Bedeviled, Colin Duriez. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Summary: An exploration of the conflict of good and evil in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and how two World Wars influenced their thinking.
This is the second of two books that look at the intersection of war experience and the works of Lewis and Tolkien. The difference, I would say, between Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War (reviewed here) and this book is that in Loconte’s book, war is foregrounded to a greater degree; in Duriez’s book, the nature of evil, the evil powers, and the conflict with the good running through their works.
The book opens at the beginning of World War II as Lewis puzzles over the attraction of Hitler. Duriez writes:
“As planned, they tuned in and listened on the radio to a speech by Hitler. The BBC provided a simultaneous translation. A possible answer to a puzzle occurred to Lewis as he listened—how was the German leader so convincing to so many? Though Lewis rarely read the daily newspapers, he of course knew Hitler’s claims were grossly untrue. Making what he blatantly called his ‘final appeal to common sense,’ Hitler boasted, ‘It never has been my intention to wage war, but rather to build up a State with a new social order and the finest possible standard of culture.’
Hitler’s emotive speech may have still tugged at Lewis’s mind in the quietness of his church that Sunday. England faced the very real danger of invasion by Hitler’s forces, driven and maintained like a machine….During the church liturgy and bad hymns (as Lewis regarded them) he found his thoughts turning to the master of evil, Satan. Somehow, the arrogant dictator resembled him—not least in the size of his ego and self-centeredness. In the jumble of thoughts jostling with words of a great tradition, it struck Lewis that a war-orientated bureaucracy was a more appropriate image of hell for people ignorant of the past than a traditional one. Here was Hitler bent on taking over and ruling European countries, including England. There was the devil, who had designs to exert his will systematically over all parts of human life, his ultimate aim being dehumanization—the “abolition of man,” as Lewis later called it.” (pp. 21-22).
Duriez proceeds to show how the “war-oriented bureaucracy” that aim to dehumanize was at the heart of Lewis’s portrayal of hell and the work of the tempters in The Screwtape Letters. Chapter 3 then shows how much of the work of Lewis and Tolkien during the Second World War focused around devilry, from the decision of Tolkien to begin writing The Lord of the Rings (a new Hobbit book) to Lewis’s publication of The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy. In addition, there were the BBC broadcasts that formed the core of Mere Christianity, in which Lewis argues for our sense of right and wrong as basic to our search for meaning, and from this to a Christian understanding of God and his work in Christ. In fiction, he explores the same themes in the Space Trilogy as Ransom understands the nature of our fallen planet in Out of the Silent Planet, fights evil in the character of Weston in Edenic Perelandra, and faces the banal but de-humanizing character of evil, so present in Hitlers prison camps, in That Hideous Strength, where technology is de-coupled from human values.
This last idea is one both Loconte and Duriez explore, how a tendency of evil is to pour one’s power into objects which are then used to dominate, such as the Ring (or Voldemort’s horcruxes in Harry Potter lore). When technology is severed from transcendent values seeking human flourishing, it may then be used to dominate the very humans it was meant to serve. [I sometimes wonder about our smartphones, and the connected world they represent, and how much power we have poured into these devices, and how in turn, they shape, and even dominate our engagement with the world. Is this our culture’s “one Ring to rule them all?”]
While the first part of the book explores the problem of evil, particularly laid bare by war, the latter part of the book focuses more on the intersection of good and evil, exploring progress and regress in Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, the divide between good and evil in Tolkien’s “Leaf, by Niggle” and Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the power for change, whether good or ill, portrayed throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, and the experiences we have of pain and love in A Grief Observed, The Four Loves, and Till We Have Faces (this last exploring the evil of loving inordinately and possessively, and the hope even here, for redemption).
The final two chapters consider how we become free of the tyranny of self to become who we are truly, and the images of future hope in both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s writing. The book then concludes with two appendices which return to themes explored throughout the book: “War in Heaven” being concerned with devilry, and “The Spirit of the Age” with subjectivism, the detaching of morality from any transcendent sense of meaning, anticipating both scientism and our post-modern turn.
I found Duriez’s exploration of the forms evil can take in modern society chilling–the machine, the soulless bureaucracy, the big lie that they state can make us safe, secure, and usher in a new order of greatness. Against this is the challenge of goodness, that makes no dramatic or inordinate claims, that recognizes that the small choices matter the most and may lead us “imperceptibly toward good or evil, heaven or hell” (p. 145). We see in Lewis and Tolkien, the heroism of the ordinary person, with no pretensions, acting in faith and trusting obedience in the face of threatening evil, and the final victory of the good. They wrote to encourage those facing the great conflict of World War II, and in their words, we might also find the kind of bracing comfort we need to face the challenges of our own day.