by guest book reviewer: Ruth Wilkinson
A common piece of advice given to young writers is, “Write what you know.”
So how did a couple of turn of the century, word-geek, English academics become the preeminent fantasy and science fiction writers of the modern era?
In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War (Thomas Nelson) History professor Joseph Loconte traces the parallel stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien through the cataclysm that was World War 1 and beyond to their shared discovery and exploration of epic fiction and alternate history. Drawing from many sources – including historians, biographers and original writings – he connects the two young men’s experiences in the trenches, mud, fire and disease of The Great War with themes, characters and landscapes found in the Narnia series, Lord of the Rings and their other writings.
We come to understand what the fierce friendships, values and personal strength of the characters they created have to teach us about being human and at war. Quoting Lewis, “For let us make no mistake. All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it separates you from all you love.” And when Tolkien writes,”I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they protect,” is he writing about England or Middle Earth?
And we see the world through the eyes of Lewis, a teenager who had written off Christianity as “ugly architecture, ugly music and bad poetry”, and Tolkien, a young man of faith whose Catholicism survived the war intact, when his peers and culture had found God to be uninterested and absent, and therefore nonexistent.
Loconte examines the spirit of an age that worshiped science, eugenics, industrialization, technology and related forms of ‘progress’. He lays out how those forces were put to use in a war that was more destructive and devastating than any in the past, and the profound disillusionment and cynicism that were born out of it. And, yet, Lewis is able, through his friendship with Tolkien, to rediscover “…the myth that has really happened” – the story of Jesus Christ – to turn from his skepticism and to write stories that “offer the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.” Loconte writes, “Against the temper of their times, these authors dared to reclaim some of the older beliefs and virtues. Their common Christian faith had much to do with this…”
This book challenges: both to look back at the horror that humanity is capable of, and to look forward to the hope that Christ brings – when “everything sad will come untrue.”