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 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte
During a stressful stretch at work, and the persistently weighty negativity tied to the 2016 U.S. election campaign season, I found myself turning to ‘comfort reading.’ The negative vibes, for me, carried through Election Day and I looked toward J.R.R. Tolkien for relief. I knew I wouldn’t have time to return to the warm depths of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so instead I read something I’d downloaded a few months earlier: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friends, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, by Joseph Loconte.
The unique relationship between two of Europe’s most influential writers of the 20th century, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, is well documented, and while Loconte certainly dedicates several pots of ink to their relationship, I won’t spend much time on that in this review. For more on Tolkien, Lewis and their intellectual cadre read Marion’s fabulous review of The Oxford Inklings. Suffice it to say, as Loconte writes, “They met for the first time in 1926, and a bond of friendship was established that would transform their lives and careers.”
What I’d like to focus on is A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War’s attention to the enormous impact of World War I on the seminal writings of Tolkien and Lewis. The impact was not from a distance of a dispassionate surveyor or even the near first-hand experiences one may read from a modern ‘embedded’ reporter. Tolkien and Lewis were both on the front lines.
… for two extraordinary authors and friends, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, the Great War deepened their spiritual quest. Both men served as soldiers on the Western Front, survived the trenches, and used the experience of that conflict to shape their Christian imagination.
Tolkien was an officer working communications between army staff and battlefield officers. This key role kept staff connected with those in the field and was a crucial link in the flow of communications and command. Tolkien relied on flares, signal lights, carrier pigeons, runners and telephones, and it’s not a stretch to see him translate his wartime communication links into use in his stories.
The disease that ran rampant throughout the trenches of WWI Europe mostly likely spared Tolkien his life. While he was in a hospital recovering from Trench Fever and the early seeds of his fictional mythology were taking root, his entire battalion was presumed dead or taken prisoner near the River Aisne in late May, 1918. Lewis also spent time on the front lines in France. After receiving bomb wounds, he was hospitalized and never returned to the front.
It can be argued that these epic tales — involving the sorrows and triumphs of war — would never have been written had these authors not been flung into the crucible of combat.
England had entered the war with a very righteous perspective. Early 20th century Germany was built on a foundation of nationalistic expansion. While not all in the UK were ready to rally their lives on behalf of the European mainland, certain treaties committed England to the cause.
Perhaps not a small bit of ‘savior mentality’ accompanied England’s young men across the channel. World War I brought with it a wave of horrifying innovation never before seen on fields of battle. Whatever romance was associated with the act of wartime battle and killing, it was drowned under rivers of mud and a hail storm of long distance ballistics.
What Lewis and Tolkien and the fighting men of their generation endured was something novel in the history of warfare: modern science and technology ruthlessly devoted to the annihilation of both man and nature.
This theme of ‘nature’ versus the very hard and ugly realities of a modern mechanized world wound their ways into the writings of both authors.
both authors regarded twentieth-century modernization as a threat to human societies because they viewed the natural world as the handiwork of God and thus integral to human happiness. As such, nature was an essential ally in the struggle against these dehumanizing forces.
One needn’t look too deeply nor long into THE LORD OF THE RINGS to identify where Tolkien stands on nature versus technology.
Post WWI Europe was a landscape of devastation — literally and figuratively. Many of the battles were fought for weeks over miniscule gains that were largely inconclusive. While Germany was ‘defeated’, one could argue for no clear winners. Europe was facing a collective crisis of faith.
In a world so rocked by years of futile war, Lewis and Tolkien’s work was absolutely molded by their personal experiences. Religion was an instrumental aspect to both of their lives. While Tolkien was an avowed Catholic, Lewis’ “wartime experiences reinforced his atheism.” Tolkien was a key instrument in Lewis’ ultimate embrace of, and conversion to, Christianity.
Part of the achievement of Tolkien and Lewis was to reintroduce into the popular imagination a Christian vision of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment.
The war had tremendous impact on the Tolkien’s writing. How could it not? He’s indicated that his “taste for fantasy was ‘quickened to full life by war’.”
Loconte writes that:
much of the “early parts” of his epic … were “done in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” In other words, Tolkien had begun to lay the foundation for his war trilogy.
Tolkien’s participation in The Great War had great impact on the themes of his work but also wound their way into the details of his writings.
“My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”
The hobbits were made small, (Tolkien) explained, “to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’ Tolkien the soldier lived among these ‘ordinary men,’ fought alongside them, witnessed their courage under fire, joked with them, mourned with them, and watched them die. Thus the ‘small people’ who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes in Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work. Like the soldiers in that war, the homely hobbits could not have perceived how the fate of nations depended upon them.
Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War incorporates a plethora of notes, references and quotes. I have very little background on World War I and Loconte successfully embeds the history, causes and outcomes, while threading through the impact on the writers lives and works.
I’ll be honest, the rise of European nationalism, with its inherent racist side effects, was more than a little suggestive of aspects of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign season. I’ll keep my review politically-free, but if you found yourself disturbed by the racial undertones of the recent election, you’ll be more than a little interested in the historical comparisons to pre-WWI Europe.
Loconte is a professor and historian, and has written for a number of major newspapers on public policy. In a spartan 232 pages, he seamlessly synthesizes the world history of this period, with the biographical and religious aspects of Tolkien and Lewis while addressing the historical influences of their work.
I’m not a life-long fan of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but I’ve become an ardent follower as an adult. One needn’t be a Tolkien- nor Lewis-devotee to appreciate the commentary Loconte brings to the authors’ works, which creates further depth, understanding and a connection to their influential writing.
Laconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War is not quite popular history, not quite academic analysis. Its notes are academically extensive, but the analysis of the literary texts and even the exploration of the lives of Tolkien and Lewis seem too lite for a truly academic text. The focus is mostly on the Great War. This book would best serve those readers who obsess over to what extent The Lord of the Rings can be read as allegory as opposed to influence or inspired by history.
Jason, this sounds like something I would like to read. Thank you for reviewing it. Both men’s struggles with personal faith and the results of war informed their work and it’s always interesting for me to look at another facet of that struggle.
If you are interested in the history of WWI and Europe (and you might not be) I recommend THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara W. Tuchman.
Marion – Thank you for the recommendation. Checking it out right now!