Joseph Loconte talked about how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War affected their lives and future writing. He authored 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.
Joseph Loconte: Well, hello everybody. How’s everybody doing out there? Hi, can you hear me back there in the bleacher seats? Yeah? What an amazing 24 hours over here, the speakers, the quality of the speakers, and the beautiful venue and you students and the quality of the questions, I am just so impressed. Mark Tooley is the guy who makes this happen, he and his team, let’s have a round of applause for Mark Tooley. I’m so impressed. And now that I’ve praised him, I’ve known Mark for many years, now I’m going to publicly denounce him because of the calendar, the schedule of speakers one after another after another you can’t even get a cookie, or a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom. Just give us a break next time, I told him I was going to publicly denounce him. So how about, yeah, how about an amen on that? Oh, that’s right I warned him, I warned him, I begged him, he didn’t listen to me.
All right we’ve heard from political scientists, we’ve heard from philosophers, moral theologians, I am none of those things. I’m an historian and I’m not capable of very much abstract thought, you got to land the plane with akani pretty quickly. I am the great-grandson of a baker, the grandson of a barber, and the son of an eggman from Brooklyn, we don’t do philosophy in the Lacante family that’s the good news, and there’s no bad news all right. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S Lewis, and war. Well just over a century ago, maybe we can close those doors there, that help could we close those, some of that background chat is that possible. Just over a century ago the national peace council of Great Britain this is a group of religious and secular peace organizations over a century ago they issued this proclamation peace the babe of the 19th century is the strong youth of the 20th century for war the product of anarchy and fear they say, let that phrase hang in here, war the product of anarchy and fear is passing away under the growing and persistent pressure of world organization economic necessity human intercourse and that change of spirit that social sense the zeitgeist of the age. The National Peace Council made that prediction in the 1914 edition of its peace yearbook, within a matter of weeks the nations of the earth became embroiled in a global conflict, the first world war the most destructive and dehumanizing war the world had ever seen. So much for liberal delusions about human nature and the nature of human conflict, two of the most beloved Christian authors of the last century J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis, they were both thrust into the jaws of the industrial slaughterhouse of the first world war. Both served as second lieutenants with the British expeditionary force in France and remember what the soldiers on the western front had to endure, the mortars the machine guns the tanks the poison gas the flame throwers the barbed wire the trenches and the mud. Never before had technology and science so conspired to destroy both man and nature when it was all over wrote Winston Churchill, torture and cannibalism were the only expedience that the civilized scientific Christian states had been able to deny themselves.
Well C.S Lewis was injured nearly killed by a mortar shell which obliterated his sergeant who was standing nearby, most of his friends perished in the war. He wrote his father from his hospital bed; I could sit down and cry over the whole business. Tolkien fought at the battle of the Somme, one of the fiercest concentrations of killing in the history of human combat. Some of you will know this the battle of Somme, the Brits lost over 19 000 men on the opening day of the battle it’s still the bloodiest battle in British military history, and that’s a lot of military history right. Listen to Tolkien, one has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel its full oppression to be caught up in youth, by 1914 he says was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years by 1918 Tolkien says, all but one of my close friends were dead.
So, these men had no romantic illusions about the horror and the human cost of war as C.S Lewis put it, we remember the trenches too well. It was not only the experience of the trenches that gave them a sober view of war, 20 years after the end of the first world war, Tolkien and Lewis have to endure a second world war and they faced the onset of that conflict, Great Britain near the center of it, with a sense of revulsion, of foreboding, of dread. Remember what separates the British people from the barbarism of Europe in 1939, it’s the English Channel and Winston Churchill, that’s another talk for another day. Well, Lewis wrote to his friend Dom Griffiths October 1938 Lewis to his friend, I was terrified to find how terrified I was by the crisis. Pray for me, for courage he wrote that in October 5th, 1938. What crisis is he talking about friends? What crisis? 1938 October? Munich. The Munich crisis, when Hitler persuades the democratic allies to allow him to absorb a portion of Czechoslovakia for the false promise of peace, that’s the crisis he’s talking about.
