A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War

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” ‘ The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it enitrely in beer and talk, without any reference to a clock!'”  – from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien as quoted by Joseph Loconte.

Joseph Loconte’s short volume A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918  focuses on what influenced Tolkien, Lewis and their writings during the wake of the First World War. In addition, Loconte delves into why the works of these two authors may have differed in theme and tone from many of the other authors of the time. While everyone seemed to suffer from the disillusionment caused by The Great War, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a persistent hope while their contemporaries (such as Ernest Hemingway) may not have.

The influence that resonated with me the most was the friendship itself between the two writers. More detailed biographies that I’ve read don’t hide the fact that the friendship had its share of bumps and strains. Loconte’s book doesn’t dismiss this fact but it emphasizes the lasting aspect of the relationship.

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When it comes to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien or the writings of some of my favorite “Lost Generation” writers, I’m not going to pick which ones I like better. All of them have had their impact on me. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to 1920’s Paris to hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald like Owen Wilson did in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, of course I would jump at the chance. But if I had to choose between which group of authors I would want to hang out with over the course of thirty or forty years, I think I would choose Tolkien, Lewis and their crowd.

 

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A Classics Club Rewind

Back in March of 2014, The Classics Club used a question I submitted for their monthly meme and last month they used it again as a Classics Club Rewind:

What is your favorite “classic” literary period and why?

Here is my original post regarding this question but I thought I would try to add something to it. My favorite literary period is still early Twentieth Century. This year I read the book The Fellowship about The Inklings, a group of Oxford authors which included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing in the early Twentieth Century, they were confronted with the post-World War I disillusionment that much of the world was facing. The authors of The Fellowship come to the conclusion that Lewis and Tolkien and the others commited the “heresy of the happy ending”. So much of their fiction contains good ultimately triumphing over evil.

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On the other hand, the writers on the US side of the Atlantic like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were redefining style and providing social commentary that still stands up today. These authors were not quite as keen on the happy ending. I can’t say I have a preference over a happy ending or an unhappy ending. If the story works, it works. In early Twentieth Century novels, the unhappy endings are as cathartic as the happy endings are hopeful.

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While I’m on this topic, a new book about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises came out in 2016 called Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume. It’s on my list to read at the beginning of 2017, but I think I’ll reread The Sun Also Rises first.

Speaking of the early Twentieth Century, I’m currently reading Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz. Even thought it wasn’t written in the early Twentieth Century, it’s set during the Harlem Renessiance of the 1920’s. I’m about half way through and I highly recommend it.

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The Fellowship

After reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings – J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski, I can’t help but imagine a little corner of heaven with an Oxford pub where a bunch of old British guys are still drinking beer, talking about literature, theology and philosophy, laughing and arguing and, at least from my perspective, having a good time.

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The authors in the title all belonged to a literary circle known as the Inklings and met together once a week for the better part of several decades. In the 21st century, Tolkien is probably the most well-known due to Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

Coming out of World War I, they all dealt with the disillusionment so much of the world felt, though they dealt with it differently than some of my favorite American authors. They are primarily known for writing fantasy and, in their writing, they never completely lost hope:

 

Yet underlying his pessimism about humanity was an indomitable hope, born, as surely as his pessimism, from his Catholic faith. Belief in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, logos over chaos, bestowed upon all the oppositions in his life – scholarship and art, male friendship and marriage, high spirits and despair – a final and satisfying unity, a deep and abiding joy. When Tolkien said of himself that “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size),” he spoke the truth, not only about his material likes (trees, farms, tobacco, mushrooms, plain English food) and dislikes (cars, French cooking, early rising) but also about the disposition of his soul. He, like a hobbit, was at home in his shire; he like a hobbit, trusted the cosmos – but not necessarily the powers that held sway on earth.

While I still love the way so many American authors poured all of their disillusionment into their writing, I personally have difficulty “staying there”. I enjoy Tolkien and Lewis (I haven’t read Barfield or Williams) for the fact that they are “guilty of the heresy of the happy ending” as the Zaleskis put it.

This book was a complete joy to read for someone who has read Tolkien and Lewis since they were twelve; however, if one is not all that inclined to read about literary analysis, theology or philosophy, one might struggle through parts of the book but there’s still plenty of fascinating history and biography.

The Final TBR Triple Dog Dare Update

TBR Final Dare

The final TBR Triple Dog Dare is sponsored by James at James Reads Books and here’s my final update. The Dare requires participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March.

As I’ve said in previous updates, the number of books I’ve read during the Dare has not been staggering; however, I’ve read some books that have been on my shelf for a long time and thoroughly enjoyed them:

1.) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (on my shelf)

2.) Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser (borrowed from the library prior to the beginning of the Dare)

3.)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (on my shelf)

4.) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (on my shelf)

I just finished Jane Eyre yesterday so look for a post about Volume the Second in the next couple of days.  In addition, I read the beautiful story “The Turkey Season” for the April edition of The Alice Munro Story of the Month so a post about that will be coming up soon.

Next up is Andy Weir’s The Martian and after that I’ll begin a book I just got in the mail: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings -J. R. R . Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski.

So how did you do with the TBR Triple Dog Dare? And what’s up for you post-Dare?

