In his recent book, “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,” scholar and author Joseph Loconte explores how the experience of combat during World War I influenced the lives and literary careers of Lewis and Tolkien. They became scholars at Oxford University, met in 1926 and forged a friendship that enriched both writers. They produced epic tales of heroism in the face of great evil: Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” while Lewis wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Space Trilogy” and many other works.
Many other postwar memoirs and novels, such as “Goodbye to All That” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” paint a gloomy picture of humanity, war, the West, democracy and the whole idea of virtue, Loconte says. His book examines how Lewis and Tolkien challenged the prevailing mood of doubt and disillusionment and upheld the ideals of Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Loconte, an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City, spoke with The American Legion Magazine about the beloved British authors, their service in the Great War and their friendship.
What were Lewis’ and Tolkien’s experiences like in World War I?
As officers with the British Expeditionary Force, both men experienced the horrors of trench warfare. Tolkien, a second lieutenant, arrived in France in 1916 and fought at the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in military history. He contracted trench fever, which took him out of the war. Lewis, also a second lieutenant, arrived on the Western Front in 1917, on his 19th birthday. He was wounded by a mortar shell, and his injuries took him out of harm’s way for the remainder of the war.
How did they turn those experiences into some of literature’s most beloved stories?
There is a good deal of combat realism in their stories – the horror, violence, fear and loss that occur in war. It’s clear to me that both authors drew on their personal experiences of war, for example, as they describe scenes of battle in their epic stories. At the same time, both men also acquired a profound respect for the ordinary British soldier, having witnessed his remarkable determination under fire. In a letter written after his trilogy was published, Tolkien acknowledged that Sam Gamgee, one of the story’s central figures, “is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.” These creators of myths remind us that real life – torn by sorrow and suffering – has a mythic and heroic quality.
How can U.S. war veterans relate to these stories?
Tolkien and Lewis never glorified war. They knew the experience of combat too intimately for that. They looked at war with clear and sober eyes, but not with cynicism. Both men lost nearly all their closest friends in combat. Tolkien’s children said that his wartime experience created in him “a lifelong sadness.” Lewis confessed that memories of the war “invaded my dreams for years.” But they did not allow the sorrows of war to overwhelm them. They learned to be grateful for the various ways in which they believed the grace of God was with them during this time.
Some people interpret Tolkien’s work as suggesting that war is utter waste and human destruction. Was Tolkien antiwar? A pacifist?
Is “The Lord of the Rings” fundamentally an antiwar work?
Though Tolkien and Lewis dreaded the idea of war, both believed that war would sometimes be necessary to preserve justice and protect the innocent. During the Second World War, Lewis made this observation about the peace movements of the previous decade: “We now know that an angry and terrified pacifism is one of the roads that lead to war.”
As for Tolkien, I think his view is summarized best by Faramir, captain of Gondor: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all,” he explains. “But I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
Their stories are wrapped in mythology. One great Nordic and Germanic myth is memorialized by Richard Wagner in the opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. It’s interesting that it involves a ring, isn’t it?
This is something Tolkien and Lewis share – this common love for these mythic stories, for these epic stories. They clothe their stories in myth because they believe this is a powerful way to communicate truths about the human condition. They’re writing these works at a time when the values of civilization have been thrown into chaos in the postwar years. Think about the ideologies that are emerging then: communism, fascism, totalitarianism and rampant materialism. So all the ideals of Western civilization are under assault in a way that had not been true prior to the First World War. And here are these two guys writing these stories trying to affirm certain civilizational values. The question is: What are those values? What do you think they’re trying to affirm?
I think friendship. Along the way, the characters establish such deep friendships. The fellowship really brings them together around food and laughter.
