The complete title of this book is actually 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. It’s a mouthful, I know, but credit where it’s due: it doesn’t beat around the bush making you guess what the book’s about.
The book opens with exactly the sort of thing you might wish would happen in the world more often: an “outbreak of humanity.” In this case, the moment in question is the now infamous “Christmas Peace” of 1914 that manifested spontaneously across hundreds of miles along the Western Front. It’s the kind of thing that is as unimaginable as the sound and carnage of the war itself. For an all too brief moment, peace reigned in a world that had otherwise descended into the darkness of an international suicide pact that forever changed Western civilization. The war claimed an average of more than 6,000 lives every single day until the Armistice. In light of that, some might call that peace a miracle. And indeed, how else could it be described without short changing it? And yet, for a generation, the entire concept of faith was largely dead even though the idea of simply surviving the war might also be considered a miracle. Following the war, the watch word was “disillusionment.” You can find it across much of the literature that sprang forth in the years following the war.
The first half of this book tracks the march of “progress” from the age of Darwin to the end of the war, charting how misappropriated faith in science joined with a misappropriated faith in religion, held aloft on the crutch of duty. The pain and devastation of the war is offered to the reader in all of its emotional distress. For those who have never studied the war in-depth, it’s an impressive overview. For those more familiar, there’s still plenty here to resonate as the cloud of that horror and malaise settles into the reader’s mind. In the midst of it, Tolkien and Lewis make their ways through the trenches and the horrors. The influences of the great works they have yet to write are delineated, with the focus on their personal experiences.
The book’s second half puts the war behind us, and the Lost Generation tries to cope with the fallout, beginning with the spread of the Spanish influenza that killed in the following months four times what the battlefields claimed, the victims of the disease being disproportionately young adults. Atheistic Communism likewise began to spread, the result of the Russian Revolution that killed the czar, his family, and his regime by a starving population that had finally had enough. The hope of freedom this movement was meant to bring about were “strangled in its crib” by Lenin and Trotsky, leaders of the Bolsheviks, as “enemies of the communist revolution, real and imaginary, were purged without conscience.” Socialism and communism found a foothold across Europe and the United States, the ideals at their core difficult to ignore after so much blood and loss. In Italy, fascism took hold in the minds of a ruined population who likewise had enough of their own corrupt government. In a fell swoop, Mussolini marched on Rome and wiped out both the monarchy and multi-party democracy, setting the stage for fascism to spread like wildfire throughout Germany and to likewise gain a foothold wherever Western ideals — sacred and secular — were being questioned. As faith faltered, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis offered an explanation people were only too eager to latch onto, opening the way for a new kind of hedonism in the name of secular and spiritual contempt.
On this foundation of cynicism and desperation, the idealistic casualties of the war — martial valor, honor, chivalry, faith, hope — were resurrected at Oxford in polar opposition to what other authors were writing. Without glamorizing warfare, Tolkien began writing the stories and their truths that would serve as the foundations for his Middle-Earth, writings that influenced Lewis and propelled him into a new understanding of faith in Christianity. It was a shift in consciousness that, like Tolkien’s faith, stood in stark contrast to the prevalent attitudes of the time that considered belief in God to be an obscenity. In their faith, and in the perpetual influence of their fellow Inklings, one of the most important literary friendships of all time was forged. The stamp of that friendship continues to echo into literature and into eternity itself.
This leads into the final leg of the book, which examines the themes and characters of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia in context of everything that’s been put into place thus far. It’s by no means an exhaustive look at either of these masterworks, but it is more than enough to provide an understanding of how the values of the Middle Ages could be brought forward into postwar literature without incongruity, and how both Tolkien and Lewis felt these values were needed to anchor a world that had otherwise spun off its axis.
In reviewing a book of this nature, I always stress this point because it stands seemingly in violation of understanding: I am not a Christian. It’s a matter of finding no solace or satisfaction in any single interpretation of a Higher Authority combined with a long history of having been bullied by the dogmatic. Even so, I do see the underlying beauty and appeal of it when liberated from its literal fundamentalism. Indeed, in another life and under very different circumstances, I might have been converted by Tolkien in like manner as Lewis. Accordingly, I appreciate the message the author is putting forth here, and I’m certain it’ll instantly resonate with the faithful. While I find Lewis’ works to be far too heavy-handed for my tastes, I did grow up with them and find fondness in my nostalgia. They were the right books at the right time for me. My appreciation of Tolkien, on the other hand, has grown by leaps and bounds year after year through most of my life. I’ve found that the only way to understand and appreciate either of these authors is to understand the history they experienced, the faith they hold dear, and the influence they had upon one another to express their moral imagination. The heroic ideals of the Middle Ages they espouse in their works are likewise the moral compass by which I live. I speak from personal experience as to how these ideals have helped me when all else seemed lost. It’s why I appreciate the message of this book as I do. It’s quite literally preaching to the choir.
To that end, I feel this book is excellent as both a starting point and as a reinforcement of all points concerning Tolkien, Lewis, the war, the Lost Generation, and all other points discussed herein. Filled to the brim with supporting quotations from both Tolkien and Lewis, this little book is jam packed, straightforward, and easy to read when it’s not hitting you in the face with the horrors of war. It’s a powerful commentary all around. I offer my highest recommendations to any with an interest.