Review: Defending Middle-Earth

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity, Patrick Curry. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Summary: A study of the enduring power of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, tracing it to both its counter to modernity and its genius as modern myth.

Many in the critical community have puzzled over the public acceptance and staying power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Patrick Curry notes that Tolkien has been described as “paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and…irrelevant.” Curry believes the nature of the books account for their success. It is a myth about an earlier age of the earth drawn from both Norse and Anglo-Saxon material, fashioned into a truly unique place, not to be read allegorically, yet one that speaks into late modernity, a project more or less exhausted.

He describes the work as centered around three domains. The first is the social, centered around the Shire, where community, local government, and love of place dominate. There are many such places throughout Middle-Earth from Lothlorien to Fangorn forest to Gondor, all standing in contrast to the soulless industrial wasteland of Mordor. The social domain is nested within a second domain, an ecological or natural one of Middle-Earth. Everything, from the mountains and rivers to Tolkien’s beloved trees, pulses with life and the peoples of Middle-Earth live harmoniously within these domains–Elves in the forests, dwarves in the mountains and hobbits in the Shire, and the Ents shepherding their trees. Surrounding Middle-Earth is the Sea representing the spiritual–the ethical, the questions of death and life, the ultimate.

Curry’s exploration of the latter notes how Tolkien did not impose Christian theology by another name on his story, unlike the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis. Oddly enough, Curry notes that Tolkien combines a polytheistic pantheon at war with evil with a kind of animism, that resacralizes nature. All this combines with Christian virtues of humility, courage, hospitality, and compassion drawing together a fellowship of the “differents.”

Curry proposes that a Middle-Earth with this character, these domains, speaks powerfully to modernity-weary readers, tired of big and bureaucratic states, alarmed by the exploitation of the planet, and groping for a spirituality that embraces all of life. But he believes it is also powerful, certainly in the English speaking world because Tolkien succeeded in his project of fashioning a contemporary myth, a story neither true nor false, but one that explains something of the origins and place and future of not only those in the story but that of the reader as well.

Curry’s discussion rings true for me in many ways. The Shire of the hobbits is the local membership of Wendell Berry’s Port William, calling us away from identity-less exurbia. The love of all nature, and especially the forests speaks into a land stripped of trees, seemingly destined for a Mordor-like wasteland. Then there is the surrounding sea, the reminder of lives answerable to something greater, destined for something beyond, longing for God knows what.

Finally the mythopoeic elements helps explain the power of this story for me, that only grows as I age–not merely the adventure but the hope and loss of which life consists. And there is the power of traveling with the Fellowship, the Nine who faced wonder and danger and sorry and strove to overcome. Having traveled so far, and through so many readings, we each face the question of what then shall we be and “what to do with the time that is given us.”

Review: The Road to Middle-Earth

The Road to Middle Earth

The Road to Middle-EarthTom Shippey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, rev. ed. 2003.

Summary: A study of Tolkien’s methods in creating the narratives of Middle-Earth, including words, names, maps, poetry, and mythology.

For most of us who have read (and re-read) J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and other stories, we marvel at the world Tolkien creates, complete with fascinating names, a variety of languages with poetry and mythologies of beginnings, and the entry of evil into their world. Creatures who previously only inhabited the fairy tales of childhood come alive: dwarves, elves, trolls, wights, and orcs, as well as Tolkien’s unique creation, those lovable hobbits. One wonders, how did he do all that? We might wonder where Christopher Tolkien, his son, has gotten all the material for twelve volumes of Middle-Earth history and more.

Tom Shippey’s book helps answer that question, and is a boon to those who wish to delve (an appropriate word) into the depths underneath the stories we love. Shippey begins with what it meant for Tolkien to be a philologist. It was a time when the field of English studies was riven between “lit versus lang.” Tolkien was a philologist. He loved languages, particularly the languages from which modern English came. Shippey observes that for Tolkien, the story arose from the language and the world he created provided a place for the languages. The book traces all of this, the people and place names, the poetry and song, the map of Middle-Earth and a mythology to make sense of it all.