Tolkien is in a similar situation here. Let me think about it this way, for both of them Tolkien and Lewis their personal professional lives are bracketed by the most devastating wars in human history, when western civilization itself seems to sit on the edge of a knife, and yet for these two extraordinary authors and friends, and we’ll talk about that their friendship, the experience of war it deepened their spiritual quest and it shaped their literary imagination, out of war came a great friendship, and out of their friendship came their great imaginative work, stories about the conflict between good and evil, about heroism about sacrifice for a noble cause. Put it down in three words war, friendship, and imagination. War, friendship, and imagination. Tolkien creates the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, Lewis earns fame for the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy, these epic tales involve the struggles and sorrows and the triumphs of war. So, what was their approach to war?
Well, many veterans of World War I, as you guys know has been referred to, I think you’re a bit many, were they wrote blistering anti-war novels in poetry in the 1920s, an entire generation of Christian ministers vowed never to support Britain in another war after the first world war. The students at the Oxford Union Society voted in 1933, 33, “this house will under no circumstances fight for its king and country close quote token repeatedly decried himself Tolkien decry the utter stupid waste of war” as he put it in a letter but he acknowledged also “it will be necessary to face it in an evil world.” Lewis writing in 1944 we know from the experience of the last 20 years think about that running in 44 the last 20 years we know from the experience, the last 20 years that a terrified and angry pacifism is one of the roads that leads to war. Both men fought honorably in World War I, they were part of the home guard during the second world war in addition to their life experiences. So, what shaped their approach to war?
Well, let me add this. Both men were educated in the literary canon of western civilization Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton. Lewis said that outside of the Bible, Virgil’s Aeneid had the greatest impact on his professional career, think about that the Aeneid, Lewis said had the greatest impact on his professional career. The Aeneid has been described by one scholar as the single most influential literary work of European civilization for the better part of two millennia. It’s a war story friends, it’s a war story, a story about origins the founding myth of ancient Rome written by Rome’s greatest poet, when his nation was in the throes of an identity crisis. The mission of Aeneid’s is not only to wage war and defeat the defiant tribes, his supreme mission is to establish a new civilization from the Aeneian, Roman remember by your strength to rule earth’s peoples for your arts are to be these to pacify to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, to battle down the proud.
The classical scholar A.T. Reyes says this about C.S Lewis and his lifelong attachment to the Aeneid, for Lewis a veteran of the first world war, the beauty and fascination of Virgil’s poem lay in its expression of waste and loss what affected him most was Virgil’s need to depict the human tragedy within war. It wasn’t only the sense of loss though I think that moved Lewis, he wrote a letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers dated December 29 1946, here’s what he said, I’ve just re-read the Aeneid again, he read it he didn’t know how many times he’d read it and reread it, I’ve just reread it again the effect is one of the immense costliness of a vocation combined with a complete conviction that it’s worth it. Tolkien expressed the same kind of appreciation for Beowulf.
Beowulf considered the greatest surviving old English poem, and again one of the most important works of western literature. The story of the Scandinavian warrior battling the forces of evil, Beowulf captured token’s imagination when he was just a young man, he studied it, he translated it, he lectured on it for decades. One of the likely sources of Tolkien’s dragon in the hobbit the desolation of smog it’s from Beowulf, which also features of course a dragon and stolen treasure. In that story Beowulf defeats the demon Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fearsome dragon. But at the cost of his own life, Tolkien was fascinated by these tales with their portrayal of the persistence of wickedness, the danger of pride, and the value of heroic sacrifice for a noble cause.
Tolkien was asked to give a lecture, I think was by the Natural History Museum of Oxford, Christmas lectures, I think, was 1938-39 and the topic is his book The Hobbit, has just come out. So, he’s pretty popular now with the kids, it’s a Christmas program for kids, he’s asked to deliver a lecture on dragons. And I only found this lecture, this talk he gave because I went to the Bodleian library, you can see the original manuscript, it’s really hard to find it anywhere any kind of published sources. Here’s a piece of what he told these kids about dragons, for the dragon bears witness to the power and danger and malice that men find in the world, and he bears witness also to the wit and the courage and finally to the luck or grace that men have shown in their adventures, not all men and only a few men greatly, and then he went on, he said dragons,
dragons are the final test of heroes; dragons are the final test of heroes. So, on the one hand Tolkien and Lewis they’re not war mongers, they’re not tempted to jingoism or militant nationalism. On the other hand, unlike many of their peers in the 1920s and 30s, they rejected pacifism.
