Both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are filled with epic battles between the forces of good and evil. What many people don’t realize is that the authors of these two works — J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, respectively — had firsthand experience with war themselves. Both fought in the bleak trenches of World War I and both were dramatically shaped by that experience in a way that would influence their later work.
My guest today, Joseph Loconte, explores the history of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ battlefield experience and how it influenced their viewpoints and writing careers. Loconte is a professor of history at King’s College and the author of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War.
On today’s show, Joseph and I discuss what C.S. Lewis called the “Myth of Progress” that had swept the Western World leading up to the First World War, why it contributed to the war’s catastrophic damage, and how the myth shaped both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s views about good, evil, and warfare. We then get into detail about Tolkien’s and Lewis’ battlefield experience and how it inspired specific characters and scenes in their respective works. We end our conversation about how the fantasy work of these writers carved a middle path between cynicism and unbridled optimism while simultaneously showing readers that even the lowliest of individuals can play a decisive role in the great adventure of life.
If you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, you don’t want to miss this episode.
- How the shared experience of fighting in WWI shaped the literature of Tolkien and Lewis
- The specific WWI experiences that Tolkien and Lewis had
- The “myth of progress” and how it shaped European culture and thought during WWI
- How the myth of progress affected Christianity, and the faith of Tolkien and Lewis
- How Tolkien and Lewis steered clear of the myth of progress
- The importance of nature and the outdoors to both Tolkien and Lewis
- The reluctant soldiership of the two men, and their views on war in general
- The reasons both men were ultimately pulled from the battlefield
- The impact the death of close friends had on Tolkien and Lewis
- Major themes which emerged in their writing as a result of the war
- Tolkien’s inspiration for hobbits
- Specific scenes and episodes from the books of Tolkien and Lewis inspired directly by war experiences
- Did Tolkien and Lewis talk about their war experiences later on while part of the Inklings?
- What is a eucatastrophe? And how does it show up in their works?
- How Tolkien and Lewis kept from being disillusioned and cynical after the war
- Their mutual admiration of other mythologies and tales besides just the Christian story
Resources/People/Studies Mentioned in Podcast
- J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
- Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth
- Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis
- WWI in Literature
- The Power of Conversation
- AoM podcast about the Inklings
- The Lord of the Rings series
- The Chronicles of Narnia series
- The Letters of JRR Tolkien
- The Fellowship by Philip and Carol Zaleski
- AoM Viking Mythology series
- A Call for a New Strenuous Age
This has been one of my favorite books that I’ve read so far this year. If you enjoyed our piece “A Call for a New Strenuous Age,” then I highly recommend picking up a copy. Many of the themes that Loconte hits in A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War dovetail nicely with the themes in that article. Also, if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis and/or J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s always nice to learn more about the real life experiences that influenced their writing.
Connect With Joseph Loconte
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are filled with epic battles between the forces of good and evil. What many people don’t realize that the authors of these two works, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, had firsthand experience with war themselves. Both fought in the bleak trenches of World War I and both were dramatically shaped by that experience in a way that would influence their later work.
My guest today explores the history of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ battlefield experience and how it influenced their viewpoints and writing careers. His name is Joseph Loconte. He’s a professor of history at King’s College and the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and the Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
On today’s show, Joseph and I discuss what C. S. Lewis called the myth of progress that swept the Western world leading up to the First World and why it contributed to the worst catastrophic damage and how the myth shaped both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s view about good, evil, and warfare. We then get into detail about Tolkien’s and Lewis battlefield experience and how it inspired specific characters and scenes in their respective works. Then we end our conversation about how the fantasy work of these writers carved a middle path between cynicism and unbridled optimism while simultaneously showing readers that even the lowliest of individuals can play a decisive role in the great adventure of life. If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, you don’t want to miss this episode. After the show is over, check out the show notes at aom.is/hobbitwarrior.
Joseph Loconte, welcome to the show.
Joe Loconte: Thanks for having me, Brett. It’s great to be with you.
Brett McKay: You wrote a book called A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. It’s all about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of World War I and how it influenced their lives and later on their writing. I’m curious. What prompted you to look at their war experience specifically to see how that influenced their writing in The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings series?
