Shortly after the release of The Return of the King, the final installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, radio talk show host Dennis Prager parodied an interview with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter has become known as a human rights activist, a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and a pacifist. In the mock interview, Carter suggested the blockbuster film sends dangerous messages to the world’s young people. He stressed that war is not the answer. Instead, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate encouraged “compassion for Mordor.”
I don’t know if President Carter has weighed in yet on the climactic battle sequences in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But if he’s consistent, he may want to suggest an alternate ending. Perhaps, instead of sacrificing Himself, Aslan could begin a round of “peace talks” with the White Witch and negotiate a treaty with her hungry wolves.
Narnia and The Lord of the Rings films are often mentioned in the same breath. And for good reason. Both stories are fantasies that involve large scale battles between good and evil. They were written by friends and contemporaries and have become cultural landmarks. Of course, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s worlds were informed by their religion. But another, often overlooked factor contributes to the strength of those stories.
Both Lewis and Tolkien were soldiers.
Tolkien was sent to active duty on the Western Front and served in the Lancashire Fusiliers, the most-decorated British unit in the war. After four months in and out of the trenches, he succumbed to “trench fever”, a typhus-like infection common in the insanitary conditions, and was sent back to England. Lewis chose to volunteer for active duty in World War I and served in the British Army, fighting in the muddy trenches of northern France.
It probably goes without saying, but the impact of this war — the clashing of superpowers, the loss of life, the defense of virtue — had tremendous influence upon the stories they would later tell.
There’s a sense that conflict, temptation and adversity, always bring out the highest and noblest in people. Of course, this is not to trivialize war or diminish the sacrifices made for land and loved. I am simply suggesting that the richness and trenscendence of those stories is due, in part, to the battlefield. If Tolkien and Lewis had never served with a band of brothers, defended something they loved, fired on enemy troops and watched their friends die in combat, these stories could have never been written.
These ideas grate on post-modern man for two reasons. First, it implies that some wars are necessary (which rankles pacifists). Second, it implies real Good and Evil (which chafes relativists).
If Tolkien was a pacifist, rather than fight the Orcs, Aragorn would negotiate a land-for-peace deal, use the One Ring to barter with Saruman, and Gandhalf would become a diplomat to Mordor and the Orcian State. If Lewis was a relativist, Edmund would have broken no Moral Law and never needed rescued; Aslan could have spared Himself from dying and Narnia would begin a golden age of tolerance toward witches.
As long as there is real Good and Evil, war is necessary. As long as there is a real Devil, we must stand against him. As long as there is genuine Darkness, Light must be sought. As long as there are Bad People, Good People must arise. These are the stakes of all good stories, the necessary components of all great storytelling.
Oswald Chambers put it this way:
The old Puritan idea that the devil tempts men had this remarkable effect, it produced the man of iron who fought; the modern idea of blaming his heredity or his circumstances produces the man who succumbs at once.
The problem with modern man and his storytelling, is that there’s no more Devil. The Hitlers and Sadaam Husseins of the world are people we must “understand” or “appease,” not destroy. Nowadays, the only Truth worth standing up for is your own “personal truth” — and you better not infringe on anyone else’s in the process. In the age of postmodernism, the only real Temptation, is the temptation to see things black and white. But however you look at it, these concepts produce weak stories and spineless storytellers.
Tolkien and Lewis were soldiers and their stories were war stories. The war was physical, it involved armies and armaments. But behind the swords and spears was another War — a battle for Goodness, Morality and Virtue. If it’s true that struggle and adversity are grist for the mill of stories, then as writers, we can expect God will allow us our share of battles. And all of our stories will be, in some way, War Stories.