In the wake of the Paris and Beirut attacks, it is easy to feel a darkness descending. What hope is there when people are willing to do such terrible and heinous things to others?
If there is any comfort in history, it is in knowing that we are not the first to feel this way, or go through this experience.
Two men who experienced the worst that humans can do to each other were J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia.
Both men were soldiers in the British army on the western front in World War One. Tolkien participated in two attacks, in July and October, 1916, including one where he was in combat for 50 straight hours.
On November 8 of that year, he was sent to hospital with trench fever. He never returned to the front—which probably saved his life.
Lewis enlisted in 1917, arriving at the front that same year at the age of 19. He was wounded in April, 1918 and sent back to England to recuperate. He also never returned to the front.
The war had a profound impact on both men. Four of Lewis’ closest college friends died in the fighting. At war’s end, all but one of Tolkien’s closest friends were dead.
The war also influenced their writing. Reflecting on his experience years later, Tolkien said his taste for fantasy was “quickened to full life by war” and that the mythology that became Lord of the Rings “first began to take shape” during the fighting.
Scenes from the war found their way into the books. For example, it was common to see bodies of dead soldiers floating under water in shell holes—something recreated when Sam Gamgee sees dead men in the water during his passage through the marshes.
Said Tolkien about that scene: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”
The Hobbits themselves were influenced by the ordinary British soldiers—the “Tommies”—that Tolkien encountered.
In a letter written after his trilogy was published, Tolkien wrote that Sam Gamgee “is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”
After the war, most authors wrote savagely and cynically about the end of progress, morality and religion—how could there be a God after such a horror?
But as Joseph Laconte notes in his new book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and aGreat War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship andHeroes in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, the war may have caused others to lose faith, but Tolkien and Lewis “it deepened their spiritual quest.”
What distinguished Tolkien, a Catholic, and Lewis, an Anglican, from other writers who experienced that war was how they emerged from it with a sense of hope and faith. Their books showed that evil and darkness were not the last words.
As Laconte put it: “In Middle-earth and Narnia, the ruin or redemption of every person depends on what side he or she has chosen in the conflict . . . the heroic figure is the one who resists evil, who is willing to lay down his life for his friends.”
After the attacks, many wonder what they can do in response. Prayer is one thing, as is doing any small deed of kindness for others.
But maybe another thing is to read (or re-read) the works of Tolkien and Lewis—not for escapist fantasy from the world, but to be reminded that good and light can overcome evil and darkness in the end.