The Times of London: Why Hobbits Triumphed in the Great War
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called it “the most terrible August in the history of the world.” He was lamenting the opening weeks of August 1914, the beginning of the Great War: the conflict that inaugurated the mechanized slaughter of human beings on a scale never seen before. Before it was over, nearly ten million soldiers perished in a storm of bombs and smoke and steel.
Lost along with them were the cherished assumptions of a generation: the European belief in progress, democracy, morality, and religion. The watchword of the post-war years was disillusionment. “I think we are in rats’ alley,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “where the dead men lost their bones.” Erich Remarque, in his classic war memoir, All Quiet on the Western Front, predicted a generation “broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.”
Yet two extraordinary authors and friends-both soldiers in the First World War-rebelled against this prevailing mood. Rejecting the agnosticism and cynicism of their era, J.R.R. Tolkien (a Catholic) and C.S. Lewis (an Anglican) insisted upon a moral universe: evil was a force that threatened every human soul but God and goodness were the ultimate realities. Though often dismissed as escapism, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia present a vigorous defense of the heroic tradition: a vision of human life tempered by the experience of war, yet nourished by a Christian sensibility.
The worlds of Middle-earth and Narnia, after all, share a view of the world that is both tragic and hopeful. The tragedy lies in the corruption caused by the desire for power, often disguised by appeals to religion and morals. Virtually no character in their stories is immune to the temptation. In Lewis’s Prince Caspian, Nikabrik, initially a foot soldier in the fight for Narnia, turns traitor when Aslan, the great Lion, fails to come to their aid. Nikabrik makes the appalling suggestion that his comrades enlist the help of the White Witch. “We want power,” he says, “and we want a power that will be on our side.”
In Tolkien’s trilogy, we learn that Saruman, a Wizard originally committed to helping Middle-earth in the struggle against Mordor, has fallen under the sway of the Ring of Power. Prudence, he argues, demands a temporary compromise with Sauron the Dark Lord. “We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way,” he says, “but approving the high and ultimate purpose.”
No work of fiction better describes the Great War and its social aftermath. Despite an appeal to lofty moral principles, none of the combatant nations resisted using the most horrific weapons available against the enemy: mortars, machine guns, tanks, poison gas, starvation. “When it was all over, Torture and Cannabalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves,” wrote Winston Churchill, “and these were of doubtful utility.”
The result was that the shell-shocked veteran became a walking metaphor for much of post-war Europe. Meanwhile, all manner of utopian schemes-eugenics, communism, fascism-were welcomed into the most educated circles in the 1920s. “A profound sense of spiritual crisis,” writes historian Modris Eksteins, “was the hallmark of the decade.”
Tolkien and Lewis, two of the most influential Christian authors of the last century, set out to confront this moral and spiritual crisis. The two had met as young dons at Oxford in 1926, discovered a mutual love of mythology, and established a friendship that shaped their literary careers. Though they could never glamorize combat-both lost their closest friends in the war-they chose to remember not only its horrors and sorrows but also the courage, sacrifice and friendships that made it endurable. “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier,” Tolkien said, “of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war.”
Together they sought to retrieve the epic romantic tradition, embodied in works such as Beowulf and Morte D’Arthur, and to make it attractive to the modern mind. The heroes of Narnia and Middle-earth do not shrink from the sight of hacked-off limbs and smashed skulls. But they are warriors-men, women, hobbits, dwarves, horses and even mice-of great humility. Conscious of their frailties, they nevertheless are determined to play their part in the war against evil. “We know a good deal about the Ring,” Merry tells Frodo. “We are horribly afraid-but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.”
Escapist fantasy? “It offers the only possible escape,” wrote Lewis, “from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.” It requires no imagination to see that the “real world” in which we find ourselves is being ravaged by a new and fanatical breed of wolves. The heroic ideal may be the only thing that stands in their way.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and the author of the forthcoming book God and the Great War: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Crisis of Faith in the Modern Age.