He analyzes the stories and what he calls “interlacement” as a series of different stories intersect in this grand story. He also unfolds Tolkien’s lifetime work of establishing the history behind The Lord of the Rings, including the account that made up The Silmarillion, finished by Christopher Tolkien. Tolkien worked for decades on various pieces of the history, developing languages, drawing on Old English and other languages to come up with words, and then going back and forth, harmonizing his account. He would devise stories and characters like Tom Bombadil and then try to fit them into his growing narrative. Names changed over times as Trotter became Strider and Aragorn. It appears that Tolkien often could be drawn down rabbit trails as he sought to elaborate the bones of the history of Middle-Earth. The story “Leaf by Niggle” is a parable of Tolkien’s creative process. It is a story of an artist so meticulous that he only paints one leaf. Oh, what a leaf Tolkien painted, even if he left much unfinished work to Christopher!

The book includes several afterwords, the most interesting of which is a comparison of the text of Lord of the Rings with Peter Jackson’s version, underscoring what can be done with text versus film, and the plot choices Jackson made, sometimes illuminating, sometimes questionable.

If all the poems and strange names in Lord of the Rings are off-putting to you, this probably isn’t the book for you. Shippey plunges deeply into all of this and Tolkien’s creative process that resulted in the story. It can be heavy wading, and is probably done best after reading Lord of the Rings several times and having the text at your side. If you love all this stuff, you will love this book and won’t mind some of the sections which get fairly technical with lots of unfamiliar words.

Tolkien probably started developing the ideas that led to The Lord of the Rings around 1914. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 and 1955. His other major work, The Silmarillion, was published posthumously in 1977. In an era where some fan fiction writers crank out a work every year or two, Shippey helps us understand why it took so long to produce these works and why these works are considered so great by so many. Shippey makes the case that in creating this mythology in the English language, Tolkien was “The Author of the Century.” Tolkien did not merely create a story. He created a world.

Robert Jordan, A Tolkien Successor?


Robert Jordan, by Jeanne Collins, [CC BY 3.0] via Wikipedia

I fell in love with the Lord of the Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien as a college student and have read it several times since. I have always wondered, could this ever be matched? Recently, I’ve begun reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the first of a fourteen part series known as The Wheel of Time. (The last three volumes of this series were completed posthumously from Jordan’s notes and his completed first and last scenes.) The series is on the Great American Reads list of 100 great books or series, which is how I learned of it. I’m only 120 pages into the first book so I cannot yet compare the two works, except to say that Jordan has also created a world, an epic conflict between good and evil with a Dark Lord, a boy-hero, a woman counterpart to Gandalf, Moiraine, and the equivalent of orcs, trollocs. I don’t know whether I will make it through–each book is over 600 pages, 3 million words in all.

All this made me curious about who Robert Jordan was. It turns out that “Robert Jordan” was the pen name of James Oliver Rigney, Jr. He used several pen names for different works, all playing off his initials (note J and R, and J.O.R. of Jordan). He was born in Charleston, South Carolina October 17, 1948. He served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star. After serving, he completed a B.S. in physics and worked as a nuclear engineer. A blood clot from a fall that was nearly fatal turned him toward a career as a writer when he reportedly threw a book across the room he was reading in the hospital, shouting, “I can do better.”

Writing as Reagan O’Neal, he completed a series of historical fiction novels centered around the Fallon Family in the early 1980’s, at a time when similar novels by John Jakes were popular. He tried his hand at a western, Cheyenne Raiders, under the name Jackson O’Reilly. It was at this time that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian was turned into an Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. Writing for the first time as Robert Jordan, he wrote seven more Conan books beginning with Conan the Invincible.

Following this, he turned his hand to creating The Wheel of Time series, which he originally envisioned as six books. The first, which I am reading, he published in 1990. Ten more volumes were written by 2005. Michael Livingston, in a article, compares Tolkien and Jordan, considering their war experiences, as well as the fantasy worlds the two men created and reaches this verdict:

“James Rigney was not the first heir to the Tolkien legacy—and by no means will he be the last to follow him—but he might just be the most complete interpreter of that legacy. Rooted in mythology and history, founded in philosophy and spirituality, forged of war and the American experience, his Wheel of Time has easily earned its place alongside the British master fantasist. Even more, given the academic status Tolkien’s work has managed to achieve, the work of Robert Jordan has earned its place on any list of turn-of-the-millennium literature, whether the majority of critics like it or not.”

