How World War I gave us Narnia and Middle Earth

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, November 28th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Remembering World War I.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the end of what was then known as the Great War.

As young men at the time, authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis served in the British Expeditionary Force. They each experienced action and injury in frontline trench warfare.

REICHARD: Neither Tolkien nor Lewis wrote a war memoir in the traditional sense. But the fictional worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia reveal much about their experiences and thoughts on the theology of war.

WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler has our story.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: When C.S. Lewis learned that Allen & Unwin agreed to publish Tolkien’s epic tale The Lord of the Rings, Lewis wrote Tolkien a letter:

LEWIS: 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…into the past, is now, in a sort, made permanent.

For Lewis, Tolkien’s tale of hobbits, orc, dwarves, elves, and men, settled the war in his own mind. Tolkien not only captured the essence of the war, but also what was at stake, and why it was worth remembering.

AUDIO: [Sound of exploding shells]

Tolkien fought at the Battle of Somme, one of the deadliest engagements of the war. The German and British trenches were just a few hundred yards apart, and at times, much closer. The area between the trenches became known as “no man’s land.” Shells from both sides reshaped the region many times. It was also the site of indescribable carnage.

Memories of “no man’s land” haunted soldiers for years and Tolkien was no exception. In The Two Towers, his vivid descriptions of the dead marshes and the desolation before Mordor are two remembrances of what he observed in France.

TOLKIEN: Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about.

C.S. Lewis arrived in the Somme Valley on his 19th birthday, though the worst of the fighting there was over before he arrived. Still, in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Lewis captures what it feels like to arrive at battle for the first time, and be called upon to kill an enemy.

LEWIS: Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do…Then came a horrible, confused moment like something in a nightmare…everything was blood and heat and hair. A moment later he found that the monster lay dead.

Scenes like this one caused some to criticize Lewis for including battle and bloodshed in his children’s stories. But in 19-66, Lewis wrote a defense of his decision to do so:

LEWIS: … Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.

Lewis’s and Tolkien’s mythologies do more than reflect the realities of war. Their characters teach readers how to respond to great conflicts: a theology of war emerges in their stirring stories. In The Two Towers, Faramir of Gondor tells Frodo:

TOLKIEN: War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend…

Another characteristic of the two story narratives is the nature of their heroes. Whether hobbits in Middle Earth or the Pevensies children in Narnia, it’s often the weak or powerless who, in the end, humble and defeat the mighty. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf and Frodo reflect on their small, but significant part to play:

TOLKIEN: ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us…

Tolkien is not being moralistic nor sentimental. He’s reminding readers that they are part of a larger story—one God is providentially writing. In a letter to his son Christopher during World War II, Tolkien writes:

TOLKIEN: Well, there you are: a hobbit amongst the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you’re in them. You’re inside a very great story.

In the years between the world wars, a deep despair spreads over Europe. Most of the poetry, novels, and art of the period reflect cynicism or a crisis of faith. Not so with Lewis and Tolkien. Instead they introduce a new mythology, focused on honor, chivalry, and sacrifice in the face of evil.

LOCONTE: Tolkien and Lewis recover the concept of heroism in an age of moral cynicism…

Historian Joseph Loconte is the author of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. In a 2015 presentation at the Family Research Council, Loconte argues that Tolkien’s and Lewis’ moral vision is unique. Narnia and Middle Earth both demonstrate that the hero can not overcome evil by his own merits. The forces set against us and the weakness within make victory impossible.  

LOCONTE: In the worlds created by Tolkien and Lewis, their struggle against evil is possible only because there is a source of grace and goodness outside of themselves…what Tolkien called the “sudden, joyous turn to rescue and redemption. A decisive act of grace which promises to overcome our guilt, restore what’s been lost, and set things right.

TOLKIEN: The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.

(Photo/The Stream)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on How World War I gave us Narnia and Middle Earth

  1. Lauren E. Nichols says:

    Thank you for this interesting story. However I should point out that Lewis’ defense of depicting war in Narnia could not have been written in 1966, since he died in 1963.

  2. Frederick B Brown MD says:

    CS Lewis died on November 22, 1963.
    “in 19-66, Lewis wrote a defense of his decision to do so:” is incorrect.

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