This is my first Tolkien-related post in a long time and I think, mostly because he is my greatest inspiration, I should make a post every now and then just to pay homage to his genius. This is my official book review of Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War, published earlier this year by HarperCollins. This book was similar in subject matter to the most recent Tolkien book I read, Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. I think I came away with a different message though. This book focused on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (my other big inspiration), who, despite their closeness and the similarities of their wartime experiences, did not meet one another until 1926. These two extraordinary men experienced the horrors of war and came away from it with such a different outlook on the world then many of their fellow soldiers turned authors. They embraced the potential good in the world despite having seen such tremendous evil and they created new worlds that did not promote escapism, but rather purported what they knew to be true of our own world, though some elements had gone dormant.
There were several aspects of war, and in fact the time in which he lived, that repelled the young Tolkien. One of many was his disapproval of machines and the tools of war. Loconte makes a point to reiterate Tolkien’s use of Saruman as a traitor in The Lord of the Rings because as a wizard he was supposed to love and respect the nature that he destroyed in his pursuit of power. I know Tolkien would not like me to use allegory to compare his work, but I cannot help but see a little of Saruman in the European leaders of the early twentieth century. They were responsible for the lives of their citizens and instead, sent their men to fight in a war. A war from which there was no turning back, as Winston Churchill saw early on. The ill-treatment of men on the front lines from the bureaucracy that was designed to protect its people was what upset Tolkien more than anything about the Great War.
I think it is extremely fitting, and no less ironic, that at a time in human history when the world is relying more and more on science and human knowledge and believing less and less in God, C.S. Lewis does not turn away but toward Christianity. But it was not without difficulty that Lewis rejected his agnostic beliefs. I say agnostic and not atheistic because I think deep down Lewis always believed in something. He was raised to believe but having experienced the Great War, he understandably did not know how to believe or what to believe in. I loved how this book explored the spiritual relationship between Tolkien and Lewis, beyond just a simple academic and platonic friendship. These were two of Oxford’s brightest minds and they formed a bond despite their different approaches to religion.
Having experienced the horrors of the Great War, it is easy to understand why the world suddenly plunged into spiritual darkness. As Loconte pointed out, how could you believe in a God when you were surround by devastation and chaos? So many young men had their lives thrown away by greedy politicians who only saw the benefits of war and not the grievous aftermath. How could you believe in a God when the church itself had sanctioned the war? They preached and advocated that good Christian men go to war because that is the morally right thing to do. Anything else is considered cowardice and ungodly. By the time Lewis met Owen Barfield (another member of the Inklings group formed at Oxford) and Tolkien, he was a hard shell to crack. The great debate of September 1931 was probably the final push toward Lewis’ conversion and he even admitted himself that Tolkien’s words that night had a great influence on him.
This brings me to my next point that Christianity shaped the writing of both of these authors. But look at the wide audience that it reaches; people all over the world or different cultures and creeds, different religions and backgrounds. Because above all, these writers did not write a theology, they created a story. At the heart of every good writer is a good story. As C.S. Lewis said, and the banner on my blog repeats, “If they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.” This is what makes their writing so glorious.
The three main messages I received from this book were I think, the three most important ideas to Tolkien and Lewis. One was that mythologies are true. They are part of our world, stories sent from God. Lewis had at one point in his life acknowledged the existence of Jesus from the historical documents written by people such as Tacitus, but he could not accept that his message was real and that all the other belief that stemmed from him was real. The way Tolkien got through to him was to explain that myth is real. Christianity is the ultimate myth, the ultimate story, and ultimately, the only one worth believing in.
The second message was that evil is a perversion of good. Both authors took Jadis, the “Queen” of Charn, and Sauron and Morgoth, and made them come from something good. Just as Satan was once an angel who fell from grace, so too did the enemies of the characters in Middle-earth and Narnia stem from a once whole and decent world. This, Loconte says, is the ultimate reality.
The third message was simply, to quote Loconte, “imagination might be as good a guide to reality as rational argument.” We see everything through our imaginations! Maybe as writers Tolkien and Lewis were better able to not only capture and explain their imaginations but to enter our own as readers, but that doesn’t mean they were the only people on earth who extrapolate fantasy from reality. Again, their stories did not promote escapism. They captured what reality should be, or at the very least, how we as humans should see the world.
Joseph Loconte does a marvelous job of giving us a side by side comparison of Tolkien, Lewis, and their literary inspirations and messages. He visualized for the reader the lives of these two authors, showed how their young academic lives were interrupted by war, and how their experiences directly affected their writing and in turn, affected generations of readers. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis glorified war, but neither did they shield their audience from its horrors and realities. They placed reality under the microscope of fantasy, if you will. I’ve always loved J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but this book just raised my respect for them even higher, as both writers and as veterans. The rather long subtitle of this book claims its purpose is to discuss “How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis rediscovered faith, friendship, and heroism in the cataclysm of 1914-1918,” and what an appropriate subtitle it is! I highly recommend this book to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia and wants to explore them further. I promise you will walk away with a better understanding and appreciation of both classic fantasy sagas.