Wednesday, March 16, 2016

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 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte

I've read bundles of fiction and nonfiction books on World War II, but not World War I. How did fascism, Nazism, communism, and eugenics take root after WWI? Why did people support narcissistic leaders that became despots that ruled in terror and greed creating violent totalitarian governments as their unchecked powers grew year after year? According to Joseph Loconte the reason lies in the results of one of the most violent and devastating wars; WWI. Loconte shows how WWI was so savage that not only were 16 million people killed, but those that survived were disillusioned and cynical, rejecting the current government, politics, religion, and spiritual morality. In the midst of this postwar malaise, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis rejected the literary trends and wrote books in response to the spiritual crisis plaguing their country. They resurrected the medieval myth creating epic worlds torn apart by war and suffering and filled with flawed heroes embracing the traits of sacrifice, valor, and friendship as they struggle with good and evil.

The first part of Loconte's book focuses on the history of WWI and the climate before, during, and after the war. The Myth of Progress was the prevailing belief before the war; that the industrial revolution, Darwin's theory of evolution, breakthroughs in medicine and inventions meant that the human condition could be explained by science and technology at the expense of spiritual morality. The belief was that progress was so great under a liberal democracy that all countries should have it and many believed God had chosen them and would bless them as they went to war. Britain, England, and Germany thought this way. The church declared a holy war and made it one not of justice, but righteousness. The problem was the focus on human achievement meant the subversion of moral obligations and human dignity. Atrocities were committed with no thought of right or wrong or the moral implications on the individual. Eugenics promoted a "pure" race that hid those considered flawed away from the public eye. Society embraced collectivism over individualism and people rationalized cruel and violent actions. For Lewis and Tolkien this was an affront on human dignity and character.

Tolkien and Lewis wrote epic tales about war based in the fantasy genre, but realistic in their portrayal of war and its savagery and suffering. Both men were drafted into the army. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in modern warfare, where almost 60,000 men died. Lewis turned 19 and ended up on the Western Front in a trench. When his sergeant was killed by mortar, Lewis took shrapnel - one so close to his heart it could not be removed. All of their close friends were killed. When the two met at Oxford their war experiences, literary tastes, and friendship grew to the point that Tolkien was critical in Lewis' conversion to Christianity and Tolkien said he would have not finished Lord of the Rings without Lewis' critiques and support. Neither writers glorify war in their books and both create flawed characters that need support from others or a higher being on their quests.

Postwar Europe had a plethora of antiwar literature; yet, these two men created works rooted in medieval literature and while critics call it escapism and a nostalgia for the past, Loconte proves that it is a realistic portrayal of being in the trenches and a look at the human condition. The recurring theme of the desire for power and domination over others disguised under the umbrella of religion and morals is found in both works. Loconte expounds on literary themes more toward the latter part of the book getting into specific examples. The heroes in their works is the result of great characters who put others needs ahead themselves. WWI robbed people of their humanity. The trenches, the Battle of the Somme, the razing of nature and towns left people feeling helpless and caught in a big machine that they had no control over. Almost every family lost someone in the war. A fatalism and moral demise left people apathetic and feeling that they had no choices or free will in their lives.

Tolkien and Lewis wanted to awaken the noble spirit in people like the medieval myths of old such as Beowulf, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or the Icelandic sagas. They created works that showed the violence and suffering of war, but also the compassion, courage, and sacrifice of others for a good cause. Their stories show that life is a moral contest. It is the responsibility of the individual to resist evil and not one person can resist the corruption of power. That is the tragic flaw in humans; that even the purest of heart such as Frodo cannot resist the desire to dominate. It takes an outside force to check that desire and in Frodo's case, even someone as twisted as Gollum is not beyond redemption. Lewis is showing at the end of his book that there can be no heaven on Earth as the Pevensie's step through a door into Narnia-like Heaven. Loconte ties this to the pitfalls of liberal democracy and the desire of the church and state to create a heaven on Earth before WWI. While this is too complex to write about in a review it is a fascinating comparison between the Narnia and Lord of the Rings books and WWI.

These two men ignored the trends of the times because they were inspired and saw in the midst of violence, heroic individuals on the battlefields of France. They saw soldiers going back to help another injured comrade at the risk of being killed themselves. The Hobbit is the ordinary British soldier. The British army showed remarkable resistance in the war. They didn't run away or lose their moral fortitude. Reepicheep shows the greatest valor on the battlefield. He is the smallest and supposedly the weakest but he rises above himself and shows great courage. Same with Frodo, Sam, Aragon, and more. Loconte explores these characters proving his point and showing the importance of reluctant allies uniting in fellowship and friendship by the end, just like soldiers. Tolkien and Lewis met one to two times a week for 16 years with a group called, "Inklings." They had their own fellowship of the ring.

Loconte points out how today the modern superhero saves the day on his or her own strength. Tolkien and Lewis create heroes that cannot save the day and prevail against evil on their own. They are destined to fail and they know it is a doomed quest. It is this tragic mix of good and evil that makes the story so powerful because their only rescue can be by grace and redemption from an outside force. The heroes know they will die in both books: Frodo when destroying the ring and the Pevensie's when they enter the stable. Loconte shows how this parallels war and the soldiers plight. The soldier knows he will die. At the Battle of the Somme it was a slaughter; yet, the men kept coming out of the trenches toward the enemy. The books ends with hope that there is goodness in humans. That the shadow of sin and suffering can be lifted from people's lives. That the Great War will be won, but not on Earth because the human condition is a mix of sin and free will.

5 Smileys

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