Monday, October 26, 2015

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: Triumphalism Encounters Human Nature

Tolkien and Lewis were attracted to 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.  –Joseph Loconte*

Going into WWI, each nation believed God was on its side and, therefore, it would be victorious. The mixture of nationalism (not the same thing as patriotism) and triumphalism (“We’ll win, because we are a morally superior people.”) blinded the combating nations to the reality and horrors that were to come. And how could people so “advanced” have been so blind? Because they had chosen to ignore the evil that was in their own hearts, they had not considered the evil that could be perpetuated upon the earth with their advanced machinery.

“For devoted nationalists, their patriotic faith was equivalent to membership in an alternative church. For religious believers, nationalism offered a grandiose political outlet for their faith commitments. The result was the birth of Christian nationalism, the near sanctification of the modern state.” (Loconte)

While many who survived the carnage of WWI readily rejected triumphalism, they also renounced any belief in a moral vision, of belief that a human was capable of goodness, compassion, and nobility. While Tolkien and Lewis probably rethought their views about human potential, their writings reflected “the historic Christian tradition: human nature as a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness.” (Loconte)

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” Aslan tells Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia. “And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”

(T)hese authors anchor their stories in the ancient idea of the Fall of Man: just as a force of evil entered our world in a distant past, so it inhabits and threatens the worlds of their imaginations. It is the deepest source of alienation and conflict in their stories. Even so, it cannot erase the longing for goodness and joy, so palpably alive in the best and noblest of their characters. They are haunted by the memory of Eden: take away this fundamental idea, and their moral vision collapses.” (Loconte)

Interestingly, neither Tolkien nor Lewis became pacifists. There are some evils in the world that must be defeated, militarily. Both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are filled with such battles. However, both men never framed their battle scenes as opportunities for martial glory or nationalistic conquest. They are also depicted realistically, as you would expect from soldiers who fought in the Great War. We see the “military blunders, the fruitless acts of bravery, the bone-chilling rain, the meager rations: there were many days and nights just like these along the Western Front.” (Loconte) However, we also are shown acts of compassion and valor, self-sacrifice and honor, and, yes, even glimpses of beauty and joy. The “tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness” are always present.

The stories of Tolkien and Lewis demonstrate that moral heroism is possible because, through God’s grace and love, we are capable of great victories against the wretchedness that is in the world and in us. Of course, such moral heroism presupposes that there is a moral vision, that there are objective moral standards whereby we know what is noble and what is wretched. And yet—

We see no triumphalism in these stories. Knowing that we are always at war against our own capacity for behaving wretchedly, there can be no sense that our victories were inevitable because we are a superior nation, a superior people, or superior individuals. After all, the “tragic mix” is part of the human condition.

Next Post: “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War”: Heroic Quests

* “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918,” Nelson Books, 2015

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015

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