Perhaps two of my favorite authors of all time are J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I read The Chronicles of Narnia when I was quite young, and I remember listening to an audio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings even before I was able to read. So when I saw this book, which discusses how World War I affected both men in their fiction and their lives, I had to read it.
And I absolutely loved it!
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) “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.”
This short book is surprisingly jam-packed with historical details, intermingling two fantasy worlds with an all-too-real world war. Not only does it give a detailed understanding of why Tolkien and Lewis write as they do, but it also examines the feelings and beliefs which changed Britain due to the first world war. Although this book does examine Lewis’s changes in faith (he went from being an atheist to a Christian) and how religion in general affected both authors, it is not an overly religious book, instead examining religion merely in the context of both men’s lives (and the view of religion in England during that time).
It’s strange to read this book and see how the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings were actually based on what Tolkien saw in the trenches of Europe during the war. Or how Lewis’s view of fighting even when one is fearful (as seen with Peter Pevensie right before the great battle in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) was based on the bravery he saw among his fellow soldiers. It is sobering to relate such fanciful worlds to such a scary reality, and one that changes much of my view of these two authors’ writing.
It is so easy, I think, to disassociate fantasy novels with real life, and yet fantasy novels can deal with real life concepts in a way not too intimidating or serious for the average reader. If you knew that Sam Gamgee was based on a young man Tolkien knew in the trenches, doesn’t that give more weight to a fictional character? If you knew that some of the descriptions of the battles within the Lord of the Rings were described after battles (like the Battle of the Somme in France) Tolkien himself fought in , does not all the fictional death seem a bit more terrifying?
This book isn’t entirely chronological, as it jumps around a bit, but it does mostly begin at the start of WWI and then follows both men’s experiences through the war up until their friendship at Oxford, where they met following the war. There were times the narrative would deviate down a hole of unrelated information, but for the most part I had no issues following the material.
If you are a fan of either men’s writing, or you just want to learn more about the Great War, I highly recommend this book. The author, Joseph Loconte, is an Associate Professor of history, and you can tell he is extremely passionate about this topic. It also looks like he has written several other books, some on religion and others on history. After enjoying this book, I really want to read more of his writing.
Does this book look interesting to you? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,