Students present on Lewis, Tolkien and the Great War

Junior forensic science major, Whitney Clum and Washburn alumni, Nathaniel Boggs spoke about British author and poet  C.S. Lewis (known for the “Narnia” series) at the NOTO Arts Center on Thursday, Nov. 2,  specifically about the impact World War I had on Lewis and fellow icon J.R.R Tolkien (known for The Hobbit/The Lord of The Rings series), and how it influenced their works.

Lewis and Tolkien alluded to the war in their literary works multiple times, and Clum highlighted specifically that there were some very specific, albeit smaller elements, in both Tolkien and Lewis’ works that were references to the war they had lived through. Things like wounds that would specifically only be found at the trenches of World War I and were oddly contemporary, only to be seen on a medieval battlefield. As for Tolkien’s stories, she detailed the role the hobbit protagonists were meant to embody.

“You could see his admiration for the bat-men he fought with represented in the character of Samwise Gamgee, who Tolkien felt to be the real hero of the series,” said Clum.

But Tolkien and Lewis’ works aren’t just limited to being reactions to war.

“The war was very much a part of their respective lives, but I don’t think you can boil down either series enough to simply call them reactions to the war. In my opinion, I feel as if both series were labors of love, written for both themselves and others, and reactions to the war, nature, religion, passions and major life events can’t help but bleed through,” said Clum.

Nathaniel Boggs, who teaches literature and philosophy at Cair-Paravel Latin School in Topeka, and graduated from Washburn in 2011, is now working in the masters of liberal studies. He talked extensively about war poetry of the time as a whole, and the quality of Lewis’ work.

“War poetry was used as propaganda for and against the war. After it was a lot of commentary on what had happened, and also people processing what they’d gone through. And the interesting thing about World War I is that everyone that fought in the war was very well educated, and were coming out of a time where poetry was very popular,” said Boggs. 

He also spoke about the quality of Lewis’ poetry itself.

“I think Whitney hit it on the head…the stuff during the war is not that good. It really isn’t, lot of teenage white angst. He thinks he can solve all the problems in the world. There are some objectively good poems I would say, but it just wasn’t as good as a lot of the other poems being produced at the time, Wilfred Owens, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Bridges. They’re the ones that exemplified war poetry…I think part of it is that Lewis got famous completely different reasons. His Christian apologetic work and his work on renaissance literature is really what made him famous in that regard. He wrote these poems (referring to the ones presented) and one other big one and that was really it for poetry…He’s not a modernist he hated the modernists, he thought some were hacks. He purposely  distanced himself from those things,” said Boggs.

Clum ended with addressing some arguments against Tolkien and Lewis being considered war authors.

“The fact that they are considered first and foremost fantasy authors, a genre that isn’t always taken very seriously comes to mind, but there was also the possibility that, to their contemporaries, they just weren’t that good. However, Lewis has some of his war poetry published with talented individuals who were considered strictly war authors, so he clearly had the talent. On the fantasy argument, Lewis wrote non-fiction, literary fiction, and  an autobiography, showing that it wasn’t Narnia’s genre that has kept him from being considered a war author. Tolkien also worked on other, non-fantasy projects such as the dictionary, and has been voted one of Britain’s all time best authors, so it wasn’t skill level on his part either,” said Clum.

Overall, it was really fascinating seeing social commentary dating back to the first World War. Although social commentary is something that has always existed, catastrophic events that effected the world on the macro level will bleed into so many parts of life, including literature. Both World Wars, Vietnam, 9/11, and different forms of art and media will add a sort of realism as a reaction to those. Lewis and Tolkien added needed amounts of realism to their stories, and perhaps that is one of the reasons they are still beloved.