What is left to be said about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that has not already been said? Well, a great deal, apparently, as this book so powerfully demonstrates.
This book examines the literary work, and to a lesser degree the lives, of these two great authors, but it does so in a unique way. It looks at their lives through the lens of their experience in the Great War, or, as it has come to be known World War I. It is commonly known that both Lewis and Tolkien fought in this war, but this book unpacks how this watershed experience impacted them and informed their writings.
History would never be the same, and neither would Lewis and Tolkien
Think about what it must have been like to be a young man and to have lost so many dear friends, men who would have been lifelong friends had their lives not been tragically cut short. And think of how much death and suffering these two authors witnessed at a young age. To think that this would not make a profound impact on their worldview is profoundly naive. And yet, until I read this book, I had never really considered it.
What the book shows, and very ably I might add, is that despite the lasting impact of the war on these men, they nevertheless rejected the cynicism and secular materialism which so many of their contemporaries embraced after the war. The Western spirit was shattered, and yet, these men produced out of the ashes of the war some of the most hopeful, beloved, and enduring stories of all time. It’s really remarkable when you stop to think about it.
Out of the ashes
The book demonstrates, through their letters and copious quotations from their work and others, the reasons they were able to share such a hopeful vision with the world. The scholarship here is top-notch and many of the quotes, especially from Lewis and Tolkien’s letters, are quite moving. I feel I know these men and understand their stories better than I ever did before reading this book.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. This work is an obvious labor of love, not only of Lewis and Tolkien and their works, but of the brave soldiers who gave their all in the deadly theater of WWI. This book, like the works of Lewis and Tolkien themselves, transcends time and place and helps us see our place in the great cosmic conflict of good and evil. We are, in fact, “inside a very great story.” One whose happy ending will only come with the return of the King.
In summary, a great read. It is extremely well told, compelling, and engaging. Pick it up if you’re looking for something original with a great plot and well-crafted characters. Just don’t read it thinking it’s a fantasy and you’ll be in good shape.