Today’s interview concerns his latest book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.
This interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: I know you lead a regular dinner discussion in Washington D.C. called “Lewis and Linguine.” With your Italian ancestry one pressing issue is whether the pasta is handmade or bought at some grocer?
Loconte: Yes, that is an urgent question. My great grandmother made home-made gnocchi, I am told. But the succeeding generations apparently had less leisure time living along the mean streets of Brooklyn, and started buying their freshly made pasta from an Italian deli in the neighborhood. That’s my policy as well. Capice?
Moore: I know you’ve been reading Tolkien and Lewis for many years, but why did you decide to write this particular book?
Loconte: I knew that Lewis fought in the First World War, but I didn’t realize that Tolkien was also a soldier in that war until I picked up Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent biography of Tolkien a few years ago. That’s when the idea came into my head: Both of these Christian authors wrote epic tales of valor and sacrifice in the context of a great war against evil. Could the experience of the trench warfare of WW1, a vortex of suffering and death, have influenced their literary imagination? Given the catastrophic nature of that conflict, the war must have left its mark on these men—but it seemed to me that most of the Tolkien and Lewis biographers failed to devote much attention to the war.
Moore: Before we get to how Tolkien and Lewis processed the brutal realities of WWI, describe for us why “The Myth of Progress” set so many people up for disillusionment with the devastation wrought by the war?
Loconte: The most widely held view in the years leading up to the Great War was that Western Civilization was marching inexorably forward, that humanity itself was maturing, evolving, advancing to new heights of technological, moral, and spiritual achievement. Many believed that war itself would become a relic of a bygone era. This “Myth of Progress” was proclaimed from nearly every sector of society. Scientists, educators, industrialists, politicians, preachers—they all agreed on the upward flight of mankind. The Myth was not just one story among many. It was the story, the metanarrative of the meaning of human existence. And then, in a way no one anticipated, the Myth dissolved into the trenches and barbed wire and mortars and machine guns along the Western Front. People could not believe that the “civilized” and “Christian” nations of Europe were capable of such slaughter and barbarism.
Moore: Tolkien was a Christian while fighting in WWI and maintained his faith. Lewis was an atheist while fighting in WWI. How did they both process the grisly and grotesque things they both experienced firsthand during the war?
Loconte: Although his Catholic faith remained intact, Tolkien later confessed that he “bemoaned the collapse of all my world” that began with his deployment to the front in 1916. The war forced him to mostly put aside his intellectual longings and imaginative powers. The loss of so many friends to the war produced, in the words of his children, “a lifelong sadness.” For Lewis’s part, the war seemed to deepen his atheism; by his own admission, it reinforced “a pessimistic view of existence.” One of Lewis’s anti-war poems, published in 1918, contains these lines: “For all our hopes in endless ruin lie/The good is dead. Let us curse God and die.” Pretty bleak stuff.
Moore: Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University has famously said, “Americans believed in the providence of God before the Civil War, but after the war they believed in luck.” Did WWI have a similar effect?
Loconte: Yes, I think it did. The war not only undercut the idea a loving, all-powerful God. The industrialized slaughter of the conflict damaged the very idea of free will, of individuals as moral agents. Millions of men were flung into the ghastly machinery of a conflict that robbed them of their humanity: they were mutilated, bombed, bayoneted, gassed, incinerated, and obliterated without mercy. The utter helplessness of the individual soldier on the Western Front was a recurring theme of post-war literature. This spirit of fatalism extended to society at large.
Moore: My messages for the last couple of weddings I’ve officiated were based on Ecc. 9:9. In that verse you see both realism (we are mortal), and hope (we can enjoy every day with our spouse.) How do the twin realities of realism and hope inform the writings of Tolkien and Lewis?
Loconte: That’s a big question. For Tolkien and Lewis, their shared Christian outlook helped them to navigate between the extreme ideologies—fueled either by cynicism or utopianism—which emerged in the collapse of the European democracies.
For one thing, Tolkien and Lewis are utterly realistic about the corrupting influence of power. The desire for power in order to dominate others—often disguised by appeals to morality or progress—is a recurring theme in their works. Virtually no character in their stories is immune to the temptation. The great moral question in the Lord of the Rings, of course, is whether Frodo can remain faithful to his quest to destroy the Ring of Power and not be corrupted by it in the process. For both authors, the deepest hope for the human story is found not within ourselves; we are too thoroughly fallen from grace. Instead, they point us to a source of strength and redemption outside of ourselves. In Tolkien’s trilogy, Frodo fails in his quest—and yet the Ring is destroyed by “a sudden and miraculous grace.” In Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, it is not King Tirian and the children who rescue Narnia from the dark forces bent on its destruction. It is the great Lion, Aslan, who casts out the demon Tash and brings them safely home to that “Blessed Realm that Lies Beyond the Sea.”
Moore: Would you list a few things you are hoping people take away from reading your book?
Loconte: The theme of friendship, born and nurtured by a common commitment to a noble cause, is a powerful force throughout their works. Both men knew the intense comradeship that soldiers experience in wartime, and they infuse their own war stories with this spirit of shared sacrifice. At the same time, the remarkable friendship between Tolkien and Lewis transformed their lives and careers. Lewis was Tolkien’s great advocate for his story about hobbits: Tolkien admitted he never would have completed his trilogy without Lewis’s “unceasing eagerness” and encouragement. For his part, Tolkien played a critical role in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity: their late-night talk about the nature of myth—and about Christianity as the “myth that became fact”—was decisive for Lewis. Another vital theme is our individual responsibility to struggle against the evil of the world and choose the Good. The characters in the stories of Tolkien and Lewis—even the seemingly weakest and humblest—remind us that every person has a part to play in this struggle. The bedrock belief in the responsibility to resist evil is why their stories, so fantastical in style, seem to speak into our present reality. The war against evil is the moral landscape of our mortal lives. Whatever form evil takes in our world, we are called to resist it, with God’s grace.