A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, & Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914–1918.
by Joseph Loconte.
Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Hardcover, 244 pages, $25.
Many words have been devoted to the literature and lives of two of the twentieth century’s most beloved novelists, friends, and World War I veterans, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Unique among such works, however, is Joseph Loconte’s new book A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. While many books find themselves reiterating the same often-tired textual analyses of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings, Loconte—a professor of history at The King’s College—chooses to frame his work differently. This book is devoted, not to discussing Tolkien or Lewis, but to instead describing the horrors of trench warfare and the religious and spiritual rhetoric permeating contemporary culture. Lewis and Tolkien experienced trench warfare first-hand, as members of the British Expeditionary Force in the Great War. Loconte recounts a number of Lewis and Tolkien’s wartime experiences—including Tolkien’s service at the Battle of the Somme and Lewis’ injury from shell shrapnel—and expounds on how these events influenced both authors’ future literary work. This book is especially welcome as the centennial anniversaries of the Great War continue these next few years. The memories of that war have al but faded, so the literary echoes of thatconflict remain all the more important.
Loconte’s thesis is not revolutionary—it is obvious that Lewis and Tolkien were both deeply affected by their wartime experiences—but he presents a unique and detailed account of how these experiences influenced both authors’ work. Lewis and Tolkien, fighting in the trenches of Northern France, were witness to “modern science and technology ruthlessly devoted to the annihilation of both man and nature”—the vast carnage enabled by such advancements in military technology as aircraft, machine guns, and chemical weapons. Loconte argues that their impressions of the destructive power of technology were formative in their writing: both novelists routinely feature tropes of technology progressing at the cost of humanity, be it in Saruman’s destruction of the old forests and the Shire, or in the macabre experiments of the N.I.C.E in That Hideous Strength. Furthermore, in the aftermath of an immense and dehumanizing war, Lewis and Tolkien worked to present “a true myth about the dignity of human life and its relationship to God,” Loconte writes.
The Great War threatened to rob men of their individual dignity and moral agency, and Lewis and Tolkien attempted to restore these ideas. Their epics pivot on the moral choices of individuals: Edmund’s weakness for power and Turkish Delight endanger Narnia, while the fate of Middle-Earth is entrusted to two humble hobbits. Their efforts did not stop here: Tolkien even remarked that hobbits were meant to be representative of normal, working-class Britons, thrust into situations of global significance. The power of these narratives, Loconte writes, is that Lewis and Tolkien create “mythic and heroic figures who nevertheless make a claim on our concrete and ordinary lives.” In Middle-Earth and Narnia, ordinary individuals—hobbits, children, simple tradesmen—are able to change the world.
The heroes that live within their stories are not without fault: notably, even Frodo laments his involvement in the great drama of Middle Earth “I wish it need not have happened in my time”—a complaint to which Gandalf sagely responds “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Loconte highlights tropes such as these—Aragorn, the unwilling hero, Elwin Ransom, the limping, feeble-eyed professor caught in an existential battle for the future of Perelandra, and countless others—as Lewis and Tolkien’s responses to the challenges of war in the twentieth century. At a time when ordinary British men and women were drawn into battle with ideologies—the rising tides of militant fascism and communism—Lewis and Tolkien sought to provide a sort of intellectual catechesis for individual moral responsibility. Loconte argues that works of these authors were, in many ways, responsive to the “cataclysm of 1914–1918”—he concludes that Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, wrote a sort of “trench memoir,” and that the authors sought to construct stories that gave meaning to the turmoil that gripped Europe.
The reader will find that Loconte has not so much written a book about Lewis and Tolkien, as he has written a book about two men’s struggles for meaning in the face of seemingly senseless destruction. Loconte does not write about Lewis and Tolkien in isolation—he places them in a wider intellectual context with others such as Karl Barth, Winston Churchill, and Ernest Hemingway—a feature that adds weight to his thesis. Books on Lewis and Tolkien are indeed a dime a dozen, yet Loconte offers a unique reexamination of their literature, as well as a veritable trove of contextual information. The lessons Loconte presents for us are particularly timely: even as popular science seeks to undermine the distinctions that make us human, and Supreme Court decisions seem to make our democratic efforts impotent, both Lewis and Tolkien emphasize the critical importance of humanity—and more importantly, moral humanity—at the core of all of our endeavors.
The weakness of Loconte’s atypical approach is also its greatest strength: due to the author’s focus on military and cultural history, it will likely lose the attention of those readers looking merely for another book about the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien. Loconte has not written a book to read lightly; instead he presents a convincing explanation for many of the themes common to their work. To the historian, the scholar, or the dedicated reader who wishes to deepen his understanding of Lewis, Tolkien, and the themes of their novels, however, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is well worth a read.
Matthew H. Young is an intern at First Things.