When we think about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, it is almost impossible not to think of World War II. During a time when the world ached for deliverance amid one of its darkest hours, these two men persevered and shined their literary lights in such a way that produced hope and assurance in God. We see many of Lewis’ most influential works, such as The Problem of Pain, The Space Trilogy, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, Screwtape Letters, and the Public Broadcasts that led to Mere Christianity, emerge between the tumultuous years of 1939-1945. Tolkien, in similar fashion, wrote much of his Lord of the Rings throughout this period.
During the 75 years or so since the war ended, the works of Lewis and Tolkien have continued to captivate readers of all ages. There has been a lively debate about the connections between their writings and particular events and people from the war ever since. The presumption that it was World War II that significantly influenced these two writers is being revisited, however.
Joseph Loconte’s book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War (Published in 2017 by Thomas Nelson), redirects our minds to, “The Great War,” namely, World War I (1914-1918) as a better starting point for understanding these two. It was in this war that both Lewis and Tolkien fought and lost many of their boyhood friends. Throughout his book, Loconte focuses a great deal of his attention on Lewis’ and Tolkien’s philosophical battle against the so-called Myth of Progress, which represented the zeitgeist of the time. According to Loconte, it was, “the trenches and barbed wire and mortars,” of The Great War that gave them pause about human potential (21).
In the mind of the reader, Loconte transforms the scholarly, pipe-smoking image of these beloved Oxford “Inklings” into one of coarsened, ex-soldiers returning home with more than just their military baggage (Lewis, in fact, carried shrapnel in his chest the rest of his life). By doing so, Loconte convincingly recategorizes these two as war authors–men who encountered firsthand the unspeakable tragedy of warfare and, paradoxically, the enduring hope of humanity often found there. Such a description has led me to believe that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried may be a helpful companion book when trying to get into the minds of Lewis and Tolkien.
In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War, Loconte meticulously analyzes both Lewis and Tolkien with one eye on their immediate historical context and the other on their works, letters, and diary entries. He quickly recognizes the similarities between specific incidents of the war and the characters and events found in the work of each author, which he presents in a correlative fashion.
For instance, he recalls the devastating battle of Somme–one of the deadliest battles in human history–which claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 british soldiers. Tolkien was stationed just three miles from behind the enemy line during this attack when a German field gun bombarded his position. It was the first time Tolkien would be caught up in a deadly exchange and witness the gruesome aftermath of artillery. Loconte speculates that it may have been this experience that inspired the words of Beregond, a soldier in Gondor’s Army: “This is a great war long planned, and we are but one piece in it, whatever pride may say,” (The Return of the King, Bk 5, Ch 1).
Perhaps, Loconte continues, this incident can help us understand Tolkien’s detailed description of Frodo’s despair upon leaving his comfortable home in the Shire and encountering the Black Riders: “In that lonely place Frodo for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger,” (65). Or, perhaps it is here where Tolkien finds his inspiration for the intense battle scenes at Siege of Gondor.
Lewis arrived in the Somme Valley on his 19th birthday sometime later. Loconte carefully considers the impact this experience had on a young, atheistic Lewis, and in doing so, agrees with Alister McGrath’s claim that Lewis’ wartime experience likely reinforced his atheism.
“Although we cannot know for certain,” says Loconte, “it does seem the shock of mortal combat stirred a fresh revulsion for the pious doctrines of his youth” (93).
Loconte builds the case that World War I didn’t just influence Lewis and Tolkien; it made them. And while it is a formidable and persuasive one, it is largely circumstantial, which he admits. As such, he is wary of making any definitive judgments about how and when, specifically, the war influenced each man. That means he is often left speculating, albeit in a cautious manner, about moments of literary inspiration or spiritual development during these years; unless it is otherwise apparent in a letter or journal entry.
He deviates from this chary posture when his research leads to an objective fact about one of the authors. Take, for instance, the fact that the first story Tolkien ever wrote can be traced to his time as a WWI soldier. While recovering from trench fever, Loconte points out that Tolkien was writing, “The Fall of Gondolin,” which partially created the environment for his epic struggle in Middle Earth. Here, he deliberately sticks to the facts and surrounding context of the war. Loconte’s approach will delight those interested in World War I history; at times, it reads more like a historical account of the war then it does a biography of Lewis and Tolkien’s life.
The only real disappointment that a reader may encounter, in my view, is in Loconte’s chapter titles. All of them make reference to book titles or recognizable settings in the Lewis and Tolkien corpus, yet the following text in each chapter rarely dives deeply into said references (but we can forgive Loconte for such a minor thing!).
There are two important points that Loconte confronts in his analysis. First, he addresses the accusation of escapism often held against these two writers. Both Lewis and Tolkien were (and perhaps, still are) accused of attempting to escape the painful reality of their war-torn setting through a world of fantasy in their fiction works The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Loconte rightfully comes to their defense, saying that Lewis and Tolkien did no such thing. He instead claims that they leaned into this harsh reality. “Tolkien and Lewis 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,” he says (xvi). They didn’t write these stories as a means of escape; rather, they wrote them to remind others of the ‘true’ things.
The second point is their shared view of the nature of a hero. We are used to our heroes being, well, heroic. They endure their trials with a stoic mind and, against all odds, they muster the strength to prevail (name your favorite Marvel superhero). One thing that sets Lewis and Tolkien apart, according to Loconte, is that they dismissed this view of a hero. Instead they offered their readers hope through a relatable heroic ideal. What does that mean? Both Lewis and Tolkien argue that this middle way is the only viable option in a world influenced by evil forces. Loconte explains that the heroic ideal found in Lewis and Tolkien is not a tale of a singular hero and their ability to prevail through some monumental effort. Rather, it’s the opposite; Lewis and Tolkien’s heroes are often a collective striving together. The individual heroes often fail and reach the brink of disaster before some outside help appears. Consider Frodo’s inability to throw the ring into Mount Doom. He fails and instead the quest is accomplished by the most unlikely creature, Gollum. Jill and Eustace seemingly fail to remember the signs given to them by Aslan, and yet they still find (with Aslan’s help) free Prince Rilian. “Here is where Tolkien and Lewis depart most radically from the spirit of the age,” says Loconte (188).
Tolkien and Lewis are stitched together by many common threads despite their different paths to the Christian faith. Both men served as Oxford professors and shared a love for poetry, language, and the world of myth. Both were prolific fantasy writers who lived through World War II. Joseph Loconte highlights their shared experience as soldiers in World War I and shows that it is arguably the most important thread they share outside of their faith. Using a history-first approach, Loconte educates the reader about the significance of World War I in an engaging, easy-to-follow manner. He simultaneously weaves in a compelling, well-researched narrative of how two Oxford men with a bent towards storytelling became friends and changed the landscape of modern Christianity. A sequel by Loconte that addresses World War II in a similar fashion would, at least by this reader, be well-received.