Monday, March 6, 2017

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: The untold story of how the First World War shaped the lives, faith, and writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis

I usually synopsize myself, but I don’t feel I’d do this justice. Goodreads does an excellent job:

The First World War laid waste to a continent and permanently altered the political and religious landscape of the West. For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence - and the end of faith. Yet for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Great war deepened their spiritual quest. Both men served as soldiers on the Western Front, survived the trenches, and used the experience of that conflict to ignite their Christian imagination. Had there been no Great War, there would have been no Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Narnia, and perhaps no conversion to Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

Unlike a generation of young writers who lost faith in the God of the Bible, Tolkien and Lewis produced epic stories infused with themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation, Giving an unabashedly Christian vision of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment, the two writers created works that changed the course of literature and shaped the faith of millions. This is the first book to explore their work in light of the spiritual crisis sparked by the conflict.

I don’t often read books about authors. It was not at all what I expected, though I hardly knew what to expect. One word: Marvelous!

Other than that, I’ll let Loconte (or Tolkien and Lewis) speak for themselves with some excerpts.

Tolkien and Lewis were attracted to the genres of myth and romance not because they sought to escape the world, but because for them the real world had a mythic and heroic quality. The world is the setting for great conflicts and great quests: it creates scenes of remorseless violence, grief, and suffering, as well as deep compassion, courage, and selfless sacrifice. In an era that exalted cynicism and irony, Tolkien and Lewis sought to reclaim an older tradition of the epic hero. Their depictions of the struggles of Middle-earth and Narnia do not represent a flight from reality, but rather a return to a more realistic view of the world as we actually find it.

Tolkien reflecting on his time on the Western Front: I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.

Loconte’s narrative on Lewis’ experience…the sorrows of the war did not ultimately blacken Lewis’s creative life. The world of Narnia, a land watered by streams of joy – “the land I have been looking for all my life” – would emerge from the wreckage of a Great War.

Roughly four hundred “war novels” were published in the 1920s and 1930s, many of which helped to create a mythology of war an inherently ignoble and irrational.

From a pivotal middle chapter, wherein Loconte describes that discussion between devout Christians Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, with their friend and colleague, the agnostic (recently atheist), Lewis. The conversation of this fateful night lasted until 3:00 in the morning.

To Lewis, myths might be beautiful, they might charm our imaginations, but they were lies: inventions that contain no objective truth about the world.

Mythmaking, what Tolkien calls “mythopoeia,” is a way of fulfilling God’s purposes as the Creator.

Tolkien explaining his sentiment that, Yes the story of Jesus the Christ is a kind of myth: it is the authentic story of the dying God who returns to life to rescue his people from sin and death and bring them to “the Blessed Land.” where “though they make anew, they make no lie.” The difference between Christianity and all the pagan myths is that this Dying God actually entered into history, lived a real life, and died a real death.

Or as Lewis would describe his newfound belief: “…the story of Christ is simply a true myth.”

By the way, Tolkien wrote a poem - in part about this discussion called: Mythopoeia. More about this poem HERE

You may have heard of Tolkien, Lewis, Dyson, and others referred to as the Oxford Christian writers. They called themselves:  the Inklings…those who dabbled in ink.

More excerpts of Loconte’s narrative/commentary on Tolkien’s and Lewis’ writings:

For in their voice is a warning: a call to “do the deed at hand” no matter what the cost. In their presence is strength: the grace to “cast aside regret and fear.” Grace beyond all hope. These are the great themes that dominate their works and continue to delight generations of readers.

The heroes of these stories are vulnerable to temptation and corruption, while the antagonists are almost never beyond redemption.

Rejecting equally the moods of militarism and pacifism, these authors charted a middle course: a partial return to the chivalrous ideal. Only a society that upheld this ideal – in its art, literature, and its institutions – could hope to resist the dark and hungry forces arrayed against it.

Like few other writers over the past century, they show us what friendship can look like when it reaches for a high purpose and is watered by the streams of sacrifice, loyalty, and love.

J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Christopher, serving in WWII: “Well, there you are: a hobbit amongst the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story!”


  1. This is at least the second glowing review I've read of this book. I'm hoping to read it later this year as part of My Year in Middle Earth :-) It sounds excellent!

  2. I agree with Hamelette! I've seen this book a dozen times in various places. It sounds fantastic! Last year I read The Fellowship by Carol and Philip Zaleski about Tolkien, Lewis and some of the other Inklings. It was good, also. This is my post about it:

  3. Joe,

    Thanks for suggesting this blog and for the opportunity to enjoy so many interesting references cataloged here. This book is going to the top of my list right after I finish Our Mutual Friend. Happy New Year!

  4. Thanks Wes...Happy New Year to you as well!


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