Had there been no Great War, there would have been no Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Narnia, and perhaps no conversion to Christianity by C. S. Lewis.
The First World War laid waste to a continent and brought about the end of innocence—and the end of faith. Unlike a generation of young writers who lost faith in the God of the Bible, however, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis found that 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 ignite their Christian imagination.
Tolkien and Lewis produced epic stories infused with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation. Giving an unabashedly Christian vision of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment, the two writers created works that changed the course of literature and shaped the faith of millions. This is the first book to explore their work in light of the spiritual crisis sparked by the conflict.
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About the Author
Joseph Loconte is a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer in Politics at The King’s College in New York City, where he teaches Western Civilization and U.S. foreign policy and writes widely about the importance of religious freedom in strengthening democracy, human rights, and civil society. He is producing a five-part documentary film series based on A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War.
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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 1914â"1918
By Joseph Loconte
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Joseph Loconte
All rights reserved.
THE FUNERAL OF A GREAT MYTH
On May 13, 1901, three months after joining Parliament, twenty-six-year-old Winston Churchill rises to deliver a rebuke to his Conservative Party colleagues in the House of Commons. Anxious about German designs in Europe, some British politicians are demanding that the government develop an army capable of defeating a European foe. Such a war, most believe, would be limited and decisive — and immensely beneficial to the victor.
But Churchill has racked up battle experiences in India, the Sudan, and the Boer War in South Africa. He realizes that the nature of warfare is changing; a conflict in Europe would be nothing like the colonial wars of the previous century, which were fought by small professional armies against ill-equipped foes, and brought to a swift conclusion. "I have frequently been astonished to hear with what composure and how glibly Members, and even Ministers, talk of a European war," he says. Such a conflict, he warns, would end "in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors." It would not be the last time Churchill found himself out of step with conventional political wisdom.
By the start of the twentieth century, attitudes about war and what it could accomplish were bound up with a singular, overarching idea. Let's call it "The Myth of Progress." Perhaps the most widely held view in the years leading up to the Great War was that Western civilization was marching inexorably forward, that humanity itself was maturing, evolving, advancing — that new vistas of political, cultural, and spiritual achievement were within reach. The Renaissance message of Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), in which the Creator extols mankind's fearsome possibilities, fairly captures the mood: "We have made you a creature neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine."
The thinkers and writers who informed the generation of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were certain which direction mankind was headed. Their confidence in human progress led many to believe that, with the help of modern technologies, wars could be fought and won with minimal cost in life and treasure.
The argument is straightforward: Rational Europeans would no longer indulge in the kind of extended and brutal campaigns of previous years. The days of religious wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War — these were relics of a bygone era. Short, tidy wars would be the norm, with healthy economic and political outcomes. "The concept of states waging war to the point of absolute exhaustion," concluded a German author in 1908, "is beyond the European cultural experience." A few years before the outbreak of World War I, when Germany was agitating for a confrontation with Britain and France over a port on the Moroccan coast, an anti-war leader in the German Parliament was shouted down with these words: "After every war things are better!"
The belief in progress led others to argue that the West would soon dispense with war altogether as the remnant of a primitive, unenlightened epoch. British writer Norman Angell, in his book The Great Illusion, explained that the great democracies of Europe were coming to realize that war would produce severe economic hardship and losses, and would take all measures necessary to avoid it.
According to Angell, the Industrial Revolution — by establishing a pattern of economic growth and interdependence — had changed the dynamic among nation-states. The great industrial nations of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States were "losing the psychological impulse to war," he wrote, just as they abandoned the impulse to kill their neighbors over religion. "The least informed of us realizes that the whole trend of history is against the tendency for men to attack the ideals and the beliefs of other men." In the new age of international commerce and communication, nations would naturally devote infinitely more resources to peaceful endeavors than to preparations for war. "How can we possibly expect to keep alive warlike qualities," he asked, "when all our interests and activities — all our environments, in short — are peace-like?"
First published in 1909, The Great Illusion became a runaway bestseller. It was translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian, and within a few years went through more than ten printings in English. The book seemed to speak to a deep and widely shared aspiration: the "perpetual peace" imagined by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Science fiction writer H. G. Wells recalled the mood: "I think that in the decades before 1914 not only I but most of my generation — in the British Empire, America, France and indeed throughout most of the civilized world — thought that war was dying out. So it seemed to us."
