Goodreads: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War
Joseph Loconte examines how World War I influenced the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.
A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is a strange hybrid of a book, part history and part literary criticism. And though it purports to examine how the Great War affected the lives of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and thus influenced their major writings, most of the work focuses on broad statements about the philosophical, scientific, and religious changes that occurred in Britain in the early 1900s. A vague gesture towards applying these changes to the literary works of the authors is then tacked onto the end of most of the sections. But speculations about how the biographies of authors may have affected their works has been suspect in literary studies for some time. I am not sure many professionals who work in literary studies would recognize this work as a solid contribution to our understanding of the writings of Lewis and Tolkien.
Loconte is a professor of history and his interest in that discipline shows. The book largely synthesizes the broad understandings other authors have of the effects of the Great War on the men and women who experienced it. The book will, for instance, discuss the rise of eugenics or the impact of Freud, and will then usually (but not always) then follow this information with a paragraph about Tolkien and a paragraph about Lewis to the effect of “And here we see Tolkien’s opinion of war in this quote by Faramir” or “Here’s a quote about Peter fighting the wolf. Let’s assume it’s about a soldier’s experience bayonetting a man for the first time.” And then on we go!
Of course, assuming that characters speak for an author (though I am willing to admit that Faramir quote probably fairly reflects Tolkien’s outlook) and assuming one-to-one correspondences between an episode in a novel and an episode in the author’s life are no longer considered useful literary analysis. I admit, however, that I do see some of these older trends in criticism still cropping up in works on the Inklings, so it’s possible Loconte was following other recent models and not relying on outdated criticism. But the criticism still feels dated as a result even though the publication date is only 2015. Furthermore, some errors such as the author referring to Bree as Shasta and implying that a quote about the Rangers is referring to God, make me skeptical that enough work has been done with the literary analysis to make it truly credible. Finally, I think Loconte provides too much summary for his readers. Surely anyone picking up this book knows the general outlines of the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings. Explaining the plots in-depth makes it feel as if the author himself is not familiar enough with the works to know what counts as general knowledge in regards to each.
A work discussing the influence of WWI on the philosophy of Tolkien and Lewis is an interesting project, one that I think could be done effectively without assuming one-to-one correspondences between biographies and writings. However, it’s fairly obvious that Loconte is trying to do an interdisciplinary work but not yet sure how the discipline of literary studies works–hence, presumably, why his sections on Lewis and Tolkien are so short when compared to his sections on history.
The back of the book claims that, “This engrossing true story explores for the first time how the Great War influenced the life of each writer and subsequently shaped the nature and character of their respective towering achievements, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.” Maybe it’s the first time Lewis and Tolkien and WWI were all considered together, but Loconte leans fairly heavily on John Garth’s 2005 Tolkien and the Great War. The number of citations referring to it–all of it intriguing material that seems perceptive and well-researched (from what I can tell from a quote here and a quote there)–really makes me think that it would be more profitable for readers simply to read Garth.