All of his books were edited by his wife Harriet, an editor with Tor Books. In early 2006 he announced his illness, amyloidosis, on his blog. It is a rare blood disease that causes a thickening of the heart walls, weakening the heart. He was optimistic about beating it, undergoing a form of chemotherapy. He wrote:

“Don’t get too upset, guys. Worse comes to worst, I will finish A Memory of Light, so the main story arc, at least, will be completed. And frankly, as I said, I intend to beat this thing. Anything can be beaten with the right attitude, and my attitude is, I have too many books to write yet for me to just lie down. Don’t have time for it. Besides, I promised Harriet I’d be around for our 50th, and that means another 25 years from this month right there. Can’t break a promise to Harriet, now can I?”

He hoped to finish what he saw as his final volume. He was able to write the beginning and end and outline and compile notes for the book. A Tor video recounts the decision during his last weeks to entrust the completion of the series to fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson. As it turned out, the final volume turned into three more books, the last of which was completed in 2013.

James O. Rigney, Jr. died on September 16, 2007. The post on his blog site the next day reads:

“It is with great sadness that I tell you that the Dragon is gone. RJ left us today at 2:45 PM. He fought a valiant fight against this most horrid disease. In the end, he left peacefully and in no pain. In the years he had fought this, he taught me much about living and about facing death. He never waivered in his faith, nor questioned our God’s timing. I could not possibly be more proud of anyone. I am eternally grateful for the time that I had with him on this earth and look forward to our reunion, though as I told him this afternoon, not yet. I love you bubba.

Our beloved Harriet was at his side through the entire fight and to the end. The last words from his mouth were to tell her that he loved her.

Thank each and everyone of you for your prayers and support through this ordeal. He knew you were there. Harriet reminded him today that she was very proud of the many lives he had touched through his work. We’ve all felt the love that you’ve been sending my brother/cousin. Please keep it coming as our Harriet could use the support.”

Rigney described himself as a “high church Episcopalian” and his funeral service took place at St James Church in Goosecreek, South Carolina. He is buried in the churchyard. It is interesting that his work combines both Christian and eastern religious influences–a view of time that is cyclical and yet a universe of good and evil (Shai’tan=Satan).

Obviously, I’m not in a position to make the comparison with Tolkien yet. What is apparent is that Jordan created a powerful epic fantasy world. At very least, it is the best selling fantasy series since Lord of the Rings, selling over 80 million copies. Sony Pictures is adapting it for television. I have at least two friends who have completed the series, so there is hope. I’ll keep you posted. For now, I’m enjoying getting immersed in his world.

Review: The Worm Ouroboros

the worm ouroboros

The Worm OuroborosE. R. Eddison. New York: Open Road Media, 2014 (originally published 1922).

Summary: A heroic fantasy of the warfare between Witchland and Demonland, including the quest to rescue Goldry Bluszco, after he is banished by spell to a remote mountain top in revenge for defeating and killing King Gorice XI of the Witches in a wrestling match.

This is a work of heroic fantasy that was praised by the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ursula LeGuin as inspiration for their own work. And certainly the ideas of transport to an alien world, heroic quests, and great, and often seemingly hopeless, contests against evil powers find their roots in this work.

I came across this work first around the time I discovered The Lord of the Rings and saw Tolkien’s commendation. I never picked it up until recently, perhaps because of the obscurity of the title. Ouroboros refers to the worm (a term often used for dragons or serpents) who swallow their own tail, forming an endless ring. It is a symbol worn by the king of Witchland, and the idea of an endless cycle figures in the conclusion of the work, which I will not give away for those who haven’t read it.

The story is told through the eyes of one “Lessingham” who is transported from Earth to Mercury, where this story takes place. After the early chapters, Lessingham disappears from the story, not to reappear at the conclusion. The story really begins with brothers Juss, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluszco, and Brandoch Daha, the Lords of Demonland receiving the diminutive ambassador of Witchland who asserts the Kingship of Gorice XI, King of Witchland over Demonland. The Lords of Demonland decide to contest this via a wrestling match between Gorice, famed for his wrestling prowess, and Goldry, a formidable wrestler in his own right. If Goldry wins, they submit; if not, they retain their independence. Goldry defeats and kills Gorice XI, and in vengence, his son casts a spell that transports and imprisons Goldry on a distant icy mountain top.  Juss and Brandoch think he is being held in Carce, the capitol of Witchland, and only learn in defeat and escape through an ally, of the spell that has sent him far away.

