“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” by Joseph Leconte
2017 Reading Challenge —Book 21: A biography of a Christian
As I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia with my oldest son, I thought it was the right time to pick up a book that, to my shame, has been languishing on my to-read pile for far too long. The last several times I’ve read through either the Chronicles or The Lord of the Rings, I’ve tried to also read a book about the author to help provide familiar stories with new depth. Each time, I’ve gained greater insight and a greater love for these books.
This time was no different. Or rather, it was different, but in the sense that Leconte’s approach comes from a very different direction than other materials I’ve read about either author, providing a perspective that has made an even greater impact on my enjoyment than I’ve encountered in the past.
From previous biographical material, I already knew that both Lewis and Tolkien had served in the trenches of the Great War. But Leconte, a descendant of a World War I combatant himself, does a masterful job of showing the great impact that their wartime experiences—in which each saw brutal combat, lost close friends, and spent time in military hospitals recuperating from serious illness (which killed far more people than weapons during the War)—had on their writing as well as on their friendship, which has been described by many as arguably the most important friendship of the 20th century.
The literature produced following the war was largely cynical, which was perhaps understandable given the fact that, astoundingly, about 5% of the world’s population had died, thanks in large part to the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, which spread rapidly in the trenches and crossed oceans on troop ships. The Great War was seen not as a product of the philosophical and political climate—it was the age of progressive optimism in which eugenics and socialism were in; religion and social mores were out—which led to its inception and its mind-numbing disregard for the value of human life, but as one of the final nails in the coffin of Christianity, which claimed that a Good and Just God reigned over all Creation. After all, who could believe that there could be a loving Father in heaven after the carnage of those years?
Yet these two great friends and Oxford professors encouraged one another to counter this trend by writing stories of virtue and heroism, and of the ultimate triumph of good over evil, though it come at great—and often ultimate—cost. Because, remarkably, where nearly everyone else saw only violence and despair, these men saw exemples of integrity and courage, revealing a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” that pointed to One far greater than the conflict in which they had found themselves.
Many of the characters in their stories are drawn from attributes they saw in the common British soldier during the Great War, and in some instances are based on specific men they had encountered (Sam Gamgee, for instance, was based on a particularly faithful batman Tolkien had met in the trenches). But the greatest influence that their battle experiences had on their writing was in the “big picture” themes present in their works: the corruption of world systems and powers; the failures of even the most noble characters, and the reliance of those characters on a Power outside themselves to overcome their own weaknesses; the idea that greatest real strength lies in the least likely, whether it be children, Hobbits, or hard-working, faithful, lower-class peasants fighting in the trenches in a truly senseless conflict.
Lewis once wrote that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance,” and I know he was right. Literature, and particularly the fantasy genre in which both he and Tolkien excelled, provides a great vehicle for understanding the deep things of God which cannot be grasped from mere academic study. After all, God is the greatest storyteller of all, and has revealed Himself to us in a Story!
But after reading A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, I have found that there are even greater riches to be found in these authors’ fictional stories when those stories are placed within the context of the real story in which Lewis and Tolkien themselves took part, which is in turn a part of the great Story of God’s redemption of the world, which is being written even now, and in which each of us plays a part. For truly, “all the world’s a stage…”
I highly recommend this book, particularly for those who, like me, love to plumb the depths of Middle Earth and Narnia on a regular basis. You can get it here.