Tolkien and Lewis offer an understanding of the human story that is both tragic and hopeful: they suggest that war is a symptom of the ruin and wreckage of human life, but that it points the way to a life restored and transformed by grace.
2015 has been the year of excellent nonfiction, and Joseph Loconte’s book did not disappoint. The full title is 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, and Loconte does justice to all of those topics in under 300 pages, which is pretty impressive.
The book describes the spiritual effects of WWI by focusing on Tolkien and Lewis, both of whom fought in the war. Loconte spends some time offering a brief summary of both authors’ involvement, but he leaves most of the biographical work to Tolkien’s and Lewis’ many biographers. This book strictly focuses on the two men’s friendship and how WWI impacted their lives and their works.
Historically, the early 1900s was a time of radical philosophical and scientific change. Evolution, eugenics, and communism all appeared to be viable solutions to humanity’s problems. As Loconte puts it, “All this self-generated progress, this mastery of nature, was occurring without the help of religion. For many Europeans and Americans, Christianity seemed irrelevant to the insights and blessings of the new technologies.”
When World War I began, imperialism and patriotism were at their height, but survivors of the war returned home feeling empty and uprooted. There had been so much suffering, but for what gain? If Christianity seemed irrelevant before the war, it seemed ridiculous and empty afterwards. In this generation of questions and searching, many authors turned to atheism and fatalism. Loconte brilliantly shows how Tolkien and Lewis were the outliers of their generation.
As a generation of young writers rejected faith in the God of the Bible, they produced stories imbued with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation.
The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are romances, but they don’t shy away from the horrors of war. Instead, the sorrows and the struggles the characters face are the horrible means to a wonderful end.
[Lewis and Tolkien] insist that every soul is caught up in an epic story of sacrifice and courage and clashing armies: the Return of the King. It is the day when every heart will be laid bare. We will know, with inexpressible joy or unspeakable sorrow, whether we have chosen Light or Darkness. “For the day of the LORD is near,” wrote the prophet, “in the valley of decision.”
For me, the best part of this book was its relevance to our culture today. Even in the last three days we have seen the turmoil that comes from the sin of human hearts. Loconte’s book reminded me that we have faced dark days before, and, just like Lewis and Tolkein, we must choose to believe in the Return of the King.
If you want to know more about the end of WWI and its effects on religion, here are some other things to check out:
“Downton Abbey and the Modern Age” by Al Mohler
*This is a great article about Downton Abbey and how it shows the evolution of modern ways of thinking.
T.S. Eliot’s Poetry
*T.S. Eliot is a great one because he wrote about much of the disillusionment felt by the Post-WWI generation, but he also converted to Anglicanism and wrote wonderful poems about faith and grace.
*While not technically about this subject, it’s set during the 1920s and deals with some of the same themes–grace, redemption, disillusionment. Plus, it’s by Evelyn Waugh, a man, who married a woman also named Evelyn. All of their friends called them “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn,” which is just funny.