It is their moral imagination that exerts a unique power: the proposition that every person is caught up in an epic contest between Light and Darkness. In the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis, the choices of the weak matter as much as those of the mighty. Here we are not left as orphans, for a force of Goodness stands ready to help. Here we meet Gandalf the Grey, the wisest and best of wizards, engaged in a titanic struggle against the Shadow that threatens Middle-earth; and Aslan, the fearsome Lion, who will pay any price to rescue Narnia from the “force of evil” that has entered it.
I need to first take a moment to thank Amazon for the ability to highlight books on my kindle and then have the ability to later access those notes. I’m pretty sure I highlighted like every other paragraph (I also need every Inklings book I read on Kindle). Why? Because this book was amazing. Of course the material was hard to read (WWI = horrific and devastating), but learning about the details Lewis and Tolkien went through just increased my love of these two as human beings and authors.
I thought Loconte did such an excellent job of setting the scene and sharing details about the war, but without it seeming like a history book. This gave insight, not only Tolkien’s and Lewis’ birth and beginnings and thoughts, but the global scene and what was brewing the years right before WWI broke out (like all the eugenics history?? What in the *WHAT* world?).
It’s always so sad to read about the devastation of war. I won’t go into details too much here, but here’s one short summary from Loconte:
By the time of the Armistice, more than nine million soldiers lay dead and roughly thirty-seven million wounded. On average, there were about 6,046 men killed every day of the war, a war that lasted 1,566 days. In Great Britain, almost six million men—a quarter of Britain’s adult male population—passed through the ranks of the army. About one in eight perished.
Also, trench warfare goes down as the worst form of fighting ever created in this history of mankind.
Another aspect I found fascinating was seeing and understanding how different Tolkien and Lewis were from their contemporaries. After such a war, I understand why there were so many who wrote and focused on the pain and hurt. Yet, Tollers and Jack looked for something deeper. I liked this from Loconte:
Tolkien and Lewis were attracted to the genres of myth and romance not because they sought to escape the world, but because for them the real world had a mythic and heroic quality. The world is the setting for great conflicts and great quests: it creates scenes of remorseless violence, grief, and suffering, as well as deep compassion, courage, and selfless sacrifice. In an era that exalted cynicism and irony, Tolkien and Lewis sought to reclaim an older tradition of the epic hero. Their depictions of the struggles of Middle-earth and Narnia do not represent a flight from reality, but rather a return to a more realistic view of the world as we actually find it.
I also loved the bits about what pieces of the stories represent and their inspirations (you want me to talk about Frodo, Samwise, Middle Earth, Narnia and Aslan? Okay!)
Let’s kick it off with this Samwise Shoutout:
Likewise for Tolkien, who emerged from the war with a profound respect for the ordinary soldier. As an officer in the British army, he could not befriend the many privates who made up his battalion, nor the “batmen,” the servants assigned to look after an officer’s gear and attend to his daily needs. But war has a way of softening military hierarchies. As Tolkien fought alongside these soldiers, he witnessed again and again their remarkable determination under fire. Indeed, as he later acknowledged, one of the great heroic figures in The Lord of the Rings is based on his firsthand knowledge of the men in the trenches of the Great War: “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”
Before I read this book, I was already planning on doing a podcast about the War Years, but now I’m thinking there will have to be two parts. Not only because the information is fascinating, but, for me, understanding what influenced them helps me to appreciate their works even more (if that was even possible). I loved Sam from the beginning and learning the details of his influence? Love him and what he represents all the more.
The Hobbits High Five:
Tolkien the soldier lived among these “ordinary men,” fought alongside them, witnessed their courage under fire, joked with them, mourned with them, and watched them die. Thus the “small people” who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes in Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work. Like the soldiers in that war, the homely hobbits could not have perceived how the fate of nations depended upon their stubborn devotion to duty.
Because Gandalf quotes are always awesome:
“That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall,” advises Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. “For there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valor, and great deeds that are not wholly vain.”
Side note: how heart wrenching it must have been for the men and women who survived the horrors of WWI, to have to send their sons and daughters off to war 20 years later? I can’t even imagine. Tolkien himself sent two of his sons to war.
Decades later, there is still so much their works and lives influence. This about calling? Yep.
The choice they face is also a summons; not a blind accident, but a Calling on their lives. One may answer the Call—or refuse it, turn away, and walk into Darkness. But indifference to the Call to struggle against evil is not an option; one must take sides. Thus, set before our imagination in the works of Tolkien and Lewis is one of the great paradoxes of our mortal lives: the mysterious intersection of providence and free will.
I close with with a couple more thoughts and quotes. First, this quote:
The great achievement of Tolkien and Lewis is the creation of mythic and heroic figures who nevertheless make a claim upon our concrete and ordinary lives. Through them we are challenged to examine our deepest desires, to shake off our doubts, and to join in the struggle against evil. For in their voice is a warning: a call to “do the deed at hand” no matter what the cost. In their presence is strength: the grace to “cast aside regret and fear,” grace beyond all hope. These are the great themes that dominate their works and continue to delight generations of readers.
I wonder if they truly understood the impact they had with their writings.
And now, this final quote. I confess, I got a little weepy because #Jesus 🙂
In the end, the creators of Narnia and Middle-earth offer a vision of human life that is at once terrifying and sublime. They insist that every soul is caught up in an epic story of sacrifice and courage and clashing armies: the Return of the King. It is the day when every heart will be laid bare. We will know, with inexpressible joy or unspeakable sorrow, whether we have chosen Light or Darkness. “For the day of the LORD is near,” wrote the prophet, “in the valley of decision.” Hence comes a warning, as well as a blessing: to deny the King, to turn away in grief or rage, means endless ruin. But to behold him—to be counted among his Beloved—is to pass into life everlasting. “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” asks Sam. Here we find, beyond all imagination, the deepest source of hope for the human story. For when the King is revealed, “there will be no more night.” The Shadow will finally and forever be lifted from the earth. The Great War will be won. This King, who brings strength and healing in his hands, will make everything sad come untrue.
Alright! Thanks for sticking through. There was so much I didn’t include, but I hope you enjoyed this one as much as I did! Here’s a few discussion questions to kick things off. As always, feel free to answer any or all and of course I’d love to hear your thoughts in general too!
1. Let’s start with any general thoughts. What did you think of the book and how would you rate it?
2. Were there any historical facts/information that really stuck out to you?
How hard it must have been for them to each lose so many close friends. I’m thankful they found each other after the war and were able to have such an incredible friendship that lasted 40 years.
3. He talked a lot about the experiences of war they lived through and how those influenced and/or inspired scenes and characters from their works. Any stick out to you?
Not shockingly – Samwise! I also found in insightful how their love of nature made it in their fictional worlds.
4. Do you have an favorite quotes? I close with one more because I had to include this one:
“A counterfeit gospel, a false myth, created a cacophony of despair in the West. Yet two friends and authors refused to succumb to this storm of doubt and disillusionment. Fortified by their faith, they proclaimed for their generation—and ours—a True Myth about the dignity of human life and its relationship to God. Against all expectation, their writings would captivate and inspire countless readers from every culture and every part of the globe.”