s Christianity to nationalism, a union that produced war fever and the demonization of the enemy. Scientific progress, the devaluation of human life, disregard for the soul and spirit, and the prostitution of religion to the nation combined to make World War I uniquely ferocious.

Into this war marched millions of young men, and Loconte by no means ignores the rest in his focus on Tolkien and Lewis. He draws examples of how these young men reacted from classic sources like Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ernst Jünger, and Erich Maria Remarque. Their testimonials demonstrate the way the war cruelly, almost mechanically, ground down the spirits of the men sent into its trenches.

Tolkien and Lewis both suffered. Tolkien served on the Somme, one of the notorious meat grinders of the war, and was eventually invalided out of the fight. Lewis arrived later and, despite distinguished service including the capture of a number of German prisoners, was also wounded and spent months in hospital, out of the action. This experience was, for both of them as for many others, a source of bonding after the war. References to it in their letters and papers are numerous; it formed part of a shared vocabulary that informed and gave body to their imaginations.

Loconte does an excellent job of demonstrating this by drawing on their writings, not just well-known works like The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia, but their academic work, letters, and diaries. I have to admit that I was skeptical about some of this at first, as a few of the examples seemed to be little more than superficial comparisons of events in, for example, The Lord of the Rings to conditions on the Somme. But Loconte digs deep and provides explicit comparisons from the writers themselves. Tolkien is particularly forthcoming about the influence of the war on his fiction: “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself” (xvii). And again, “The Dead Marshes . . . owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme” (74).

But beyond simply providing inspiration for specific scenes or landscapes in their work, the war gave Tolkien and Lewis thematic material, friendship, loss, and the desperate courage that makes up real heroism foremost among them. Both men lost friends in the war. Virtually the entirety of a prewar club to which Tolkien had belonged was killed off one by one in the fighting. Lewis saw an older sergeant, a man who had become “almost like a father” to the young officer, senselessly killed in what may have been a friendly fire incident. Like Tolkien, he lost many of his school friends and fellow officers as well: "Nearly all my friends in the Battalion are gone" (99-100).

It was well after the war in the quiet environs of Oxford that Tolkien and Lewis met and formed their famous friendship. Under the influence of Tolkien and others, Lewis--by now an agnostic--moved to a vague theism and finally Christianity. It was this friendship that made both men so productive and gave the world their still-beloved and timeless work.

Loconte’s book has two great strengths. First, it vividly depicts the reality of World War I combat in general and the actions in which Tolkien and Lewis were involved specifically. I’ve read a number of biographies of both men, and they tend to skimp on detail about their combat experience. (I assume this is because most of these bios were written by literary scholars; in addition to being a fan of Tolkien and Lewis, I’m a military historian, so this book scratched an itch I’ve been feeling for a while.) Like the rest of their generation, Tolkien and Lewis were shaped in profound ways by the horror of the war, and Loconte does an excellent job of showing that.

Second, the focus in the early portions of the book on the world before the war, and the comparison of Tolkien and Lewis’s experiences to those of others of their generation, makes their work fresh again. Loconte shows just how countercultural these familiar men really were, moving against the intellectual, social, and spiritual currents of their day--scientism, chronological snobbery, and the denial of goodness, heroism, and truth. Their works aren’t "relevant" or "timeless" because they appeal to a generic Christian audience, their work is timeless because they were men who looked outside their ruined generation for the eternal and did their best to reflect that back into the world through the imagination.

This, to me, is the central insight of Loconte’s book, and that alone makes it well worth reading. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is an excellent introduction to an often overlooked aspect of the lives of two literary and intellectual giants and their place in history.

Highly recommended.

- kairi_cox

Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings has been my favorite book since about age 12; I have a 40 year old daughter named Arwen. I did not discover C.S. Lewis until I was an adult, but not only did I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my children, but Lewis' nonfiction works were very significant in my own conversion. So I do not claim any objectivity in this matter. However, if anything, that raised my expectations, but also raised my fears of disappointment. A book with this title not only has to have worthwhile things to say but must also be well written, to honor the intellect and talent of Tolkien and Lewis. As you can gather from my 5 star rating, this book succeeds on both counts. More than succeeds: like the originals of the title, it is a book that I know I will return to again and again. Although I loved the book and enjoyed the shape of the sentences in my mind, I found myself reading relatively few pages at a time because this book came alive in my mind and spurred my own thoughts. Surely there is not much more than can be asked of a book.