This sets up the remainder of the book, divided between the quest to rescue Goldry, and the wars against Witchland. Juss and Brandoch Daha pursue a year-long quest, including a battle against a terrifying manticore taking them to the mountain castle of Queen Sophonisba, who tells them Goldry can only be reached by finding the egg of a hippogriff, back in Demonland. Meanwhile, Spitfire unsuccessfully resists an attack by Duke Corsus on Witchland. He takes the castle, Krothering, of Brandoch Daha, and lays it waste. Brandoch’s sister escapes when Gro, a spurned adviser of Corsus turns traitor and helps her get free. Ultimately, Gro will turn traitor once more. Juss and Brandoch return in time to expel Corsus and the forces of Witchland, then Juss finds the hippogriff egg, rescues Goldry, leading, after defeat of the fleet of Witchland, to the climactic battle before the gates of Carce.

The book is not an easy read. The language is influenced by Elizabethan English (an odd choice for events taking place on Mercury), including written texts in period English (which sometimes look like the writing of someone who is spelling challenged–which may help in deciphering it). Some may contend that this is far simpler than Tolkien’s passages in Elvish, the languages of Dwarves, Orcs, and the Dark Tower. Some might complain about all the different names and kingdoms (in addition to Witchland and Demonland, there are Ghouls, Goblins, Imps and Pixies!). Eddison helps us somewhat with a chronology summarizing the relations of all of these at the end of the work.

What I struggled with, and perhaps it is an artifact of the heroic fantasy genre, is that I do not see any of the characters grow through the quests and battles they face. Courage and heroism there is in abundance, as is deceit, betrayal, and dark arts. But in the end, the horrors and travails of war, and the conquest of evil do not seem to eventuate in the love of peace or the wise pursuit of a better world. The main characters only seem to be defined by the quests and battles, perhaps an earlier version of Klingons who think it a shame to die a peaceful death.

On the one hand, it raises the question of whether tension, or some threat, is necessary to out the best in human beings, or whatever human-like races these beings are. And yet, these figures cannot envision quests that don’t involve killing or dying or battle. Is there not also a heroism that heals, that pursues peace, goodness, truth, and beauty–sometimes in the resistance of evil and deceit and ugliness–but also in the creation of cultural goods? As influential as this story was, what I saw in Tolkien that I miss in Eddison is a richer heroism, one capable of growth, that fights evil when it must but loves hearth, home, song, and good food, and a world where these might flourish.

Review: J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography


J. R. R. Tolkien: A BiographyHumphrey Carpenter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (originally published 1977).

Summary: The biography of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, describing his early life, participation in The Inklings, and his habits of work, scholarship, and how his most famous works came to be written.

Humphrey Carpenter wrote what, as far as I can ascertain, the first biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, published in 1977, four years after the death of the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the unfinished Silmarillion. He opens this book by recounting his first meeting with Tolkien, in 1967. He writes:

“His eyes fix on some distant object, and he seems to have forgotten that I am there as he clutches his pipe and speaks through its stem. It occurs to me that in all externals he represents the archetypal Oxford don, at times even the stage caricature of a don. But that is exactly what he is not. It is rather as if some strange spirit had taken on the guise of an elderly professor. The body may be pacing this shabby little suburban room, but the mind is far away, roaming the plains and mountains of Middle-earth.”

Central to Carpenter’s narrative of Tolkien’s life is his preoccupation with the mythology most fully expressed in his posthumous Silmarillion but also in his earlier “elvish” poetry, The Hobbit, and in the work for which he was most know, The Lord of the Rings.  Carpenter sketches the backdrop to this mythology in a life that included the loss of both parents at an early age, the influence of Father Francis, the formation of T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society, the pre-cursor to the Inklings), his romance and eventual marriage to Edith, his war experiences,  his scholarly life as a philologist at Oxford, and his involvement with the Inklings and relationship with C. S. Lewis.

I was surprised that Carpenter did not make more of the influence Tolkien’s war experience on his writing, as some recent writers including Joseph Loconte and Colin Duriez have done. [See my reviews of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War and Bedeviled]. I wonder if for Carpenter, he would have traced more of the influence in Tolkien’s books to the mythologies of Iceland, Beowulf, to Arthurian legend, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

We learn of some of the childhood places, reminiscent of his descriptions of The Shire. We see his love of fairy stories and eventually Icelandic myths. And during his convalescence from the war, we see his first musings on a mythology that would occupy his life. Carpenter describes the beginnings of The Hobbit in stories told to his children, unconnected at first to the rest of the developing mythology, and the important role his publisher’s son had in persuading him to publish this story. Then there is the pressure for “more Hobbit stories” that leads to the beginning of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, which would occupy twelve years. We learn that Tolkien really hadn’t connected it to his larger mythology until Frodo and the Ring arrive at Rivendell. Carpenter recounts the back and forth with his publisher over publishing The Silmarillion concurrently, and the endless revising and development of backgrounds, history, and language that would occupy Tolkien for the rest of his life.

