In a Hole in the Ground There Lived…

written by Dave Berry, pastor at Jacob’s Well  Community Church

In a hole in the ground there lived… millions of miserable men. The years were 1914 – 1918 and The War to End All Wars had devolved into a war of attrition, disease, and all the horror and killing effectiveness the technology of the day could bring. 2014 will bring many efforts to commemorate the centennial of “The Great War.” I encourage you to pay close attention, even to find out how your own family may have been involved. My grandfather, Scott Glaze, was one of those miserable men. Naturally, that matters much more to me than you; however, there are a couple of young men who spent months in the cold, wet, and inane slaughter whom, I can imagine, might matter to you: J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Our inspiring literary friends, favorites of succeeding generations, served with some distinction in the fields of France. Both served as officers on the front lines, with the burden of leading 25 soldiers to carry out orders. Both had best friends killed in the fighting. Both suffered from lice-borne trench fever and had to be removed for rehabilitation. (Tolkien suffered lingering effects for years.) Lewis was severely wounded by “friendly fire” artillery.

Lt. J.R.R. Tolkien served as a signal officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers, interestingly, working in cryptography/codes/language creation. His initiation into the horror came at the Battle of the Somme. On the first day of the battle, 20,000 British soldiers were killed, more than 35,000 wounded. Tolkien endured the ongoing struggle at the Somme for months until he had to be removed due to the debilitating trench fever.

Lt. C.S. Lewis served as an infantry officer with the Somerset Light Infantry. He entered the front lines – as an officer – on his 19th birthday. Six months later he received his “blighty wound” and was shipped back to England. The blast that wounded him killed his second in command, a Sergeant Ayres.

What we have come to admire as the enduring “iron sharpens iron” friendship between Tolkien and Lewis was forged in the fire of academic excellence at Oxford in the 1930s. But, I think it safe to surmise that the providential fellowship of brilliance which, it can be argued, was necessary for the literary and spiritual refinement of both, certainly carried an appreciation of mutual respect and identification with each other’s “baptism” under fire. As war clouds loomed over England in 1939, one can imagine Tolkien and Lewis reflecting… and preparing… and hoping for good to triumph, light to prevail, and mankind to be spared a repeat of the crucible of their generation.

Although I have been reading their works for nearly 40 years, I know that I have begun to read them through a “new” filter: the “I experienced the unthinkable horrors of war first hand” filter. In so doing, the sometimes pervasive and seemingly impenetrable darkness each brings our various protagonists into and through carries a weightiness of context I’ve certainly not applied before. The struggle of good vs. evil in other realms has to have been deeply imbedded into the souls of our admired authors as very young men leading even younger men into battle in this realm. (Both men viewed the “good vs. evil” struggle more theologically than politically. The enemy German forces weren’t the embodiment of evil, nor the Brits the sterling standard of all things good. Each was to adjust this view in WWII as Nazi Germany became the scourge of western civilization.) And, maybe most tellingly, the power of friendship, indeed, “fellowship,” was certainly made manifest in the trenches of France.

When asked about the influence of his war experiences on the Lord of the Rings in particular, Tolkien typically said that such associations were more tangential than intentional. Lewis disagreed with his friend. In a review of LOTR, Lewis wrote:

This war has the very quality of the war my generation knew. 

It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet of the front when “everything is now ready,” the flying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and such heaven sent windfalls as a cache of tobacco “salvaged” from a ruin.

The author has told us elsewhere that his taste for fairy tale was wakened into maturity by active service; that, no doubt, is why we can say of his war scenes (quoting Gimli, the dwarf),

“There is good rock here. This country has tough bones.”

“Good rock” meant much to men cowering in trenches trying to escape seemingly endless attacks with artillery, poison gas, and charging infantry. Trenches had to have “tough bones” to protect the men who lived in a hole in the ground.