They navigated between these two extremes, between militarism and pacifism in their approach to the world. They embrace what we call Christian realism, I think. Reinhold Niebuhr you’ve heard his name, here’s a line from Niebuhr, when the mind is not confused by utopian delusions it is not difficult to recognize genuine achievements of justice and to feel under obligation to defend them against the threats of tyranny and the negation of justice. Well, Tolkien and Lewis carried no illusions about war because they had no illusions about the problem of evil. The problem of evil, the tragedy of the human condition. Remember The Lord of The Rings the words of Elrond of the council of Elrond, and the elves deemed that evil was ended forever and it was not so. You see this in Tolkien’s children’s story, in his children’s story The Hobbit, remember the goblins in the story? The goblins, listen to how Tolkien describes them, now goblins are cruel wicked bad-hearted they make no beautiful things but they make many clever ones hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongues, and also instruments of torture they make them very well it is not unlikely, he says, that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them. Now what does that sound like? What does that sound like?
Sounds like Mark Tooley putting around his backyard over there doesn’t it? No, not at all. It sounds like the industrialized slaughter of the first world war, the abuse of science and technology. What do we make of the ring in The Lord of The Rings? The battle between Mordor and middle earth is called the war of the ring, my precious, why go to war over a ring? Well the ring gives you the ability to make yourself invisible and whoever possesses the one ring controls all the others. One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness blind them.
In the 1950s, at the start of the cold war many people assumed that the ring was a symbol of atomic power right, the nuclear age now, Tolkien sets them straight. But of course my story is not an allegory of atomic power he says, but of power exerted for domination. He just tells us what it’s about, power exerted for domination. He had a ringside seat to that in Britain throughout the 1920s and 30s. Well, the ring as the embodiment of the will to power, the desire to exploit, dominate, to control the lives of others. The National Peace Council in 1914 claimed that war was “the product of anarchy and fear.” Today’s progressive elites, well they talk as if war could be eliminated through arms control agreements, international treaties, the spread of democracy, global redistribution of wealth, or maybe the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, it won’t do friends, modern liberalism will not face honestly the problem of the will to power.
Lewis tackles this theme in his essay, why I Am Not A Pacifist, and I commend it to everybody in this room, it’s beautiful essay empathetic, sympathetic, but also very realistic. Why I’m Not A Pacifist, he challenges the claim that wars never do any good, let me read you a few lines, how are we to decide whether the total effect would have been better or worse if Europe had submitted to Germany in 1914 he asks. It’s of course true that wars never do half the good which the leaders of the belligerents say they’re going to do. That may be a sound argument for not pitching one’s propaganda too high, but it’s no argument against war he says. Then he goes on, it is certain that a whole nation cannot be prevented from taking what it wants except by war. It is almost equally certain that the absorption of certain societies by certain other societies is a greater evil. the doctrine that war is always a great evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, he writes, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils, but I do not think that they are he says.
Well, for Tolkien and Lewis, war it was a tragic necessity. This is a major theme in their works right, but why? What’s the purpose of war? What good could it achieve? From the Lord of The Rings, Faramir the captain of Gondor, 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, the innocent right. The innocent. War as a moral necessity to protect the innocent from great harm, to preserve human freedom, to defend civilization against barbarism. This is the moral core of the Christian just war tradition from Augustine to Aquinas, Groties and beyond.
Tolkien and Lewis wrote epic fantasy right, they revived the medieval concept of the heroic quest. Tolkien said that when he read a medieval work it stirred him to produce a modern work in the same tradition and that’s part of his great achievement isn’t it. Recall what Lewis does in the chronicles of Narnia, Narnia is a realm of kings and queens where a code of honor holds sway, where knighthood is won or lost on the field of battle. Well, isn’t this just medieval nostalgia? Isn’t this just a form of escapism? Because they’re accused of that. Well, maybe it’s just the opposite. Maybe the theme of war of a struggle between light and darkness maybe that’s essential in an age of moral cynicism, courage, valor, can I use the word chivalry in wartime for a just cause, both authors believed that this was the only realistic path in a dangerous world.
