Hobbits in Picardy?
by I.A. Isherwood
This week we are tackling an interesting topic: the role of the First World War in influencing the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. There are a few good books on this subject, but it is a difficult one to grasp methodologically for a number of reasons. Though JRRT was developing his creative ideas in the trenches, the Somme is a rather different place than Middle Earth, and we should (I think) respect his distaste of allegorical writing. For Lewis, Narnia too seems rather distant from the Great War, the similarities between the two worlds rather general rather than specific. In particular, if we examine Lewis’s affection for allegory, then I think there is a strong case to be made that he (despite his early attempts at war poetry) was much less of a Great War writer than he was other things: Christian essayist (the word apologist gives me pause for some reason), fantasy novelist, and beyond anything else, literary critic.
Still, the Great War obviously influenced both of these writers. In their recent book The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski’s treatment of the Inklings hammers home the point that the Great War worked as an intellectual, creative, and spiritual catalyst for members of its generation. The results of that catalyst went both ways: the war led to a reconsideration of traditional morality that in creative works led to both a rejection of existing social mores (the more popular interpretation), but it also led a reinvigoration or tradition for some who survived it (less popular). Both Lewis and Tolkien have strong anti-modernist inklinations (sorry) – perhaps this focusses to much on active cultural resistance – what I mean is that their works convey traditional motifs of heroic literature and were created at a time when the aftershocks of a world war caused many to reevaluate those things. Tolkien, after all, wrote his greatest epic in the age of the Munich Crisis and did so after living in and suffering through a ghastly experience at the Somme. As much as he denied the allegorical nature of his work, it is hard to imagine that his ideas of courage, endurance, heroism and beyond anything else, humanity’s capability to inflict great suffering and embrace the profane and profound evil brutality of industrial war (or just all war), as well as survive it, emerged out of anything but the trenches.
This is not to diminish his creativity at all, but just to point out that we write what we know. I think that in this case, Lewis’s approach to literature is quite applicable. The issue shouldn’t be really one of authorial intent – does it really matter whether each author was trying to write about their war experiences (or create fantasy alternatives to what they witnessed)? The fact that they survived the war only to grow into adulthood in an age that became progressively less secure and more violent and then chose to write on topics that were remarkably pertinent for their readers demonstrates that there was something bigger going on. Context, of course, matters (he writes hoping that it does), but too much focus on intention and design spoils a bit of the analytical fun of examining texts not only in the context of their world, but also ours.
So, as you can see, I am conflicted on the idea of the Great War’s influence on JRRT and CSL. But in a good way. The challenge this week in class is to create a portrait of what the experience of the Great War was like, to talk a bit about what each author witnessed, to look at some shrapnel, and then to bat around ideas in seminar. I am very interested to see what my students do with this topic.