“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep” (Tolkien, The Return of the King).
The Treaty of Versailles, the official end of World War I, took place 100 years ago this summer. It was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that lit the match that began the great war. Although the armistice of November 1918 ended the combat, it took months of negotiations for the peace treaties to be concluded.
Earlier this year, historian Joseph Loconte spoke at the National World War I Memorial and Museum in Kansas City, MO. He was there to present his book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.
Loconte said that when the last soldier was killed just one minute before the armistice, an appalling silence prevailed. That’s a good description of what took place in the weeks and months after the war. Despite the parties and parades marking the end of the war, a dreary pall had fallen over the land.
Historian Paul Johnson has called World War I “the primal tragedy of modern world civilization, and the main reason why the 20th century turned into such a disastrous epoch for mankind.” As Winston Churchill famously said, “All the horrors of all the ages were brought together there.”
Two of the greatest authors of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, fought for Britain in the Great War.
World War I was called “The Great War” because it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Some even called it, “The War to Usher in the Kingdom of Heaven.” But it didn’t quite work out that way. It was more like the reign of Sauron ushering in the Kingdom of Mordor.
Two of the greatest authors of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, fought for Britain in the Great War. Tolkien was a 2nd lieutenant in the British expeditionary force, and as such, he fought on the western front. He took part in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Lewis was also a 2nd lieutenant in the British army, and he had what you might call a baptism by fire, unceremoniously arriving into battle on the day of his 19th birthday.
By the time Tolkien returned home due to trench fever, his battalion had been almost completely wiped out. “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” Nearly the same could be said of Lewis. Both of them were physically and emotionally scarred from the dreadful experience. To the shell-shocked veterans who survived the war, the mood was one of cynicism, despair, and disillusionment.
There was a true spiritual crisis in Europe as people tried to cope with the new normal and pick up the pieces of a former life. For Tolkien and Lewis, however, this was not their first brush with tragedy. Before they experienced the horrors of trench warfare - both had lost their mothers at an early age. You might say they both lost their fathers as well - Tolkien’s father to death, and Lewis’ father to despair and melancholy after the death of his wife. These shared experiences would bring them together and strengthen their bonds of friendship and fellowship.
Although they both fought in World War I, Tolkien and Lewis did not meet until 1926, several years after the war had ended. They met in Oxford, where they had both become professors of English literature. They quickly became friends and enjoyed walking, talking, smoking, and drinking together. They would later establish the writers group known as the “Inklings,” which met at the Eagle and Child Pub each week to read and discuss each other’s literary work.
Joseph Loconte writes, “It’s hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the 20th century - a friendship that emerged out of the sorrow and suffering of World War I. What they experienced on the battlefields of Europe shaped the worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia.”
Both Tolkien and Lewis wrote grand tales of epic lands in the midst of a great struggle between good and evil. For Tolkien, it was The Lord of the Rings, and for Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. This was their way of taking all of the evil and ugliness they had experienced in World War I and turning it into something good, true, and beautiful. As the patriarch, Joseph famously said to his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis, “Man meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” It’s the answer to Sam Gamgee’s question in The Return of the King - “will everything sad finally come untrue”?
Ultimately it’s at the cross of Calvary, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, the great Lion of Judah, that the stone table is broken, and everything sad does indeed finally come untrue.
This is a picture of Luther’s Theology of the Cross: the unexpected and mysterious way in which God orchestrates and delivers His plan of salvation to the world. For it is in suffering, pain, and even death that God chooses to work His deeper magic and bring about redemption, restoration, and new life for all people.
Ultimately it’s at the cross of Calvary, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, the great Lion of Judah, that the stone table is broken, and everything sad does indeed finally come untrue. In the supreme “eucatastrophe” of His death and resurrection, we finally have peace with God, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of life eternal with Him in heaven.
But suffering and death always come first. Crucifixion comes before resurrection. The cross comes before the crown. The glory comes at the end of the story, but oh how glorious it will be. “For our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Though the world wars are over, the world is still very much at war. In this first week of September, as we commemorate the day of Tolkien’s death, the specter of war is still before us, as it will be until Christ comes again. But even amid the chaos and confusion of this world, Tolkien and Lewis help us to remember that God is still in charge and that Jesus still sits upon the throne. He rules over our ruins, with the promise that a renewed Cair Paravel is coming, and that a restored Minas Tirith awaits.
“I’m glad that you’re with me...here at the end of all things” (The Return of the King).