Listen to C.S. Lewis on this, it offers the only possible escape from a world divided between werewolves who do not understand and sheep who cannot defend the things which make life desirable. Defending the things that make life desirable that make it worth living, freedom, beauty, love, faith. In the Lord of The Rings, Tolkien presents us with two kinds of heroes in wartime, we’ve got the extraordinary man right the hidden king determined to fight for his people against the great evil, and then we’ve got the ordinary man, ordinary woman, the hobbit. Count any hobbits out there in the audience? Closest hobbits want to raise your hand? Confess right now. The hobbit, the person like us who is “not made for perilous quests” as he says. Where did Tolkien get his idea for the hobbit? We’ll go back to the first world war, to the western front where tokens served as a second lieutenant struggling with his men to stay alive. I’ve always been impressed that we are here surviving he says because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds. The hobbits were made small, he explained to show up in creatures of very small physical power the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men at a pinch he says. He’s talking about the men, yes, the men that he fought alongside in the trenches in France. The British expeditionary force they were not for the most part a professional army, they were citizen soldiers, shopkeepers, bartenders, clerks, farmers, fishermen, and gardeners. Listen to Tolkien my Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier of the privates that I knew in the 1914 war and recognized as so far superior to myself. So, think about it, one of the most beloved characters in modern fiction is based on the ordinary English soldier at his post ready to fight and die for his country, for his band of brothers.
Well for these two giants of literature whose lives were so profoundly affected by war, there’s only one truth, one singular event that can end the long war against evil. Undo the tragedy of the human condition and bring lasting peace, only one thing it’s the return of the king. And Narnia of course the king is Aslan, the great lion, the Christ figure. Only Aslan knows the way to that blessed realm that lies beyond the sea, the light ahead was growing stronger writes Lewis in the last battle. Lucy saw that a great series of many-colored cliffs led up in front of them like a giant staircase and then she forgot everything else because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty. This king comes in power and beauty as the voice of conscience and as the source of consolation as the lion and the lamb.
In Tolkien’s story the king is Aragorn right. Aragorn the chief epic hero of the Lord of The Rings, heir to the kingship of Gondor, his life is devoted to the war, the war against Sauron. His true stature is made known however only after Sauron’s defeat when he finally assumes his throne. Here’s how Tolkien describes that moment, see if it brings anything to mind, when Aragon arose all that beheld him gazed in silence for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea kings of old he stood above all that were near, ancient of days he seemed yet in the flower of manhood and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands and a light was about him and then Faramir cried behold the king.
It’s in these war stories friends, war stories, tales of loss and recovery of cowardice and courage of betrayal and redemption that we find a clue to the meaning of our earthly journey. Is everything said going to come untrue, ask Sam. For the creators of Narnia and middle earth here is the deepest source of hope for the human story, the belief that God and goodness are the ultimate realities and that the shadow of sin and suffering and death will finally be lifted from our lives, the great war will be won. This king who brings strength and healing in his hands will make everything sad come untrue. Thanks for listening.
Time for questions.
Questioner: I guess this is more of a comment and you can respond so C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was given in World War II and Britain’s darkest hour as a I was wondering what effect do you think that had on the people to revive their spirit, give them hope, give them meaning for fighting a war?
Joseph Loconte: That’s a terrific question. What’s your name? Thank you. Corey. It’s a terrific question. Yes, C.S. Lewis some of you may not know this Mere Christianity came out of a series of radio broadcasts that the BBC asked him to deliver to defend the truce of the Christian faith, that’s how far we have come friends. In 1940 the BBC thought to do that they thought that Great Britain needed addition to Winston Churchill, they needed a voice helping people to find faith hope and strength during the blitz. This is during the blitz remember this is 76 nights, no excuse me 57 nights of consecutive air raids against the city of London. Think about the 9/11 attacks, think about that, 57 consecutive nights of ruin in London and in the other cities. That’s what the Brits are going through. BBC asked Lewis to deliver a series of radio broadcasts. You know I’ve read some of the letters, they’re not that easy to find sometimes of people who were young and they heard Lewis on the air and they’re reflecting on that time and the strength that it gave them.
