If you’re into C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, or the impact of the World Wars on society, religion and culture, I’d recommend Joe Loconte’s book, “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War.”
Loconte describes Lewis’ faith journey in detail. Well before “Chronicles of Narnia,” he embraced atheism after being raised in the Anglican church with its “ugly architecture, ugly music and bad poetry” and sermons that seemed “vapid and irrelevant.” Lewis’ conversion to Christianity had many catalysts — in particular, a trio of close friends: Laurence Johnson, Owen Barfield and Tolkien.
For Tolkien and Lewis, their chief debate was about the nature of myths. Lewis believed they were man’s effort to understand the world; Tolkien saw them emanating from God to convey something true about the world. Eventually, Lewis was persuaded that the Dying God had entered history, lived a life, gave his life and conquered death — the True Myth — leading to Lewis’ step from one faith to another.
Loconte also discusses the importance of friendship more broadly. Beyond iron sharpening iron, they advanced each others’ professional pursuits. Tolkien helped Lewis secure an academic position and find a publisher for his science fiction. Lewis was essential to Tolkien persevering to publish “Lord of the Rings” and even nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the 20th century.”
Given their wartime experience, their depictions of war were realistic. Tolkien began writing in camps and hospitals during the war. His description of the “Dead Marshes” matches the description of soldiers in the Somme Offensive. The hobbits seem to be modeled after ordinary soldiers, at least in their innocent pre-war days. Like the soldiers, the hobbits could not “perceive how the fate of nations depended on their stubborn devotion to duty.”
War provided much of the “raw material” for Lewis and Tolkien. Their overarching themes are “embedded in a narrative of brutal, physical warfare.” (Lewis is gentler, given that his primary audience is children — but still stark enough.) Yet their work cannot be seen as cavalier acceptance of either pacifism or warmongering. Their characters often exhibit courage, honor and nobility. But as ex-soldiers, Lewis and Tolkien did not — they could not — glamorize combat.
Loconte echoes numbers similar to what one reads in Adam Hochschild’s excellent book, “To End All Wars.” Millions of soldiers dead and wounded. Innumerable civilian deaths from starvation and disease. And the Armenian massacre by the Ottoman Turks — the first large-scale example of genocide in the 20th Century.
Not surprisingly, “Progressivism” is woven throughout Loconte’s account — with its immense confidence in human progress. The worldview was at its high-water mark coming into the war — as both men were coming of age. Disillusionment — and recovery from some of its errors — marks the period after the war, when both men began to write in earnest. Their literary work is noteworthy for running so strongly counter to the cynicism of the age.
The Church wasn’t always helpful either. The lines between Church and State were blurred during WWI in a combination of nationalism, civil religion and holy war. “Cross and Crown must be kept together.” Subsets of Christianity had also added the “social gospel” of human advancement. Amazingly, this included a penchant for eugenics, which Lewis and Tolkien critiqued implicitly in their narratives. (Did you know that Indiana was the first state to pass a eugenics law in 1907?) Of course, for believers, all of this is troubling and reminiscent of the Two Beasts — the State and False Religion — in Revelation 13.
The Progressives fostered optimism that the days of the great (religious) wars were over. Still, much of the post-war blame was put instead on liberal democracy, Christianity and Western Civilization. What didn’t get enough attention: Those in power can easily have or develop values that are inconsistent with human dignity and worth. Of crusaders, “however noble the motives may be, they easily become twisted by the thought of glory and the taste of power.”
As Loconte notes, “the major disillusionment of the 20th century has been over political good intentions.” This has led to interventions ranging from ineffective economic “stimulus” to gulags and killing fields. But good intentions cannot — well, should not — satisfy for long. Both Lewis and Tolkien call people to something beyond intent — toward lives of purposeful decisions, robust fellowship, heroic self-sacrifice toward higher ends and working toward freedom and dignity for all. May we follow in their footsteps — within the magical worlds we inhabit and the mythical dramas we enact.