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 definitely recommend Joe Loconte’s book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. In particular, he details the counter-cultural beliefs of Lewis and Tolkien about faith and free will, war and heroism. Along the way, he also explores the role of “iron sharpening iron” relationships– friendships, teachers, and authors– in their faith and their writing.
Friendship with God and Man
Loconte describes Lewis’ faith journey in detail. Well before The Chronicles of Narnia, it begins with an early, growing atheism after being raised in the Anglican church with its “ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry” and sermons that seemed “vapid and irrelevant.” (87) With the influence of an early teacher, William Kirkpatrick, Lewis embraced logic and reason (of a sort), defending his atheism with the fashionable arguments of the day (88). For Lewis at the time, Christianity was one false myth among many.
Lewis’ conversion to Christianity had many catalysts. Loconte describes Laurence Johnson, a friend to Lewis during WWI. Johnson was a man of conscience who took his principles for granted and lived them out in a compelling manner (98). After the war, Lewis formed a lifelong friendship with Owen Barfield. They disagreed on everything, but had mutual admiration and challenged each others’ thinking. Barfield was especially helpful in convincing Lewis about his bias against tradition and his simplistic embrace of scientism and materialism (126-127).
Then, Loconte turns to the impact of Lewis’ friendship with Tolkien, starting in September 1931. “Their exchange– an encounter between intensely creative minds over the meaning of Christianity– should be ranked as one of the most transformative conversations of the 20th century.” (129) Their chief debate was over the nature and origins 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 (130-131). 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 (133).
Fifteen years before the fateful conversations with Tolkien, George MacDonald’s Phantastes had plowed up the fallow ground of Lewis’ imagination– on myth, aesthetics, creativity, and eventually, the Divine (82-83). MacDonald had a heavy influence on both authors. They “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. The world is the setting for great conflicts and great quests: it creates scenes of remorseless violence, grief and suffering, as well as deep compassion, courage and selfless sacrifice…Their depictions 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.” (xvi)
Loconte also discusses the importance of friendship in general. In this, I was reminded of Wesley Hill’s fine book, Spiritual Friendship, on the underestimated value of robust relationships. 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 (179). Lewis was essential to Tolkien persevering to publish The Lord of the Rings (136) and even nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature (179). “It is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the 20th century.” (xiv)
Both also benefited from gathering with sets of friends. “The Inklings” are the most famous example (134), but Loconte discusses other, earlier groups. And the theme of friendship echoes throughout their fiction– a key theme in both Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. After all, the first volume of the latter includes “fellowship” in its title.
The friendships also gave them the intellectual and emotional strength to be counter-cultural. They were “swimming against the tide of their times.” (xiv) All of this “makes the literary aims of Tolkien and Lewis all the more remarkable: they steadfastly refused the sense of futility and agnosticism that infected so much of the output of their era.” (142) But peers helped them blaze that trail.
On Heroism and War
To Loconte, heroism is where Lewis and Tolkien “depart most radically from the spirit of the age.” (188) Modern heroes usually win through their own abilities, with some impressive firepower thrown in for good measure. Relying on a supernatural being seems like “a cheat” (188)– both to good literary tastes and to the nature of man. But their heroes portrayed a combination of Divine provision and their participation.
Both wrote at length about free will, providence, and their “mysterious intersection.” (152) The tragedy of WWI had undermined belief in free will, so their work was counter-cultural here as well (155). Likewise, diminished free will tempted from individual responsibility toward determinism, fatalism, and resignation (162-164).
In contrast, both authors repeatedly depict choices– often, painful decisions, in the midst of exceedingly difficult circumstances. And when their characters fail, there’s still grace– something that was usually in short supply under contemporary cultural beliefs. Ultimately, the Ring is destroyed by “a sudden and miraculous grace” (189)– ironically, through Gollum– rather than Frodo or the Fellowship.