Joe Loconte: There were several things, Brett. I teach Western Civilization and American foreign policy at the King’s College in New York City and having to teach the First World War year after year, the more you read and think about that conflict, the more you realize how cataclysmic it really was for the West, for the Europeans, for the United States, really for the world. Then when I picked up a wonderful biography of Tolkien several years ago by Carpenter and I realized that Tolkien had fought in the First World War, I knew Lewis had fought in that conflict. I didn’t realize Tolkien had fought, as well, so finally, the light goes on in my head and I think wait a minute. We’ve got Tolkien and Lewis who both survived the trenches of World War I. They go to Oxford. They meet there. They become great friends and then both of them go on to write these epic stories of heroism, sacrifice, valor, where war is really at the center of both their stories. You just begin to wonder how might the experience, the furnace of combat in the First World War, how might that have influenced their literary imagination and that’s really what the book is about.
Brett McKay: How much do we know about their war experience? Did they write diaries? What sources did you use to research the book?
Joe Loconte: There have been a couple of good accounts. John Garth has a very good account of Tolkien’s war experience, really taking from beginning to end, at least friendships, his work there as a second lieutenant, as a Signals officer there at the Somme. Lewis was probably better, in some ways, at keeping a diary, although both these men were pretty careful about or I should say modest about drawing too much attention to themselves and their war experiences. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised By Joy, is where he probably tells us the most about his war experience, so a combination of their letters, some very good biographies of those men, and then, of course, looking in their works and trying to discern how might that war of experience literally have worked its way into their great epic stories.
Brett McKay: The one thing I love most about your book is that you do such a great job of providing the cultural backdrop of what was going on in the West, in Europe, in the United States before World War I. Particularly, you talk about this idea of the myth of progress. What was that myth? What entailed the myth of progress?
Joe Loconte: This is the historian’s task here, Brett, is to try to put these authors in their historical context. I think if there’s one narrative that is shaping the mind of Western civilization, particularly the Europeans, but also the Americans on the eve of the outbreak there of the First World War, it’s this myth of progress. That’s an expression I borrow from C. S. Lewis himself. This idea that not just in a technological sense or in a scientific sense or in an industrial sense is mankind progressing. All that is true according to people living there at the turn of the 20th Century. We’re advancing technologically, scientifically, but also, we seem to be advancing morally and even spiritually. There’s this unstoppable train of progress. Everything is getting better in every way every day.
That mood, that psychological outlook is so strong, it really infects virtually every discipline, the academy, popular culture, the scientific community, and even the churches, the idea that mankind himself is slowly ripening toward perfection. That’s part of what makes the war, the First World War, the most devastating war that the West had ever experienced, that’s part of what makes it so disillusioning to a generation of men and women and why that then becomes so important to Tolkien and Lewis.
Brett McKay: How did it manifest, this myth of progress manifest itself in the academy or particularly the church. Let’s talk about the church because Lewis and Tolkien, their faith is really woven into their works. How did this idea, the myth of progress, affect Christianity?
Joe Loconte: That’s a terrific question. It’s a big question. I think on the more liberal side of the churches, and it certainly affects the conservative churches, as well, but on the more liberal side, I think the way this myth of progress influenced the churches is with it’s several levels. One level was that even war itself became seen as something that could be redemptive and cleansing. If you look at the sermons once the war begins, you look at those sermons during the First World War, and this is true across the board, in Europe and in the United States, you have so many preachers expecting a kind of spiritual revival, renewal, a transformation of society. It’ll be the purging of all kind of unpleasantness. Autocracies will fall to the wayside. Democracy is the wave of the future. You really see this coming from the pulpits and many ministers. Not so much the guys in the trenches, but many ministers transformed this conflict into kind of a holy crusade.
That, I think, is part of the legacy of the myth of progress, that even war, itself, which think about it. It is an inherently destructive enterprise. You’re destroying things. You’re destroying human life, but even the war could be seen as an agent of progress by the church, by our politicians, by our social thinkers. Really a remarkable thing to be occurring at the outset of war.
Brett McKay: I think it’s interesting because it was Christians fighting Christians, right? These were British fighting Germans, Americans fighting Germans, so it was like everyone thought they were on the right side, but they were saying they were on the same side at the same time.