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Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

I’ve come to the conclusion that the internet isn’t the best place to have conversations, discussions, debates or even, let’s face it, arguments about religion or politics.  Don’t get me wrong, I have read some very well-articulated and well-thought out opinions on these topics from varying points of view.  I think the perceived anonymity of the internet, though, takes away the ability or at least makes it more difficult to actually have an exchange of ideas on these topics.

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Personally, one of the better places for me to talk about these topics is a pub or coffeehouse similar to how C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the rest of their group (The Inklings) did it.  They talked about literature and religion – I’m sure politics entered into the conversations from time to time.

That brings me to the book I just finished, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.  In spite of the slightly gruff title, I felt like I was actually sitting at a table with the author discussing his thoughts and ideas.  The premise of his book is to show how the face of much of American Christianity is actually heresy when compared to orthodox (with a small “o”) Christianity.  Douthat is considered a “conservative voice” for the New York Times.  I have a feeling based on his book and knowing his position that he is used to people disagreeing with him.  This seems to have given him good practice in holding his ground on his opinions but also an intelligent understanding of those who disagree with him.  I think both of those abilities shine in his book.

Since I’m not currently at a pub or coffeehouse, I’ll finish with simply saying Douthat’s book is worth discussing with people of all political persuasions.  Just about everyone will find something with which to disagree, but everyone will also find something challenging and worth pondering.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the mysteries of faith and the complexities of politics and how they have intertwined over the last few decades.

War and Peace: Book 1

I’ve completed Book 1 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace which takes me to page 344, not quite one fourth of the way through the book.

I’m experiencing what I would call a minor phenomenon that I’ve experienced before in a few other books – books that have numerous characters and story lines woven together.  When I attempt to make a concerted effort to keep all the characters and stories straight, I get frustrated; however, when I kick back and just soak it all in, the characters and the stories eventually fall into place.  That’s what’s been happening from my perspective in the first book with the Rostovs, Kuragins and Bolkonskys along with their friends and enemies.  A number of years ago, a co-worker of mine bought J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy at a bookstore.  The clerk at the bookstore told her that The Lord of the Rings was War and Peace with elves.  I could reverse that and say War and Peace is The Lord of the Rings without elves (or hobbits or wizards).

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, a character or characters have not jumped out at me as a favorite.  Anatole Kuragin, Prince Vasili’s “wild child” probably comes the closest.  No favorite, though, does not correspond to no enjoyment.  From the conversations in the drawing rooms to the battlefield, the characters manage to quite brilliantly fascinate, intrigue and keep me engaged in the story.

The military storyline provides the most thought-provoking moments and the thoughts of the soldiers, from privates to commanding officers, depict a great paradox not only applicable to war but to life itself:

From general to private, every man was conscious of his own insignificance, aware that he was but a grain of sand in that ocean of humanity, and yet at the same time had a sense of power as a part of that vast whole.

The structure of the novel made me realize that television series were not the first to utilize what is known as a cliffhanger.  If the books of War and Peace were published separately, Book 1 would have left it’s original readers wondering about the marriage of Pierre Bezuhov to Prince Vasili’s daughter, Helene, and the rejection of Anatole by Prince Bolkonsky’s daughter, Maria.  Book 1 involves the bitter defeat of the Russian army by Napoleon’s forces, ending with one of the major characters suffering a life threatening wound as he is captured by the French army.  This character movingly faces his fate with these words:

Nothing, nothing is certain, except the unimportance of every thing within my comprehension and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but all-important.

Does he live or die?  I don’t know yet.  I’m looking forward to reading more to find out.

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters That Remind Me of Myself

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, sponsored by The Broke and The Bookish, are characters that remind me of myself.  The top ten lists I’ve put together recently have been fun, but I especially appreciated this one.  It made me go back over the years and relive some of my favorite reading experiences.

The first book I read in which I recognized a character that reminded me of myself was Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  No, I didn’t see myself in the title character, but in the narrator, Nick Carraway.  In fact, many of the characters in which I’ve seen myself have been “side-kicks”.  I would like to think that I’m the extremely loyal friend like Samwise Gamgee in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but I admit that I have a jealous streak like Ron Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Several characters in Chaim Potok’s novels, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders in The Chosen and Asher Lev in My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev, reminded me that I can question my faith (or worldview or life philosophy) without abandoning it.

Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road would be me (for the most part) if I ever went “on the road” with a group of friends like he did with Dean Moriarty.  The closest I ever came was Myrtle Beach during spring break in college – not exactly the same.

I’m probably too old to say that I see myself in J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, not to mention it’s a little cliche, but when I was sixteen and reading the book?  Absolutely!

Somewhere in E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View, Cecil Vyse says that some people in the world are only good for books – he rather pompously includes himself in this category.  As much as I love books and while some of my friends might put me in Cecil’s category, I can’t say I see myself in him.  At the same time, I’m not the free spirit that George Emerson appears to be, either.  I saw myself more in the vicar, Mr. Beebe, with an ability to somehow combine the enjoyment of real life and books.

I don’t believe I’m as old as Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and I’m not much of a fisherman, but the older I get, it becomes easier to relate to this guy.

What characters remind you of you?