Carpenter presents us a very human figure, yet always sympathetically. He portrays a perfectionist, who is held up from publishing so much more by his endless revising. We learn of the tensions this creates with C. S. Lewis, who in short order (by comparison) dashes off the Narnia stories, which Tolkien thought too allegorical. He resented Lewis’s popularity as an apologist, considering it not quite fitting for an Oxford don, although the two remained fast friends until Lewis’s death. We see a scholar caught up in the very male atmosphere of Oxford scholarship, including the circle of the Inklings, something his wife never felt at home with. Only in her latter years, when they lived at Bournemouth, did she find a circle of friends that she was at home with. We observe a marriage characterized by abiding love, and yet with the accommodations made by many people in these times who lived in two different worlds defined along gender lines. On their headstones, he is “Beren” and she “Luthien.”

I think this is an essential biography for an Inklings fan, arising out of acquaintance with Tolkien, friendship with his family, and a sympathetic appreciation of the genius that created Middle-earth and the flat sides that come with such genius. He portrays a man who lived in hobbit-like modesty enjoying the pleasures of home and a good pipe, yet caught up in a truly great story in which he played a most significant part.

Review: Bedeviled


BedeviledColin 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 PainThe 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.

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


A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarJoseph 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!

Review: The Fellowship

The FellowshipThe FellowshipPhilip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015.

Summary: This traces the literary lives of the four principle Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams) the literary club they formed and its impact on literature, faith, and culture.

This is a magnificent book for any Inklings lover! It serves at one and the same time as a quadruple biography of the four principle Inklings and traces the formation, life and impact of this literary gathering of scholars (all men) and their wider impact on many others, including women like Dorothy L. Sayers.

As biography, it brings to life these four figures as well as biographies I’ve read on any individual Inkling. Lewis has been written on the most, and yet I thought the Zaleskis teased out more about his relationship with Warnie (who submerged his own career to a certain degree for that of his brother, and who in turn was cared for by Lewis as he struggled with alcoholism), as well as Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore. We see Tolkien as a deeply devout Catholic often concerned over the spiritual lives of his sons, and his lifelong struggle to bring forth the tale of Middle Earth. We learn of Owen Barfield’s obsession with anthroposophy, and the often affectionate, sometimes not relationship with Lewis as his most significant sparring partner (he later, for a time, had an influence on the American writer, Saul Bellow). And last, we learn of the mystical romantic Charles Williams, the Oxford University Press editor who wrote “supernatural shockers” and had “interesting” though chaste relationships with a number of women attracted to his romantic vision, and whose early death in 1945 was deeply grieved by Lewis.

We also learn of the formation and inner life of this all-male discussion group. Serious discussions occurred on Thursday evenings, usually in Lewis’s rooms in Oxford. Often these consisted of the reading and critique of works in progress. It was here that Barfield’s works on language, Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Tolkien’s Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring first made the light of day. If it weren’t for the encouragement of this group, as well as Tolkien’s publisher, this latter work may never have been published during Tolkien’s lifetime. More informal conversations took place on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child (the “Bird and Baby” as it was known) and was marked by rollicking male laughter and repartee. It was also fascinating to see the critical role Williams, one of the later to join, had on the vitality of this group. When he died, something died among them as well and the gatherings began to dwindle.

We also have briefer portraits of other Inkling members: theatrical producer and Chaucer scholar Nevill Coghill, biographer Lord David Cecil, poet and scholar Adam Fox, the classicist Colin Hardie, and the scholar, who along with Tolkien labored for Lewis’s return to Christian faith, Hugo Dyson. There are others as well, like novelist John Wain, and those not in the circle, but who contributed and were inspired as well, like Dorothy L. Sayers and Sister Penelope Lawson.

The Zaleskis also explore key episodes in the lives of these different figures. Perhaps most striking was Lewis’s debate with Elizabeth Anscombe. The Zaleskis are more nuanced than some, seeing this both as a serious challenge to Lewis’s ideas on Miracles (he later re-wrote portions in response) and yet not as the utterly devastating setback to his apologetics that turned him to writing children’s stories. They observe that he continued to publish numerous articles on apologetic themes and that the greater concern for Lewis was the effect of apologetic argument on the soul of the apologist.

