19 January 2017

Review: 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 1914-18

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 1914-18 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 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Great War shattered the complacency of the West. Flanders’ Fields exploded the myth of Progress, that strange concatenation of Technological and Social Darwinism, of Social Gospel and Hard Science. Dissolution, disillusionment, irony, absurdity, and even worse, ideologies followed. It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. But what has long been noteworthy, if noted little and explored less, is that Tolkien and Lewis are very much WWI writers, too. They fought and feared, suffered illness and wounds, saw horrors, lost a generation of friends, just as Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Graves, and so many others did; and just as those others did, they, too, went off to war thinking of their homeland, not in terms of factories and swollen cities, but of the shires and the countryside. Yet they, as the title of this book suggests, did not suffer the same despair and disillusionment; instead they found the stuff of hope and recovery. I regret to say, however, that Professor Loconte’s book does not succeed as well as it might have done in explaining how this came to be so.

The first difficulty we encounter is that the author is quite often simply wrong. On page 9, the Ents are said to be marching off to attack, not Saruman, but Sauron. A slip of the pen perhaps, as might easily occur in haste, but usually caught in proof. On page 22 we have more serious errors. The author mistakes Frodo’s vision of Bilbo as “a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands” (FR 2.i.232) for reality, as if Bilbo were actually “momentarily distorted by his lust for the Ring.” That’s Peter Jackson’s scene, not Tolkien’s. Bilbo no more turns into Gollum here than Sam becomes an orc under similar circumstances in The Tower of Cirith Ungol (RK 6.i.911-12). Both of these scenes show what the Ring is doing to Frodo, making him see those he loves as monsters after his Ring.

Now even if this error were merely a matter of interpretation, the other mistake on page 22 is not. The author quotes from The Magician’s Nephew, as anyone even modestly familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia will recognize – I’ve read them only once – but he claims it’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Using the single volume edition of Narnia, which arranges the novels by internal chronology rather than in order of publication, Loconte fails to note the title of the novel written plainly at the top of the page. To this we may compare pages 147-48 where, quoting the same passage from The Magician’s Nephew, the author confuses Digory and Polly, the children of this novel, with the Pevensie children of the other Narnia tales.

On page 29 both Tolkien and Lewis are said to have been drafted, but they enlisted (as is later noted for Lewis on page 31). On page 30 Loconte states that Lewis attended Cherbourg School in Malvern, arriving in 1914, but Lewis went there for only one year (hated it) and 1914 was the year he left. On 82 Lewis is said to have been reading E.R. Eddison in or around 1916, but Eddison’s first work to be publicly circulated appeared in 1922. On page 143 we learn that The Fellowship of the Ring first appeared in 1955, not 1954. On page 135 we learn, further, that Bilbo is “a small half-elf creature.” And page 65 informs us that The Lord of the Rings is a “war trilogy,” which joins the dubious to the incorrect.

On page 118 the author seems unaware of the difference between The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion. He speaks of “The Fall of Gondolin,” written by Tolkien during the war and incorporated into The Book of Lost Tales, but he quotes the much later and briefer version from The Silmarillion. On page 121 he removes all doubt about his confusion: “By 1923, [Tolkien] had nearly completed The Book of Lost Tales (what he would later call The Silmarillion)....” I can only question whether the author has read The Book of Lost Tales.

On page 135 Loconte quotes Tolkien’s account of Lewis’ statement that “[i]f they won’t write the kind of books we want to read…we shall have to write them ourselves.” But in the very next line he makes it sound as if this statement predates the writing of The Hobbit by quite some time (“Eventually. they made good on the pledge. Tolkien began…The Hobbit….” [emphasis mine]). In fact Tolkien had finished writing The Hobbit by early 1933, and the evidence suggests that Lewis made his statement closer to 1936. Moreover, Tolkien and Lewis were talking about novels of time-travel and space-travel, and the books they decided to write became The Lost Road and Out of the Silent Planet (Tolkien, Letters, nos. 257 and 294; The Lost Road, 7-8; Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit [2011] p. xxii). The Hobbit has nothing to do with this statement.

What is more regrettable is that by confusing The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales Loconte deprives us of the primary texts most necessary for studying Tolkien’s immediate response to the war. As he himself points out (118-119), Tolkien later saw the writing of The Book of Lost Tales as therapeutic. In 1944 in a letter to his son, Christopher, then in the RAF, he encouraged him to write about what he was going through: “I sense among all your pains…a desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it from festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes" (Letters, no. 66, emphasis original).

What better place could there have been to begin an exploration of Tolkien’s reaction to the war, and what lessons could we have derived from a study of these writings side by side with those of his contemporaries, like Sassoon and Owen, who saw and felt the same horror but fell instead into bitterness and despair? Here is the beginning of the road that leads to The Lord of the Rings, but we do not get to walk it. And, from this perspective, would not Graves’ Good-Bye to All That (1929), and Claudius novels (1934-35) have made for interesting points of comparison on the way to The Lord of the Rings? Yet we jump straight to the end of this road, and a Tolkien who had had twenty to thirty years to reflect upon and come to understand his youthful experiences. As for what comes in between, The Book of Lost Tales is lost indeed, the World War One poets are scanted, and we receive background and generalizations about Tolkien’s generation drawn from secondary sources.

To be fair Loconte is better on Lewis, making more, but not always better, use of his letters, his diaries, and his early poetry. One of those letters, which he quotes (p. 116), reveals another missed opportunity for discussing Lewis alongside the World War One writers. Commenting in 1923 on a tormented fellow veteran who had just died, Lewis wrote: “[i]sn’t it a damned world – and we once thought we could be happy with books and music!” Now here is a sentiment with which to begin an examination of the despair and lost illusions of this world after 1918. It would likely be far easier to make the connections between his early poems, letters, and so on, and those of the World War One writers, since the gap in genre isn’t as great as it is with The Book of Lost Tales. The analysis of Lewis would have facilitated that of Tolkien in this regard.

All good interpretations of literature, all good reconstructions of history, rest ultimately on the details that support the arguments advanced by the author. In any work that seeks to combine the literary and the historical an even greater care with the details is essential. More variables require more rigor and more restraint. In this book so many errors present themselves -- ranging from simple, easily verifiable dates gotten wrong, to simple facts of the stories gotten wrong (half-elf?), to the confusion of different works of the very authors who are the subjects of this study – that faith in what Professor Loconte has to say requires a very willing suspension of disbelief. Yet the questions he raises here about Lewis and Tolkien in the context of World War One and its literary and spiritual aftermath are valid, important questions. From them we can learn much not only about Lewis and Tolkien, but by reflection about their contemporaries, about the times in which they all lived, as well as about the times of those of us still within the Great War’s shadow.

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