The Forging of Heroes




The aftermath of “The Great War” would result in a landscape poisoned and sullied physically, but it would also erode much more than that in the countries of the world. One of the shifts would be a rejection of personal moral guilt and the consequence of denying personal responsibility. Immoral or wicked behaviors that were once attributed to moral or religious failure were now explained as medical or scientific issues. The ethic of personal responsibility that was the norm of Judeo-Christianity prior to the war was abandoned.


Consider the significance of those things and others that have not been listed.


We see them as commonly accepted 100 years later, but few of us know that it began as a consequence to the shift around the world after that fateful war. The nuances of what happened then and afterward continue to haunt the world and its people.


And yet the Lord used two men who were called to duty to serve in “The Great War” who rejected these viewpoints. The major literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would introduce us to characters from their rich imagination that would be tested by the choices set before them.


The struggles they faced centered on moral struggles against forces of evil meant for the destruction of their souls and very lives. From these struggles we find hope for our own battles. Indeed, it is why they resonate with us when we read their works or watch the movies that were made of some of them.


Consider these thoughts of Dr. Joseph Loconte from his book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War:


“…their characters retain the power of choice; there is nothing predetermined about the outcome. It is through their own decisions, their yielding to selfish ambitions, that they invite a spiritual crisis into their lives. The result is not the freedom they imagined, but the deepest slavery of heart and mind.


Critics sometimes accuse the authors of creating black-and-white characters to personify their religious beliefs. But the careful reader sees something else entirely: individuals often at war with their own desires. The heroes of these stories are vulnerable to temptation and corruption, while the antagonists are almost never beyond redemption. Here, in fantasy and myth, no one escapes the long and harassing shadow of the biblical fall.


Indeed, a bedrock belief in evil, and in the responsibility to resist it, gives the writings of Tolkien and Lewis their dignity and power. It is the reason their stories, so fantastical in style, seem to speak into our present reality. The war against evil is the moral landscape of our mortal lives: a journey of souls degraded or redeemed, dragged into the Darkness of self or led into the Light of grace.”


From the horrors of the trenches, the sorrow of the broken and wounded, the anguish of the refugees, the cynical times, and the scattered revolutions in various places in the world, two men would emerge to point us to see the courage, sacrifice, and friendships that made it all endurable. Such is the legacy of Tolkien and Lewis.



The depth of their own friendship would buoy up each of them in their writing and sustain them over four decades. They were devoted to each other’s success built over time and long talks late into the night. Sustained by their common Christian faith following Lewis’s conversion through Tolkien, they were brave enough to return to the older virtues and beliefs in their writing that had been left behind after the war.


They sought to make sense of the war that had been fought to end all wars and marred those left in its wake. From them and their work, we can learn much if we will take the time to hear the message the Lord used them to write.


Tolkien gave us two types of heroes: “the extraordinary man, the hidden king determined to fight for his people and regain his throne; and the ordinary man, the hobbit, who, like many of us, is ‘not made for perilous quests’ and prefers the comforts and safety of home.”  Dr. Joseph Loconte.


J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have given us a portrait of friendship in their lives and in their characters that call us to a higher level and deeper understanding of what love, loyalty, and sacrifice mean in relationship. But they have also written a story we play a part in as we face our own choices and decisions.


“The most influential Christian authors of the twentieth century believed that every human soul was caught up in a very great story: a fearsome war against a Shadow of Evil that has invaded the world to enslave the sons and daughters of Adam. Yet those who resist the Shadow are assured that they will not be left alone; they will be given the gift of friendship amid their struggle and grief. Even more, they will find the grace and strength to persevere, to play their part in the story, however long it endures and wherever it may lead them.”

Dr. Joseph Loconte


So as the shadows grow longer across the earth, let us learn and take heart from the stories of Merry and Pippin, Frodo and Sam, Gandalf and Aragorn, Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan. Let us also be thankful to the Lord and how He worked through the lives of Tolkien and Lewis. May we never lose sight of his desire to work through each of us as we look for his return, the true Return of the King.