Hobbit food! That’s a great point. You can’t think about “Lord of the Rings” without friendship being central. And I think this emphasis on friendship goes back in part to their wartime experience. We tend to forget that the men who fought together in the First World War experienced an intense sense of comradeship – their friendships were forged in the furnace of combat, in a common struggle for survival. And these are exactly the kinds of friendships we see in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and Lewis’ “Chronicles” – bonds of friendship formed in a shared quest and struggle against evil. In Tolkien’s trilogy, their quest – taken up by “the fellowship of the Ring” – is to destroy the ring of power before the forces of Mordor can seize the ring and use it to destroy Middle-earth. In Lewis’ books, English children are called by Aslan, the great lion, to help rescue Narnia from despotism and restore the throne of Narnia to its rightful line of kings. Their stories are very different, yet friendship is a central theme in both – friendship that is born of adversity, in the setting of a great conflict. That’s what makes their stories so attractive and powerful.
They also both write very descriptively about artifacts. For example, in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” there’s the tweed and the mothballs and the closet and the cloaks – the way that they describe fabrics, foods, ales. They’re interested in the physical world and craftsmanship.
Both men grew up in this industrial age, when the English countryside was changing. Tolkien writes about this and complains about it. It’s one of his laments. He’s growing up in a very industrial part of England, but he’s on the outskirts of it. He’s seeing the encroachment of technology, and he sees it as a dehumanizing thing. And Lewis is experiencing the same thing. In one of the last letters Lewis wrote before he died, he says, “They’re tearing out a tree out in front of the house, drat them. I think the invention of the combustible engine is worse than the atomic bomb.” It’s this idea that technology is not always good; it undermines things that we consider really important in life. I think it’s one of the reasons that Tolkien and Lewis loved to take walks. Lewis would go on these walking tours in the English countryside with the Inklings (their group of writer friends). They’d go on these walking tours for two and three days at a time and stop at inns along the way, have a couple of beers, keep going and then spend the night someplace. Lewis loved the English countryside. He loved the beauty of the thing, of God’s good earth. And Tolkien shared this love of nature as a great gift.
Upon Lewis’ death in 1963, on the same day President Kennedy was killed, Tolkien was moved to write to his daughter, Priscilla, that Lewis’ passing “feels like an axe … near the roots.” They were almost like Frodo and Sam. Their friendship ran deep, but wasn’t there a falling out at some point?
Yes, although they sustained a very strong and deep friendship, there were ups and downs. I suspect there was some jealousy – Lewis made friends more easily than Tolkien, and brought them into the Inklings. Tolkien didn’t much care for Lewis’ children’s stories, which Lewis was writing at a fast clip, while Tolkien labored for years over his “Lord of the Rings.” And Lewis, as a Protestant, took it upon himself to educate the public about the Christian faith. As a devout Catholic, Tolkien didn’t think that was the proper role for a lay person.
But they both acknowledged the immense debt they owed to one another. Tolkien read every chapter of ”Lord of the Rings” out loud to Lewis, who loved it. Tolkien said that had it not been for Lewis’ “sheer encouragement” and “unceasing eagerness for more,” he never would have finished “Lord of the Rings.” And of course it was Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis that made possible their famous late-night conversation in 1931, along Addison’s Walk at Oxford, which became so important to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.
What happened on that walk?
One of the things that happened was that Tolkien helped Lewis understand the nature of myths. Is Christianity just a myth, a false story? A phony story? If myths are just lies, as Lewis had grown up to believe – all this Greek mythology, ancient mythology that he loved but he knew was just a lie, wasn’t anything grounded in reality – then isn’t Christianity just like that? That’s Lewis’ perspective. And then Tolkien starts to explain to him that God gives cultures and civilizations myths to communicate some glimmer of the truth about Him. Christianity, Tolkien explains, is a “true myth,” this idea of the dying God who comes to life. That’s the one great true myth, the myth that became fact. And these other mythologies that seem to echo that myth are a glimmer of that truth. And that’s a breakthrough for Lewis. He begins to see Christianity not as a false myth but as the true myth. That conversation went on until 3 in the morning, and within a few days Lewis said he moved from not believing in Christ to believing in Christ. He later referred to that conversation with Tolkien as “the immediate human cause” of his conversion to Christianity.
So, if you consider the influence of these two Christian authors – the incredible reach and popularity of their writings to this day – it is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the 20th century.
Paul Glader is a professor and director of the John McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York City.