Joe Loconte: That’s exactly right. Everyone believes that God is on their side. This, again, is part of what makes the aftermath of the war so important, especially for Tolkien and Lewis. What happens then in the aftermath, you had this buildup that the war is going to be a short war. It’s a war to end all wars. It’s a war to make the world safe for democracy. None of that happens. It becomes the most devastating and lethal conflict in history and so in the aftermath of that, with all of these promises going into it, the sense of disillusionment and gloom and then the rejection of liberal democracy, the rejection of Christianity, which had been so associated with this war, these alleged Christian nations engaged in massive global suicide pact, so the mood of gloom and cynicism and doubt is so strong, it’s such a strong current in the 1920s and ’30. I think that helps us to understand really the achievement of Tolkien and Lewis that they are not swept up in that mood of gloom and disillusionment.
Brett McKay: We’ll talk about that in a bit, but I thought it was interesting your book is you lay out this myth of progress and how everyone’s getting swept up by it, but it seems like both Lewis and Tolkien were immune from it. Why was that? Why didn’t they buy into the myth of progress?
Joe Loconte: It’s a terrific question. I think that Lewis admits, and I’ll quote here if I could, Brett, from the book here from Lewis. He says, “I grew up believing in this myth and I have felt, I still feel its almost perfect grandeur. It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which has ever been imagined. It was incredibly powerful.” Lewis, as a young atheist there going into the war. He goes into the war as an atheist. He comes out an atheist and he is caught up in that myth up to a point. Certainly, I think the realism of the trenches, the mortars, the machine guns, the flamethrowers, the chemical gas, the barbed wire, the human devastation, that sobered a lot of people about that myth.
I don’t think Tolkien was as caught up in it as Lewis was. Tolkien went into that war as a believing Catholic and so he has a pretty good sense of the fall of man, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of the fall. I think that helps to restrain Tolkien because of his Catholic Christian faith. It helps to restrain him from being pulled into this myth of progress, but Lewis, though, was very much as he goes into the war, I think he has that idea going in. It gets chastened and then, of course, he will have a spiritual journey throughout the 1920s and 1930s as he meets Tolkien and other Christians there at Oxford.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting about Tolkien is that even before the war, he had a very … I wouldn’t say he wasn’t a Luddite per se, but he had an appreciation for creation, for nature, and he saw this mechanization as a, I don’t know, an apostasy, I guess would be the right word, of what God had intended for man.
Joe Loconte: Yeah, that’s a great point. Tolkien is growing up in Birmingham, which becomes a real industrial hub there in England at the turn of the century. He, like Lewis, these are men who they go on to become medieval scholars, professors of English literature, and there’s something about that simpler life closer to the Earth that is so appealing to both of them. Of course, you see it in both their works.
Just one example, in The Lord of the Rings, the last march of the Ents, what is that? These tree creatures who are rebelling against the abuse of technology and weaponry, the destruction of the Earth. Those men experienced the destruction of the Earth in the First World War. The iconic images of the war, trees laid bare because of the mortar fire, the machine gun fire, so they experienced that assault on nature at a firsthand level. I think their rebellion against that, that technology, the abuse of technology, not only against man, but against nature, that finds its way in both their works, doesn’t it?
Brett McKay: Yeah, it does. At what point did Lewis and Tolkien get into the trenches? Were they one of the ones that just volunteered right away or were they reluctant soldiers?
Joe Loconte: These were reluctant soldiers. Neither of them were holy warriors going into the First World War. I think by the time Tolkien is ready to enlist in 1916, remember the war is on for two years already. Britain has about, I don’t know, at least a million men on the continent of Europe. At least 200,000 British soldiers have already been killed by 1916, so when he leaves, he writes in his journal, “Parting from my wife was like a death,” because even British officers were being killed by the dozens every week and every month. He didn’t think he was going to come back alive when he departs there in June of 1916. He goes right to the front and Tolkien will become part of the Battle of the Somme, which, to this day, is the … July 1st, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme there in France, it is the single bloodiest day in British history. Close to 20,000 men perished in that battle alone. Tolkien will survive that battle, but he’ll lose, as he says, almost all of his closest friends perished in the First World War.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it seems like Tolkien lucked out. He caught trench fever and he was shipped back to England and after that point, all of his friends and comrades died.
