What Tolkien and Lewis teach us about surviving dark times

What happens when a whole way of life disintegrates before your eyes? Augustine lived through such a time. The men coming home from World War One did as well. It might feel as if we’re living through such a time right now.

One way to navigate treacherous times is to learn from those who have traversed similar moments before. And a penetrating new book by historian and King’s College professor Joseph Loconte can help us do exactly that.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War takes us into the wartime lives of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. More importantly, it takes us into their postwar lives as well. How did they cope? How did they rebuild? And how did they help others do the same?

The world torn to pieces

The trauma of the Great War is almost impossible to comprehend. More than sixteen million were killed. That again plus five million more were wounded. And those who recovered physically were often irreparably scarred in other ways. Shell shock, what today we would call PTSD, had longterm effects. Suicide and alcoholism often finished what bullets and bombs could not.

According to one contemporary study of shell-shocked Americans, “[S]even years after the war less than 40 percent were regarded as functioning normally, and nearly 20 percent were found to be a burden to society.” Of that 20 percent, half were unemployable, and the rest weren’t much better.

Michele Barrett recounts these and other statistics in her 2007 book Casualty Figures, noting that the British government paid over two million pounds a year to prop up those who could no longer prop up themselves.

But the far-reaching crisis of faith may have surpassed all others. For those that endured it, the cataclysm and its aftermath was like the end of the world. What was left to believe in? Writes Loconte,

For the intellectual class as well as the ordinary man on the street, the Great War had defamed the values of the Old World, along with the religious doctrines that helped to underwrite them. Moral advancement, even the idea of morality itself, seemed an illusion. . . . [T]he war to make the world safe for democracy, the holy war to advance Christian ideals, was an unholy delusion.

The virtue of disillusionment

In his previous book The Searchers, Loconte explains the virtue of disillusionment, how it can serve—even with brutal and terrible imperfection—to sever us from harmful fantasy. He returns to that theme now with the example of the pre-war Myth of Progress.

This myth, says Loconte,

was proclaimed from nearly every sector of society. Scientists, physicians, educators, industrialists, salesmen, politicians, preachers—they all agreed on the upward flight of humankind. Each breakthrough in medicine, science, and technology seemed to confirm the Myth.

Christian ministers and theologians got swept along, baptizing and proof-texting all manner of bogus utopianism. And then it all went to hell. Every oracle of progress, including the preachers, looked like fools or charlatans. When the survivors cleared the rubble, many mistook the Myth for Christianity itself and tossed both in the garbage bin.

The war made utopianism impossible. But for those who could disentangle Christianity from the failed Myth of Progress, it remained a vital force for renewal. Tolkien was—and Lewis became—two such people.

“Fortified by their faith, they proclaimed to their generation—and ours—a True Myth about the dignity of human life and its relationship to God,” says Loconte. Through the characters they created, “we are challenged to examine our deepest desires, to shake off our doubts, and to join the struggle against evil.”

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Tolkien and Lewis reframed discussions about science, political power, human freedom, and more. And it resonated. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia have together sold more than a quarter billion copies. And that’s to say nothing of similarly important books like The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity or a whole catalogue of lesser but vital works.

So where does that leave us today?

How we can follow Tolkien and Lewis’ lead

Loconte is not prescriptive, but there’s nothing stopping us from teasing out of his excellent book several things we can do in our own time of disillusionment.

1. Disentangle the permanent from the passing. Christianity, as Lewis once said about another topic, is like gin. It mixes well with other things, some quite pleasing. But it also gets mixed with much that leaves a bad taste. Both progressive and conservative politics provide plenty of examples.

One of Russell Moore’s many virtues is his willingness to discuss and act on this problem. As he says in his new book Onward, “Christian efforts at cultural and political engagement have been sometimes disastrous for the mission of the church.” Like Moore, we all need to be willing to see where our agendas and allegiances conflict with the faith and be willing to jettison what hinders the kingdom.

2. Present a new vision. Whether in fiction, reportage, criticism, memoir, music, or the visual arts, we must strive to present a vision not only congruent with the faith but also aesthetically and rhetorically compelling. “Truth rendered artfully is still truth,” as author and lit prof Karen Swallow Prior recently said. “Perhaps even more so.”

loconte hobbit wardrobe great war tolkien lewisTruth rendered artfully is precisely what Tolkien and Lewis accomplished. “In the end,” writes Loconte, “the creators of Narnia and Middle-earth offer a vision of human life that is at once terrifying and sublime.” It may not work for everyone, but it inspired enough to transform generations of readers and listeners down to our own day. It’s safe to say that this is an area where we need considerable improvement.

3. Celebrate and encourage. This is key. Tolkien, Lewis, and the rest of their small literary society, the Inklings, celebrated and encouraged each other’s work. They critiqued early drafts of each other’s books and both privately and publicly recommended them upon publication. Lewis even nominated Tolkien for a Nobel behind his back.

This serves two purposes. First, it makes for better work. Critique and support from engaged peers and friends sharpens and sustains our efforts. Second, it takes a network to publicly promote, validate, and elaborate on someone’s work. Without that, in most cases, it will sink without a ripple. This is triply so in today’s marketplace of ideas.

To survive challenging times requires connection to the timeless. Tolkien and Lewis managed it in their own day, and we can manage it in ours, thanks in part to their example.

Image credit: Internet Archive.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you Joel,
    Your article is a great reminder, as it also reminds me of Ernst Juenger, a German writer and soldier during WWI, his experiences and struggles with faith, God and the insanity of war.
    It is a terrifying experience to lose everything you hold dear, of value and significant in life, including your faith. I’ve been there, and I’ve realized, that if it was not for those who have gone before me, my parents survived WWI, my father was a WWI orphan, my grandparents lost all during the inflation and great depression in Europe, and I pondered often on their stories and how they made it out alive, sick and starved, emotionally bankrupt, and yet functioning with some kind of hope for me and three brothers to be born in the aftermath and rubbles of WWII.
    My disillusionment lays with the US and Christianity, as well as the American people that looked so hopeful in my young years. Now in my late years, after being stripped of everything, it has taught me not to put my hope in any country, people or establishments, but in God alone, but will pray for the all the rest.
    To teach and learn from History is so important and not done enough for the young. Sometimes I fear when hard times falls on them they have nothing to sustain them, because in those trying times, God seems so remote.

    Great thoughts and article, and I think I will purchase the book for my son as a Birthday gift. Again many thanks.

  2. I never really saw the connection until now, that Tolkien and Lewis came out of the rubble of the most terrible war in history. And out of those terrible experiences came the best stories of our time. So typical of God. Thank you for this, Joel.

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