Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: Heroic Quests in a Time of War

“Lewis understood evil as ‘an objective power in the world, waging a war for individual souls. It seeks to create a society of slaves, ruled by despots, and ‘held together entirely by fear and greed.’” – Joseph Loconte*

I first read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in January of 1971, a time of incredible disillusionment, especially among young people. Vietnam was a debacle; the “All you need is love” crowd was still reeling with the news that at a Rolling Stones concert (1969), the security team (Hells Angels: who could have ever guessed that something would go wrong?) had killed four people; at Kent State (1970) National guardsmen had fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds, killing four unarmed students, wounding 10 others, leaving one with permanent paralysis; and let’s just say things were soon to go from bad to worse for President Nixon.

O. And let us not forget the book authored by Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (pub. 1970), pronouncing that God was about to call the game due to darkness, and was instructing millions of readers that the world going down the toilet was awesome because it meant Christians were about to escape (via the rapture) to heaven. “Glory be!”

Is it any wonder that despair, disillusionment, and cynicism, were the default mindsets of the day? Granted, the “rapture” crowd would take a little longer to become disillusioned when, after some years later, they woke up and realized, Dammit, we’re still here and have to deal with this mess.

For me, reading Tolkien’s epic story was nothing short of an elixir. Over the previous decades, such had been the experience of those reading Lewis and Tolkien. There is a Great War raging around the world, presenting each and every person with a choice: join the Dark Lord Sauron or follow The Men of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, into battle; submit to the wicked White Witch who had placed a curse upon Narnia, whereby it was always winter but never Christmas, or follow Aslan.

“The most influential Christian authors of the twentieth century believed that every human soul was caught up in a very great story: a fearsome war against a Shadow of Evil that has invaded the world to enslave the sons and daughters of Adam. Yet those who resist the Shadow are assured that they will not be left alone, they will be given the gift of friendship amid their struggles and grief. Even more, they will find the grace and strength to persevere, to play their part in the story, however long it endures and wherever it may lead them.” (Loconte)  

Many of those who had survived WWI saw nothing heroic about the “folly of war” and, as was my generation, were drowning in disillusionment. But, as veterans who had seen the same horrors and sorrows, Lewis and Tolkien set out to “recall the courage, sacrifice, and the friendships that made it endurable.” (Loconte) In their stories, each author shows the reader that there is a war that is always upon us, a war where, if we so choose, we can engage in Heroic Quests where we exhibit courage, sacrifice, and nobility.

“Retrieving the medieval concept of the heroic quest – reinventing it for the modern mind – is one of the signal achievements of their work. Whether in epics such as Beowulf or romances like Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Tolkien and Lewis both found in medieval literature a set of motifs and ideals worth recalling. More than that, they believed the genre offered a tonic for the spiritual malaise of the modern age.” (Loconte)

Do we choose to go on a Heroic Quest with our Band of Brothers, fighting against injustice, cruelty, and tyranny, or do we fall in with Sauron and the White Witch? A war is upon us that cannot be avoided. All that is left us is answering the question: To whom and what do we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor?

* “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

Next Post: A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: The Significance of Insignificant Hobbits and Children

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015  

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