Joe Loconte: Yes. A severe bought of trench fever will take him out of the war by 1918. Now for Lewis, he’s a little bit younger than Tolkien. He goes into that war in 1917, so even more killing, more bloodshed and, again, a reluctant guy who enlists. By 1916 or so, Britain has instituted the draft. He enlists. He arrives on the front on his 19th birthday. Imagine being a 19-year-old man with your whole future in front of you, all these ambitions for an academic life, a peaceful academic life have to be put on hold. He goes in as an officer, as well. Lewis will be injured. A mortar shell will go off close to him, kills his sergeant standing close by. Lewis is injured in three places by shrapnel. In a sense, he gets the best possible injury because it’s the kind of injury that will not be life debilitating, but it will take him out of the war for the remainder of the war. When you read his letters there, the sense of relief and sheer joy at now escaping the trenches, it’s unmistakable and it’s so sobering and it will change the course of his life.
Brett McKay: Why were Lewis and Tolkien both reluctant warriors? How was their attitude about war and warfare in general different from this holy war attitude that most Europeans and Americans had?
Joe Loconte: That’s a great question, Brett, and it’s a little hard for me to unpack all of it, but based on their letters at the time and then their correspondence looking back on it later, I think for different reasons. As you piece together their letters at the time and then their correspondence later on reflecting on that war, they were either not of age, Lewis was not of age in 1914 to have enlisted. Tolkien is involved in his academic career, begins his academic career. I think that the bloodshed, the sheer bloodshed in the first year of the war, which surprised everybody. Remember, a lot of me went off to war jubilant, exuberant at the prospect of war, but a year into the thing, all of the Allied forces and the Axis powers, they have rushed to stalemate and now we’re getting back the reality of the war, even with all the propaganda. The suffering and the horror of the trenches, those stories, firsthand stories, are being delivered back to the home front. Tolkien and Lewis are very aware that they have information now that men in 1914 did not have. That’s part of the reason, I think. That’s part of the reason.
Brett McKay: Okay. What big picture themes did both Tolkien and Lewis develop while they were in the trenches that would later emerge in their respective works?
Joe Loconte: I guess one of the most obvious, of course, and perhaps the most surprising given the mood of their age, it is heroism. It’s the idea of valor, a sacrifice for a noble cause, that some wars will be necessary, some wars are just, even as we fight them, perhaps in an unjust way, they can have a noble, decent, and humane purpose and outcome. That becomes one of the themes for both these men in a way that is really surprising because there was so much antiwar literature, antiwar memoirs, novels, poetry, scores and scores of books and poetry that came out in the 1920s and 1930s. You think of novels like All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye To All of That, T. S. Elliot, the Wasteland. These are fiercely antiwar novels and poetry and literature. Tolkien and Lewis resist that. They are not going to let go of this idea of heroism and sacrifice for a noble cause.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting too you talk about the idea of The Hobbit. Tolkien said the soldiers in Britain, they were the inspiration for The Hobbit.
Joe Loconte: Yeah, that’s exactly right, Brett. That was one of the things that convinced me. Once I read that, once I discovered that in Tolkien’s work in his own private letters, then I knew this is a book that somebody had to write and maybe I should write it because what I knew about Tolkien and loving The Hobbit, loving The Lord of the Rings, I had no idea that Tolkien based his hobbit, the creature the hobbit, Sam Gamgee and Frodo, on the soldiers that he knew. As he says it explicitly in one of his letters, “My Sam Gamgee is based on the batmen, the people who served and helped the officers, the batmen and the soldiers in the trenches that I knew in the First World War and considered as so far superior to myself.”
What he saw under fire was the resilience and the courage, that stubborn bravery and loyalty of the ordinary English soldier and the British Expeditionary Force 1914, ’15, ’16, right through the war. It was a remarkable fighting force and Tolkien got to experience that up close and it impressed him deeply. I think they’re very much the same for C. S. Lewis. They were officers who had seen the loyalty, the stubborn loyalty and the sacrifice of the men around them.
Brett McKay: Besides the idea of The Hobbit coming from the British soldiers, are there any other specific instances in either Lewis’ work or Tolkien’s work where they said that was inspired from, that battle inspired this scene in my book?
