Reviewed By Carolyn Estes | January 20, 2016
In spite of the title’s reference to Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, this is not a children’s book. Rather, it is the story of how J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis rediscovered faith, friendship, and heroism in the cataclysm of World War I.
Loconte begins by recounting an event that becomes a metaphor for the rest of the story. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1914, something unbelievable happened along the Western Front: soldiers from each side of no man’s land came out of their rat-infested, lice-filled trenches and declared a truce. They greeted one another, traded food, drink, and tobacco, and sang Christmas carols—“Stille Nacht” for one side, “Silent Night” for the other. They showed that even men in combat could find a way to seek love and peace rather than hate and war. The spirit did not last, of course, and the war went on to affect hundreds of millions of people.
A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War deals with two intertwined threads: a graphic look at the war, and the ways it shaped Tolkien’s and Lewis’s imagination. Loconte writes, “The horrors of war did not ultimately blacken Lewis’s creative life, for the world of Narnia, a land watered by streams of joy, would emerge from the wreckage of a Great War.”
Lewis was only nineteen when he went to war as an atheist; Tolkien was twenty-five and Catholic. Lewis’s conversion occurred years after the war.
Even though this war caused more devastation than any other before it (more than sixteen million dead and twenty-one million wounded), both writers stayed true to their belief that the Great War was justified and that duty, honor, valor, sacrifice, and heroism were qualities to be praised. They did not share the pacifism that many developed after the war. Loconte contends that both men’s experiences of war were essential to the rich, vibrant fiction they created afterward.
Finally, the Great War becomes a metaphor for our daily struggles, and in the end Jesus’s return “will make everything sad come untrue,” and the Great War will be won.
This book is for readers who are familiar with Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Narnia chronicles; otherwise, Loconte’s references to Aslan, the White Witch, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, Middle-Earth, and Ents will be lost. One other caveat: If you have a queasy stomach, you might want to skip certain paragraphs about trench warfare.