There was another young solider in addition to J.R.R. Tolkien who managed to survive “The Great War” with his soul intact. From him would come great mythic tales as well.
C.S. Lewis was pursuing his education and hoping peace might arrive when conscription went into effect in January 1916. That set the stage for Lewis to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army and arrive at the Battle of the Somme in November 1917 on his nineteenth birthday. At the time Lewis described himself as an atheist, but would not completely rule out the possibility of something existing outside the physical world.
The realities Lewis encountered during the horrors of the warfare in the trenches made it even more difficult for him to reconcile to the concept of a loving God when what he experienced made hope seem impossible. He, like Tolkien, became ill with trench fever and was removed from the front in February of 1918. Then within a short time of recovering was returned to the front lines
Lewis also experienced the anguish of seeing and hearing of friends who were gravely wounded, taken prisoner, or killed. One of those was the loss of a close friend, Sgt. Harry Ayres, on April 15, 1918, when a shell went off from behind the British line. Shrapnel from the same mortar attack hit Lewis in the hand, leg, and chest.
Thankfully his injuries were not life-threatening even though the shrapnel in his chest was too close to his heart to be removed. It would remain with him to the end of his life. It would also result in him being sent home to England to recover and end his military service. He was demobilized Christmas Eve of 1918.
“The Great War” that left so many without hope and despairing of God did not overshadow Lewis’s creative life. Instead it appeared to increase his belief in a spiritual source of natural beauty from beyond the physical world despite mourning the loss of old friends. A powerful lens impacted him and the others of the time.
“The obscenity of belief in God: such was the tide of elite opinion in much of postwar Europe. To many of the best and brightest, Christianity appeared to lack any explanatory power. It could neither account for the internecine conflict of the supposed Christian nations of Europe, nor offer a realistic hope of achieving a more peaceful and just global order. Rather, the church of the modern age seemed tethered to destructive and medieval superstitions.”
Dr. Joseph Loconte
Lewis returned to academia and the campus of Oxford and there, as a result of his study of philosophy, had begun (by 1925) to question his skepticism of the reality of God. But it would be the intersection of his path with Tolkien’s that would make Lewis’s transition.
Over a period of several years while Lewis was a fellow and tutor in English and Literature at Oxford’s Magdalen College and Tolkien a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, the two would begin to meet regularly around their mutual love of mythologies and fairy stories.
As a result, the two men developed a deep friendship that would change the course of their lives and impact their greatest literary works. On September 19, 1931, a lengthy debate took place that stretched into the wee hours of the morning and included Tolkien, Lewis, and a few others. They looked at the central teachings of faith that Lewis did not understand. From that night onward Lewis began to understand the story of Christ was a true myth that really happened and caused him to believe in God. That transition would result in the hope of the Gospel filling Lewis’s writings in the darkness hovering over Europe after The Great War.
“A counterfeit gospel, a false myth, created a cacophony of despair in the West. Yet two friends and authors refused to succumb to this storm of doubt and disillusionment. Fortified by their faith, they proclaimed for their generation − and ours − a True Myth about the dignity of human life and its relationship to God. Against all expectations, their writings would captivate and inspire countless readers from every culture and every part of the globe.
…it is their moral imagination that exerts a unique power: the proposition that every person is caught up in an epic contest between Light and Darkness. In the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis, the choices of the weak matter as much as those of the mighty. Here we are not left as orphans, for a force of Goodness stands ready to help. Here we meet Gandalf the Grey, the wisest and best of wizards, engaged in a titanic struggle against the Shadow that threatens Middle-earth; and Aslan, the fearsome Lion, who will pay any price to rescue Narnia from the ‘force of evil’ that has entered it.”
Dr. Joseph Loconte
Who but God could bring such light and truth into the lives of Tolkien and Lewis when the entire world around them was ravaged and despairing of faith?
After all, He is well “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think.” He knows the end of the story as He did the beginning. It is HIS story, but He has written us into every line.
We can so easily be seduced into looking at a person, organization, or culture as the enemy meant to block what we most want or value and then become pawns in the hands of the enemy. He has used this tactic for thousands of years because it works. We need to heed the wisdom of Paul:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12 (NIV)
Why study history? Because those who do not, are doomed to repeat it.