It’s one of those if I just make a plug here, it’s one of the scenes we want to recreate in the film series that I’m doing the documentary film series on Token, Lewis, and war to get into an English pub with Louis’s voice coming over you know over the radio. I think I think it’s a tremendous amount because it made his voice next to Winston Churchill, he’s probably one of the most recognizable personalities in Great Britain for that period of time. That’s the reach that the BBC had, and of course the book went on to become this best-selling book and influenced so many people’s lives afterwards. But in the moment, the British people are trying to make sense of this, how in the world did that could this catastrophe have happened again. And I think that’s the thing to stress for us, maybe as Americans remember the first World War we came in last as the Brits like to say we came in late, we suffered the least, and we came out the strongest, we didn’t have the same kind of sense of devastation, none of the war was fought on our soil, but the Brits are still reeling from that and the idea they have to go through it again it caused so many people to turn away from the faith. And I think Lewis had a profound effect on shoring up people’s courage but also leading them to faith as well. Many testimonies that are out there that need to be tracked down it’s great dissertation topic to take on for somebody. Thanks for that question, appreciate it. Yes sir.
Questioner: I just want to say thank you for the wonderful talk. You kind of talked about how you sort of often mentioned how Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both kind of accused of being escapists. I believe Tolkien, I don’t know how true this is, but I believe he kind of owned that. He described sort of his idea of escapism to being similar to if you’re a soldier trapped in a prison camp, don’t you have a duty to try and escape? I don’t know maybe that plays the sort of same concept of us as Christians were meant for the next life, I just wanna know if you had anything to say to that kind of idea?
Joseph Loconte: That’s a terrific question. Tell me your name. Greg. Thank you, Greg. You’re right about Tolkien. He owned it in the sense that he wanted to turn it on its head, not escaping reality but escaping from the illusions is really how Tolkien and Lewis both agreed. Escaping from the illusions that the modern world was feeding us the lies, that the modern world was feeding us. And we can’t overemphasize the culture of lies that we are now swimming in about ourselves, about the human condition, about politics and all the rest of it and he’s saying look I’m going to use fantasy I’m going to use the genre of fantasy fiction, epic myth to teach deep truths about the human condition. and that’s what he does in the lord of the rings in a magnificent way. Lewis does in the chronicles of Narnia and so what do those works do? They reveal what they reveal the depth of evil the problem of evil the persistence of power remember how Frodo, you know he’s you know of course one of the heroes in the story, but when you get to the cracks of mount doom, spoiler alert here friends, when you get to the cracks of mount doom you know what Frodo does? I am not going to do now what I came to do; the ring is mine and he puts it back on his finger and so the ring is destroyed but it’s not even destroyed by Frodo is it or by the fellowship, it’s destroyed by Gollum. Gollum this as Tolkien put it, a sudden turn of grace, a sudden act of grace right, a catastrophe was the phrase that Tolkien developed the unraveling of a catastrophe.
So, the point is the persistence of evil even the heroes in their stories there is such a susceptibility to temptation to being overrun by it overwhelmed by it that’s realism isn’t it right that’s realism that’s not escapist. When Lewis reviewed Tolkien’s book the Lord of The Rings when the first draft of it, the first volume, he said the feeling that he had was not escapism because the charges were flying right out of the gate, he says the feeling I have is dread. Dread, the feeling that I can’t just remain in my little hobbit hole in front of the fire there’s a real world out there. I have to engage, and I’ll tell you just a personal quick story I didn’t start reading the Lord of The Rings until I was in my mid-40s. I was doing my academic work at King’s College London, I’m a late bloomer people and as my friends like to say Loconte you call that blooming? Yeah right! All right. But yes, late bloomer. So, I’m reading it in my 40s, I’m doing my doctor I’m reading John Locke during the day and I’m reading Lord of The Rings at night in a great English pub which is a great way to do it. And I came away not escaping reality I felt just fortified for the task at hand for the world at hand morally invigorated is how I felt here’s what here’s what deceit and cowardice looks like but here’s what current courage and heroism look like that’s a pretty good thing to be thinking about, I think. Terrific question. I appreciate that. I hope I took a stab at it.