And Then There Was A Wardrobe


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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 beautiful-clouds-cloudy-209831experienced 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 a8c34c9d68f8e8ece2a4647fbc4d39desource 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 IMG_2462 2Gospel 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.



The Trip to Mount Doom




J.R.R. Tolkien left behind a great legacy of literary work. “The Great War” (WW I) served as an expansive source for his mythic tales of The Hobbit and later, The Lord of the Rings. When both major works were translated onto the movie screens, people from all over the world that watched the movies became familiar with the work even though they may not have read the books. Most were struck by the imagination depicted in scene after scene on the screen.


Tolkien’s hobbit characters were born from his experiences in the trenches. Here, ordinary men lived in the subterranean tunnels dug across the European landscape for mile-upon-mile in conditions unfit for human life. Death haunted them from not only the shelling and poison gas, but from the rat-infested, disease-ridden trenches themselves.


Tolkien had grown up loving the beauty of the English countryside and all things of nature. The industrialization that was beginning to flourish was something he rebelled casey-horner-682832-unsplashagainst. That perspective helped form the world of the hobbits in a region of “Middle-earth” known as “the Shire.”


Dr. Joseph Loconte gives us a view into Tolkien’s imaginative source in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War:


“The house of his famous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, takes its name − “Bag End” − from his aunt’s farm in Worcestershire.


When Tolkien considered the overreliance on technology, industrialization and its invasion of his idyllic English farmland, he used his views of these and what he saw in The Great War in creating scenes in The Lord of the Rings:


 “Hence, the hateful realm of Mordor is sustained by its black engines and factories, which Sauron introduces as his forces invade the Shire.” 

Dr. Joseph Loconte


It would also be the challenges Tolkien faced living in the trenches and his resulting illness as that likely spared Tolkien’s life. Had he been with his 11th Lancashire Fusiliers in late spring of 1918 near the Aisne River, he may well have died or been captured. His entire battalion was thought to be dead or captured as prisoners after this battle.


His service at the Battle of the Somme left indelible imprints in his mind that we get glimpses of when Frodo and Sam try to navigate the Dead Marshes on their trip to destroy the ring on Mount Doom.


“…Tolkien’s description of the Dead Marshes matches precisely the macabre experience of the soldiers in that battle: ‘Many soldiers on the Somme had been confronted by corpses, often decaying in the mud, that had lain undisturbed, except by the bombardment, for days, weeks and even months.”  

Dr. Joseph Loconte quoting historian Martin Gilbert.


The impact of The Great War left those who experienced it despairing of hope and God, but from these experiences Tolkien’s mythic stories bring hope, and speak into the present reality as the forces of evil rage against light.



“The war against evil is the moral landscape of our mortal lives: a journey of souls degraded or redeemed, dragged into the Darkness of self or led into the Light of grace.” 

Dr. Joseph Loconte


What inspires us about these stories?


What lessons must we learn from “The Great War?”conner-bowe-800487-unsplash


The characters in them must face and fight their fear in the crises that have come upon them. And so must we one hundred years after “The Great War” that influenced Tolkien’s work.  We cheer on these hobbits, dwarves, elves, and men because we want them to win against the darkness. We want to believe we can do that as well in our own stories. We need to believe there is somewhere within us the courage to stand for what we know is right, to resist the evil and the hatred that is bent on destroying any image bearers of the One who is true light.


We resonate with the heroes in The Lord of the Rings.


“…Tolkien presents us with two kinds of heroes: the extraordinary man, the hidden king determined to fight for his people and regain his throne; and the ordinary man, the hobbit, who, like many of us, is ‘not made for perilous quests’ and prefers the comforts and safety of home.” 

Dr. Joseph Loconte


It is Samwise Gamgee whose faithfulness to the quest echoes in our minds and hearts long after the book ends or the movie credits have finished running on the screen.


“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” 


 Our quest may not be the same, but we also are caught up in a great unseen battle between light and dark, good and evil that plays out every day. In the seen world we experience it in heartache, illness, loneliness, confusion, chaos, and more − the dark enemy will use anything that can dissuade us or distract us from our focus on the return of the King.


