Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book Review: A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. Joseph Loconte. 2015. Thomas Nelson. 256 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: In the throes of one of the most destructive and dehumanizing wars in world history, something extraordinary occurred, never to be repeated. It happened on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914.

Do we owe the existence of the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings to World War I? Loconte argues in this one that we do. He writes, "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." He goes on to say, "the Great War helped to frame the sensibilities of both authors, a fact that seems neglected by scholars and ordinary admirers alike...The story of the war’s impact on the creative outlook of Tolkien and Lewis can help historians better understand its moral and spiritual consequences for an entire generation."

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. It's not often that a title of a book is as long as your typical sentence. The title is an accurate description of the book in its fullness.

You should consider reading it if

a) you are interested in the life and works of C.S. Lewis
b) you are interested in the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien
c) you are interested in how their friendship influenced each other
d) you are interested in learning what life was like BEFORE the war: the dominant ideas in society and culture in regards to morality, spirituality, psychology, etc. ("The Myth of Progress") (gospel of eugenics)
e) if you are interested in how religion mixed and mingled with the war. How did religion influence the propaganda of the war? Why did every single nation involved in the war claim that God was on their side?
f) you are interested in learning what life was like DURING the war: the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual impact of the war. How did war forever change those who lived and experienced it? What effect did it have on their personal lives when they returned?
g) you are interested in learning what SPIRITUAL effect did the war have on society and culture?
h) you are interested in learning what effect did the war have on the arts and sciences? How did the war impact or effect literature in the decades after the war? How did the war impact/effect how we view the world? our worldview and philosophies?
i) you are interested in the effect the war had on the mental health of nations and generations. How were people treated after the war? Did the war shape how we look at mental illness? Did the war provide opportunities for exploring that field and understanding how the mind works? Did it perhaps reveal how little we know or understand?
j) you are interested in how Lewis and Tolkien countered the culture with their works and views; how they were shaped by the war specifically.
k) if you love history

This book has SUBSTANCE. It is not a light, fluffy book, a gimmicky "cutesy" book. It is a scholarly book packed with detail. If you are interested in spirituality, sociology, history, literature, philosophy, or psychology this one has something to keep you turning pages. I learned SO MUCH by reading this one. It was PACKED with facts and details that I didn't know.

I will point out, however, that there was at least one mistake. He mistakenly says that in the opening pages of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE readers meet "Jadis, “the last Queen,” a woman of immense wickedness." NO, that would be A Magician's Nephew.


  • Tolkien would play a crucial role in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, while Lewis would be the decisive voice in persuading Tolkien to complete The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Given the massive and enduring influence of their works, it is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the twentieth century—a friendship that emerged from the suffering and sorrow of a world war.
  • 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.
  • In an era that exalted cynicism and irony, Tolkien and Lewis sought to reclaim an older tradition of the epic hero. Their depictions of the struggles of Middle-earth and Narnia do not represent a flight from reality, but rather a return to a more realistic view of the world as we actually find it.
  • 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.
  • “Whatever the local agendas, Christians in all combatant nations—including the United States—entered wholeheartedly in the spirit of cosmic war,” writes Philip Jenkins in The Great and Holy War. “None found any difficulty in using fundamental tenets of the faith as warrants to justify war and mass destruction.”
  • Unfortunately for the Church of England, many chaplains were out of sight and apparently out of touch during the war. Ordered to remain safely behind the lines, at hospitals or field ambulances, they often seemed incapable of relating to the men fighting for survival. “The key to the whole thing,” wrote Theodore Hardy, a chaplain who later won the Victoria Cross, was for ministers to serve in the combat zone: “If you stay back, you are wasting your time. Men will forgive anything but lack of courage.” Most Protestant ministers, however, followed orders and avoided the front. “There is only one Front here and few Chaplains ever get there, and then not during engagements,” complained David Railton. “It is a mistake on the part of the authorities which will cost the Church dearly.”
  • Thus the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings possess a grim authenticity. When Tolkien describes the Siege of Gondor—where the “fires leaped up” and “great engines crawled across the field” and the ground “was choked with wreck and with bodies of the slain”—he delivers the realism of the war veteran. “Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot from the walls,” he wrote in The Return of the King.
  • Reflecting on his experiences years later, Tolkien acknowledged that his taste for fantasy was “quickened to full life by war” and that “the mythology (and associated languages) first began to take shape during the 1914–18 war.”46 Much of the “early parts” of his epic, he explained, 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.”
  • 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 their stubborn devotion to duty.
  • Lewis insisted that war produced at least one benefit: it forced us to consider our own mortality. “If active service does not prepare a man for death,” he asked, “what conceivable concentration of circumstances would?”
  • In the years after the conflict, the cruelty and senselessness of the war—of any war for any reason—became the dominant motifs of a generation. The writings of authors such as Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of an Infantry Officer), Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), T. S. Eliot (The Hollow Men), and Erich Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) reinforced these themes in the public mind.
  • Indeed, it can be argued that the Great War launched three of the deadliest forces in the history of the West. The first was Spanish influenza, which originated at a US Army base in Kansas in March 1918. Before it ran its course, upward of sixty million people—four times the number killed in the war—died from influenza worldwide. The second epidemic was atheistic communism.  The third epidemic was fascism. 
  • When Freud’s first psychiatric clinic opened in Berlin in 1920, it paved the way for his views about human nature, guilt, and God. Freud proved especially attractive to a generation struggling to find meaning in the war’s aftermath.
  • Tolkien never intended to write a trench memoir. Instead, he set his mind to create a mythology worthy of his beloved England.
  • Middle-earth is not, Tolkien insisted, an imaginary world, but rather our world—with its ancient truths and sorrows—set in a remote past. Indeed, any legends cast in the form of a supposed primitive history of this world, he said, must reckon with the tragic reality of human frailty.
  • Tolkien had long believed that the “fairy-story” was really a genre for adults and “one for which a starving audience exists.”
  • Tens of thousands were overwhelmed by shell shock. In Britain alone, four years after the end of the war, six thousand veterans were confined to insane asylums.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

No comments: