Politics & Policy

Tolkien, Lewis, and the Great War

British troops at the Battle of the Somme, 1916. (Getty Images)
How two of the 20th century’s greatest Christian writers came through World War I.

On August 4, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops poured across the border into Belgium; within hours, Great Britain had declared war on Germany — a war that would see millions of men drawn into combat and a staggering proportion of them killed, unprecedented devastation of the countries on whose soil the fighting took place, and damage to the fabric of Western civilization that has never been undone.

In A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, historian Joseph Loconte mixes history with literary biography as he gives a brief but vivid account of the early stages of the war and then introduces his two protagonists, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and examines the ways their lives and work were affected by the war. His own prose is clear and often powerful, and he chooses quotations well, both from Tolkien and Lewis themselves and from others. But that matter of quotations brings up the two (small) problems I have with this book — which I might as well get out of the way now. First, while Loconte often includes a brief description of the person he is quoting (“military historian Victor Davis Hanson,” “literary critic Roger Sale”), too many times he gives just the name, leaving us wondering who this unidentified person may be. Second, when quoting from Lewis’s or Tolkien’s correspondence, he often does not tell us when or to whom the letter was written. But these are minor points compared to the sweep and penetration of this book.

Loconte starts by recounting how the great advances in technology and science over the decade and a half prior to 1914 made the war both more likely — because both sides were so confident of their military strength — and more devastating as it unfolded. These advances had led, throughout Western Europe and the United States, to “The Myth of Progress,” which, Loconte demonstrates, led in turn to the widespread idea on both sides that a war would be quick, clean, and decisive.

Public figures on both sides were also convinced that they would be engaging in a holy war. Loconte quotes an American Presbyterian minister as saying: “This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history — the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War. . . . Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power.”

The Kaiser, meanwhile, addressed his troops at the outbreak of war: “Remember that the German people are the chosen of God. On me, on me as German Emperor, the Spirit of God has descended. I am His weapon, His sword, and His visor.”

The horrors of the Battle of the Somme were intensified by the contrast with the expectations that had preceded the war, and they affect the British psyche to this day.

Young Englishmen flocked to join the war effort, many of them believing wholeheartedly that they were doing so on behalf of Western civilization as well as King and Country, and many also seeing it as a great adventure. Groups of friends enlisted together, forming “pals’ battalions,” and in that spirit went off to the Western Front. The horrors of the Battle of the Somme were intensified by the contrast with the expectations that had preceded the war, and they affect the British psyche to this day. (P. D. James has a scene in one of her novels, written and set in the 1990s, in which a lawyer, recounting the history of a family he represents, tells of a young man “killed in action on the Somme in 1916. My grandfather died in that action. The dead of that war still march through all our dreams, don’t they?”)

One of the few public figures who didn’t buy the high expectations was the 26-year-old Winston Churchill, newly elected to the House of Commons. As Loconte quotes him, “I have frequently been astonished to hear with what composure and how glibly Members, and even Ministers, talk of a European war.” Such a conflict, Churchill warned, would end “in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien and Lewis were also not eager for war, though their concerns were more personal. As Tolkien would write more than two decades later to his son Michael, who was then serving in World War II, “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” Tolkien himself, who was 22 when the war broke out, did not join up until he had to. He was at Exeter College, Oxford, and was absorbed by the languages he was studying (including Anglo-Saxon and Gothic) and the literature embodied in them. Not until 1916 did he join the Lancashire Fusiliers; his unit was deployed to France on June 4 of that year. He later wrote: “Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. . . . Parting from my wife then . . . it was like a death.”

The Fusiliers were not immediately sent to the front, but their turn came on July 3, the third day of the Battle of the Somme. Fortunately for Tolkien (and for his millions of readers worldwide), he was one of the few who survived; in fact, he was never wounded, though he suffered exhaustion, horror, and near despair as he and his comrades slogged through the unremitting mud and watched men on either side of them being blown to bits by the powerful new artillery. Then, in late October, he contracted trench fever and was invalided out; he was never sent back to the battlefield, and two weeks later he was transported to England. But he was virtually alone among the men he had known well before the war. As he later wrote: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

#share#Lewis was just 15 as of August 1914; an Anglo-Irishman from Belfast, he was studying at Malvern College in the English Midlands, not far from where Tolkien’s family lived. Lewis, of course, was too young to join up right away, but his journals and his letters home to his father in Belfast showed no dismay at being kept behind in England; more than once, he expressed the hope that the war might have ended before he was compelled to enlist. After a visit in July 1915 from his older brother, Warren — who was briefly on leave, having served on the Western Front since November 1914 — Lewis wrote in his diary that he “had ghastly dreams about the front and getting wounded last night.”

