I started writing this post prior to Christmas when the recent events in Paris and California reminded me that we do not live in tranquil times. Life intervened and I hadn’t the time to finish it. Since then there have been further reminders that however much we enjoy our toys, our mochas, our friends, our visits and getaways, the news of these days often has an edge that serves to remind us that all is not calm. In more recent weeks, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has died and the presidential races are in full swing.
To cut to the chase, let me suggest a book that seems perfectly tailored for reading in trying times. 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 by Joseph Loconte, (2015) The book is not for the faint of heart. It is not a children’s book. It speaks of history and friendship and the dreams of these men of epic myth making. Because of my age, and the age of my parents, I have heard much and learned much of the world beset by wars from World War II down through the current trials across the globe and the terrorist issues that keep occurring and making daily headlines. This book taught me much about an earlier war, World War I, with the unfolding of events that would have far reaching ramifications and set the stage for our present days. Talking about World War I, the author writes:
For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence – and the end of faith. Yet for two extraordinary authors and friends, J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Great War deepened their spiritual quest. Both men served as soldiers on the Western Front, survived the trenches, and used the experience of that conflict to shape their Christian imagination. [pp. xii – xiii]
The destructiveness of the First World War exceeded that of all other wars known in human history: more than sixteen million dead, twenty-one million wounded, hundreds of thousands in unmarked graves. . . . Massacres of civilians were carried out on a shocking scale, most notoriously by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenian minority: men, women, and children by the hundreds of thousands were executed. . . . It was the first true genocide of the twentieth century. [pp. 106-107]
The slaughter of war, the endless loss, had a profound effect on the two men. Lewis reflected on the pious teachings of his childhood and was an Atheist. There was death and destruction everywhere. Yet when he was sent home and met with Tolkien and friends they would argue about the idea of Myth. While Lewis loved the mythic stories, he basically viewed these as lie– a tall tale not based on reality. It was the chief thing that bothered him about Christianity as well; one nice myth against many. The friends hashed it out.
Tolkien had a far different view – he saw myth as a gift of God in creation, a blessing woven into the human tapestry. Tolkien viewed inventing myths as trying to retrieve the world he knew before man’s fall from grace.
The difference between Christianity and all the pagan myths is that this Dying God actually entered into history, lived a real life, and died a real death. [p.132]
“Do you mean,” Lewis asked, “that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that has really happened? In that case, I begin to understand. [p.133 and Carpenter, J.R.R.Tolkien, 151]
Both men understood evil.
. . . it is an objective power in the world, waging a war for individual souls. It seeks to create a society of slaves, ruled by despots, and “held together entirely by fear and greed.” [p.147 and Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]
Their stories of Hobbits and Narnians, children escaping through wardrobes, Hobbits in quests for rings, plunge the children, the talking animals, the Hobbits and Narnians into dramas much bigger than themselves. As in our own experiences of life, we are generally not consulted about convenient times for game changing history to unfold, nor do we often know until later, what confluence of events had to occur to create the situations we experience. The remarkable stories these men created, were not filled with perfect people. They were just ordinary creatures filled with the usual mix of self preservation, coveting what someone else has, missing creature comforts, doing extraordinary things when faced with trial, a jumble of good and evil, selflessness and selfishness.
. . . the heroes of Middle-earth and Narnia are . . . complex. They are often hobbled by their own fears and shortcomings; they resist the burdens of war. Yet we also see in them an affirmation of moral responsibility – and irreducible dignity – even amid the terrible forces arrayed against them.
Immediately after Gandalf explains to Frodo that Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord, has arisen again and returned to Mordor to pursue his wicked designs, Frodo shrinks back. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” he says. “So do I,” says Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But it is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time given to us” [pp.150-151 and Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings]
If you love these stories, or have seen the movies, you will know that despite the odds, despite the way things look on the surface, despite how bleak the future may look, good may yet triumph. The White Witch may turn many, including the talking animals, to stone, may prey upon Edward’s weaknesses, may make it always winter but never Christmas, and may ultimately slaughter Aslan. It may be that Frodo in the end fails to destroy the ring because he succumbs once more to its lure and puts it back on his finger. But the stories don’t end there.
The mythic dimension of their stories now reaches its zenith: like the best fairy tales, they provide the consolation of the happy ending, “the sudden joyous turn” toward rescue and redemption. It is the reversal of a catastrophe, that Tolkien calls the eucatastrophe, a decisive act of Grace that promises to overcome our guilt, restore what has been lost, and set things right. [p.189 and Tolkien, Tree and Leaf]
We may wish that we didn’t have to face the things that confront us. We don’t have to listen to much news to see that in this particular decade real evil, genocide, slaughter, greed, barbarity, envy, violence, all manner of wickedness does exist. There are times in life when we may feel like Tolkien’s son Christopher, in the Royal Air Force in World War II, that there are enemies all around. We do not know the outcome of the days. Yet, despite the odds, we are called to play our part in the great story. Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be a eucatastrophe.