Joe Loconte: Yeah. I think there are a number of them. Let’s take Tolkien for a minute here, Brett. We can’t be certain about this. There are moments when Tolkien will make some references where it’s clear. Other times, you have to imagine all right, does this sound like a soldier in the trenches of the First World War or not? For example, when Tolkien is describing the siege of Gondor, as he puts it, where fires leaped up, where great engines crawled across the field and the ground was choked with wreck and with bodies of the slain and then busy as ants hurrying. Orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring just outside the bowshot from the walls. That is starting to sound like the battlefields there along the Western Front right there, it seems to me, would be one example.
The other place you think about with Tolkien again, sticking with Tolkien if we could for a moment, the description of the dead marshes, the desolate path to Mordor. How does Tolkien described it? He says, “The dead grasses, the rotting weeds looming up in the mist like ragged shadows of long-forgotten Summers.” Then Sam Gamgee, looking intently into the grimy muck, startled by what he sees, Tolkien says, “There are dead things, dead faces in the water, and then Gollum laughing. The dead marshes. Yes, that is their name.”
Think about it. If you’re a soldier on the Western Front in 1916, what are you seeing there? You’re experiencing what virtually every soldier experience, finding men dead in these craters that have been caused by the mortar shells, filled up with water, and discovering these bodies days or weeks later. We know this because Martin Gilbert, the great war historian who interviewed Tolkien in the 1960s and asked Tolkien about this explicitly. Gilbert goes on to say, “This is exactly what soldiers would’ve experienced on the front.” Then Tolkien himself says, “The dead marshes owe something to northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” That’s pretty conclusive evidence of the riveting, horrifying experience of war, how it makes its way into his great epic war.
Brett McKay: After the war, both Lewis and Tolkien go back and they begin … Tolkien restarts his academic career. Lewis starts his. That’s where they … I guess it’s at Oxford where they …
Joe Loconte: Yes, at Oxford. They meet in 1926.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s where the whole Inklings started, world-famous mastermind group. They also formed an intense friendship between themselves. Did the two of them talk about the war or write each other letters about their experience in the war?
Joe Loconte: It’s a terrific question. A couple points on this, Brett. When we think about this group of fellow scholars and fellow Christians that they formed at Oxford, the Inklings, think about the First World War and the intense comradeship that men experienced in combat. We associate that with the Second World War, the film Band of Brothers, but the men who went into the First World War, the British who enlisted, they often enlisted from the same town, the same village and so they experienced the same kind of comradeship, friendship, deep friendship that men know under fire and they don’t quite experience anything quite like it in civilian life. I think the formation of the Inklings was an attempt by Tolkien and Lewis to recapture something of that comradeship, but with a different cause, a different purpose, the writing of great literature, which is fun to think about.
More to your point then on the question, did they discuss the war with each other, it’s pretty clear that they did in different ways. Tolkien and Lewis met not only in the Inklings, but they would meet at the Eastgate Hotel, a place they would meet at the Eagle and Child Pub, just the two of them sometimes. They met regularly. There’s a place. There’s a letter here. Let me see if I can find it, digging back here in this book, where Lewis is thrilled about the completion of Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Rings. He reads it in manuscript. Tolkien read virtually every chapter of The Lord of the Rings out loud to Lewis, which is just amazing to think about. Lewis was Tolkien’s really greatest encourager and fan of this book. Tolkien says at one point that he never would’ve brought The Lord of the Rings to a completion had it not been for Lewis’ encouragement. It’s just an amazing friendship that they have, that he has that kind of relationship with Lewis, that he shares this work so close to his heart, which is a war story.
I think that’s part of the reason he can share it with Lewis. It’s a war story and as a war story, it avoids two great extremes. Now, if I could just make this point, Brett, that’s worth making. It avoids two great extremes, this war story. It avoids the typical triumphalism that you might find with some writers romanticizing conflict. I don’t think these authors, neither Tolkien or Lewis, ever romanticized war, but it also avoids the kind of fatalism and cynicism of what became a motif of their generation, the antiwar fatalism. It avoids both those. There’s a realism, a grim realism in their war stories, but also, this sense of hope and valor and sacrifice. I’m just so confident that these men had those conversations.