What was most significant to me was the tale of how this informal gathering sparked literary scholarship, literature in a variety of genre, and for Lewis to a greater extent, and others to a lesser, a Christian intellectual presence at Oxford. This did not so much seem by design, but rather the recognition of these men in each other a vision for such things that they fueled and refined through their weekly discussions. I think of other such groups, like the “Clapham Sect” who gathered around William Wilberforce and brought about both religious renewal and social reforms including the abolition of slavery in early nineteenth century England. What particularly marked the Inklings, it seems to me, was a combination of intellectual rigor and personal affection (sometimes tried and tested) that contributed both significant scholarly work (such as Lewis’s preface to Paradise Lost, or Barfield’s work on language and poetic diction) and works of great popular impact.

This is a book to be savored both by Inklings lovers and a newer generation that may wonder about the world that gave us the likes of Lewis and Tolkien. It is sympathetic without indulging in hagiography. It is real about the shortcomings of the principle Inklings without descending into a hatchet job on their lives. In it we see mere humans (and some mere Christians) whose fellowship birthed an ethos and enduring works that have touched the lives of many.

Unfinished Work

I hate not finishing things! I rarely leave a book unfinished. I don’t like to leave food on the plate. And I like to finish a job that I start. Yet one of the things I’ve become increasingly conscious of as I get older is that some of the things I’ve dreamed of–whether my dreams for campus work, for our organization, or for the impact of Christian thought in the part of the world where I live–I will likely live to see only glimmers of the things I’ve dreamed of. Until the end of history and the return of Jesus, the day comes for each of us where we lay down our work, and ultimately our life in this world–always with things undone, always with more that we know could be done.


I think of great “unfinished” works of music. There are Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, and Edward Elgar’s Third. What must it have been like for those composers to have music in mind that was never realized on a score?

I’ve just begun reading Tim Keller’s Every Good EndeavorIn one of the early chapters he recounts the little story J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, Leaf by Niggle that tells the story of an artist, Niggle, who has a vision of a scene with a beautiful tree in the center. Try as he might, Niggle can never capture the whole tree, only one very perfect leaf. Then Niggle goes on the long journey of death until he comes to a place where he sees the tree of his vision and realizes that his creation was part of a much larger Creation of a greater Creator. Keller notes that this story was written at a time when Tolkien doubted that he would ever complete Lord of the Rings, and that Tolkien was in fact Niggle!

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

Keller draws from this the idea that for the Christian, in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (NIV) Paul’s hope was not that our work would be complete in this life, but that there would be a resurrection to a new creation, where somehow our creations would carry over into the final Creation.

What that says to me is that the prospect of unfinished work need not be a cause for despair. Our work will matter and somehow we will see the realization in some purified form of our deepest hopes and dreams. And so I can keep giving myself to pressing toward those goals, to pursuing the good, the beautiful, and the true. I don’t need to finish because my trust is in the one who said, “It is finished.”

Reading Aloud

I’ve written much about John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University of late, perhaps because it is such heavy wading but also has some interesting ideas for those of us who spend time around universities. For this post, on a Sunday afternoon, I thought I’d focus on an unusual experience in trying to read him, and that was that I found my comprehension of Newman increased when I read him aloud. In fact, I found that his long sentences with numerous subordinate clauses actually made more sense when I read them as he might have spoken them–this book is the text of his lectures. At least one question this prompts for me is whether one ought do this with other forms of writing that are meant for oral presentation–sermons, poems, political discourse and more? (Provided you find a private context where you will not be thought a little nutty!)

In the past, I’ve thought of reading aloud as primarily something I did when my son was young, something my wife and I do occasionally on long trips, or something done on audiobooks–which I have rarely listened to. I do have wonderful memories of books read aloud, particularly ones where it seems the author wrote with the view of his or her work being read aloud.  I think here of Tolkien, particularly some of his songs and poems, or Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, one of our favorite children’s stories, or the marvelous Winnie the Pooh stories that I was introduced to at InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus retreat center by Keith Hunt, its first director. “Pooh readings” were a tradition for many of our ‘camps’–as much loved by students and adults as the little children among us!

What are your experiences of reading aloud?  Do you have books you would especially recommend that are good to read aloud?  And do you ever read aloud to yourself?