A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War
© 2014 Joseph Loconte
When some future Gibbon writes of the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, he will have to devote a great deal of attention to the Great War. However more numerous the deaths of its daughter, the Great War’s damage was more foundational, destroying as it did not only an entire generation of young men and leveling empires, but in derailing the western dream of unstoppable progress. Western faith in itself and its ideals was fractured, and more damage would follow in the decades to come. The generation that followed was understandable cynical and lost, believing in nothing and pursuing only fleeting pleasures; a war opened with religious zeal ended in despair. A Wardrobe, a Hobbit, and a Great War examines the lives and work of two young men who fought in the war, but who survived it with their spirits intact — who neither entered it as a crusade, or came out of it as jaded warriors.
The book is effectively a brief history of the war as experienced by Lewis and Tolkien, expressed as a two-part biography that focuses on how the war shaped their writing. The primary difficulty in supporting the authors’ thesis, that Tolkien and Lewis developed ideas about heroism amid their war experience and later applied it to the worlds and stories they later created, is that neither man wrote a great deal about their war experiences. What few references exist in their letters from the time, and their recollections later, are connected by Jenkins to passages or themes in their stories: Lewis’ descriptions of combat in his own life and the depiction of the same in his Narnia stories; Tolkiens’ description of Mordor and the corpse-filled bog around it are connected to the horrifying spectacle that was a trench warzone — where men lived among the dead and the engorged rats that fed on them, sometimes seeing past battles’ dead unearthed by artillery strikes.
Loconte’s general thesis is that Lewis and Tolkien both rejected the ‘myth of progress’, that society was growing Better and that men were evolving to become superior beings. They did not counter this with a theory that things were growing worse, but rather shared the conviction of GK Chesterton that things simply were, that the nature of fallen man was such that he could never become anything new– he only exist to make his choices day by day, for good or ill. Heroism, as described by Jenkins and illustrated through the Narnia and Middle Earth novels, meant ever pushing to do the right choice, even when it was not easy, wise, or safe.
Ultimately, I don’t know that there’s enough evidence to support the authors specifically being inspired by the war to create the kinds of stories they did. However, I also don’t know if there’s an upper limit to how much I can read about Tolkien and Lewis, because they were old fogeys in their own time and thereby my countrymen. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.