World War I crushed the spirits of many great 20th century writers. But not Tolkien or C. S. Lewis. A great new book explains why.
To Christians, and even to many non-Christians, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien represent something special — a Christian literary renaissance of the 20th century. These two friends published works of great power and endurance, saturated with a Christian worldview. But was it only faith and friendship that made their work unique and so great? What other factors might have played a role?
My good friend and King's College history professor Joe Loconte identifies one such factor in his marvelous new book, "A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War." As the title suggests, Loconte focuses on the life-altering role that Lewis's and Tolkien's service in World War I played in both men's lives. In fact, we can't fully understand these two writers without knowing something about how this cataclysmic event helped define them and their generation.
And Loconte gives us the background we need. Ironically, Joe says, it was the Myth of Progress — the widely held belief that "science . . . could perfect human nature and thus human societies" — that laid the ground for a war that reached an unprecedented level of destruction. Darwinism, eugenics, industrialism — all these gave rise to a firm belief in "the upward flight of humankind." Even many Christians went along with this foolish utopianism; those who resisted found the "tide turning against them."
Even World War I, when it erupted, was supposedly going to be "the war to end all wars." Fired up by rabid nationalism, secularists and Christians alike portrayed it as some sort of holy war that would lead to an era of lasting peace.
Lewis and Tolkien found it anything but holy. Suffering in the trenches, seeing their closest friends slaughtered around them, dealing with wounds and illness, they saw the Myth of Progress shattered forever. The celebrated advances in technology that were supposed to lead to a perfect world led only to more brutal methods of killing.
Some of the darkest scenes in Lewis and Tolkien's books, such as Tolkien's descriptions of the blighted land of Mordor in "The Lord of the Rings," were directly inspired by the horrific battlefields of Europe. Yet Loconte observes that, even while the war left its mark on them forever, it affected them differently from other writers of their generation. He mentions writers like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, whose work was full of bitterness and anger after what they'd been subjected to.
But Tolkien was a man of deep faith. As Loconte says, "He had his own doubts about the meaning of the war, and witnessed some of its fiercest scenes of slaughter. Yet he did not allow them to overwhelm his distinctive moral vision."
The same could not have been said of Lewis at first — but once Tolkien had become his friend and helped lead him to faith, Lewis came to share that moral vision. The two of them were disillusioned about the right things — specifically, about myths of human progress and human perfectibility. But they could still hold out hope for humanity because of their belief in a God who redeemed.
Loconte's excellent book convincingly argues that Lewis' and Tolkien's work would not have been what it was without the war. It infused their work with stark realism and an understanding of tragedy. At the same time, their faith ensured that tragedy was not all there was; it helped them transcend that tragic vision with a belief in ultimate joy.
As Sam Gamgee discovers, everything sad is going to come untrue.
If you're a Tolkien or Lewis fan — and if you're not, you ought to be — you need to get a copy of Joe Loconte's great book "A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War." We've got it for you at our online bookstore at BreakPoint.org.
Originally posted at breakpoint.org.