Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

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 1914-18Author: Joseph Loconte
Info: Thomas Nelson, copyright 2015, 256 pages

The First World War laid waste to a continent and permanently altered the political and religious landscape of the West. For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence—and the end of faith. Yet for J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, the Great War deepened their spiritual quest. Both men served as soldiers on the Western Front, survived the trenches, and used the experience of that conflict to ignite their Christian imagination. Had there been no Great War, there would have been noHobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Narnia, and perhaps no conversion to Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

Unlike a generation of young writers who lost faith in the God of the Bible, Tolkien and Lewis produced epic stories infused with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation. Giving an unabashedly Christian vision of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment, the two writers created works that changed the course of literature and shaped the faith of millions. This is the first book to explore their work in light of the spiritual crisis sparked by the conflict.

~Goodreads Description

This came highly recommended by my father who took forever to read it because he needed to "contemplate" for awhile after each chapter :)  I get it.  The book is filled with ideas, philosophies, and explanations that get to the heart of two authors and their incredible work, and it was a read I might not have picked up on my own.

Joseph Loconte doesn't present a history of Tolkien and Lewis, and it's not a lesson on World War I.  The book felt a lot like the assignments I connected with the most in college - using historical context to better understand the life of an individual, or in this case, their literary works.  How did the war experiences influence the narrative?  What were the prevailing philosophies during early-20th century Britain?  And how did those philosophies find their way into Middle Earth and Narnia?  (Sidenote that is only interesting to myself...but this here is my blog so I'm sharing anyway...I wrote a paper in college connecting the historical context of yeoman in the 15th century with the ballads of Robin Hood that appeared around that time and vice versa.  It was kind of fun with a similar intent :) )

The discussion that I found most intriguing was toward the beginning of the book.  Loconte explains the impact the Industrial Revolution had not only on Britain, but the war, and as a result, soldiers fighting in the war.  The warfare in WWI was a new brutality.  Men could be killed quicker and in larger numbers in unbelievably horrific ways.  A result of new technologies and mass production.

While the conversation eventually goes on to discuss the impact on Tolkien and Lewis's views of fear, courage, and death and how those views are displayed throughout their works, it was statement Locate made about progress that struck me (and reminded me of Jurassic Park - cause it wouldn't be an Emily review if a book didn't remind me of a movie).  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people were so enamored with the fact that they could, that they seemingly didn't stop to think about the ultimate consequence.  Bigger weapons, tanks, airplanes, bombs, biological warfare - it was all possible and brought power (the "myth of progress" discussed throughout the book), but the death toll and terror was beyond imagine.

John Hammond: I don't think you're giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody's ever done before... 
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.

That line in Jurassic Park always stuck with me.  And while I've taken it out of context a bit, I feel like the intent is the same and can be considered about new technologies, scientific advances, and "ease of use" that see today.  Yes it's possible, but should we, should it...is it worth it?

While I've read The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, I've never really read much about the men who created them.  I knew Lewis was an atheist, but I didn't really know the part that Tolkien played in guiding him toward Christianity.  I knew they would get together to philosophize and share their work, but I didn't understand how close these two men became.  And it makes me wonder if people ever get together now, in the 21st century, to talk about philosophy and religion.  To debate and discuss civily.  To stretch their understanding of the human condition, to find their own truth.  I hope so, because the genius that can come out of those conversations can change the literary world forever.

They were two men shaped by war.  And in the end, those experiences have left a legacy in the stories they wrote.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Middle Earth again to do my best to see the world, and Samwise Gamgee, through the eyes of Tolkien.


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