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.

Cataclysm

The First World War as Political Tragedy


The First World War is most remembered for being a war of attrition, a stalemate conflict fought along hundreds of miles of trenches. It was the pioneer of aerial battles and reconnaissance, tanks, and chemical warfare. Yet while this is how the Great War is commonly viewed, much of how and why it became the attrition war that it was is best explained not through the lens of military history, but through its political conduct.

David Stevenson’s book, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, examines the Great War as fought at the top, by the belligerent governments and political leaders. Even as the war settled into a stalemate, behind the scenes the leaders actually ramped up their war efforts, further widening the war by pulling in other nations into the conflict, while constantly developing new war technologies in hopes of breaking the deadlock. The political leaderships of the main belligerents – Britain, France, and Germany – also maintained surprising unity among their countries, as their respective political parties set their differences aside and continued to support the war regardless of its human and economic costs.

The 1917 revolutions in Russia, and America’s entrance to the war that same year, gave Germany an opportunity to conduct a war of movement, and in 1918 unleashed their final salvo, in desperate attempt to win the conflict before the Americans can tip the balance to the Allies’ favor. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, the offensives failed, as exhaustion finally set in among the servicemen. Once the Allies regained the offensive, desertion among the Germans and Austro-Hungarian troops broke the ranks, and their retreat rapidly continued until the final days of the war.

When leaders of the German High Seas Fleet attempted to put up one final act of resistance against the incoming Allied forces, the sailors refused to participate, and the ensuing riots among the ranks spread quickly across the empire. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary’s many nationalities have also began revolting, with independence as primary reason for taking up arms against the Dual Monarchy system. While the German leadership under Ludendorff initially tried to negotiate lighter terms while acquiescing to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the widespread revolutions, combined with fears of possible Communist takeover, forced them to accept unconditionally whatever terms were presented to them, no matter how harsh.

But no matter how climactic the war was, the Second World War was not, as the author argues, caused directly by those supposedly harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. Rather, disunity among the Allies, the post-war economic hardships, and the growth of paramilitary organizations were the greater seeds with which leaders like Hitler and Mussolini rose. And while the Versailles Treaty indeed imposed the “war guilt” unto Germany, the Allies nonetheless had greater leeway in implementing the terms, and had they cooperated well, they could’ve ensured that Germany didn’t suffer as much while also being able to comply with the terms.

A highly difficult but insightful book, Cataclysm requires sufficient knowledge of the First World War and its aftermath, as the author dissects the political and strategic aspects of the conflict. This is a lot different from the usual focus on military conduct in most overview books, and Stevenson’s rather dry style may take a while to get used to. Another book of his, 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, which was published many years later, explains in-depth a large part of Cataclysm’s main section, and having read 1917 earlier this year, it helped me get through the author’s writing style while also providing essential knowledge for further understanding – and appreciating – this book.

As long as the reader is aware of these considerations, and can confidently wade through the density of this book, Cataclysm is an illuminating read on the political conduct of the war. It also provides for arguments about the war’s history that are not usually tackled in other books related to the First World War. For the more serious readers of the First World War, this is a highly worthy book to engage in.

1917

War, Peace, and Revolution


The book 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson, examines how the leaders of the belligerent countries desperately looked for ways out of a seemingly endless war of attrition. From failed offensives, to peace overtures, to war declarations, and even revolutions, the book goes through the climactic 1917 in detail, offering perspectives on how the leaders struggled with the decisions they had to make to seek an end to the endless slaughter that is the Great War.

A desperate Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the risk of drawing in the United States. The US, in turn, entered the war after the discovery of the Zimmerman telegram. The British adopted convoys to reduce shipping losses, despite arguing about its effectiveness for the first few months of 1917. The French mounted an offensive; it failed, and contributed to morale deterioration and a mutiny.

Meanwhile, Russia had it even worse. The centuries-old tsarist monarchy was overthrown, and socialist revolutionaries took over. They weren’t exactly anti-war, however, and participated in yet another failed offensive. In its aftermath, even greater social unrest followed, and the revolutionary Lenin maneuvered himself and his Bolshevik faction to power in the famous October Revolution. Once in power, he worked to finally end Russian participation in the war, culminating in the Brest-Litovsk treaty the following year.

But the book doesn’t confine itself to the major participants, and also discussed developments outside Europe. Greece entered the war on the Allies’ side; Italy suffered catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, but emerged stronger and more united than ever; Brazil entered the war against Germany, though its efforts are limited in territory; Siam and Japan entered with the intention of having themselves represented in a post-war conference, in order to leverage against unequal treaties forced upon them by the West.

There were also peace initiatives, which, however, failed due to various reasons. It is also worth noting that, even at this point in the war, the belligerents still haven’t fully decided the extent of their war aims. This contributed to the collapse of peace talks, as the participants couldn’t agree on exactly what they want for themselves, and what they want (and don’t want) the opposing sides to get.

