in Book Review

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War

How JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18

The cataclysm that was the Great War destroyed millions of lives, and even for those who survived, they were shattered pyschologically by the horrifying experience in the trenches. Death became very real, choice became nonexistent, and hope became an illusion. For an entire generation of young people, even the end of the War did not bring about normalcy, as they lived the rest of their lives in a sense of existential dread and pessimism.

But not all of them, fortunately. Joseph Loconte’s book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, shows a friendship that defied the gloom and moral decline of their times, to create stories that exalt hope and goodness amidst the climate of evil. The two writers, Tolkien and Lewis, formed a bond that eventually helped each build their fantasy worlds that continue to captivate readers decades since.

The book shows the Great War as a conflict that shaped millions of people, as they questioned and abandoned the moral ideals of the pre-war world. Amidst this existential crisis, two war veterans in Oxford decided they didn’t want to be caught up in the moral panic, and instead clung on to their deeply held ideals of hope and goodness. The book then devotes a chapter each to the war experiences and post-war literary careers of JRR Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and CS Lewis, then an atheist. This is juxtaposed with other ordinary soldiers’ lives, showing that the two writers’ views and experiences were not too different from everybody else.

Themes founded on Christian morality are then examined in the works of the two writers. Both Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (an also his science fiction works) are replete with similar dilemma as any soldier of the Great War will have been familiar with. Their personal experiences fighting in the trenches are seen in their works, even in Lewis’ children’s fantasy series, which dealt with suffering amidst conflict while toning down the violence. An interesting mutual interest between Tolkien and Lewis, which was instrumental to them teaming up, is their pre-war admiration of mythologies and medieval sagas, which they carried over to their respective works.

In the end, both Tolkien and Lewis were able to publish their works, with mutual cooperation. The ideals heavily influenced by their wartime careers resonated with the world that just came out of the even worse conflict, the Second World War, and continues to be much celebrated fantasy works to this day. Lewis became a Christian again years after the war, with Tolkien’s help – though Tolkien is Catholic, while Lewis became Anglican. And of course, Lewis himself wrote Christian apologetics works that resonate on people who doubt their faiths, as he once was.

The book spends most time focusing on the Great War and exploring the themes in LOTR and Narnia that touch on moral issues of the wartime and post-war world. Despite this, the book actually does not come off as preachy, definitely not overtly “evangelical” in tone, and so it’s a great fit for people of any religious inclinations. It should be noted, however, that since the book examines closely the mentioned works, important plot points are indeed spoiled in the book, so just be warned about this. It didn’t bother me personally, and I haven’t read any works of Tolkien or Lewis (except for Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but spoilers are irrelevant to it anyway), but other readers might want to steer clear unless they’re okay with spoilers.

And on a personal note, having been reading more “serious” history works for much of the past year, it’s good to rediscover the sheer joy of popular history books, especially as this book seems well-researched one. This doesn’t mean I’ll be reading more pop history anytime soon, but it’s good to slow down on the academic voraciousness, and enjoy some well-written light reading once in a while. It gives new perspectives in familiar topics too, so that’s always a plus. Overall, it’s a really great read, and spoilers aside, is excellent for fans of either (or both) JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and also for WW1 history buffs like me.