The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings
Topic: Christian Education
https://www.forbes.com/sites/jerrybowyer/2016/07/26/the-inklings-at-war-c-s-lewis-j-r-r-tolkien-and-wwi/#2c0c80b1438aThe Inklings At War: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, And WWI
Joseph Loconte is a professor of history at The King's College in Manhattan whose recent book A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great Warhas been good food for my soul. It is also a biography of three historical agents of change: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and WWI. He decided to write the book when he learned that not just Lewis, but Tolkien had served in that devastating conflict. As I surveyed the landscape of our leadership class here in America, I found myself tempted to despair. And then I spent several hours in the company of two World War I officers: C. S. Lewis and his future friend J.R.R. Tolkien, and I actually found myself refreshed. They were part of a generation which endured far worse than we have, and yet Lewis and Tolkien came out... I won't say 'unscathed', but I will say scathed in a way which left them with empathy and wisdom along with their permanent scars. No, they never fully healed. Like Frodo, and Percival, The Fisher King, and like the Patriarch Jacob they carried their wounds for the rest of their lives. But they bought something with their wounds. Wisdom came from suffering.
Lots of people have written about the 'Lost Generation', that is the generation which came out of The Great War. That generation was lost by the Church, lost by most British institutions, lost by patriotism, lost by their parents. But few have written about the 'Found' Generation. People who gained moral clarity partly through this conflict.
Someone once said that WWI was Christendom's suicide attempt. There's a lot of truth to that. But in many ways it was as great a repudiation of scientism, the modern religion which had already supplanted Christianity in high places. Scientism as a religion even had its own school of eschatology, Progress with a capital P. But when clergymen whip young men into war fervor and scientists invent fiendish new devices to poison and shatter them, the idea of progress, moral and scientific, rings hollow. And so after WWI neither God, nor any of His purported replacements seemed like viable options to the young men who lived through the slaughterhouse. The lesson they learned was to believe in nothing. But believing in nothing is believing in something too. Nihilism is not the lack of a philosophy, it's just an empty philosophy.
The U.S. had a similar trauma but for us it was our Civil War. As Louis Menand’s 2001 book, The Metaphysical Club, documents, the specifically American brand of relativism known as Pragmatism, was spearheaded by Civil War veterans who fought for the North and came out of the experience convinced that no more absolute, not even abolition of slavery, was worth all that pain. My friend, David Goldman has also written eloquently about this. The people who told us that the constitution can be whatever we want it to be and that law is just the current consensus of the country which can lick all the others, did not come from a place of disinterested contemplation. They came from a place of trauma. Modern legal theory is an emanation of a penumbra of their PTSD.
And so it was with much of the intelligentsia of post-WWI Britain. Most, but not all. The lost generation dragged high culture down into nihilism and low culture into decadence, but the Found Generation founded a counter-counter-culture. The novels of Tolkien, and not those of Gertrude Stein, or T.S. Eliot, or even Ernest Hemingway are read widely by the general public (and not under compulsion of class syllabus). The Lord of the Rings was voted most beloved novel of the century by the British public. Lewis has a wide subculture to his name, and there's serious talk about a C.S. Lewis College at Oxford. That's because the middle and working classes cannot live on a diet of nothingness, they need meat, and in Lewis and Tolkien, they have been served red beef and strong beer. Loconte has given us a glimpse into the Hell's Kitchen from which that meal came.
I interviewed Loconte about his book, and you can listen to that interview here.
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