“After the (Great) war, Tolkien and Lewis made their way to Oxford University, where they took up their vocations as instructors in English Literature. They met for the first time in 1926, and a bond of friendship was established that would transform their lives and careers. Tolkien would play a crucial role in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, while Lewis would be the decisive voice in persuading Tolkien to complete The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Given the massive and enduring influence of their works, it is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the twentieth century – a friendship that emerged from the suffering and sorrow of a world war.” (from the Introduction)
When I read a great book, and then immediately read it again because it’s so good, I want to tell my friends. When I first listened to it on Audible and then had to order the print copy so I could mark up the pages, I wanted to tell everyone else how good it is. And I don’t have time to tell each friend individually, so here is my book review of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Laconte.
First of all, let me say that this is not necessarily a J. R. R. Tolkien- or C. S. Lewis-fan-club book. You don’t have to have read any of their works to appreciate it. But if you have, and if you love either author, or both, you will love this book. If you’re a student of literature or history, or both, you need to read this book.
As a fan of both Tolkien and Lewis, I had added this to my wish list a few years ago. But I’m not into books that capitalize on a film’s popularity or the market demand of an already popular author. I’m don’t like “coffee-table” books that are fluffy but don’t add anything to my life. I was under the false impression that this was one of those books.
I was very wrong.
It is a story of the 20th century, of modernism, of literature, of war, of Christianity, and of the impact it had on two men who would become some of the greatest writers of our time. It is perfect for anyone who loves the books of Tolkien or Lewis, and it is a must for high schoolers learning world history.
If you are a fan of Tolkien’s books or Lewis’ books, you will learn so much about the impetus for their stories. World War I, or the Great War as it was called then, deeply impacted their lives, and eventually, their stories. In this book, Joseph Laconte draws the parallels between trench warfare, modern machines, and even the scientific advances (that were not all good)— and the darkness and evil that pervaded the imaginary worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia.
In Chapter 1, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Laconte quotes historian Max Hastings: “Between 1900 and 1914, technological, social, and political advances swept Europe and America on a scale unknown in any such previous timespan, the blink of an eye in human experience.” This is the setup for the first chapter, and the beginning of the societal impact of 20th century advancements. Not only did technology explode, but changes in medicine, psychology, philosophy, and religion ushered in a completely new era. And it was an era that didn’t need God. Man was enough. Man could make everything better with his own progress.
Only, man didn’t really achieve this. Laconte addresses the rise of eugenics, modern warfare, and atheism, and shows the steady moral decline that this “progress” produced.
“Tolkien and Lewis encountered the horrific progeny of this thinking – in the trenches and barbed wire and mortars of the Great War – and it gave them great pause about human potentiality. On the one hand, the characters in their novels possess a great nobility: creatures endowed with a unique capacity for virtue, courage, and love. Indeed, a vital theme throughout is the sacred worth of the individual soul; in Middle Earth and in Narnia, every life is of immense consequence. On the other hand, their characters are deeply flawed individuals, capable of great evil, and in desperate need of divine grace to overcome their predicament. Both authors thus reflect the historic Christian tradition: human nature as a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness.” (Chapter 1)
Futher: “Tolkien wrote that the idea of ‘the Fall of Man’ lurked behind every story, and that ‘all stories are ultimately about the fall.’”
Chapter 2 tells about the Great War itself, intermingled with the lives of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien at the time. It’s a wonderful history lesson, not just about the specific war, but as the author calls it, “Duty, patriotism, and muscular religion.” Tolkien and Lewis were both soldiers in the trenches of this war, and in this chapter we begin to see the ugly reality of what influenced them.
Chapter 3 explores Tolkien’s wartime service more fully, while Chapter 4 gives us insight into Lewis’. Laconte shares both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s thoughts about the war and how it influenced their stories. Tolkien, in fact, began writing his tales while he was in France. “Reflecting on his experiences years later, Tolkien acknowledged that his taste for fantasy was ‘quickened to full life by war’ and that ‘the mythology (and associated languages) first began to take shape during the 1914-1918 war. Much of the ‘early parts’ of his epic, he explained, were done ‘in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy or smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.’”