Given their wartime experience, their depictions of war were realistic. Tolkien began writing in camps and hospitals during the war (60). His description of the “Dead Marshes” matches the description of soldiers in the Somme Offensive (74). The hobbits seem to be modeled after ordinary soldiers, at least in their innocent pre-war days (75). Like the soldiers, the hobbits could not “perceive how the fate of nations depended on their stubborn devotion to duty.” (77)
War provided much of the “raw material” for Lewis and Tolkien (xvi). Their overarching themes are “embedded in a narrative of brutal, physical warfare” (165). (On the same page, Loconte quotes a stanza from a Thomas Hardy poem that ends with the poignant phrase, “of ravaged roof and smouldering gable-end”.) Yet their work cannot be seen as cavalier acceptance of either pacifism or warmongering (xviii). Their characters often exhibit courage, honor, and nobility. But as ex-soldiers, Lewis and Tolkien did not– they could not– glamorize combat (121).
Tolkein includes “scenes of anguished refugees throughout his works.” (166) In the great battle between Gondor and Mordor, “its dead are too numerous to count…it leaves the victors ‘weary beyond joy or sorrow’.” (166) Lewis is gentler, given that his primary audience is children– but still stark enough (168). For both, war is not “an opportunity for martial glory, but…a grim necessity…a striking lack of triumphalism; we find instead amazement and gratitude for surviving…” (168)
As for the soldiers, Loconte quotes Richard Schweitzer: “The religion of 90% of the men at the front is not distinctively Christian, but a religion of patriotism and of valor, tinged with chivalry, and the best merely colored with sentiment and emotion borrowed from Christianity.” (49) As is still the case today, “Christianity” is often an amalgam of civil religion, cultural norms, middle class ethics, and the trappings of ritual.
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.
Darwin’s theory was dominant in terms of biology– along its implications for philosophy, economy, and society, when over-extended in combination with scientism and materialism (12-13). One of the downsides of early Progressivism was a weighting of technology and “progress” over nature. Loconte talks about Lewis and especially Tolkien’s displeasure with this (6, 8-10).
Christianity had also added syncretisms with the “social gospel” of human advancement (14). Amazingly, this included a penchant for eugenics (15-21), which Lewis and Tolkien both critiqued implicitly in their narratives. (In addition to their frequent emphasis on freedom and dignity, note Tolkien’s creation of orcs by Dark Lord Morgoth and Lewis’ themes in Perelandra.)
The Progressives fostered optimism that the days of the great (religious) wars were over (2-3, 27-29). “Progress” also meant a greater ability to conduct war more efficiently when needed. Unfortunately, the progress didn’t include ethical advances in when or how to conduct it (22-23). Loconte quotes Paul Bull here: “The Age of Progress ends in a barbarism such as shocks a savage. The Age of Reason ends in a delirium of madness.” (47)
Once war was over, the Progressive faith was renewed a bit through Woodrow Wilson’s call to peace through government, treaties, and the League of Nations. Loconte observes that all over Europe, public places were named for Wilson (103-104). But the promise was not fulfilled and this aspect of the faith was short-lived. Moreover, war was followed by “the three horsemen”: the Spanish Influenza, atheistic communism, and Italian fascism (111-114).
Much of the post-war blame was put instead on liberal democracy, Christianity, and Western Civilization, leading to tremendous cynicism (105, 122-125). This impacted norms in literature. Loconte counts about 400 novels from the 1920s and 1930s that saw war as “inherently ignoble and irrational.” (120) Both Tolkien and Lewis wrote in contrast to– and as opposed to– this norm.
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.” (158) Usually, through “a subtle and gradual perversion…the universal temptation to exploit, dominate, and control the lives of others” (159). And the power of groups and peer pressure, quoting Lewis in This Hideous Strength: “to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.” (161)
As Loconte notes, “the major disillusionment of the 20th century has been over political good intentions.” (159) 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.
For my key blogs on Lewis, click on quotes from Mere Christianity; my review of Abolition of Man; and my essay on Lewis, Huxley and JFK (who all died on the same day). I don’t have nearly as much on Tolkien, but I would recommend my review of a fine book on how LOTR connects to politics.
Here are bullet-point and prose reviews of Adam Hochschild’s excellent book on WWI: To End All Wars.
For a book that covers similar themes from the perspective of WWII, see my review of Alan Jacobs’ The Year of Our Lord 1943.
For more of my writing on eugenics, check out my overview, including Indiana as the first state to implement a eugenics law; my review of Leonard’s must-read book which adds angles on Progressivism and economics; and my review of Bergman’s book while implicates Darwinism.
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