Thank you. Terrific. Yes, sir come on up. And as you’re as you’re coming up, let me just read a few lines I can find it quickly which also fills out that point if I can find it quickly let’s see. If I can’t find it we’ll just, oh here it is yeah this is Edmund Fuller real quickly. Edmund Fuller a book he’s a literary critic he’s writing like in 1960s, late 1960s, he’s writing about Lewis and Tolkien and their works. And Edmund Fuller is a Christian literary critic writing at the time I think for the Times New York Times, and he’s disgusted with the direction that modern fiction has taken, becoming so cynical and degrading of the individual, and he’s giving a defense of Tolkien and Lewis. And here’s what he says, let’s see it’s not escapist not in the pejorative sense indeed it may it may offer temporary refuge and relief from the pressure of our immediate world but if it is of depth, now he’s talking about fantasy, epic myth and fantasy, if it is of depth then we are brought to a deeper pondering and insight into central aspects of our actual lives, our sensitivity is wedded to honor, encourage, and aspiration, and beauty no one thinking on these things is escaping reality couldn’t say it any better. Go ahead.
Questioner: Thank you so much for your talk Dr. Loconte my name is James Diddams, and I work at The Institute on Religion and Democracy. When you opened this talk, you were addressing the way that Tolkien and Lewis had grown up in a deep cultural well indebted to Virgil and Homer and John Milton and other various, you know greats of the western canon. And later on, as you went you mentioned, you were talking about Tolkien’s you know symbolism of the great grinding wheels of industry and things like that that we took to be symbolic of like fascism. I thought you were going to say, maybe this is something that other scholars would say it was going to be a symbol of the creaking wheels of industry and technocracy crushing culture and beauty of Homer and Virgil and Milton, people who studying those kinds of poems like Beowulf there is no practical, or if I could say capitalistic purpose to those things. And I’m wondering, do you think that thinking about what we’ve lost today I increasingly have the sense that we’re in a new dark age, that the kinds of deep cultural meanings that are built up over thousands of years, that cannot just be pulled out of the sky, we don’t have those anymore. I bet very few people in this room have read you know the greats of Virgil and Homer and Milton maybe some people if you’re an English major you’ve read like one of those if you’re a classics major, you’ve read Virgil and Homer. No one thinking about the way that to get into Harvard 200 years ago you had to speak Hebrew and Latin, you have to have this deep breadth of knowledge of the western tradition. And I don’t even know, like at Wheaton college where I went, I don’t even know how to explain to someone who is purely interested in liberal arts education because they know it’ll get them into a fine institution, I don’t even know the language to use to tell them otherwise, and I worry that we as Christians, we only pay lip service to the liberal arts, to the great tradition. Yeah, what do you think?
