Earthly Battle and Cosmic Battle
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A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
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Paperback: IVP Books, 2015
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A Review by Amy Gentile.
“The further up and further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” In a beautiful little parallel, The Last Battle ends much the same way The Chronicles (according to the published order) begin: on one end, a Wardrobe opens up to a world beyond Lucy’s wildest dreams, on the other, the characters find themselves drawn up into layers upon layers of Aslan’s Land, an imaginative portrayal of heaven.
This, too, is the first phrase that comes to my mind when I think about The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings themselves. These two series have captured the imagination of generations of readers. And yet, though they have been a part of my life since my childhood, I’ve found that they’re the best sorts of stories to revisit every few years, to crawl into “further up and further in.” Each time I’ve learned more about these books’ contexts (Lewis’s studies of medieval astronomy, Tolkien’s love of language, etc.) my eyes have been opened to new things in their pages, and I’ve been able to journey deeper into their richness.
To that end, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War by Joseph Loconte, and Bedeviled: Lewis, Tolkien, and the Shadow of Evil by Colin Duriez, are welcome additions the list of works that have profoundly shaped my understanding of the stories of Narnia and Middle Earth. Both books spend a significant amount of time discussing the impact of The Great War (WWI) on Tolkien and Lewis—both of whom served in the war—and on their writings in particular. Both Loconte and Duriez develop the ways in which Tolkien and Lewis took their experiences of war and the circumstances of their era, weaving them into narratives that addressed a cosmic battle between good and evil.
Though I have loved these stories for a long time, I hadn’t previously taken the time to consider how they were shaped by the events of World War I. Despite my prior lack of knowledge, both Loconte and Duriez masterfully drew me into the heartbreak and catastrophe of World War I as well as illuminating the ways in which the Narnia and Middle Earth stories are tinged by such experiences. As might be expected, this has prompted me to want to re-read the stories again so that I can better appreciate the added historical and philosophical contexts.
Loconte’s book in particular makes the shaping power of World War I its predominant theme. His scope is narrowed to focus primarily on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) as well as Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Other works are mentioned, but not in great detail. Loconte explores the War in great depth, tracing echoes of the trenches and battlefields as they appear in each story. Yet he also goes further than this, taking the time to analyze the predominant philosophies just before the Great War, the despair in its aftermath, and Lewis and Tolkien’s distinctly Christian response. He discusses in great detail the “Myth of Progress” that was prominent before the War—the idea that humankind was progressing and becoming more civilized, and that a ‘heaven on earth’ could be realized through human effort. The Great War ultimately shattered this hope, shaking the very foundations of faith and society, and leaving despair in its wake.
For many, religion offered little answer to this melancholy. As Loconte notes, “The obscenity of belief in God: such was the tide of elite opinion in much of postwar Europe. To many of the best and brightest, Christianity appeared to lack any explanatory power. It could neither account for the internecine conflict of the supposed Christian nations of Europe, nor did it offer a realistic hope of achieving a more peaceful and just global order” (125). This was not the case for Lewis and Tolkien, nor were they content to pass up the opportunity to reshape the imagination of their generation. In their respective stories, they never shied away from the evil made manifest in the Great War: the toxicity of power, the dehumanization, the horror of so many lives wasted for such little result. Instead, they addressed it head on. Their protagonists experienced the depths of human frailty and sinfulness in a number of ways, but always found a way to fight for goodness—in heroic feats and small, humble deeds tinged with the supernatural power of grace. In writing these characters, Lewis and Tolkien, “[Retrieved] the medieval concept of the heroic quest—reinventing it for the modern mind…they believed the [epic] genre offered a tonic for the spiritual malaise of the modern age” (171).
By addressing the gruesome reality of the Great War and how it forever changed the world, while casting it in the cloak of story and myth, Lewis and Tolkien showed readers a way forward through the chaos of their times: a way paved with virtuous actions and great hope. These themes, of course, and the idea of a cosmic battle, are certainly familiar to all readers of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Yet the historical context of the Great War adds an entirely new layer of depth and reality. These are not merely removed, abstract stories but powerful, ancient ones recast in the light of Lewis and Tolkien’s own experiences.
Duriez’ Bedeviled also spends a fair amount of time focusing on the Great War and its impact. However, he goes beyond this, making Lewis and Tolkien’s vision of the cosmic battle between good and evil, as well as their conceptions of evil and theology the centerpiece of his particular work. Lacking a little of the depth of Loconte’s more focused book, Duriez instead adds breadth, exploring much more of Lewis’s writings in particular, other themes about good and evil, and even the work of some of the other Inklings (most notably, Charles Williams). Each chapter in Duriez’s book takes a different subset of writings, and groups them around themes related to evil and war (Part 1) and then broader themes of good and evil (Part 2).
Despite his differing lens, Duriez touches on many of the same themes as Loconte, developing some aspects in greater depth—such as the authors’ Augustinian perspective of the nature of evil, and their disgust at the machines of war—and touching more lightly on a number of additional themes and works. Similarly to Loconte, Duriez also discussed the way in which Lewis and Tolkien recast the Biblical story for their own generation: “Lewis regarded one purpose of his fiction as helping to undeceive his contemporaries, whom he regarded as separated from the past, with its knowledge of perennial human values, and from an acquaintance with even basic Christian teaching about the realities of sin, redemption and immortality, divine judgment and grace” (155). Certainly, this is a large part of why these stories have had such longevity and such a great impact on their readers.
These books are not perfect. At times, Loconte’s descriptions of the philosophies of the WWI era come across as a little biased, especially heavy-handed against progressive Christianity. In contrast, Duriez’s book contains a wealth of information, but the “connective tissue” of the book is very weak; it seems more like a collection of essays on related themes instead of one cohesive work. Additionally, neither book made room for any real criticism of Lewis and Tolkien, which sometimes can be helpful in avoiding mere hagiography for authors of such stature and renown. Yet in the end, these books, especially read together, deepen the reader’s understanding of Tolkien and Lewis as writers and as human beings. They add a new layer of depth and meaning to greatly beloved stories, and bring up themes that are still incredibly potent and relevant for the present-day reader. They prompt the reader to revisit The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings with fresh eyes and a clearer idea of the context of these stories, as well as the world to which Lewis and Tolkien were speaking. Indeed, they enable the reader to go “further up and further in” into such wonderfully timeless stories.