Weekly Standard: Tolkien, Lewis, and the Lessons of World War I
This article was originally posted at The Weekly Standard.
In the spring of 431 b.c., Athens and Sparta went to war. Their dispute soon enveloped the entire Greek world. Thucydides, an eyewitness to the fighting, wrote that it would be “more momentous than any previous conflict.” He was right. Dragging on for 27 years, the Peloponnesian War anticipated the suffering and deprivation associated with modern conflicts: the atrocities, refugees, disease, starvation, and slaughter. The war destroyed what remained of Greek democracy and left the Greek city-states vulnerable to demagogues and foreign invasion.
A hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918, another war begun by two European states—a local squabble that escalated into global conflict—came to an end. Struggling to describe its scope and destructive power, the combatants called it the Great War. Like its Greek counterpart, the war ravaged soldiers and civilians. Over the course of four years, roughly 20 million people were killed, another 21 million wounded. National economies were ruined; empires collapsed. The war to “make the world safe for democracy” left European democracy in tatters.
And more than that: The core commitments of Western civilization—to reason, truth, virtue, and freedom—were thrown into doubt. T. S. Eliot saw the postwar world as a wasteland of human weariness. “I think we are in rats’ alley,” he wrote, “where the dead men lost their bones.” Many rejected faith in God and embraced materialistic alternatives: communism, fascism, totalitarianism, scientism, and eugenics.
Yet two extraordinary authors—soldiers who survived the horror of the trenches—rebelled against the spirit of the age. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, who met at Oxford in 1926 and formed a lifelong friendship, both used the experience of war to shape their Christian imaginations. In works such as The Lord of the Rings, The Space Trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien and Lewis rejected the substitute religions of their day and assailed utopian schemes to perfect humanity. Like no other authors of their age, they used the language of myth to restore the concept of the epic hero who battles against the forces of darkness and the will to power.
One of the most striking effects of the war was an acute anxiety, especially in educated circles, that something was profoundly wrong with the rootstock of Western society: a “sickness in the racial body.” Book titles of the 1920s and ’30s tell the story: Social Decay and Regeneration (1921); The Decay of Capitalist Civilization (1923); The Twilight of the White Races (1926); The Need for Eugenic Reform (1926); Will Civilization Crash? (1927); Darwinism and What It Implies (1928); The Sterilization of the Unfit (1929); and The Problem of Decadence (1931).
The promotion of eugenics—from the Greek for “good birth”—began in Great Britain in the years leading up to World War I. But it gained international support in the period between the two world wars, just as Tolkien and Lewis were establishing their academic careers. The aim of the movement was to use the tools of science and public policy to improve the human gene pool: through immigration restriction, marriage laws, birth control, and sterilization. The movement’s first task was to educate and persuade a potentially skeptical public. Sir Francis Galton, the British sociologist and cousin of Charles Darwin who coined the term, explained that eugenics
must be introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion. It has, indeed, strong claims to become an orthodox religious tenet of the future, for eugenics co-operate with the workings of nature by securing that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races. What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.
The success of the movement was breathtaking. In The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars, historian Richard Overy writes that eugenics advocates soon represented mainstream science, becoming affiliated with leading academic and scientific organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. “The concept appealed,” he writes, “because it gave to the popular malaise a clear scientific foundation.” At an international eugenics conference in Paris in 1926, Ronald Fisher, later a leading Cambridge geneticist, suggested that the new science would “solve the problem of decay of civilizations.” Two years later, at University College London, Charles Bond argued that biological factors were “the chief source of the decline of past civilizations and of earlier races.” At the 1932 Congress of Eugenics in New York, an international cast of geneticists, biologists, and doctors were assured that eugenics would become “the most important influence in human advancement.”
The barbarism of the First World War seemed to have put civilization on trial. In the desperate attempt to rescue humanity from itself, the science of eugenics appeared to provide an answer. What it supplied, instead, was a pseudoscientific rationale for racist ideologies. Benito Mussolini, who swept to power in Italy in 1922, was the first European leader to exploit the language of eugenics to establish a fascist regime. Science and government would work together to improve the Italian race. One of Mussolini’s earliest admirers, of course, was Adolf Hitler. Nazism, according to Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess, was “applied biology.” The Aryan race was the eugenic ideal, and maintaining its purity became the focus of Hitler’s national policy.
What’s astonishing in retrospect is how little resistance the eugenics movement met as it captured the imaginations of the best and brightest in the West—scientists, clerics, academics, jurists. But among the motley crew of holdouts were two instructors in English literature at Oxford, Tolkien and Lewis, who enlisted their literary talents to confront eugenics. In That Hideous Strength (1945), the concluding book of his Space Trilogy, Lewis takes direct aim at the assumptions underlying the eugenics agenda. He tells the story of an English couple threatened by a demonic force, represented by the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E), attempting to take over the university town of Edgestow. The aim of the N.I.C.E. is to reeducate and remake humanity using the instruments of modern science, in a bid for world domination.
Lewis’s fictional antagonists wage an all-or-nothing contest for the future of the human race. Consider this exchange between Lord Feverstone, a leader of the Progressive Element at the university and collaborator with the N.I.C.E., and Mark Studdock, a university professor drawn into its orbit:
Feverstone: “Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest—which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite.”
