Book Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

23647114“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.

Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies

I recently stumbled upon this re-enactment (HT: Theater of the Word) of the fateful conversation in 1931 between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis which led to the latter’s conversion to Christianity (P.S. – for those who don’t know, Lewis’ nickname among his friends was “Jack”):

Thank the Lord that in His providence he arranged for these two men to become friends! Our world is so much richer for their work.

Their friendship is fascinating to read about. If you’re interested, here is a great article about it, and here is another which is more specifically about the conversation portrayed in the video. Colin Duriez has written a book about their friendship (Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship), and the relationship also plays heavily in The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft (my review).

A feature-length film (“The Lion Awakes”) is now also in the works, which will hopefully bring this story to a broader audience. Here is the trailer:

Calling All Lord of the Rings Fans!

Well, the inevitable has happened. My paperback editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have finally worn out their usefulness. The Return of the King is missing (ironic, I know). The Fellowship of the Ring is falling apart, and the others aren’t far behind.

Which brings me to this dilemma: Which edition should I purchase as a replacement? I think I have it narrowed down to the following options:

  • Boxed Set, illustrated by Alan Lee in 2002 — Of the boxed sets, this one looks like the best. I like Lee’s illustrations, and the reviews seem to indicate that, unlike many other gift sets, this one is a high quality printing that should hold up for many, MANY readings. The downside is that I haven’t (yet) found an edition of The Hobbit which matches it, and it’s pricier than most other editions.
  • 50th Anniversary Edition (Hardcover) — As far as bells & whistles, this one seems to have it all. Fold out maps, the “Book of Mazarbul”, great looks… the edition was overseen by Christopher Tolkien, and is apparently the book his father wanted to publish, and would have if he’d had the capability 50 years ago. The downside here is that I often prefer to have multi-volume works like this broken down into individual books, as opposed to all-in-one.
  • The Annotated Hobbit — I’ve heard from many that this is the very best edition of The Hobbit, and since neither of the above options include the LOTR prequel, I suppose I’m in the market…
  • The last option is just to get another cheap set of paperbacks, with the assumption that my children (who am I kidding… I’ll be as guilty as anyone!) will wear them out like I did mine.

Forgive my nitpickiness, but this is an important decision! In many ways it’s like shopping for a Bible. There are so many options, but in the end, you really can’t go too wrong.

Speaking of comparisons with the Bible… I’m not sure how I feel about the official “Amazon.com Review” of The Lord of the Rings:

A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, the Lord of the Rings …

What say you, Tolkien fans? Have you read any of these editions? Which should I get?

Saying Best What’s to Be Said

Growing up, I was a big fan of novels. I read them all the time. From the time I learned to read, I was fascinated with stories, and I consumed whatever I could get my hands on.

Somewhere along the line — either during or right after college — I lost my love for literature. I still read a lot, but tended more toward non-fiction. Last year this was seen in the extreme:  I set (and met) a goal of reading 100 books in 2010. Of those, only eight were novels, with one more being a non-fiction book about novels. (Part of this was due to the fact that of the nearly 40 books I received free at last year’s Together for the Gospel conference, exactly zero were works of fiction!)

Don’t get me wrong. I really do enjoy reading non-fiction, and think it has great benefit, but since the start of 2011 I have rediscovered my love of literature. I feel like I’ve been reunited with an old friend!

In addition to reading much more fiction this year, I have come to more fully appreciate the importance of Story for helping make sense of life. Ironically, I was aided in this understanding by reading several non-fiction pieces, most notably essays by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (both available free online) called, respectively, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said and On Fairy Stories. I’ve also benefited from articles like this one from the fine folks at the Rabbit Room, as well as recent books such as Culture Making by Andy Crouch, and Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey.

Over the last few days, I’ve stumbled upon four articles which, in different ways, help point out our society’s need for more (and better) stories. These articles cover a large cross-section of our culture, from politics to art to pop culture, and I hope that you will check them out (and leave your feedback as well)!

First was the report of Barack Obama’s summer reading list. This list has been widely reported, and — as has become the tradition for Presidential reading lists — critiqued. What disappointed me was the fact that many articles (such as this one from the Daily Beast) seemed to criticize our nation’s leader simply for choosing novels over presumably more presidential works of non-fiction. The implication is that novels are for relaxation alone, while non-fiction is for learning and self-improvement. I couldn’t disagree more! If one wanted to criticize which novels Obama has chosen, that’s one thing, but to say that someone as important as POTUS shouldn’t “stoop” to reading fiction shows just how low our view of literature has become.

One potential reason for this societal antipathy toward fiction? September 11.

A recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer examined the effects of 9/11 on the arts. While there was increased interest in books and movies in the fantasy and apocalyptic genres (Twilight, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Cloverfield, etc), the vast majority of books written in the last decade of our terror-struck nation were nonfiction.

“But the 2000s were a time of nonfiction that put fiction to shame… Perhaps the trauma of 9/11 drove writers and readers to reexamine great lives and events, to reevaluate the truth.”

Did the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, leave us with the choice of running from reality or analyzing it documentary-style? I don’t know, but those events do roughly coincide with when I began heavily reading non-fiction to the exclusion of literature…

Russell Moore has written a great cover story about how we face the reality of horror. (If you only read one article linked to from this blog, make it this one!) He points to the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and how the biblical narrative forces readers to come to terms with “the unvarnished horror of ourselves — damned and cursed and exiled.” Scripture doesn’t shy away from unpleasant realities, but neither does it present the reality of sin, death, and Hell simply as cold, hard facts. Instead, God’s Word immerses us in a drama in which death is an enemy to be destroyed, and Christ is a conquering hero who sympathizes with our weaknesses even as he trandscends them and gives us the power to overcome them.

