After watching a televised World War II movie with my father one evening (it may have been Patton or The Guns of Navarone) he turned down the volume during the film’s closing credits.
“People always give generals like Patton and MacArthur credit for winning World War II,” he quietly commented from his recliner. “But that war was won every bit as much by the decisions of a thousand foot soldiers.”
Those words returned to memory last week while I watched the credits roll on the big screen after 1917, the stunning tribute to the foot soldiers of World War I, a tribute inspired by director Sam Mendes’ grandfather, who received the British Military Medal for bravery after the war and who would later keep his grandchildren spellbound with “the stories.”
1917’s power to capture the agony and courage of the men forced into its trenches also brought to mind C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, men more known for their fiction than the fact that they were also among the foot soldiers of the First World War. Some of the 20th century’s finest fantasy grew from their own memories of its horror, each man in his own way elevating the dignity of foot soldiers caught in the clash of conflicts not of their own making.
Their story is told in Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War, also, it turns out, written by the grandson of a Great War foot soldier.
The “war to end all wars” seems almost swallowed in memory by the more easily grasped drama of the Second World War, in which the Nazis were defeated by the foot soldiers of the 1940’s. 1917 takes us deep into the fires of the lesser known world conflict, so devastating in its carnage (it cost Europe a third of its men) that it turned the scientific optimism of the day into despair.
1917 doesn’t address the complicated events which propelled its British protagonists into into the brutality of an international conflict. That’s not its intention. Instead, the film takes us to the heart of battle as the camera follows two young soldiers ordered to deliver a critical message to a general about to lead his troops into a German trap.
The choice to keep the camera on two foot soldiers bonds us to them; we identify with each tragic turn and become desperate to see them accomplish the feat they’re facing. Physical and emotional horrors keep the heart pounding and although we admire the heroism of these men, 1917 doesn’t tempt us in the least to glorify battle.
Neither do the works of Tolkien and Lewis, as Loconte amply illustrates with selections from their fiction, letters and essays.
“The utter stupid waste of war,” Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son (a soldier of World War II), “not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who endure it….The burnt hand teaches most about fire.”
“The Fall of Gondolin,” a tale from The Silmarillion, is one of many scenes bearing Tolkien’s memory of combat: “The fume of the burning, and the steam of the fair fountains of Gondolin withering in the flame of the dragons of the north…and beyond hope they climbed in woe and misery…and they had among them many that were wounded, and women and children.”
“As in Tolkien’s trilogy,” writes Loconte, “Lewis’s Narnia depicts war, not as an opportunity for marshal glory, but as a grim necessity.”
“When victories are won, there is a striking lack of triumphalism; we find instead amazement and gratitude for surviving the encounter.”
Loconte points out that Lewis’ children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia (beloved by adults who continue to read it) doesn’t contain lengthy scenes of battle, but at the same time the stories don’t shy away from realistic detail.
“In Prince Caspian, Reepicheep is wounded so badly in battle that he seemed ‘little better than a damp heap of fur.’ The intrepid mouse is rendered:
more dead than alive, gashed with innumerable wounds, one paw crushed, and, where his tail had been, a bandaged stump.
Loconte comments, “There is hardly a more poignant reminder of suffering during the First World War than images of soldier amputees, limping from a dugout or infirmary.”
A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War is a very good read. Not only does Loconte’s book provide the historical context of the times, it develops the personal stories of Lewis and Tolkien before and after the war which eventually led to their finding friendship at Oxford and common ground not only in their mutual love of Norse mythology but in their mutual distaste for the dreary literary output of many postwar moderns.
Their friendship gradually opened Lewis, the hardened atheist (quotes from Lewis’ early letters have much in common with atheists today), to consider the historical grounds for Christianity, which Tolkien firmly believed was the True Myth to which all others point.
Lewis would come to faith, and like Tolkien, would anchor his tales in the belief that good and evil are real, not imagined, and that great evil ought to call forth the highest heroism of which humans are capable.
In a poignant moment in 1917 the main character, Lance Coroporal Schofield (George MacKay), reveals to his more idealistic friend Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) that he’d traded the medal he’d received earlier in the war for a bottle of French wine. Why? It was nothing but a “piece of tin.”
Blake, astonished at the other man’s cynicism, argues that it’s more: it’s a piece of tin with a ribbon. Both manage a little laugh at the irony.
One suspects Lewis and Tolkien would concur, yet they were able to rise above the ultimately defeatist stance of the hardened cynic. In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (an ambulance driver in World War I until he was wounded) would compare his characters to mere ants on a burning log, while Lewis and Tolkien’s work provides us with larger narratives in which “the choices of the weak matter as much as those of the mighty.”
Lewis and Tolkien ignored the “powerful trends of the culture,” rejecting the extremes of both pacifism and militarism, Loconte writes. Further, “The heroic ideal in their stories is not escapism, they argued, but the only realistic path in a dangerous world.”
The experience of World War I left every survivor vulnerable to despair. The war taught Lewis and Tolkien that evil is real and a moral response to it requires courage. Though deeply flawed and always capable (as Frodo demonstrates in The Lord of the Rings) of falling:
Those who resist the Shadow are assured that they will not be left alone…they will find grace and strength to persevere, to play their part in the story, however long it endures and wherever it may lead them.
1917’s Lance Coroporal Schofield will finally reach for the photos he carried of his family, as if to find his purpose there. Family and friendship were also precious to Lewis and Tolkien. And they were led to ponder deeper, more ultimate purpose as well.
“As veterans of the most destructive war the world had ever seen,” writes Loconte, Tolkien and Lewis could not glorify its violence and anguish. But neither could they accept the fatalism and cynicism that had become so prevalent.”
Their fiction calls each one of us to the role of foot soldier in the One Story which gathers all others. Our daily decisions, on whatever front we find ourselves, do their part to defeat the Shadow. Each little soldier in this Great War matters every bit as much as the heroes who’ve fought before us, whose stories are still sung and whose lives we still celebrate.
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Filmmakers of a five-part documentary based on of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War are seeking funding. Watch this beautiful trailer, be inspired and contribute if you can.
Donate to this non-profit film’s cause here. I did.
Featured photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
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