Saturday, December 05, 2015

One of the World's Great Cataclysms Produced Two of its Great Authors

I read a lot of books. I read a lot of history, theology, biography, and philosophy. I cannot remember the last time I wanted a book to be longer that it was, but that is what happened to me in the last pages of Laconte's book. I believe the most useful kind of biography is one that pays careful attention to the history of ideas passing through the life of the subject. This means a good biography will not only mention historical and philosophical context, but find significant ways to relate it to what happened in the life or lives under scrutiny. This book does a marvelous job of doing just that.

I found myself overwhelmed with Laconte's description of the setting leading up to the Great War and the blood-letting facts of the War itself. It does not take much effort to overwhelm an attentive reader with the horrors of the world's first mechanized and modern war, but Laconte does a wonderful job of laying just enough groundwork to let the reader understand what it would mean for both Tolkien and Lewis to have been in the thick of some of the worst fighting. The Western world was awash in trust in the progress of humanity and all that we could achieve under our own steam when the War To End All Wars turned that optimism into deep and abiding pessimism at what humans are capable to doing to each other.

So, how do two of the English language's greatest authors not succumb to that humanistic nihilism, and instead turn to the Christian faith and hope in their work? In many ways, this is the track of the book as Laconte traces their faith, their friendship, and their writing. Throughout the book, he is able to relate the realities of WWI to the themes and characters of Tolkien's and Lewis' works. Laconte discusses the much neglected topic of friendship through what is possibly the most literarily productive friendship in the 20th century. Both authors know loss and grief and fold those lessons inexorably into their fictional works. Both of them know what it costs to overcome evil and pursue the good. Both of them know how hope in Christ works in a world full of false hope in human progress. The battlefields of France shaped those characters and stories. Their friendship shaped each other's work. And their faith becomes stronger than the humanism all around them.

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