Studdock: “What sort of thing have you in mind?”
Feverstone: “Quite simple and obvious things, at first—sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. . . . But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain . . . ”
Studdock: “But this is stupendous, Feverstone.”
Feverstone: “It’s the real thing at last. A new type of man.”
Lewis links eugenics with the totalitarian impulse. The devaluation of individuals—justified by scientific materialism—can only proceed through the coercive machinery of the state. Lewis was criticized for being “anti-science.” He denied the charge. “Under modern conditions,” he wrote in response to a critic, “any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning.”
Although Tolkien shared Lewis’s disdain for the eugenic vision, he has been accused of promoting racism in his fictional works. In The Lord of the Rings, the free people of Middle-earth, mostly white, do battle with beast-like orcs sometimes described as “black-skinned.” Some of the races in his story, critics say, are presented as good and others as irredeemably evil.
But the most evocative and moving character in his story is the hobbit—from a race often ignored, underestimated, and denigrated by others—who emerges as the hero in the fierce struggle against Mordor. “My dear Frodo!” exclaims Gandalf the wizard. “Hobbits really are amazing creatures. . . . You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.” One of the moral triumphs of the work is the willingness of the disparate races of Middle-earth to put aside their differences and sacrifice for one another in the war against Sauron.
Tolkien began writing his epic story in 1937—just as fascist ideologies were dominating international politics—and continued working on it throughout the Second World War. Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia two years before. And by 1938, Germany’s Jews had been stripped of their civil liberties. The Munich Agreement, signed that year, surrendered a portion of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in exchange for a promise of peace. Although Tolkien denied that his work was allegorical, he acknowledged in a 1938 letter to his publisher that his new story “was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit. . . . The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it.” One of the narrative threads of The Lord of the Rings can be read as a conscious assault on the entire racist-totalitarian campaign.
The key to understanding the moral universe of Lewis and Tolkien can be found in a brief exchange in The Lord of the Rings, in Aragorn’s answer to Éomer, who asks how they ought to respond to the storm of evil thrust upon them. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them.” The same vision animates Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. All of its various creatures (bears, badgers, horses, moles, mice), along with a group of English children, are summoned to rescue Narnia from despotism and restore its rightful line of kings. “I’d rather be killed fighting for Narnia,” says Jill, “than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a bath-chair and then die in the end just the same.”
The perspective of these two Oxford friends is remarkable when we consider another of the pernicious effects of the First World War: the widespread erosion of the concept of individual freedom and moral responsibility. Literary critic Roger Sale has called the war “the single event most responsible for shaping the modern idea that heroism is dead.”
Consider what the soldiers at the Western Front were made to endure. The mortars, machine guns, tanks, poison gas, flamethrowers, barbed wire, and trench warfare: never before had technology and science so catastrophically conspired to obliterate man and nature. On average, more than 6,000 men were killed every day of the war. Their mutilated remains were consigned to graves scattered across Europe. The helpless individual soldier chewed up in the hellish machinery of modern warfare became a recurring motif of the postwar literature. In his All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Erich Maria Remarque described a generation of war veterans “broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.”
But the purveyors of fatalism found in Tolkien and Lewis implacable opponents. In the worlds they created, everyone has a role to play in the epic contest between Light and Darkness. No matter how desperate the circumstances, their characters are challenged to resist evil and choose the good. “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world,” wrote Tolkien. “Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
As soldiers of the Great War, Tolkien and Lewis endured the most dehumanizing conditions ever experienced in a European conflict. Their generation then watched with dread as totalitarian ideologies threatened to dissolve the weakened moral norms of their civilization. Others, such as Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, raised the alarm but seemed pessimistic about the outcome. A New York Times review of That Hideous Strength discerned in Lewis a different spirit: “When Mr. Huxley wrote his bitter books his mood was one of cynical despair. Mr. Lewis, on the contrary, sounds a militant call to battle.”
Tolkien and Lewis possessed two great resources that helped them to overcome the cynicism of their age. The first was their deep attachment to the literary tradition of the epic hero, from Virgil’s Aeneid to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. What matters supremely in these works is remaining faithful to the noble quest, regardless of the costs or the likelihood of victory. “The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important,” Tolkien explained in his 1936 British Academy lecture on Beowulf. In the end, “the real battle is between the soul and its adversaries.”
The second great resource was their Christian faith: a view of the world that is both tragic and hopeful. War is a sign of the ruin and wreckage of human nature, they believed, but it can point the way to a life transformed by grace. For divine love can reverse human catastrophe. In the works of both authors we find the deepest source of hope for the human story: the return of the king. In Middle-earth that king is Aragorn, who brings “strength and healing” in his hands, “unto the ending of the world.” In Narnia, it is Aslan the Great Lion, who sacrifices his own life to restore “the long-lost days of freedom.” In both we encounter the promise of a rescuer who will make everything sad come untrue.
As the world marks the centennial of the end of the Great War and remembers the many lives swallowed up in its long shadow, here is a vision of human life worth recalling, too.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and the author of the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. He is at work on a documentary film series based on the book, and the film trailer can be found at hobbitwardrobe.com