Moore points out that from our childhood we know intuitively that there is something “wild” out there, and that a Day of Judgment is coming. Stories help people (and especially children) “make sense of a chaotic world and of [our] often chaotic selves.” This is reminiscent of one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Unfortunately, I worry that as Christians, we have largely forgotten what makes a story great. We have lost the ability to discern the elements of truth, beauty, and goodness, which, thanks to God’s common grace, have been evident in great stories from every era, and have pointed to the Creator even in stories written by non-Christians (a topic Tony Reinke explores in his soon-to-be-released book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books). Instead, we tend to simply see things in black-and-white, or, more precisely, “Christian” and “non-Christian”.

This often leads us to call second- or third-rate books and movies “good” simply because they are produced by Christians, even if they have little or no artistic merit and terrible theology. Meanwhile, we reject truly good stories with themes of hope, forgiveness, and redemption if they have non-Christian origins.

Case-in-point: Last week Justin Taylor recommended two war movies with these themes. In the comments section, many were concerned because one of these movies, Saints and Soldiers, was produced by Mormons. This is a shame, because it really is a great movie! I’ve seen it a couple times, and while there are some specifically Mormon ideas implicit in the story, the overall theme is one which Christians ought to embrace.

We shouldn’t be surprised when non-Christians write good stories. After all, God has written Truth on their hearts and consciences. Paul encouraged the Philippians to fill their minds with whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, regardless of its source. Anything that inspires us to worship God and serve others is worthy of our time and consideration. This is what great stories do!

May we all develop a better understanding of what is true, beautiful, and good through the stories we read and watch, even as we pray for a renaissance in Christian literature, music, art, and movies.

Book Review: The Philosophy of Tolkien

“The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft

This book has been on my reading “wish list” since it came out a few years ago. I finally made time to read it, and I’m so glad I did!

As Kreeft — a Roman Catholic theologian and a professor of philosophy at Boston University — points out in the introduction, The Lord of the Rings is widely considered the greatest book of the twentieth century, though not all literary critics agree. Of course, I would certainly have to join the ranks of those showering accolades upon Tolkien’s masterpiece!

This book is exactly what you might expect from its title: a study of the philosophical themes and underlying worldview behind the story of LOTR. Many authors have attempted similar books seeking to cash in on the story’s popularity, but few have done it well. Thankfully, Kreeft has given us an outstanding work that is both educational and enjoyable; academically substantial yet easily accessible. At times, his wit and humor even had me laughing out loud!

The format of the book is simple: Fifty philosophical questions are separated into 13 categories. Kreeft explains the meaning and importance of each question, and then shows how the question is answered using quotes from LOTR, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. Tolkien’s thoughts on the matter are further explored, making use of his other writings — most notably letters he had written, as well as an essay entitled On Fairy-Stories. Each question’s section ends with a quote from the writings of C.S. Lewis — Tolkien’s closest friend and fellow Oxford professor — which directly states the same philosophy. The two had great influence on one another, and throughout this book we see how closely they paralleled one another due to what Kreeft calls their “common familiarity with and respect for the same sources in the great tradition, that is, pre-modern Western literature, philosophy, and religion.”

As someone not particularly well-versed in the academic field of philosophy, I enjoyed very much this foray into the method of investigating philosophical issues. Indeed, “an introduction to philosophy” is one of the four uses of this book suggested by its author, though that is not the reason I initially chose to read it. Still, while some of the questions asked in this book are particular to LOTR, most are broad in scope, and could be applied to any religion, cultural artifact, or work of literature. At many points in the book, Tolkien’s views are compared and contrasted with those of history’s great philosophers, from Plato to Sartre to Nietzsche.

Kreeft’s logic is impeccable, and the systematic progression of thought in this book presents a very strong case for his conclusions. Though I do not wish to spoil for you the joy of discovering these conclusions for yourself as you read through this book, I feel it won’t be giving too much away to say that Kreeft concludes that Tolkien’s philosophy is unabashedly Christian, and specifically Catholic — something Tolkien himself has claimed in so many words. While Christ (or religion itself, for that matter) is nowhere explicit in the text of LOTR, Christianity is implicit throughout the story in the philosophical worldview which undergirds it.

I nearly wore out the pen I was using to underline memorable and thought-provoking lines from the book. Time does not allow me to share all of the truly great insights Kreeft provides (another reason why you should buy and read it yourself!), but there was one thing that especially caught my interest. This was where Kreeft pointed out Tolkien’s portrayal of the Old Testament pre-figuring of the Messiah as prophet, priest, and king, represented by Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively. Not allegorically, of course, but in the sense that each of those characters was something of a “Christ figure” (down to the fact that all three had apparent deaths and resurrections in LOTR), exemplifying lives of self-sacrifice and virtue, albeit in very different manners.

If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings, you will greatly enjoy and benefit from this book. It will give you a brand new understanding of what may well be your favorite story… not to mention an itch to read the trilogy again! Now where did I put my copy of The Fellowship of the Ring?

Buy “The Philosophy of Tolkien” here