World War I has never been a subject of interest to me. I just haven’t given it much attention. But, I love the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I like C.S. Lewis, so it was with interest that I picked up Joseph Leconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War. The first chapter or so was interesting, but I began to lose interest and skimmed some of the book, as Leconte got into details that did not interest me—partially because I’ve never read the Narnia series. I’ll give it ★★★☆☆.
The good: the author does a good job of showing how the war impacted the fantasy writings of both men. For instance, Leconte quotes Tolkien as saying, My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, recognized as so far superior to myself. Leconte also does a good job of linking how the warfare…the trenches1…the poison gases…the wholesale slaughter of men—became the basis for many scenes in the conflict between good and evil in Middle-earth.
And that’s where Tolkien and Lewis depart from most modern novels or movies—they recognize Evil in the world and know that without God, Evil will win. Tolkien says, But one must face the fact, the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however “good.” In other words, we, as incarnate creatures, can not overcome Evil alone. The author goes on to say, Our modern tales of heroism—the gallery of superheroes, super cops, and super spies—offer a protagonist who invariably saves the day by his (or her) natural intelligence and strength of will…the idea that the hero would need outside help—from a supernatural deity, for example—strikes many as a cheat.
The book goes into depth on how, just before the war, mankind had become rather arrogant and very pleased with themselves. Many could not dream of country going to war against another country. It was passé. Each nation thought very highly of themselves. Consequently, when war broke out, each nation saw it as a holy crusade against the enemy. In Britain, Germany was vilified to an extreme. As I read this chapter, a light came on. I was always a bit surprised by how Edgar Rice Burroughs vilified the Germans in the seventh book of the Tarzan series, Tarzan the Untamed. Take for example how he describes a German officer in the opening lines:
Hauptmann Fritz Schneider trudged wearily through the sombre aisles of the dark forest. Sweat rolled down his bullet head and stood upon his heavy jowls and bull neck. (emphasis mine)
This is a mild example of Burroughs’ treatment of Germans—but it fits. Burroughs was American and we held the same views as the British toward Germans and this particular volume was first published in 1920. The war was fresh in the memories of Americans2 and Brits alike who would have applauded his treatment of stupid Germans, especially when they were bested by a smart and crafty Englishman in the form of Lord Greystoke, aka, Tarzan of the Apes.
I leave you with this parallel between Middle-earth and us:
The deep moral conundrum of The Lord of the Rings, of course, involves a weapon: a powerful Ring that could overcome the forces of evil arrayed against Middle-earth, yet which threatens to corrupt anyone who tries to use it, even those whose motives are pure.
In our time we have seen how weapons of mass destruction can corrupt those who try to use them—even if they think their motives are pure.
1 James Longstreet, a Confederate general in the Civil War, had developed the idea of trench warfare, by 1863 and by 1865 it was used in the battles for Petersburg, Virginia.
2 This was, after all, when Pittsburg, Pennsylvania was renamed Pittsburgh so it did not “look German.”