Yet we are called to stand, to be unyielding to all that tempts or taunts us, to be the image bearer, and anticipate His coming and tell others the Good News.


“Put on truth as a belt to strengthen you to stand in triumph. Put on holiness as the protective armor that covers your heart.”   

Ephesians 6:14 (TPT)


And Then There Was A Hobbit


Photo by Thandy Yung on Unsplash


The horrors of “The Great War” left few persons touched by it with their souls intact. The war began as a clash of empires and ended with a clash of ideologies. Hope disappeared. The plausibility of God died. And no one or anything was ever the same again.


Dr. Paul Kengor, New York Times best-selling author and professor of political science at Grove City College, describes it as follows:


“For four awful years – here-to-fore unprecedented – the civilized world descended into a hellacious conflict marred by mechanized warfare previously unimaginable: tanks, subs, battleships, air power, machine guns with names like ‘the Devil’s paint brush,’ and legions of poison gas – the largest-scale use of chemical weaponry in history. Winding through all the agony were rotten, death-strewn trenches, and incomprehensible maze of thousands of miles of freezing, disease-ridden, and rat-infested tunnels where men subsisted below the earth in a subterranean stench. They rose from this underworld only to be fed into a scarier one – no man’s land, a denouement with the human meat-grinder. Millions upon millions were blown away.”


One young soldier caught in the midst of the deadliest battle, the battle of the Somme, was J.R.R. Tolkien. He was born in 1892 and had a deep attachment to his home, the English countryside, and all of nature. The contrast with what he experienced in the trenches could not have been starker.


Photo by Sagittarius Voyage on Unsplash

Tolkien, at 24, entered the war a devout Catholic through a program that allowed him to complete his degree in 1915. He had married his wife, Edith, not long before active duty began. On June 5, 1916, Second Lieutenant Tolkien boarded a troop transport for France and was sent to the British Expeditionary Force. By early July 2016, he arrived at Somme and the battle that was ongoing.


Tolkien’s wife feared every knock on the door as she saw how junior officers were being killed off at a dozen a minute. To find ways to let Edith be aware of where and how he was doing, the couple developed a code to use in their letters to one another to get around the British Army’s censorship. Edith used the information to track his movement on a map of the Western Front.


Many of those caught up in the war were members of Tolkien’s semi-secret society who had first met in 1911 in school. This group shared a love of literature and desired to leave a mark on the world. So it was no surprise that these close friends would seek to keep track of each other throughout the war.


By fall of 1916 Tolkien succumbed to trench fever carried by lice. He was given just six days rest in England before being sent back to the trenches.


In the midst of the awfulness of the war, Tolkien would somehow manage to come to the end of it with his soul intact. His war experiences would nonetheless serve as a catalyst for his writing following the war.


Following the war Tolkien became a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. Dr. Joseph Loconte gives us background for what became the stories for which he has become most known:


Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

“…while he was sitting and grading student papers. ‘On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why…names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like.


We don’t know why Tolkien wrote those enigmatic words. But we do know what hobbits are like: from his own account, the character of the hobbit was a reflection of the ordinary soldier steadfast in his duties while suffering in the dreary ‘hole in the ground,’ the front-line trench.” 


 And so it was that J.R.R. Tolkien would go on to write his beloved book, The Hobbit. His years enduring the hardship of the war also reminded him of his belief in a moral code when others around him and other writers during and after the war gave up on that idealistic perspective. He saw common ordinary men who were asked to risk everything in the midst of the evil of this war.


Loconte’s wonderful book, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War, summarizes Tolkien’s journey that led to the book this way:


“Tolkien the solider lived among these ‘ordinary men,’ fought alongside them, witnessed their courage under fire, joked with them, mourned with them, and watched them die. Thus the ‘small people’ who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes of Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work. Like the soldiers in that war, the homely hobbits could not have perceived how the fate of nations depended upon their stubborn devotion to duty.


