A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War (Nelson Books, 2015)

I heard of Joseph Loconte’s recent book on an Art of Manliness podcast interview with Brett McKay.

Loconte puts together the influences J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had in their writings. Through the cultures at play in society before and after the war and their service at the frontline in World War I. He even delves into the relationship both men forged after the war.

Loconte begins by describing what he calls, the Myth of Progress. How Europeans and Americans alike were “perfecting” humankind and society before World War I.

And the belief in human perfectibility merely amounts to the belief that in virture of this process, man will eventually become completely suited to his mode of life. – Herbert Spencer

Pre-World War I was a time when nature and God have been pushed aside, and humans believed ourselves fit to perfect our own.

Speaking to a learned society in London in 1909, [Francis] Galton explained how the tools of evolutionary science could be used to better the human race. “What Nature does blindly, slowly, ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly. We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilation into the world, as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins.”

Even many churches and religious leaders were supportive of the Myth of Progress.

If we take seriously the Christian purpose of realizing on earth the ideal divine society, we shall welcome every help which science affords. – Reverend Kenneth McArthur

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were not caught up in this Myth and instead pushed back against it.

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. – J.R.R. Tolkien

It was during the Myth of Progress that World War I began.

Some called the war a means to the Myth of Progress, an opportunity to cull the imperfection from Europe. What it would bring is the deadliest, most destructive war as any had ever seen to this point.

Both Tolkien and Lewis enlisted in the war and served on its front lines. Both authors were influenced by their firsthand experiences in the war, portraying the grim evil both witnessed.

Thus the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings possess a grim authenticity. When Tolkien describes the Siege of Gondor – where the “fires leaped up” and “great engines crawled across the field” and the ground “was choked with wreck and with bodies of the slain” – he delivers the realism of the war veteran. “Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot from the walls,” he wrote in The Return of the King. “And soon yet more companies of the enemy were wiftly setting up, each behind the cover of a trench, great engines for the casting of missiles.”

What I found most intriguing was not merely the scenes of war they captured but the character and virtue they saw from their fellow soldiers. What they saw during World War I was not always a good versus evil in the context of the global powers at war with one another but in the battle raging within each.

Much of the dramatic genius of The Lord of the Rings depends on the fact that none of the its characters, not even its noblest, are immune to the danger; any of them might be tempted to betray themselves and their cause.

Not only are they tempted but they do succumb to those temptations. After reaching Mount Doom, standing before the great furnace inside the mountain, we will find the main hero of the trilogy. Frodo has made a long journey and given so much of himself to come to this point but proclaims, “But I do not choose now what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

I look forward to picking up both Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia again and rereading them, applying the knowledge Loconte provides regarding these works.

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