Joseph Loconte’s book may not have the erudition of the work of a Tom Shippey or a John D. Rateliff, but A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War may be my favorite work on nonfiction on Tolkien. It is a slim book with a tight focus. Loconte is very much concerned with Tolkien’s and Lewis’ experiences in WWI and especially their reaction to it—a reaction very much at odds with the reaction of the European literary establishment, but a reaction that would prove much more meaningful and lasting.
Tolkien’s and Lewis’ fiction was as much a reaction against WWI as it was a reaction to WWI. They rejected the moral cynicism and fierce anti-war sentiments that embodied the post-WWI years in favor of an insistence “that war could inspire noble sacrifice for humane purposes.” And all this despite their shared belief that victory in this world was unattainable. It’s that belief in both evil and good, in the ability and value in fighting against impossible odds, that makes their work so powerful.
It was not because they did not understand the cost of war. Both men fought. They understood the horror of a war that killed one quarter of the men in France because they saw their friends die. “For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence—and the end of faith.”
WWI crippled European confidence in the Enlightenment. But Tolkien and Lewis were always ambivalent about the Enlightenment. And they had a faith that was unshakeable, although Lewis was an atheist during the war. He returned to Christianity in part due to the direct influence of Tolkien and in part due to the literary influence of George MacDonald. MacDonald, who said that “the best thing you can do for your fellow” wasn’t “to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him . . . to make him think things for himself.”
The rest of the literary establishment did not agree. Per literary critic Roger Sale, WWI was “the single event most responsible for shaping the modern idea that heroism is dead.” Other veterans were writing “fiercely anti-war novels and poetry” and becoming moral cynics. They “rejected faith in the God of the Bible.”
Tolkien and Lewis were unimpressed. Lewis told Tolkien that “if they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.” And they did.
They were able to transcend the work of the other war poets and prose writers because they knew not just the horror but were “deeply aware of ‘the beauty and morality of the world.’” Their massive reading of myth and literature taught them “that war could inspire noble sacrifice for humane purposes.” The combination allowed them to produce “stories imbued with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation.”
The result was remarkable. “For all the accusations of ‘medieval escapism,’ Tolkien comes closer to capturing the tragedy of the human condition than any postmodern cynic.” Lewis put it best:
This war has the very quality of the war my generation knew. It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet on the front when “everything is now ready,” the flying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and such heaven-sent windfalls as a cache of choice tobacco “salvaged from a ruin.”
5 of 5 Stars.
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