Monday, June 27, 2016

“A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War”

It was a terrible war, this “war to end all wars,” and it pitted men against the most technologically advanced war machines created up to that time.

The men lost.

The death toll was horrific: more than nine million combatants and seven million civilians died. Four empires collapsed – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Large swaths of Europe, especially in Belgium and northeast France, were laid waste. Even the victorious nations like Britain faced debt, struggling economies, and the task of rebuilding.

The physical destruction wasn’t the only tragedy of the war. The psychological impact was just as bad. The 19th century believe in progress – that things were getting better and better, science was solving all of man’s problems, and ignorance could be eradicated by education – was dealt a near-mortal blow. The general disillusionment that followed the war was devastating and long-lasting.

Two young men from Britain served in the war, and saw the horrors of the conflict and experienced the conditions of trench warfare – walking in water during the rain, the rats and the lice, the bodies that could pile up during periods of conflict, the constant smell of mud and unwashed humanity. The two did not emerged unscathed – one caught trench fever (caused by lice) and saw some of his closest friends die; the other was wounded and would carry a piece of shrapnel near his heart for the rest of his life.

J.R.R. Tolkien in World War I
But they did emerge with their beliefs intact, and especially their people in the essential nobility and heroism of the human being. The war would heavily influence their choice of careers and the books they produced, and those books have had an enormous influence on tens of millions of people. And their friendship at Oxford University is arguably the most important friendship of the 20th century.

The two were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Joseph Loconte, professor of history at The King’s College in New York City, tells the story of how the Great War affected them and shaped their writings in A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.

He makes a powerful case. By sifting through letters, accounts of battles, and The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia, Loconte meticulously identifies both specific and general influences.

C.S. Lewis in 1917
But he also does considerably more. Loconte neatly provides the social, historical, and cultural context for the period leading up to the war. And then he explains how the war shredded so many belief systems (progressive Christianity and the idea of progress among them) and what happened to the literary and cultural environment afterward. The particular surprise was that Tolkien and Lewis pursued subjects and themes believed old-fashioned and passé – good versus evil, the heroic, the potential evils of technology, and even ideas of chivalry.

Pivotal to the eventual success of both men was a conversation in 1931, one that started as a dinner invitation from Lewis to Tolkien and another friend, Hugo Dyson, and ended in the wee hours of the next morning with the once atheist Lewis believing in God. Lewis and Tolkien had become friends at Oxford in the late 1920s because of a shared love for the Old Norse tales and a shared experience in the Great War.

Joseph Loconte (photo by The King's College)
One experience they could discuss and argue; the other was left largely unspoken, because it was understood and didn’t need to be talked about. Instead, it ended up in their stories as specific scenes and general themes.

Loconte is the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt (2012) and God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West (2014). This current work has something of a personal aspect for him, in that his grandfather fought for the United States in the Great War.

He tells a good story himself, and in A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, he has added immeasurably to our understanding of two of the 20th century’s most beloved authors and what influenced the stories they wrote.


At Tweetspeak Poetry, I’ve written a number of posts about the poets and the poetry of World War I:

Top photograph: Trenches of the 11th Cheshire Regiment at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, on the Somme, July 1916. One sentry keeps watch while the others sleep. Photo by Ernest Brooks via Wikipedia.

1 comment:

Megan Willome said...

It sounds like this book is exploring a necessary part of their stories, the war part. I recently listened to a series of podcasts discussing "The Hobbit" and "LOTR," and one of the hosts remarked at how well the battle scenes were done. Then the other guy said, "Well, Tolkien fought in World War I."