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
by Joseph Loconte
Author Joseph Loconte is a masterful writer. In his book A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War, Loconte has captured the influences of hearth and home on the lives of C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. By blending these homespun details with the history of the time and biographies of the writers, Loconte has produced an especially intimate look into the lives of long time friends Tolkien and Lewis. But in a deft use of contrast, Loconte has also placed primary emphasis on an aspect of the two writers’ lives that is as far from homey and comfortable as one can get. Loconte brings to the forefront of his story the interval of time that Lewis and Tolkien spent in the trenches fighting for Britain in World War I, and has used this as the lens through which he views the authors’ most famous works. Throughout A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War (2015 Thomas Nelson), Loconte looks for answers as to why Lewis and Tolkien wrote as they did, and he attempts to interpret the impact of the Great War on the authors and their stories.
The enduring interest in Tolkien and Lewis as authors is due in large part to their hugely successful children’s tales to which Loconte alludes in the title of his book; they are Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. These publications continue to fascinate readers more than 50 years after they were written. Loconte wonders what gives these books their longevity? Are these novels keepers simply because they are fantastic tales that grab one’s imagination and allow the reader to escape daily drudgery? Or are they realistic portrayals of the fears and hopes of human struggles, and therefore continue to resonate with people’s own lives decade after decade? Loconte proposes many questions about The Hobbit, and The Lion , the Witch and the Wardrobe. As a platform for his queries Loconte uses the subtitle of his book: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Loconte begins A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War by describing the historical context for the book and the place where Tolkien and Lewis fit in this context. The Cataclysm of 1914-1918 named in the sub-title is World War I, also called the Great War. In that war, Great Britain, Europe and eventually America, were thrown into a horrendous period of pain and loss that destroyed lives, lands and more. Says Loconte, “Like no other force in history, the First World War permanently altered the political and cultural landscape of Europe, America, and the West…Literary critic Roger Sale has called the conflict, ‘the single event most responsible for shaping the modern idea that heroism is dead.’ For a generation of men and women it brought the end of innocence, and of faith.”
For many, the post World War I era was a time of despondency. Loconte reports, “In the years after the conflict, the cruelty and senselessness of the war — of any war for any reason –became the dominant motifs of a generation…The watchword was disillusionment: a new cynicism about liberal democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the achievements of Western civilization.”
Loconte maintains that Lewis and Tolkien did not fall prey to the prevailing sentiment of the day: “Yet for two extraordinary authors and friends, 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 shape their Christian imagination. Tolkien created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the second-best selling novel ever written and among the most influential books written in the twentieth century. Lewis earned fame for The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven immensely popular children’s books ranked among the classics. It can be argued that these epic tales — involving the sorrows and triumphs of war — would never have been written had these authors not been flung into the crucible of combat.”
Friendship is a recurring theme in A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War. From the beginning of the book to the end, individual friendships and groups of friends are acknowledged as essential to life. Loconte writes, “After the war, Tolkien and Lewis made their way to Oxford University, where they took up their vocations as instructors in English literature. They met for the first time in 1926, and a bond of friendship was established that would transform their lives and careers. Tolkien would play a crucial role in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, while Lewis would be a decisive voice in persuading Tolkien to complete The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Given the massive and enduring influence of their works, it is hard to think of a more consequential friendship in the twentieth century — a friendship that emerged from the suffering and sorrow of a world war.”
Loconte uses anecdotes from Lewis and Tolkien’s lives, stories of the Great War and quotes from the works of both writers to support his idea that many of the authors’ works were strongly influenced by the experiences each man underwent in World War I. Here is a quote that reinforces Loconte’s position. It is included in the book, and is from a letter Lewis wrote to Tolkien when he learned that The Lord of the Rings had been accepted for publication. First he (Lewis) spoke of the joy he was looking forward to in reading the book, and then Lewis wrote this:”But a lot of other things come in. So much of your whole life, so much of our joint life, so much of the war, so much that seemed to be slipping away quite spurlos [without trace] into the past, is now, in a sort made permanent.”
If you have read Tolkien or Lewis or both, if you have an interest in the history of World War l, or if you are a writer who needs some inspiration, read A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War by Joseph Loconte. It will be worth your while.
 Roger Sale, Modern Heroism: Essays on D.H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J. R. R. Tolkien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 3.
 Hooper, ed., Collected Letters, Vol. 2, 501
In general, I hold with the view that nothing anyone could say about Lewis or Tolkien would be as worthwhile reading as what they themselves wrote, but this might be an exception. It sounds like a real contribution to the field. Thanks for introducing us to it.
I agree, Tracey – reading the authors’ works hopefully takes precedence over reading anything written about the authors. But for someone who has not read Lewis or Tolkien maybe this review, or Loconte’s book itself, will be the nudge of encouragement needed to pick up “The Hobbit” or “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I hope so! Thank you for reading the review, Tracey – I appreciate your comment very much.