But the war showed no signs of ending as of November 1916, when Lewis turned 18. He duly signed up, and received officer’s training in Oxford. On November 17, 1917, he was sent to France as a member of the Somerset Light Infantry; his unit arrived at the front on November 29, his 19th birthday. Three months later he, like Tolkien, contracted trench fever. But Lewis wasn’t as lucky as his future friend: He was sent not back to England but just to Le Tréport, on the Normandy coast — safe for the time being, but he soon recovered, and in March was sent back to the front.

“March 1918, in fact, was a moment of supreme danger for the Western Allies,” Loconte writes. Russia had effectively dropped out of the Allied effort when, after the October Revolution, Russians stopped fighting the Germans and started fighting one another. On March 3, the Brest-Litovsk Treaty officially took Russia out of the war, and the Germans started transporting soldiers and weaponry to France by the trainload. The fighting was ferocious, and the Allies were losing ground; only the arrival of the American doughboys (promised by President Wilson a year earlier but sent only at the end of March 1918) saved the day. (One of Loconte’s grandfathers had immigrated to the United States from Italy just in time to be sent back to Europe to fight on the Allied side.) On April 8, Lewis wrote a short note to his father, saying: “We have had a fairly rough time, though we were not really in the thick of it. I have lost one or two of my best friends” — including Paddy Moore, whose mother Lewis would take into his home after the war.

On April 15, Lewis was struck by several pieces of shrapnel, one of which lodged too near his heart for it to be removed. This time he was evacuated to England, and, although the war would not end for another seven months, his active part in it was over.

C.S. Lewis

Lewis and Tolkien had both escaped the pre-war infatuation with the Myth of Progress — very probably because both were immersed in the sterner side of the Western tradition: the Norse myths, Homer, Beowulf. And having avoided the pre-war illusion, they did not fall into the postwar cynicism so prevalent in their generation. Loconte cites works by Siegfried Sassoon, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and others, and summarizes: “The watchword was disillusionment: a new cynicism about liberal democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the achievements of Western civilization.”

But if Tolkien and Lewis avoided this trap, that is by no means to say that they were unaffected by the war. On the contrary, war, literal and spiritual, pervades their fiction — Lewis’s Till We Have Faces no less than The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where even in the comfortable domesticity of the Shire or the shimmering beauty of Lothlórien we cannot forget the shadow of Mordor. And both authors, as Loconte shows, drew from their own experience on the Western Front. He quotes the description of the brave mouse Reepicheep after the second Battle of Beruna: “more dead than alive, gashed with innumerable wounds, one paw crushed, and, where his tail had been, a bandaged stump” — much like, Loconte comments, the “soldier amputees” Lewis would have seen “limping from a dugout or infirmary.” And Tolkien created the Dead Marshes, which the hobbits Frodo and Sam have to cross on their quest to destroy the Ring of Power. At one point Sam tripped and fell, and his hands “sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mire.” He stares at it, and finally exclaims: “There are dead things, dead faces in the water.” To which the hobbits’ unsavory companion, Gollum, replies, “Dead faces! . . . The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their name.” Decades later, Tolkien would comment restrainedly: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” The pictures on pages 238 and 239 of this book show that grim landscape.

Tolkien’s and Lewis’s reaction to the horrors of the Battle of the Somme was to hold onto the possibility of goodness amidst them — goodness and greatness.

But Tolkien’s and Lewis’s reaction to these horrors was to hold onto the possibility of goodness amidst them — goodness and greatness. “As authors,” Loconte writes, “they sought to recover the romantic and mythic traditions based on the struggle between good and evil.” And yet, he adds, “their mythic imagination only partly accounts for their influence. . . . It is their moral imagination that exerts a unique power: the proposition that every person is caught up in an epic contest between Light and Darkness. In the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis, the choices of the weak matter as much as those of the mighty. Here we are not left as orphans, for a force of Goodness stands ready to help.”

And that force of Goodness, ultimately, is God. Tolkien was raised Roman Catholic and never lost his faith; Lewis was raised Anglican, but early in his teens — before the war began — he had become an atheist. He maintained that lack of faith stoutly through his early manhood, largely, as Loconte relates, on philosophical grounds; it was Tolkien and another friend, Hugo Dyson, who finally, in September 1931, managed to show him that his intellectual objections were mistaken. Within a few days he was willing to proclaim his belief in Christ, and, as the world knows, he went on to become one of the most powerful Christian voices of the 20th century.

In his non-fiction writing, Lewis expounded an orthodox Christianity. But in Narnia, the King of Kings takes the form of the great lion Aslan. In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Aragorn is not precisely a Christ figure (he is purely human, and when he dies he does not rise again), but he has certain Christ-like attributes. Loconte titles his last chapter “The Return of the King,” and he shows us how, in both Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, “This King comes with power and beauty, as the voice of conscience and the source of consolation.” Sam Gamgee asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” And Loconte answers: “This King, who brings strength and healing in his hands, will make everything sad come untrue.”

— Linda Bridges, an editor-at-large at National Review, is a longtime member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.


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