Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, by Joseph Loconte

Years ago the organization I worked for frequently invited Joe Loconte to speak at our conferences.  An entertaining and engaging speaker, I wished I had been in his college classes.  Currently professor of history at The King's College in New York City, Loconte's latest book is 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.

Two of the twentieth century's greatest writers, Tolkien and Lewis had much in common.  Their eventual friendship shaped them both, personally, professionally, and spiritually.  Loconte places them in intellectual and historical context, describing how the forces around them shaped them and their writing.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Tolkien (1892-1973) and Lewis (1898-1963) were coming of age.  It was a time of optimism and hope that technology and culture had advanced to the point that mankind was on the verge of a new utopia--or so many thought.  The Great War changed all that, creating a deep skepticism about the nature of man.

Tolkien and Lewis could both have been sucked into the intellectual darkness of the war.  They both spent time in the trenches, experiencing the worst of the war on the Western Front.  Given the mortality rates in general, as well as in their immediate units, they were lucky to survive.  Loconte points to many passages in both of their books that clearly reflect the brutality and ugliness of war as they experienced it.  On the other hand, they focused on the positive traits they saw in their fellow soldiers, such as Sam Gamgee's persistence and faithful service.

As Loconte clearly demonstrates, without their friendship, neither Lewis's or Tolkien's literary careers would have amounted to as much as they did.  They read passages of works in progress together, encouraged each other to continue writing, and promoted one another's work.  And, most significantly, Tolkien was instrumental in Lewis's conversion to Christianity.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is a must-read for fans of Lewis and Tolkien's fiction.  Loconte ties their work directly to the influences of their cultural and intellectual milieu, as well as the awful experience of the Great War.  Even for non-fans, the first-person accounts of the war are worth reading.  The literary contribution each of these great writers has made and continues to make is immense and worth examining.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by a speaker at a conference you have attended

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