Inklings at war

[Churchyard where Tolkien is buried—Jennifer Woodruff Tait]

In March 1916a young British battalion signaling officer graduated from Oxford University, married his childhood sweetheart, and shipped across the English Channel just in time to participate in the hellish Battle of the Somme (July 1–November 18). The very first day of this battle was the greatest bloodbath in English military history: 9,000 British soldiers killed; 36,000 wounded; and 2,000 missing. 

Dead faces in the water

Later the young soldier wrote about a scene eerily similar to the devastated no-man’s lands of northern France: 

Mists curled and smoked from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hung stifling in the still air.… The only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters. … He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. … Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. “There are dead things, dead faces in the water,” he said with horror. “Dead faces!”

That youthful second lieutenant was J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), later professor at Oxford University and author of The Lord of the Rings, the second best-selling novel ever written, from which these words come. 

Because of their task, Tolkien and his signalers were usually in harm’s way. He went into action at the Somme in the third week of July and fought for nearly the entire battle until he was transferred home to England with pyrexia (“trench fever,” see p. 24) on October 28, 1916. His illness saved his life. After a lengthy recovery period, he was still judged too sick for foreign service and returned to the Home Service for the rest of the war. 

The final toll at the Somme was over a million casualties. Some 73,000 British and South African soldiers were never found—stark testimony to the brutality of trench and artillery warfare. Two of Tolkien’s three best friends fell at the Somme; his entire unit was wiped out in May of 1918; and by the end of the war, nearly all of his friends had been killed. Yet he spent his free moments in recovery writing poetry and parts of an epic about a new secondary world we now know as Middle-earth.

The following year in late April 1917, another young man, this time from Northern Ireland, entered Oxford University. He was not subject to the British draft, but in May 1917 he voluntarily enlisted in the University Officers’ Training Corps. In September 1917 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and reached the front lines in France on his nineteenth birthday in November. 

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More on the faith of Tolkien, Lewis and other Inklings in issue #113, Seven Literary Sages.

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“This is war”

As he went into battle, he thought to himself, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.” But subsequently he remembered instead “the frights, the cold, the smell of H. E. [high explosives], the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet.”

That young officer was Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis (1898–1963), later to become a professor at Oxford and Cambridge and the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity. Lewis’s first few months were spent in trench duty near the Belgian border. This involved mortar battles with the Germans, whose fortifications were as close as 50 yards away; exchanges of gas and artillery fire; and coping with the cold of winter in the trenches. 

In February 1918 Lewis was behind the lines with trench fever, but returned to the front at the end of the month. In March 1918 the Germans began their last major attempt to end the war. During the bloodiest fighting between March 21 and early May, over a million artillery shells battered British troops in five hours (the largest bombardment of the entire war) killing 20,000 and wounding 35,000 on the first day. Lewis’s battalion was in the thick of the fighting, including a comical episode in which he captured “about sixty prisoners—that is, discovered to my great relief that the crowd of field-gray figures who suddenly appeared from nowhere all had their hands up.” 

At Arras on April 15, 1918, Lewis was wounded in the back by “friendly fire”—shell fragments from a British barrage—that killed one of his best friends as well as his sergeant. Two fragments entered his left chest and fractured a rib. Lewis’s war was over. He was evacuated on May 22 to England, where he spent the rest of the war convalescing. 

Removing the fragments from his chest was judged too dangerous; they remained embedded for several decades. By 1918 nearly all of his friends were dead. Like Tolkien he had survived when many others hadn’t. And like Tolkien he spent his recuperation writing poetry. Both men had lived out what Lewis would later argue: that art is worth doing in wartime if it is worth doing at all.

Mud and flood and blood

These two different men were deeply influenced personally, philosophically, and literarily by their experiences in the “animal horror” of the trenches. Tolkien wrote in 1940: “At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do, that counts. But I cannot pretend that I found that idea much comfort against the waste of time and militarization of the army. It isn’t the tough stuff one minds so much. I was pitched into it all, just when I was full of stuff to write, and of things to learn; and never picked it all up again.”

In Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) Lewis claimed, “We lost our ideals when there was a war in this country. They were ground out of us in the mud and the flood and the blood.” He later displayed a curiously detached attitude toward the war, writing in Surprised by Joy (1955) that the Great War “often seems to have happened to someone else.” It seems likely that Lewis suffered from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had nightmares about the war and wondered why he survived when none of his mates did. This may account for some of his odd behaviors, which can be explained as coping strategies. 

The combat brotherhood of war reinforced the value of friendship for both Tolkien and Lewis. It is no accident that the first part of The Lord of the Rings is entitled The Fellowship of the Ring; and in The Four Loves (1960), Lewis wrote, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” The Inklings literary group that came to be central for both men was predominantly composed of World War I veterans.

Finding guns and finding God

As a result of the war, Tolkien’s Catholicism deepened. Lewis’s atheism appeared initially stronger, though during his 1918 convalescence, he made a surprising admission that “the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist.” His conversion to Christianity after 1930 had wartime roots.

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Order Christian History #121: Faith in the Foxholes in print.

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Despite their wartime hopes, neither man achieved fame as a poet. However, this failure as epic poets resulted in later success as epic prose writers. Both came to share an “anti-modern” worldview and a lack of faith in humanity’s goodness—learned in the striking brutality and impersonality of guns that could kill from well over a hundred miles away; poison gas, barbed wire, machine guns, and tanks; and aircraft and U-boats that dealt destruction to hapless and faceless victims from above or below. 

But the war was also a school of duty, honor, heroic deeds, and courage—traditional values and themes critical in Middle-earth and Narnia. Tolkien, John Garth has written, “did not simply preserve the traditions that the war threatened, but reinvigorated them for his own era.” Lewis did the same with Narnia. 

Neither was eager for war, but when the time came, they carried out what they considered to be their duty. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo in The Lord of the Rings about his own wartime task. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time given us.”

In the end Tolkien wrote, “One must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good,’”—lines echoed by Lewis in The Last Battle: “Remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.” Both maintained that the eucatastrophe of God’s grace will prevail, no matter how our earthly sojourn plays out. We will find consolation and redemption, mingled with joy and grief. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #121 Faith in the Foxholes. Read it in context here!

By Paul E. Michelson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #121 in 2017]

Paul E. Michelson is distinguished professor emeritus of history at Huntington University.
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