- heavenly_james

I found this a wonderful book not only because it is so well written and documented, but because it taught me so many things about the present dilemas that we face.I had thought that the first WW drastically changed the culture of the West, but Mr. Loconte shows how the prevailing culture just before the War to end all wars was really responsible for the wilingness of nations to go to war Add to this the fact that Mr. Loconte demonstrates the beauty of the lives of Tolkien and Lewis and how they managed to share their ideals in the midst of the spiritual poverty after WWI and I have to say how impressed I am by this book. Mr. Loconte writes:
Tolkien and Lewis were attracted to the genres of myth and romance not because they sought to escape the world but because for them the real world had a mythic and heroic quality…In an era that exalted cynicism and irony, Tolkien and Lewis sought to reclaim and older tradition of the epic hero. Their depiction of the struggles of Middle-earth and Narnia do not represent a flight from reality, but rather a return to a more realistic view of the world as we actually find it.'
This is his evaluation of the character of these two friends and I believe him to be right.
I am a great fan of Tolkien and Lewis but I believe that this is a book well worth reading for anyone who enjoys history.

- priscilla_clark

This book has an extreme emphasis on religion, which detracts from the pieces of interesting information sprinkled throughout the book. Hardly anything is presented in a way that doesnt involve the faith of the authors. "Movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and athe Chronicles of Narnia have introduced hundreds or millions of people to their essentially Christian version of the human story." Little is said about the friendship of the two men apart from their religious debates and interactions (although there is brief mention that they discussed other topics). I gave this book two stars because the book flowed well and read easily, and because there was some information about the war (although more was said about the religious climate of the time than about the writers' wartime experiences). A background of their service
was given and was relatively informative, but there was no thorough analysis on the influence of these experiences on their works. The author just tacked on a book quote or two at the end of some of the sections that could arguably have been related to their time in war. I felt like I did lesrn a bit about who each person "was," but this book was a disappointment overall. I wouldn't go into it assuming that you'll learn much about their lives, the influence of their experiences on their works, or their friendship. Those parts perhaps would make up 30 pages of the book if pieced together. A better title would have been "Tolkien's Success in Converting an Atheist to Christinanity."

- oliver_rodriguez

I enjoyed this book and thought that it was a great idea, but I read it immediately after reading The Great and Holy War and therefore found it to be quite shallow. I found that it didn't have enough detail or insight re WW1 and definitely did not have the depth and connection in the way that Zeepvat did re Noel Hogson in Before Action. Having read the book, I don't feel any closer to understanding Lewis's or Tolkien's involvement, torment and hardship during WW1 or even understanding their faith - everything is rather vague or unanswered. It has patches of insight and few good anecdotes, but not the depth that I anticipated.

- corey_gutierrez

The book is very well written, albeit progressing a little slowly at through the beginning. Covers the influences of the First World War on the writtings of Tolkien and Lewis throughout 3 quarters of the book. Great read for fans of the books and very insightful, explaining why these fictional works resonate with so many.

- lukas_martin

A must have for any fans of Lewis or Tolkien,

- harper_jimenez

I really wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did.

What it says on the cover:
How JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis discovered faith, friendship and heroism in the cataclysm of 1914-1918

Basically the book can be divided into 5 parts.
In the first part, the writer talks about WW1 in general and what role religion and the church played in it. In the second part, he writes about Tolkien's role in the war, his letters to his father and his experiences. In the third part he does the same for Lewis.
In the fourth part he talks about their friendship at Oxford and Lewis's conversion to Christianity. In the last part the author discusses the role of Christianity and belief in the authors' works LOTR and Narnia.

Now it feels like what this book did was trying to convert the reader to the Christian belief. The author used a lot of quotes, letters and text passages to prove how important belief and faith was to both authors and how heavily incorporated it is in their respective works. The last parts felt like a thesis or like an English essay interpretation, always trying to PROVE a certain point.
What it did rather well was illuminating Tolkien's and Lewis's WW1 involvements. If you're not too familiar with their biography, you'll learn a great deal about their lives and about WW1!
Too bad this book was rather one-sided and didn't really focus on the authors' friendship, but rather on how faithful they were or turned out to be (Lewis was an atheist until he met Tolkien).

- karina_rivera

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