There’s a letter that Lewis wrote to Tolkien, back to this point, after his manuscript was published. I can’t find it here in my work, but I can almost quote it from memory, where Lewis says to Tolkien, he says, commenting on this manuscript, on The Lord of the Rings, he says, “So much of our life together, so much of the war,” meaning the First World War, “so much of the war now has been captured in this work.” So much of their shared life together and so much of the war has been captured in this great epic work. That’s the impact that the work had on Lewis. That’s how he interpreted The Lord of the Rings, that it was somehow, in a way that he couldn’t even fully describe, it had captured their common experience of war. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about The Lord of the Rings and its impact, not just, of course, on Lewis’ life, but on the lives of so many people afterwards.
Brett McKay: This idea of how Tolkien carved a middle path between cynicism and existential despair and this romanticizing warfare, it sort of ties in with his idea of eucatastrophe. I think it’s a Greek word that Tolkien invented.
Joe Loconte: Yes.
Brett McKay: What is eucatastrophe?
Joe Loconte: Yes. Eucatastrophe, E-U and then the word catastrophe, according to Tolkien, it’s the sudden miraculous grace. It’s the happy ending, but it’s such a surprising ending. When all seems lost, when it really seems like it’s all coming to a dreadful end, that we’re going to be overwhelmed by the great shadow of evil, there’s a sudden miraculous grace that brings about redemption, a rescue. I think you see this in both their stories, Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia.
Think about Tolkien’s story. This is where their understanding of heroism is not like our modern understanding of heroism. The modern hero saves the day by his or her strength, ingenuity, good looks, and, usually, great fire power at hand, right? For Tolkien, the hero, the heroic, it’s defined by your resilience, your willingness, your readiness to sacrifice everything for this great, noble cause despite the fact that it looks like your cause is doomed.
What happens in The Lord of the Rings? At the end of their quest, Frodo and Sam, Frodo, the hero, one of the great heroes in the story, Frodo, in a sense, he succumbs to evil. He succumbs to the great temptation of the ring. What does he say at the end? He says, “I will not do the thing that I came to do. The ring is mine,” and he puts the ring back on his finger. In that sense, he fails in his quest. How is it resolved? The ring is destroyed, but not by Frodo and not by the great company, his allies in this, not by the fellowship. The ring is destroyed by Gollum, this wicked, wretched creature who seizes it from Frodo, puts it on his own finger, and then falls into the great catechism of the fires of Mount Doom. The ring is destroyed by a sudden and miraculous grace. It’s a eucatastrophe according to Tolkien.
Now look at Lewis, how he picks up this theme, as well, in The Last Battle. The children, they are tossed, they are hurled into the stable. They are forced into the stable, which as far as they understand it, this is where the great evil is. This is their end. It means doom. It means certain doom and death. Poggin says, “I can think of a hundred deaths I would rather have died rather than being tossed into this, drawn into this stable, certain death.” What happens? The lion, the Great Lion Aslan is in the stable and he has cast out the demon Tash and now he has recreated Narnia. There’s a great what? There’s a great rescue and redemption, a sudden and miraculous grace, but it’s not the children of Narnia who have brought it about. It’s Aslan, the Great Lion.
For both their stories, this eucatastrophe, if you think about it, this really is the Christian story, the Christian narrative, a grace, a source of goodness beyond us that has to rescue us. Yes, we have to be willing, willing partners in this great story, but at the end of the day, we don’t save ourselves. We are saved and rescued by a force of grace and goodness outside of ourselves. That is a deeply Christian idea, isn’t it?
Brett McKay: It is. You mentioned earlier that after the war, this feeling of cynicism and disillusion saturated the culture, but again, both Tolkien and Lewis were immune from it. Why is that? Was it their Christian faith that kept them immune from it or I’m sure other Christians who felt that this was a holy war before World War I started, they must’ve been disillusioned, but Tolkien and Lewis weren’t.
Joe Loconte: That is a fabulous question. I can only give you a partial answer to that because it’s sometimes a little hard to know what does prevent people from succumbing to the spirit of the age. It is a pretty dark spirit of the age, if you think about it. There’s an amazing moment there where people like T. S. Eliot, who writes The Wasteland, a real agnostic for a good chunk of his life, but then he converts, T. S. Eliot does, to Christianity.