It is a view that was especially congenial to religious leaders, even on the eve of the conflict. Britain's National Peace Council, a coalition of religious and secular peace organizations, foresaw a new era of international harmony. The 1914 edition of its Peace Yearbook offers this astonishing prediction:
Peace, the babe of the nineteenth century, is the strong youth of the twentieth century; for War, the product of anarchy and fear, is passing away under the growing and persistent pressure of world organization, economic necessity, human intercourse, and that change of spirit, that social sense and newer aspect of worldwide life which is the insistent note, the Zeitgeist of the age.
This "change of spirit," this faith in progress that would render war an anachronism, had found a champion in Victorian England. In the waning years of the nineteenth century — the decade into which both Tolkien and Lewis were born — Great Britain was at the apex of its political, economic, and cultural achievements. Its parliamentary democracy was the oldest and most stable in all of Europe, its colonial holdings were the largest, it controlled a quarter of the planet's land surface, and its Navy ruled the seas. In short, the British crown reigned over the most extensive empire in world history. Despite its imperialist excesses, argues historian Niall Ferguson, "no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world." Tolkien and Lewis were part of a generation of Britons who equated their nation's growth and prosperity with the progress of civilization itself.
THE PROMISE OF THE CRYSTAL PALACE
And why wouldn't they? As the leader of the Industrial Revolution, England had pioneered the technological advances that were sweeping Europe. Its dominance was unquestioned at the first World's Fair, held in London in 1851, "at the zenith of Britain's imperial pomp." An enormous glass and cast-iron monument was built to house the Great Exhibition. Known as the Crystal Palace, it was the largest glass structure in the world and a symbol of Victorian England's cultural triumphs. On display were roughly one hundred thousand exhibits, spread across ten miles of floor space, and grouped into four main categories: raw materials, machinery, manufacturers, and fine arts. Of the fifteen thousand contributors, Britain claimed half the display space. Queen Victoria declared the opening day of the fair "the greatest day in our history."
Even greater days seemed to lie ahead. Railway engines, steam engines, blast furnaces, textile plants, coal and iron mines were turning nature into the handmaiden of humanity. As historian Roger Osborne explains, science-based technology was improving life for ordinary people, making it easier and safer. And healthier: the principles of science were producing better sanitation and living conditions, and enabling new strides in medicine and the treatment of diseases. The new technologies, the explosive growth of cities, the productivity of industry — all these forces were changing the physical nature of European life.
It was this encroachment of technological life into rural England that Tolkien came to resent. Born in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien developed a deep attachment to his home in West Midlands, a county that was already a mix of rural countryside and urban development. Tolkien spent his early years in "a pre-mechanical age," and regarded growing up around Birmingham — a hub of the Industrial Revolution — as one of the "really significant" facts of his youth. Today, West Midlands is one of the most heavily urbanized counties in Great Britain.
"How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree," Tolkien wrote scornfully. "Poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!" Tolkien's love of the English countryside, his attachment to nature, rebelled against the chaotic industrialization of his day. His dissent found an imaginative outlet: the bucolic world of the hobbits, the region of Middle-earth known as the Shire.
Biographer Humphrey Carpenter believes that the mechanized disruption of the world Tolkien loved "defined the nature of his scholarly work," motivating him to create the Shire and its homely inhabitants. As Tolkien once told his publisher, the Shire "is based on rural England and not any other country in the world." The house of his famous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, takes its name — "Bag End" — from his aunt's farm in Worcestershire. "I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)," he admitted. "I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking."
In contrast, Tolkien viewed the overreliance on technology, "the Machine," as a step toward dominating others. The act of "bulldozing the real world," Tolkien wrote, involves "coercing other wills." Hence, the hateful realm of Mordor is sustained by its black engines and factories, which Sauron introduces as his forces invade the Shire. This theme would absorb Tolkien for much of his career.
Writing in the 1940s, Tolkien lamented "the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare." The tragedy, as he saw it, was the attempt to use technology to actualize our desires and increase our power over the world around us — all of which leaves us unsatisfied. Tolkien attached a spiritual significance to the problem: "And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil." It surely was this view that caused him, in The Lord of the Rings, to portray the enemies of nature in the darkest of terms. Saruman the Wizard "has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment," he wrote. "And now it is clear that he is a black traitor."
Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898, just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland. The family moved to Little Lea, on the edge of suburbia, a town surrounded by green hills. From his house he could watch ships of all kinds navigate in and out of Belfast Lough. "The sound of a steamer's horn at night," he wrote, "still conjures up my whole boyhood." Within a mile of his home was "indisputably open hilly farmland," which Lewis and his brother Warren explored by bicycle.
