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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How…
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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis…

by Joseph Loconte

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Summary: A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works.

In one sense, Joseph Loconte covers ground that others have covered in exploring the lives and work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. What Loconte uniquely does are two things. For one, he explores why Lewis and Tolkien defied the trajectory into disillusionment of so many in the post-World War I generation, and went on to embrace and espouse a vibrant Christian faith. As for the second, Loconte reads the works of these two men, exploring how war experiences shaped the imaginary worlds of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Middle Earth. He articulates his particular theses as follows:

"Indeed, it was the experience of war that provided much of the raw material for the characters and themes of their imaginative works. In a talk called 'Learning in War Time,' Lewis explained how war exposes the folly in placing our happiness in utopian schemes to transform society. 'If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.' As we'll see, unlike the disillusionment that overwhelmed much of his generation, Lewis would use the experience of war--its horror as well as its nobility--as a guidepost to moral clarity."

For Loconte then, the beginning point is to discuss the "Myth of Progress" that preceded the war as it viewed humans, society, and technology evolving to ever more enlightened forms by which humanity would cast off the darkness of ignorance that had contributed to so much suffering in the past. With the onset of the war and the horrors of the trench warfare (perhaps Tolkien's inspiration for his vision of Mordor), these illusions were shattered for many. Both were casualties of war through illness or wounds. In Lewis' case, a journey through the country to a hospital to convalesce may have sparked a vision of Narnia. It was during Lewis's war years that he came across George McDonald's Phantastes, that certainly contributed to the conversion of his imagination.

War's end brought the massive disillusionment of much of the intellectual class. While Tolkien devoted himself to work and to his Catholic faith, and began to sketch the outlines of the great myth that would be the foundation of Lord of the Rings, Lewis struggled with doubt. Lewis and Tolkien first met in 1926, recognizing their common interest in languages. But they had a profound disagreement about myth that culminated in a long conversation between Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson in which Lewis recognized the story of Christ dying and rising to be a true myth, a crucial step for Lewis in coming to Christian faith. In the years ahead, they would collaborate as two key figures in a larger group knowing as the Inklings in a host of writing projects that birthed the Space Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many of Lewis's apologetic works. Through the mutual encouragement they gave each other and their vibrant faith, they provide a counter for the outpouring of disillusioned, despairing writing of the post-war period.

What is more, they envisioned in their work, shaped by their experience of a brutally efficient technology unhinged from a larger theological framework, the ways bureaucracy and technology might interweave to obliterate the human image in books like That Hideous Strength, or in the idea of a Ring of Power that could subject all manner of beings to its owner's bidding. Seeing the machines of war in their own experience, and the more sinister regimes of Hitler and Stalin, they could write of the evil power that, as Screwtape desires, would devour the other.

Yet Loconte shows how this bracing grasp of the nature of evil did not discourage them. Their works were infused with Christian hope--an Aslan that rises, a hobbit who, against all hopes, fulfills his mission with the help of tragic Gollum, the crowning of Aragorn as the long-awaited great king, and the Christ-like figure of Ransom, who summons both Merlin and the angels to subvert the villainies of the N.I.C.E. Like the foot soldiers in the war, many of the most significant turns of events come from the actions of children and hobbits doing their duty.

This, as I said, is not a book that covers new ground, but I found myself as I read making new connections, the "I hadn't thought of it that way" moments when you see something you know in a new way. Loconte concludes the book with a tribute to grandfather, Michele Loconte, who fought with the American forces, and only after the war became a U.S. citizen. Loconte says his research helped him understand more how the war had an impact on so many ordinary families including his own. Fitting that an Inklings scholar should make this connection between his own history and that of the Inklings! ( )
  BobonBooks | Sep 18, 2016 |
G. MacDonald's influence on CSL---beauty

The following article is located at: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2016/julaug/c-s-lewis-george-macdonald-a...

C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and the Great War
Stranger In A Strange Land: Joseph Loconte | posted 6/20/2016
Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at The King's College in New York City and the author of 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, published by Thomas Nelson in 2015.

Phantastes explores what at first seems to be a young man's search for feminine beauty, but turns out to be a quest for something much more profound: "I gazed after her in a kind of despair; found, freed, lost! It seemed useless to follow, yet follow I must."

Apparently a force "outside time and place" had stirred him. If the stirring did not begin with Phantastes, it was nonetheless nurtured by MacDonald's infusion of fantasy with Christian spirituality. His story of desire—of the human longing for beauty in the midst of sorrow and death—would in some respects anticipate Lewis's own quest. "She smiled when she saw that my eyes were open," wrote MacDonald. "I asked her whether it was day yet. She answered, 'It is always day here, so long as I keep my fire burning.' I felt wonderfully refreshed; and a great desire to see more of the island awoke within me."
__________________________________________________​
In March 1916, while waiting for a train at Great Bookham Station in Surrey, England, a precocious student with a taste for fantasy walked over to a book stall and bought a copy of Phantastes: A Faerie Romance. The young man's name was C. S. Lewis. The work transformed him. "A few hours later," he concluded, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier." Reaching deeply into his imagination, the book challenged his growing atheism and ultimately helped to make plausible the Christian account of the human predicament.