Perhaps this was Tolkien’s quiet way of suggesting that we may, in the end, owe more to these forgotten dead than our modern temperament allows.”


Unlike many writers who sought to try to make sense out of “The Great War” and wrote depressing and desperate stories devoid of hope, the Lord used J.R.R. Tolkien and his mythical story to offer a new lens and hope in the epic struggles against evil.


Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash




The Great War



In a few short days there will be a pause in various places around the world to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the end of “The Great War” on November 11, 1918 at 11 o’clock in the morning. Too many have little awareness of what that war was about or how it impacts the world even today.


Those who lived during that time called it “The Great War.” It was greater than any war waged before it, but for those people who came after that time it was known as WW I. Many who studied history courses during high school years have a fuzzier idea of it than of WW II. Perhaps it was because countries were drawn into it without one specific villain that represented a threat, but its scope and aftermath should give us all pause. It permanently shaped the political and cultural panorama in ways still evident today.


The one lingering mental picture that remains of that war is that of trenches.  During those four long hellish years the two opposing forces faced each other over 400 miles in a series of trenches. There were front line trenches that were six to eight feet deep, support trenches, and rear trenches plus communication trenches that ran zigzag between the others. Several million men spent most their time in these trenches that were dirty, smelly, lice-infested, and riddled with disease.


Fifty-nine million troops were mobilized to fight in this war. By the end of it, nine million soldiers had died and twenty-nine million were wounded. Those numbers are impossible to fathom. It translates into five men being killed every minute. Two hundred and fifty thousand men were killed in the Battle of the Somme that lasted 140 days in 1916.


Civilians who lived in the war zone suffered as well. Five million civilians were killed by the time it was over. It is little wonder that those caught in the midst of this believed they were in hell and wondered if this was the beginning of the end of the world. There was a belief that heroism was dead. Faith and innocence were lost.


The cultural impact resulted in nearly destroying Christianity in Europe and shredding of the idealism that existed before the war began. By the end, the plausibility of the idea of God was dead. Think about the gravity of that.


It is important that we learn some of the stories of that time and highlight several persons who left us a different perspective despite all of this.


One of my favorite stories occurred early in the war on Christmas Eve of 1914. On the Western Front both sides put down their weapons. Dr. Joseph Loconte, Associate Professor of History at The King’s College in New York City, describes it this way:



“The armies of both sides of the Western Front put down their weapons, sang hymns, and treated their enemies as brothers.


No one ordered the now-famous Christmas truce of 1914. No one could have planned for it. It arose spontaneously, without warning, among officers as well as ordinary soldiers, along hundreds of miles of fortified defenses. ‘Between the trenches, the hatred and bitter opponents meet around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols,’ Josef Wenzl, a soldier in the German infantry wrote to his parents, ‘This once in a lifetime vision I will not forget.’


Beginning on Christmas Eve and extending into Christmas Day, the killing machines of the Great War went silent. Soldiers came out of their trenches and greeted their adversaries in ‘No Man’s Land,’ the dead-zone separating enemy defenses. They gathered to sing ‘Stille blur-branch-celebration-212311Nacht’ (“Silent Night”) and to exchange food, drinks, and tobacco. ‘Gradually firing ceased almost everywhere along the line that Christmas Eve,’ writes historian Modris Ekstein. ‘The Christmas spirit had simply conquered the battlefield.’”


This “Great War” that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, bring an end to all wars, and usher in the kingdom of heaven did not succeed in any of these aims and instead crushed the hopes and dreams of a generation and ravaged a continent.


But on this one night early in the war, Christmas Eve 1914, the guns fell silent and the focus shifted to a higher plane to the only One who could bring peace…the Prince of Peace.


His message reaches out to us today in the midst of violence, chaos, and confusion from the words written by John, the disciple closest to Jesus, as he quotes Him:


“And everything I’ve taught you is so that the peace which is in me will be in you and will give you great confidence as you rest in me. For in this unbelieving world you will experience trouble and sorrows, but you must be courageous, for I have conquered the world!”

John 16:33 (TPT)