Lewis became as dubious as Tolkien of the promises of industrialization to uplift the human condition, a skepticism that he would carry throughout his life. "Near here they are about to demolish part of a lovely beechwood in order to straighten the main London Rd, drat them," he wrote a week before his death in November 1963. "There are times when I wonder if the invention of the internal combustion engine was not an even greater disaster than that of the hydrogen bomb!" Modern assumptions about "progress" that disregard the rhythms and traditions of the past will come under attack. "I care more how humanity lives than how long," he wrote. "Progress, for me, means increasing the goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible idea."
It is a conviction that appears often in his writing, where he lampoons the growth of technologies and bureaucracies at the expense of human freedom. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, King Caspian tangles with slave traders who, with statistics and graphs, try to justify their operations as "economic development." Caspian wants the trade ended:
"But that would be putting the clock back," gasped the governor. "Have you no idea of progress, of development?"
"I have seen both in an egg," said Caspian. "We call it 'Going Bad' in Narnia. This trade must stop."
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.
In the climactic battles for Narnia and Middle-earth, Nature herself joins in the war against tyranny. Tolkien's walking, humanoid trees, the Ents, are among the most memorable figures in his stories. Led by Treebeard — the oldest living creature in Middle-earth — the Ents were created to guard the forest from orcs and other deadly forces. The calamitous War of the Elves and Sauron, fought in the Second Age, decimated the land, forcing the Ents to confine themselves to Fangorn Forest.
Though hoping to avoid the War of the Ring, Treebeard and his companions can no longer tolerate the atrocities committed against them and the forest. As the wizard Gandalf explains, they finally decide to march against Sauron —"the last march of the Ents" — and play a decisive role in his defeat. "But now his long slow wrath is brimming over, and all the forest is filled with it ... its tide is turned against Saruman and the axes of Isengard. A thing is about to happen which has not happened since the Elder Days: the Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong."
Lewis likewise viewed nature as an intrinsic part of human life. This is why the Narnia novels give such a prominent role to its animals. Even the smallest of creatures — Reepicheep the mouse, for example — can display the greatest of human virtues. As biographer Alister McGrath writes, Lewis understood humanity's relationship with animals, and with the rest of the natural world, as potentially ennobling and fulfilling. "Lewis's portrayal of animal characters in Narnia is partly a protest against shallow assertions of humanity's right to do what it pleases with nature."
In Prince Caspian, the character Trufflehunter explains to Caspian why it will be difficult to wake the spirits of the trees in the battle against Miraz, the unlawful king of Narnia, and his Telmarine army: "We have no power over them. Since the Humans came into the land, felling forests and defiling streams, the Dryads and Naiads have sunk into deep sleep." Nevertheless, the war cannot be won without their help, and Aslan summons them to join the crusade: the "woods on the move." In a scene reminiscent of the "last march of the Ents," trees from every direction converge like stormy waves upon the battlefield: "But soon neither their cries nor the sound of weapons could be heard any more, for both were drowned in the ocean-like roar of the Awakened Trees as they plunged through the ranks of Peter's army, and then on, in pursuit of the Telmarines."
It is Nature's revenge against Man: the industrialized exploitation of the physical world cannot go unpunished. This judgment against man's assault on his environment could only have been deepened by the experience of the Great War. Never before in the history of warfare had technology wrought such physical devastation: an industrialized holocaust as terrifying in its effects on nature as on men. What a regimental historian said of the Battle of the Somme could be applied to many of the battles from 1914-18 that defaced the European landscape: "In that field of fire nothing could live." Writing three years after the conclusion of the war, author Vera Brittain described the scene near Amiens, as she drove to find the grave of her fiance. She witnessed "a series of shell-racked roads between the grotesque trunks of skeleton trees, with their stripped, shattered branches still pointing to heaven in grim protest against man's ruthless cruelty to nature as well as man."
Excerpted from A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte. Copyright © 2015 Joseph Loconte. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Funeral of a Great Myth, 1,
Chapter 2: The Last Battle, 27,
Chapter 3: In a Hole in the Ground There Lived a Hobbit, 53,
Chapter 4: The Lion, the Witch, and the War, 79,
Chapter 5: The Land of Shadow, 103,
Chapter 6: That Hideous Strength, 141,
Conclusion: The Return of the King, 185,
A Remembrance, 199,
About the Author, 235,