Writers formed in the crucible of combat

When writing about the cataclysmic aftermath of the First World War, author Joseph Loconte quoted Winston Churchill who, after experiencing its horrors firsthand, reflected, “Injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface, and which may conceivably prove fatal to the present civilization.” 

According to Loconte, the First World War forever changed Europe, America and the West. Their political and cultural landscapes were “permanently altered.” Tragically, “for a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence – and the end of faith.” A sober reality, indeed!

However, Loconte points out that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were exceptions to the norm. Ironically, the experience of the war “deepened their spiritual quest.” As soldiers on the Western Front who had survived life in the trenches and unimaginable terror, filth and degradation, they surprisingly used what they saw, heard and felt “to shape their Christian imagination.” Years later, Tolkien penned The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, while Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, some of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Loconte argues that “these epic tales – involving the sorrows and triumphs of war – would never have been written had these authors not been flung into the crucible of combat.”

Tolkien and Lewis were both sent home before the war ended because of medical issues that probably ultimately saved their lives. Most of their peers died in combat, a sorrow which hung like a shadow over their lives and which they never forgot.

Tolkien and Lewis met for the first time at Oxford in 1926. Loconte asserts that, due to the spiritual chaos caused by the war, at universities such as Oxford “a cocktail of experimentation and existential doubt was the order of the day.” In fact, society and academia had arrived at an unexpected verdict: “the war to make the world safe for democracy, the holy war to advance Christian ideals, was an unholy delusion.”

As Tolkien and Lewis began their academic and literary careers, both men refused to succumb to the pervasive moral cynicism. Neither did they follow a popular trend by writing anti-war novels and poetry. Both saw beauty in the world despite the death and destruction war had wrought, and “insisted that war could inspire noble sacrifice for humane purposes.” Though many writers at the time rejected God and the Bible, Tolkien and Lewis “produced stories imbued with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation.”

Loconte’s interesting and easy-to-read historical narrative shows readers how and why Tolkien and Lewis’s writing, “rooted in a narrative of Christian redemption,” ever saw the light of day. He also gives specific examples of scenes from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia which were shaped by the writers’ war experiences. For example, Tolkien explained that “the character of the hobbit was a reflection of the ordinary soldier, steadfast in his duties while suffering in that dreary ‘hole in the ground,’ the front-line trench.” Also, Tolkien’s horrific experience in the Battle of the Somme influenced his descriptions of the havoc war had on nature: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches of Morannon owe something to Northern France and the Battle of the Somme.”

Tolkien and Lewis’s relationship achieved more than just joining two brilliant men in friendship. As they read their work to each other as part of the Inklings, a group of writers, and as they talked about faith, mythology and the life of the human spirit, Tolkien helped Lewis understand the one True Myth – that God had sent Jesus to earth to rescue broken humanity from spiritual death and to give eternal life to all who believed in him. Slowly, Lewis understood and rejected the bankruptcy of atheism and embraced the Christian faith. His is one of the most well-known conversion stories in modern history.

Fans of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia will find in Loconte’s book not just a deeper understanding of two well-loved authors. When Tolkien and Lewis’ lives are read with the eyes of faith, readers will see how God worked to shape two men and their literary genius for his eternal glory.

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