Laconte shares snippets of letters and interviews with the authors that show their different characters and how they illustrated the Great War. Hobbits reflected the ordinary soldier, the Siege of Gondor reflects the Battle of the Somme, the N.I.C.E. institute in That Hideous Strength reflects the murderous advancement of weapons and science.
Chapter 5 addresses the world after the war. “Freudian psychology, eugenics, socialism, spiritualism, scientism – these and other ideologies were attempts to solve, or explain away, the horrors that seemed to be hanging over the human race. Though these ideas may have originated before the war, by the 1920s they were gaining ground rapidly in Europe and the United States.”
Laconte explores how the “Great War launched three of the deadliest forces in the history of the West:” Spanish influenza, communism, and fascism. This is why I recommend this book for a history lesson. While the Spanish flu affected millions physically, communism and fascism would (and still do) affect millions in every way of their lives.
And during all of this, authors were writing prolifically about the decline of the old ways of Western Civilization and the new, progress-driven society that resulted from the war. But the writers were, in many cases, faithless and hopeless, and did not see a future with God.
“The ‘old beliefs’ central to Christianity were languishing after a radical assault from various quarters. Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud – in one form or another they and others mocked the notion of the sacred dignity of the individual.”
This is where Tolkien and Lewis rebelled from the norm, and what the author addresses so wonderfully in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War. Again and again, Laconte illustrates the beauty of Narnia and Middle Earth and the desperate need for redemptive story amid the hopeless works of this new age. Though Tolkien and Lewis were both a part of the same war as everyone else, they went into it and came out of it with a completely different view. And this, despite the fact that during the war, Lewis was an atheist!
This chapter also tells the wonderful and world-changing story of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity with the help of his late-night talks with Tolkien. “Their exchange – an encounter between intensely creative minds over the meaning of Christianity – should be ranked as one of the most transformative conversations of the 20th century.”
Chapter 6 gives all Tolkien and Lewis fans what they hope for from this book: a detailed look at their war years and how their stories grew out of that time. The themes of each story are explored in the light of our modern world, the scriptures, and ancient literature.
Let me just say that if you have not read any or all of the stories of these great writers, I think this chapter will draw you in. Because you will find that they did not just write fantasy or fairy tales: they wrote what they referred to as “romantic myth” that illustrates our own human stories, and within each is the story of sin and grace. As Laconte says, “Here, in fantasy and myth, no one escapes the long and harassing shadow of the biblical fall.”
In the final chapter, The Return of the King, the author reminds us that the goal of both Tolkien and Lewis was to beautifully share the story of mankind and the hope of heaven in a way that the rest of the world had abandoned.
“In the end, the creators of Narnia and Middle-earth offer a vision of human life that is at once terrifying and sublime. They insist that every soul is caught up in an epic story of sacrifice and courage and clashing armies: the Return of the King. It is the day when every heart will be laid bare. We will know, with inexpressible joy or unspeakable sorrow, whether we have chosen Light or Darkness. ‘For the day of the Lord is near,’ wrote the prophet, ‘in the valley of decision.’ Hence comes a warning, as well as a blessing: to deny the King, to turn away in grief or rage, means endless ruin. But to behold him – to be counted among His Beloved – is to pass into life everlasting.”
Only seven chapters, but such insight into the 20th century, the Great War, and two of the greatest authors of our time. I cannot recommend A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War highly enough to anyone with an interest in any of these things.
Lord of the Rings Online Book Club (begins January 6, 2020!)
Nicki Truesdell is a 2nd-generation homeschooler and mother to 5. She is a homemaker at heart, and loves books, freedom, history and quilts, and blogs about all of these at nickitruesdell.com. She believes that homeschooling can be relaxed and that history is fun, and both can be done with minimal cost or stress, no matter your family’s circumstances. Nicki is a member of the Texas Home Educators Board of Directors. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.