Many readers of Lewis are aware of MacDonald's influence, but the timing of the book's impact, a century ago, is perhaps not so well known. It is surely relevant that Lewis first encountered Phantastes in the middle of the Great War, with millions of soldiers already dead, with fresh reports of the slaughter at Verdun, with the prospect of the trenches haunting his 18-year-old mind. After a visit from his older brother, Warren, already serving as a second lieutenant with the British Expeditionary Force, Lewis noted in his diary: "had ghastly dreams about the front and getting wounded last night."

While studying the classics under a tutor before applying to Oxford, Lewis was reaching for authors who would nourish a growing taste for fantasy and romance: William Morris, E. R. Eddison, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. By his own description, he found himself "waste deep in Romanticism." MacDonald (1824-1905), a dissenting Scottish minister turned author, wrote fantasy novels and children's stories that became classics of the genre. Phantastes explores what at first seems to be a young man's search for feminine beauty, but turns out to be a quest for something much more profound: "I gazed after her in a kind of despair; found, freed, lost! It seemed useless to follow, yet follow I must."

When Lewis first picked up MacDonald's book, nothing was further from his mind than Christianity: the cataclysm of the war was upending his generation's settled beliefs in progress, patriotism, and religion. Yet he sensed in the work a hopeful spiritual quality that he had encountered nowhere else:

I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men.
What does it mean to have one's imagination "converted" or "baptized" by a work of fantasy? It seems that Phantastes helped to rescue Lewis's imaginative mind from its darkest tendencies—made darker, perhaps, by the onset of the war—and introduced him to a "bright shadow," a voice or force that drew him out of himself. It set before him a vision of a world that must have seemed wholly unlike his own: pure and radiant, yet morally severe.

This was part of MacDonald's Christian intent. In his essay "The Fantastic Imagination," MacDonald hints at one of his objectives in using the genre of the fairytale. "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." Something, it seems, was awakened within Lewis, something that other authors had failed to summon.

Lewis's brother, with whom he shared a close and lifelong friendship, called his discovery of MacDonald "a turning point in his life." Biographers Roger Green and Walter Hooper regard Phantastes as "the highlight among Lewis's literary discoveries" during this time. Nearly forty years later, Lewis was still recommending MacDonald's work to friends and acquaintances. "The influence of Phantastes on Jack lasted many years, perhaps all his life," writes biographer George Sayer. "It had a transforming influence on his attitude toward the ordinary, common things around him, imbuing them with its own spiritual quality."

Such judgments seem just. In a diary entry dated January 11, 1923, Lewis hinted at the enormous importance he attached to the book during his years in the wilderness: "After this I read MacDonald's Phantastes over my tea, which I have read many times and which I really believe fills for me the place of a devotional book." Many years later, after becoming a Christian, Lewis wrote a preface to an anthology of MacDonald's writings, where he frankly acknowledged his debt to the Scottish divine. "I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master," he said. "Indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him." A remarkable tribute, coming from a man regarded by many as the most significant Christian author of the 20th century.

At the same time, Lewis's experience of combat provided the crucible for the early phase of his transformation. In April 1918, while he was serving as a second lieutenant on the Western Front, Lewis's regiment engaged in a firefight at Riez du Vinage. A shell exploded close by, killing his sergeant and injuring him with shrapnel in the hand, leg, and chest. Lewis was sent by train to a hospital in London. The pleasure of the English countryside—set against the suffering and horror of war—seemed to quicken his belief in a transcendent source of natural beauty.

"Can you imagine how I enjoyed my journey to London?" Lewis wrote to a friend from his bed at Endsleigh Palace Hospital. "First of all the sight and smell of the sea, that I have missed for so many long and weary months, and then the beautiful green country seen from the train … . You see the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist. I fancy there is Something right outside time & place, which did not create matter, as the Christians say, but is matter's great enemy."

Apparently a force "outside time and place" had stirred him. If the stirring did not begin with Phantastes, it was nonetheless nurtured by MacDonald's infusion of fantasy with Christian spirituality. His story of desire—of the human longing for beauty in the midst of sorrow and death—would in some respects anticipate Lewis's own quest. "She smiled when she saw that my eyes were open," wrote MacDonald. "I asked her whether it was day yet. She answered, 'It is always day here, so long as I keep my fire burning.' I felt wonderfully refreshed; and a great desire to see more of the island awoke within me."

Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.

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Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/BooksAndCulture.com.
Click here for reprint information on BooksAndCulture.com.
  keithhamblen | Aug 11, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0718021762, Hardcover)

The untold story of how the First World War shaped the lives, faith, and writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis

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 noHobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Narnia, and perhaps no conversion to Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

Unlike a generation of young writers who lost faith in the God of the Bible, Tolkien and Lewis produced epic stories infused with the themes of guilt and grace, sorrow and consolation. Giving an unabashedly Christian vision of hope in a world tortured by doubt and disillusionment, the two writers created works that changed the course of literature and shaped the faith of millions. This is the first book to explore their work in light of the spiritual crisis sparked by the conflict.

(retrieved from Amazon Sun, 05 Jul 2015 16:43:47 -0400)

"The untold story of how the First World War shaped the lives, faith, and writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis"--Amazon.com.

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