Studying World War One has been on my mind for the past while. The Great War set the course for all the events which came after it and deeply altered Western culture. The part this war played in shaping the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis has also aroused my curiosity. And so, this book supplies for both of my wants, since it describes the world prior to the war, the attitudes of Tolkien and Lewis to WWI, their careers during the war, and how it shaped their lives and works. The book contains an impressive amount of information in its short two hundred pages.
The early chapters inform the reader of the important intellectual movements prior to the war. These movements proposed that science, technology, and the state could build a superior society without reliance upon God. Eugenics and Social Darwinism played a huge role in these Utopian schemes, which all crumbled in the cataclysm of 1914-1918. World War I ushered in an era of pessimism with patriotic and religious values being suspect and often disowned. Former soldiers often led the way in literature by sucking all the glory and meaning from war. The book attempts to answer the question why Tolkien and Lewis defended traditional values in a world where most intellectuals were turning against them.
Neither Tolkien nor Lewis found themselves eager to enter the war. Both enlisted out of peer pressure: Lewis enlisted just prior to when he would have been drafted. Tolkien experienced WWI in all its horror at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which would provide the inspiration for the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings. Contracting trench foot caused him to be sent home from the front lines, but not before all but one of his closest friends died in the conflict. Lewis served from 1917 – 1918, with his campaign in France ending by him being wounded on April 15th and serving from then on in the Home Guard until December of that year.
Lewis perhaps had the longest route to conversion. Tolkien always seems to have staunchly believed in Christianity and heroism–even if he claimed to lack physical courage. (Tolkien describes Faramir as the one of his characters most similar to him with the exception of physical courage. What a humble man indeed!) Tolkien’s values were mirrored in the Old English poetry he loved so much, and only became more somber after his experience of war. Lewis himself was a convinced atheist at the time of WWI. He had a particularly negative view of reality, which comes out in his Pre-Christian work, Spirits in Bondage. (This work reveals a diabolical imagination reminiscent of Karl Marx or Thomas Hardy. I can’t recommend it in good conscience.) WWI only deepened this feeling.
Fortunately, Lewis had discovered George MacDonald, who influenced Lewis’ conversion more than any other person besides Tolkien himself. MacDonald, a Christian fantasist and pastor, opened Lewis’ mind to the concept of myth: archetypes left on the human psyche by God in order to draw man to higher things and even God Himself. His love of myth and his longing for the values pointed out in the stories of MacDonald led to an important conversation with Tolkien. In this conversation, which lasted all hours of the night, Tolkien was able to connect the dots between myth and Christianity: Christianity is the “true myth” which speaks to the values deepest in the human heart. This conversation effectively brought Lewis back to the Faith of his youth.
I cannot stress enough how fascinating Loconte’s weaving together of history, religion, and literature is in the lives of these two men. Any fan of the Inklings must read this excellent and approachable work of scholarship.