I have always been interested in World War II. The clear line between good and evil, the many stories of heroism, even by people who seemed so normal and ordinary before the demands of war loomed over them. There is just something epic and heroic about it.
Despite that interest, I have never really cared to learn about World War I. The endless, pointless trenches, the deadlocked armies with no real cause, the victory that only spurned another international war less than twenty years later. I never really understood any of it.
According to Joseph Loconte, however, two incredible literary masterpieces were influenced by the horror and meaninglessness of WWI. It was during the horrendous conflict of World War I that two writers were shaped for their future classics, and without their wartime experiences, we may never have known and loved their works.
A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War opens with a description of WWI that is hard to imagine—and stomach. The early 1900s were a time of extreme optimism in the Western world, as the general opinion was that mankind was improving and socially evolving to a higher being. Many actually promoted war as a short and effective force of change. Needed change, the progressive minds thought. This change involved finding higher and better answers to questions of life, origin, and God—and, therefore, morality.
It was also a time of technological advances. Factories sprang up, and cities around those factories. More could be made with less time, effort, or money, and a whole generation had more time on their hands. Countries now had access to factory-produced, higher-grade firepower in more quantities than at any other time before.
Philosophy and technology had combined in a deadly way, and WWI would decimate an entire generation. “Between 1920 and 1923, Britain delivered four thousand headstones a week to France” Loconte writes. Millions died—and even more millions were injured. “In France, the casualty rate (dead or wounded) was an astonishing 75 percent.” The day’s belief in human progress had been shattered by the bitter reality of death rates and irreversible injuries.
In its place it left a gaping hole, experienced as despair by veterans and grieving loved ones alike. The loss and disillusion shook many who had been so confident.
But it was in that despair that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien found a hope that can meet any hopelessness.
Throughout the pages of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, Loconte shows examples from Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works that illustrate how WWI affected them. We see their love for nature (in defiance of industrialization), their love for simplicity (over technology), and, overall, their still-standing faith when it seemed the rest of the world had lost theirs. We are given glimpses into Lewis’ spiritual wrestling and conversion, impacted in no small way by WWI and Tolkien.
In that searching they found a hope that is bigger than world wars and unmeasurable tragedies, and a foundation that stood firm no matter what headlines tried to shake it.
With over 600 footnotes for about 200 pages, Loconte’s work is researched to the extreme. The quotations from Lewis’ and Tolkien’s writings—both their books and their letters—give a deeper insight to the works that have been loved by so many.
“All the horrors of all the ages were brought together,” Winston Churchill said of the Great War. Lewis and Tolkien found hope that withstood the horror, and they decided to share it with others. By probing for their thoughts and documenting the worldview depth behind their works, Loconte has further shown that faith to us.