There’s a line here from Virginia Woolf, a letter. T. S. Eliot was part of the Bloomsbury Set, a literary set, very skeptical group of authors in Britain, in London. Virginia Woolf was one of them. When she discovers, just to give you a sense of how dark the mood was here, Brett, when she discovers that T. S. Eliot, her former friend and colleague, has become a Christian, she writes a letter to one of her friends about all this. Here’s what she says in the letter. “I’ve had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He’s become an Anglo Catholic believer in God and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” That is the mood of the intellectual set in much of Europe, particularly in the academy at Oxford, at Cambridge, and elsewhere to become this believing Christian. That’s what these men most definitely are by the 1930s, certainly when Lewis converts to Christianity partially because of the great help of Tolkien and his friends.
More directly, to answer your question, how did they resist this mood of gloom, cynicism, doubt, and disillusionment? In part, by forming a group called the Inklings, this like-minded men, Christian men, authors, accomplished and aspiring authors, who are serious thinkers, serious scholars and so they meet every week I think for at least a 13-year period through the 1930s, through the Second World War. They meet every Thursday evening in Lewis’ rooms there at Oxford and they meet again also Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child Pub. That commitment to each other, that friendship, I think is one of the explanations for their capacity to maintain their sense of calling as Christian writers in a very dark, skeptical, gloomy period.
Brett McKay: I think it’s interesting, too, their embrace of Nordic myths, of romantic fairytales. That also had a role in there, as well.
Joe Loconte: Yeah, it did. They are men who have steeped themselves, in terms of their scholarship, their writing, their thinking in these epic tales of heroism. Tolkien translated Beowulf, this ancient English story of war and heroism and his scholarship, I’m talking, just on Beowulf, it changed the scholarship and how we interpret it. For Lewis, it’s very similar. It’s ancient stories, the Aeneid, the Iliad. They are raised with these stories, grow up with these stories, The Death of Arthur, and so there’s a way in which these men, they take these ancient and medieval stories of heroism, but I think, Brett, they reinterpret that ancient story for the modern mind and they give it a kind of modern cast. I think that helps to explain its enduring relevance and appeal in our own day.
There is a grim realism to both their stories and particularly with Tolkien, it is almost overwhelming the sense of dread. You pick up this, as well, in The Chronicles of Narnia, but remember, those stories are for children, so they’re not quite as dark and as graphic. Tolkien is willing to go a little bit further in how realistic this story is. You just can’t escape it, the battle scenes, the sense of gloom, the darkness of the story. No one is immune to the dark forces in their stories. That’s one of the most striking things. No one is immune to being pulled into the darkness of the story. The lure and temptation of evil is so real and palpable. I think that also speaks to all of us if we’re honest with ourselves. None of us is immune to the darkness within.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, I know. It is gloomy. I’m listening to The Lord of the Rings with my son right now in the car and yeah, there’s that impending sense of doom always and you always feel like … Even Gandalf, right? You feel like Gandalf’s this guy, he’s going to help them, but even Gandalf, sometimes, can’t help. I always feel bad for the hobbits when Gandalf’s not there for them.
Joe Loconte: Yeah, see, when Gandalf says, “I can’t take the ring. Frodo, you’ve been appointed to this task, this mysterious blending of free will, but also, it seems, providence. You’ve been chosen for the ring, but you also have a choice to make.” I think this goes back again to the war experience. It’s the hobbit, these little creatures. Tolkien says explicitly that, “I made my hobbits small in stature reflecting the ordinary English soldier.” These little people, so much depends on them and the choices that they make and things that almost seem to be out of their control and yet, they have this free will. They have the capacity to join the side of goodness and decency and humanity and ultimately, join God’s side of the story, God’s side of the fight, the side of light, not the side of darkness. The smallest of creatures can make this immense difference in the great story of redemption. So true to both their stories.
Brett McKay: Joseph, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your work?
Joe Loconte: It’s been a great pleasure and joy for me to join you. They can go to my website, www.josephloconte.com and you’ll see my various works and articles and essays and you can order the book from amazon.com. I love to have people join that website, join me in conversation. Facebook, as well.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Joseph Loconte, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Joe Loconte: Thanks so much here. Great being with you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Joseph Loconte. He is the author of the book A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and the Great War. It’s available on amazon.com. You can also find more information about his work at josephloconte.com.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy our show, please give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. The show is recorded on clearcast.io. If you’re a podcaster and you do remote podcast, check it out. It’s a service that I’ve been working on with my brother-in-law to make sound quality better for remote podcasts. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 5, 2017