The question of what will happen to the Ottoman territories is also discussed in the book. Designs for the Middle East after the expected collapse of the Ottoman Empire figured in discussions among the Allies, specifically France and Britain. The issue of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine is also raised – the book narrates how the Balfour Declaration was shaped, paving the way for a more concrete design for Palestine, which in any case won’t be realized until after the Second World War.

The year 1917, as the author argues, is the major turning point of the war. A lot of things could’ve turned out differently, but how and why they turned out as they actually did is a major theme in 1917. And the events and decisions that happened and were taken in the year 1917 ultimately shaped the course of the war in 1918.

The Marne, 1914

The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World


The Great War, during its first few weeks, was a war of movement. As armies were mobilized, and war plans were implemented, the opposing sides waged a war which they believed would be over pretty soon. They were, of course, to be proved wrong. Nonetheless, they didn’t know then that the War will be a long conflict of attrition. And it was in these fateful days of August and September 1914 that the course of the War would be set.

Despite its title, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World, by Holger Herwig, isn’t strictly just about the titular battle. In fact, much of it is about the so-called Battle of the Frontiers, when the German forces put into motion the now well-known Schlieffen Plan, wheeling through the Belgian plains as millions of men marched towards the expected invasion of France.

Both the Schlieffen Plan, and France’s less cohesive Plan XVII, are discussed and examined at the beginning. The Schlieffen Plan is an offensive plan meant to quickly and decisively defeat France, a method for avoiding a more gruesome two-front war against both France and Russia. Meanwhile, the Plan XVII is a defensive plan hinged on an assumption that the main German force would be concentrated in the Ardennes. Additionally, Plan XVII is meant to provide a method for retaking the Alsace-Lorraine region occupied by the Germans since the French defeat in 1871.

The following narrative of the opening weeks of the Great War then serves as a study and examination of how these two plans were implemented, how successful (or unsuccessful) they were, and whether the opening battles effected the bloody trench warfare that followed, and ultimately defined the Great War.

Moreover, the decisions taken by the respective commanders of the German and French forces – Moltke and Joffre – are checked against both the plans they were supposed to proceed with, and the realities on the battlefields. A sharp contrast between the two leaders’ conduct of the war will emerge throughout the book, making it clear why the Germans failed to win decisively, and why the French were able to prevent defeat, but fail to make a breakthrough.

The Marne, 1914 is an excellent book on the opening battles of the Great War, and indeed it’s the most recommended book for the subject. The focus on military operations can be daunting and dry, especially with all the details presented. Nonetheless, it is a readable and illuminating work on the Battles of the Frontiers and the Marne, and how pre-war plans are bound to be broken once the armies are mobilized and the actual war begins.

The Price of Glory

Verdun 1916


There’s so much that has been said about the tragedy that was the Battle of Verdun. It was the battle of attrition within an overarching war of attrition; it was the ultimate symbol of the horrors that the Great War has been known for. For nine gruesome months of 1916, the French and the German forces fought for control of a fortified region, with arguably minimal strategic significance to the war at the time.

The German High Command’s plan to bleed the French to death simply resulted in both sides getting sucked into a vortex of never-ending misery and destruction, in which both sides suffered unimaginable devastation, with neither side gaining any considerable advantage in the end.

Alistair Horne’s acclaimed work, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, is still the authoritative reading on the subject, despite having been first published more than half a century ago. The book seamlessly combines military and political aspects of the battle, with anecdotal narrative of how the ordinary soldiers fought, suffered, and died in Verdun. A short chapter is also devoted to the aerial side of war, as Verdun’s skies was where the so-called “Flying Aces” began to see greater involvement in the ongoing conflict.

Verdun remains a symbol to the French people; countless porminent leaders of France, like Petain and de Gaulle, saw service in Verdun, taking part in the symbolic battle that moved a nation and continued to influence the men who fought there even after the war.

But the tragic legacy of the battle is precisely because it was a “symbol” of valor: the French, somehow, kept on repeating the stubborn defence that they put up in Verdun – most notably in Dien Bien Phu, where they held on even in the face of the already-superior Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The French, it seems, learned a different lesson than they should have.

Verdun 1916 isn’t exactly for general readership, however. A knowledge of the First World War is assumed of the reader. Many names and events beyond the Great War are also mentioned in passing, again with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with what is being discussed. The first chapter discusses the history of France since the 1870-71 War; the epilogue goes as far as Indochina and Algeria.

Nonetheless, Verdun 1916 – for the curious mind with sufficient background knowledge, and who wants to know more about the Battle of Verdun – is possibly the best single-volume resource for the specific battle. Even the more recent WW1 books list this book in their bibliographies, an evidence of its great reputation on the subject matter. Definitely a recommended reading for history enthusiasts.