Tuesday, October 13, 2015

“A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War”

Thus the crisis of faith in postwar Europe was multilayered. There was an erosion of what might be called civilizational confidence, a widespread disillusionment with the West and its supposed cultural achievements. Liberal democracy, constitutionalism, capitalism, progressivism—all seemed in a state of near collapse …. Since Christianity was considered integral to Europe’s political and economic system, the perceived failure of that system was a spiritual failure as well.
-Joseph Loconte*

Setting the frame for the history of Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship and the writing of their most famous tales, Joseph Loconte points to one of the Great Illusions leading up to the Great War: The Myth of Progress. Given the massive leaps in technological progress, scientific discoveries, and the near unanimous acceptance of 18th century Enlightenment thought and Darwinism, the soul of Western civilization was anchored in the belief that progress was inevitable. “Western civilization was marching inexorably forward, that humanity itself was maturing, evolving, advancing—that new vistas of political, cultural, and spiritual advancement were within reach.” (Loconte)

Of course, to help insure this inexorable “advancement,” eugenics was all the rage … because nothing says “Utopia” like killing off blacks, cripples, and those whom The Powers That Be deem unfit.

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerating offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” So wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, Supreme Court Justice, upholding Virginia’s sterilization law, supported by many of the cultural leaders of the times, including ministers. (Loconte)

When the First War erupted, national leaders on both sides of the conflict ran headlong into the fray, claiming the God of the Bible was on its side; that this war-to-end-all-wars was a Holy War. In Britain, “Clergymen dressed Jesus in khaki and had him firing machine guns.” (Loconte) When the war ended, more than nine million soldiers lay dead and roughly thirty-seven million wounded. The aftermath was a world awash in despair, disillusionment, and the rejection of religion.

With the Myth of Progress being exposed as an illusion, hundreds of novels were published in the 20s and 30s punctuating the futility of life, depicting existential angst as the new norm, and belief in God as “an attempt to protect against suffering, ‘a delusional remodeling of reality.’” (Freud, cited by Loconte)

Pacifism replaced patriotism, and the ancient virtues were scorned.

“For the intellectual class as well as the ordinary man on the street, the Great War had defamed the values of the Old World, along with the religious doctrines that helped to underwrite them. Moral advancement, even the idea of morality itself, seemed an illusion.” (Loconte)

So, how is it that given the depth of despair, the wholesale rejection of the values upon which Western civilization had been built, and the widespread jettisoning of religion and belief in (any) “God,” that the books of JRR Tolkien (A Hobbit) and CS Lewis (A Wardrobe) not only made it past editors, but went on to garner both men worldwide acclaim? How is it that stories extolling the ancient virtues of goodness, beauty, and faith, as well as advocating valor in battles against evil, captured the imagination of those who were convinced that despair, amorality, and hedonism, were the only honest responses to what the world had just suffered during the Great War?

The Power of Stories
“It seems that Tolkien, even in the throes of combat, consciously sought to retrieve a martial tradition that would become a casualty alongside all the other casualties of the First War. Already he was constructing a mythology (The Silmarillion) about England meant to recall its long struggle for noble purposes. ‘I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought,’ he once explained. Thus he set out ‘to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own.’” (Loconte)

For Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, myths — even Pagan ones — originated with God and were filled with splinters of true light, revealing, however shadowed, eternal realities. “They are his means of communicating at least a portion of his truth to the world.” (Loconte) It would be years later that his best friend, CSL, would begin to accept his view of myths, and a bit longer until he embraced the True Myth of Christianity.

Years after the war, Tolkien, while grading papers as an Oxford Don, scrawled on a blank piece of paper, “In a hole in the ground there lives a Hobbit.”

Anyone familiar with CS Lewis is aware of George MacDonald’s (1824-1905) influence on his life and writings. While reading GM’s Phantasies, Lewis wrote that his imagination had been “converted” and “baptized.” While not yet a Christian, a new way of looking at and interpreting the world had begun. Later, after being wounded in battle and discharged, CSL was riding a train home to London and looking at the beautiful countryside: what he saw was that, “(T)here is Something right outside time & place…and that Beauty is the call of the spirit to the spirit in us.” (Loconte) While not yet a Christian, he now accepted that there was “Something” behind the beauty of the world. He was beginning to catch “A Glimpse of Narnia.” (Loconte)

George MacDonald wrote, “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is – not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” Both Tolkien and Lewis would go on to create epic stories so as to “wake up” truths that, however vehemently denied, were, nevertheless, still laying deep in the souls of their readers.

* “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

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

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