Joseph Loconte: You have reason to worry. You have reason to worry. I wouldn’t quite use the word dark ages, but I’m here, I hear you, I hear you on that. Think about it since the late 1960s-1970s the desire to eliminate expunge the western canon from the curriculum it’s almost complete. There are some holdouts, the King’s college where I taught for a decade as a hold out over there. Other great schools are holdouts but back in the late 60s and 70s what were they chanting there at that I think at the university of not San Diego USC maybe was “hey hey ho ho western civ has got to go” that was the chant and here we are now. So, what happens we cut ourselves off from this great cultural inheritance, this classical Christian inheritance. And I think Lewis and Tolkien consciously wanted to draw on that inheritance to push back against this incredible darkness. I think in ways maybe some other there are wonderful biographies of both those men, and I’ve benefited from a number of them but I’m not sure there’s been enough attention given to how deliberate they were in drawing on that rich tradition to push back against the nihilism of their age. I mean think about the ideologies that that take flight after the first world war communism had been out there since the 19th century with Marx but it takes off by 1919 1920 they’re having international world conferences because the disillusionment with democratic capitalism so you got communism the fascists begin in my beloved Italy there in 1921 22 with Mussolini long before Hitler comes on the scene in a significant way right communism, fascism, eugenics, materialism, scientism, those ideologies just really take off and these guys have a ringside seat to it and I think they’re using. Yes, the form of epic myth, epic literature, the mythic hero but also they’re drawing on those deep wells to push back the best they can in their world with their sense of vocation they’re not politicians they’re not philosophers they’re writers right. They’re writers and they’re doing everything they can to push back against the darkness and look at the effect they had look at the effect we’re still talking about their books and making movies and tv series now, God help us what we’ll see what ABC or what do you call Amazon does with it, but we’re still talking about these men, and their books are still selling and they’ve been translated into dozens of languages. So, I don’t know about dark ages there are rational reasons to be hopeful though rational reason behold because people do respond I think the way that we’re wired by God, the way we’re made we respond to beauty. We respond we respond to moral beauty which is just embedded in their works. does that help answer the question?
Questioner: Hey, thank you for coming out and talking to us today. My name is Rohan, I’m from Wheaton College. And I was wondering what kind of remedies would Lewis and Tolkien give to war suffering in the human condition?
Joseph Loconte: Remedies, Rohan, remedies. Do you have one in mind though? That’s a huge question. I think I like the question, but could you pack it just a little bit when you say a remedy.
Questioner: Well, I think we’ve talked a lot about the realities of growing up in war and suffering but how do you say he resolves these conditions?
Joseph Loconte: You know there’s a such a profound sense to their works in that they both realize if you think about Frodo coming back after the defeat of Sauron, the destruction of the ring, Frodo he’s not the same. Some biographers historic they look at him and they think is he kind of the shell-shocked veteran of the first world war, he’s not himself it’s not quite right something’s changed. The persistence of evil the persistence of the shadow right and it’s the same for Lewis there’s no final defeat on this side, on this side of the curtain. So, there is no clear remedy for that some perfect remedy for that. I think what they’re going to say though if we just think about their works and how they live their lives think about this for a minute, these men they have this sense of calling. they are academics, they have to deliver lectures, do scholarship, produce scholarly articles, teach, and mentor their students, grade student papers. Tolkien first wrote down the words in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit he wrote it while he was grading student examination papers found a blank sheet and said oh my God here it is he didn’t know why he wrote those words he just wrote them. You know he’s just doing his work his vocation but they’re both also chasing this other part of their calling which is their writers and guess what they’re not getting paid to do that, writing. They’re writing their epic works in the evenings and on the weekends, they’re not paid to do that, they’re paid to do scholarship, teach, students, give lectures, what does that tell us friends?
It tells us God has made us as richly complex people and he’s given us all a calling, not just a single calling, a broad calling to follow him, but then secondary callings in whether politics economics the arts whatever it is and we’re not always going to get paid to chase some of those callings. And I think that’s part of the way we try to renew our society, our culture, be faithful to the call as you’re feeling it on your life, and that’s going to mean some sacrifice, it’s going to mean some sacrifice. These guys sacrificed to write what they wrote, but also to be together which is the other thing I want to say before we’re done here. Mark we’ve got just like another minute on that I hope. I got one minute. Okay I will not publicly denounce you again until the next conference. that they’re in fellowship together let’s not forget that it’s the fellowship of the ring it’s the inklings who come together every Tuesday morning at the eagle and child pub at Oxford every Thursday or Friday in Lewis’s rooms at Maudlin College and friends, they met over a period of 20 years every week through the war to critique each other’s work. Tolkien read out loud the Lord of The Rings, every chapter to C.S. Lewis either in the inklings or over lunch or over a drink, Lewis heard every chapter read out loud, so there was, they were writers in community. So, whatever we’re doing our vocations that’s another key part of the answer is seeing we got to do this in community, not on our own as we’re chasing our callings. Seems to me that’s one step toward a cultural renewal the way we can inoculate ourselves from the lies that are coming at us all the time. Thank you for that question.