A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, Joseph Loconte. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Summary: A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works.
In one sense, Joseph Loconte covers ground that others have covered in exploring the lives and work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. What Loconte uniquely does are two things. For one, he explores why Lewis and Tolkien defied the trajectory into disillusionment of so many in the post-World War I generation, and went on to embrace and espouse a vibrant Christian faith. As for the second, Loconte reads the works of these two men, exploring how war experiences shaped the imaginary worlds of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Middle Earth. He articulates his particular theses as follows:
“Indeed, it was the experience of war that provided much of the raw material for the characters and themes of their imaginative works. In a talk called ‘Learning in War Time,’ Lewis explained how war exposes the folly in placing our happiness in utopian schemes to transform society. ‘If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.’ As we’ll see, unlike the disillusionment that overwhelmed much of his generation, Lewis would use the experience of war–its horror as well as its nobility–as a guidepost to moral clarity.”
For Loconte then, the beginning point is to discuss the “Myth of Progress” that preceded the war as it viewed humans, society, and technology evolving to ever more enlightened forms by which humanity would cast off the darkness of ignorance that had contributed to so much suffering in the past. With the onset of the war and the horrors of the trench warfare (perhaps Tolkien’s inspiration for his vision of Mordor), these illusions were shattered for many. Both were casualties of war through illness or wounds. In Lewis’ case, a journey through the country to a hospital to convalesce may have sparked a vision of Narnia. It was during Lewis’s war years that he came across George McDonald’s Phantastes, that certainly contributed to the conversion of his imagination.
War’s end brought the massive disillusionment of much of the intellectual class. While Tolkien devoted himself to work and to his Catholic faith, and began to sketch the outlines of the great myth that would be the foundation of Lord of the Rings, Lewis struggled with doubt. Lewis and Tolkien first met in 1926, recognizing their common interest in languages. But they had a profound disagreement about myth that culminated in a long conversation between Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson in which Lewis recognized the story of Christ dying and rising to be a true myth, a crucial step for Lewis in coming to Christian faith. In the years ahead, they would collaborate as two key figures in a larger group knowing as the Inklings in a host of writing projects that birthed the Space Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many of Lewis’s apologetic works. Through the mutual encouragement they gave each other and their vibrant faith, they provide a counter for the outpouring of disillusioned, despairing writing of the post-war period.
What is more, they envisioned in their work, shaped by their experience of a brutally efficient technology unhinged from a larger theological framework, the ways bureaucracy and technology might interweave to obliterate the human image in books like That Hideous Strength, or in the idea of a Ring of Power that could subject all manner of beings to its owner’s bidding. Seeing the machines of war in their own experience, and the more sinister regimes of Hitler and Stalin, they could write of the evil power that, as Screwtape desires, would devour the other.
Yet Loconte shows how this bracing grasp of the nature of evil did not discourage them. Their works were infused with Christian hope–an Aslan that rises, a hobbit who, against all hopes, fulfills his mission with the help of tragic Gollum, the crowning of Aragorn as the long-awaited great king, and the Christ-like figure of Ransom, who summons both Merlin and the angels to subvert the villainies of the N.I.C.E. Like the foot soldiers in the war, many of the most significant turns of events come from the actions of children and hobbits doing their duty.
This, as I said, is not a book that covers new ground, but I found myself as I read making new connections, the “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments when you see something you know in a new way. Loconte concludes the book with a tribute to grandfather, Michele Loconte, who fought with the American forces, and only after the war became a U.S. citizen. Loconte says his research helped him understand more how the war had an impact on so many ordinary families including his own. Fitting that an Inklings scholar should make this connection between his own history and that of the Inklings!