Veterans Day, in 2018, marks a special day in world history, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. This war is often overshadowed, for Americans, by WWII, despite the fact that the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, in the closing weeks of the “Great War,” killed more Americans than either the Battle of the Bulge or the D-Day Normandy Invasion.
In July, 1914, European powers acted upon long-held treaty agreements, to create military alignments, following an assassin’s bullet that killed the Archduke Ferdinand. The nations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russian, Britain, and France, among others, were fully mobilized for war. Yet as Barbara Tuchman tells it, in her gripping The Guns of August, this was an age of optimistic progressivism. Despite the growing conflict in 1914, people thought that the war would be decided quickly. Everyone would be home by Christmas.
Recent technological advancements, like the inventions of the electric light bulb, radio, and the airplane, gave people the impression that humans have unlimited potential to solve real world problems. The benefits of science could be employed to make life better. But the war demonstrated that the same technological power to improve things also gave us the horrors of the machine gun, trench warfare, and mustard gas. By the time the war ended in November, 1918, millions lay dead. Most soldiers survived the war, but even afterwards, many succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic.
As I have listened to episodes of the Imperial War Museums, First World War Centenary podcasts, (a great website, if you like history), chronicling the progress of the war over those four years, it is apparent that life for millions during the Great War proved the progressive optimism of a swift, positive solution to the war to be misguidedly wrong. This is where Joseph Loconte’s book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918, comes in.
C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were young soldiers in the British army, serving on the Western front in France. Both men endured the stench and horror of this most terrible slaughter. Lewis was injured by an artillery blast, that eventually took him out of the war. Tolkien suffered from trench fever, spread by lice, which finally rendered him unfit to continue in frontline duty. Tolkien himself recollected that by the end of the war, nearly all of his army friends were dead.
Armistice Day arrived November 11, 1918, what Americans remember now as Veterans Day. Many celebrated the end of the war, but for weary soldiers like Tolkien and Lewis, it was probably more a sense of relief, and an opportunity to mourn the loss of good friends.
Tolkien and Lewis finally met several years later, as professors at Oxford. They had both taken up the scholarly calling to study English literature and the great stories of the medieval period. Both men were extremely gifted with their imaginations, and used their talents to provide the world some of the best fantasy literature of the 20th century.
These men formed a remarkable friendship. Tolkien was instrumental in persuading Lewis to give up his atheism and embrace the Christian faith. Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to continue in completing his magnificent The Lord of the Rings trilogy, when the author became weary of the endeavor over the years.
For both men, the experience of the Great War proved to be the crucible that fired up their imagination to produce their separate works, which uniquely gave complementary visions of the world, grounded in a Christian theological framework. The aftermath of the Great War inspired others to embrace, either a reactionary, nihilistic response to humanity’s plight, rejecting Christianity in the process, or a liberal wishful dream, that the “War to End All Wars” would usher in a new age of peace, making the truth claims of orthodox Christianity unnecessary.
Joseph Loconte makes the case that Lewis and Tolkien took a different path, striving to revive a vision of classic Christian thought, as an alternative to the more popular outlooks, that sought to embrace together both the valor and dignity of humanity, with a sober appreciation of the depths of human depravity and evil. This thoroughly Christian perspective, combining the biblical themes of creation and fall, that so saturated the medieval Christian mindset, were given a fresh, new imaginative expression through the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth. Many have appreciated the literary contributions of Lewis and Tolkien, while missing the profound theological and spiritual realities, which both writers point towards.
The Great War technically ended on that Armistice Day, in 1918. But one hundred years later, the same intellectual and imaginative challenges that Lewis and Tolkien experienced in their era, continue to plague the postmodern world of the 21st century. Loconte makes a compelling case that Lewis’ and Tolkien’s work remain just as relevant and necessary as ever.
The Great War finally did come to an end. Life continued on.
But for what purpose?
Lewis and Tolkien did much of the hard work in their generation, to rethink such a profound question. Today, we need a new generation of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s to carry on the task of reimagining the world, within the context of a robust Christian perspective.
Loconte is currently working on a documentary film project, that explores the themes of his book, that fans of Lewis and Tolkien should consider supporting. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War has encouraged me to revisit the great work of both Lewis and Tolkien, as companions to rethink the cultural challenges of our day and age. The trailer for the film in progress is below:
BONUS: Peter Jackson, the film director behind the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, has restored and colorized hours of Imperial War Museums archive film to produce a new documentary on the Great War: