As storms swirled outside the campus of Grove City College, inside Ketler Auditorium a mix of students in search of extra credit, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis Fanatics and interested community members serendipitously gathered on Hobbit Day, September 21st or the birthday of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, to be transported to another stormy time in world history.
The vehicle for that journey was Dr Joseph Loconte’s docuseries “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War.” Based on his book by the same title, the forthcoming series follows the lives of two of the most influential writers of the last century who’s shared experiences of tragic loss, war and scholarship led to a consequential and essential friendship that helped shape their iconic writings.
It has been said that without Lewis, Tolkien may not have finished his signature series, the Lord of the Rings. Conversely, without Tolkien, Lewis would not have had the conversion to Christianity that inspired him to write the Chronicles of Narnia.
The first of five episodes, which focuses on the respective authors’ childhoods and service in World War I, was previewed at Grove City College followed by a conversation and Q&A between Grove City College’s Faith and Family Institute President Paul Kengor and the series’ screenwriter and narrator Dr Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation.
As a young seminarian, reading and watching the Lord of the Rings and Narnia films I often wondered how these two authors could create the fantastical worlds their respective series exist in. After watching episode one of this surprisingly thrilling series, it becomes clear that they created these universes as allegories to the worlds they grew up in and came of age in while engaged in World War I.
… It becomes clear that they created these universes as allegories to the words they grew up in and come of age in while engaged in World War I.
The series begins before those writings and long before they met. Their early lives were both marked by the loss of a parent, Tolkien’s father dying of rheumatic fever while Lewis’s mother died of Cancer. Both relied on the hospitality of others to live and learn as they grew up. When Tolkien’s mother died of acute diabetes when he was 12, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a friend of Tolkien’s mother, became his guardian and raised him as Catholic immersing him through his schooling in languages. After his mother’s death, Lewis was sent to several schools before being privately tutored by William Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick would sharpen Lewis’ use of logic and reason and initially those skills confirmed his atheist views which he adopted during his time at school and at war.
The 1st episode of the docuseries is a series of “AH-HA!” moments in which fans of the books or movies will be able to note the origins of an iconic character or theme within the books. That theme is most prevalent in the 2nd half of the episode which focuses on their service in the “Great War.” Tolkien as a signal officer in the trench saw himself as small and inconsequential in the larger effort but in it found the inspiration for the theme of the Hobbit, small in stature and societal importance but an essential figure in his stories. Tolkien would contract trench fever at the Battle of the Somme and would return to England to recover. This was not the fate of many of his schoolmates who did not return from war. Their memories would inspire his life. Tolkien would later write, as Loconte recounted during the Q&A, that middle earth was begun while he served in the trenches.
Lewis was wounded at the Battle of the Somme by a friendly fire incident when a British shell fell short of his target. For Lewis, his experiences on the front would confirm his atheism but provide him with a new sense of purpose. His exposure to war would also be a scene setter for his epic battles in Narnia.
In true form, the first episode ends in a cliffhanger leaving most in the audience of about 200 to murmur disappointedly as they realized the engaging episode was ending just as Tolkien and Lewis were about to meet at Oxford and set into motion a friendship that would shape their careers and their personal lives.
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The series uses historic photographs and contemporary footage shot in their ancestral homes and the battlefields in which they served. It is also well served by the collection of interviews with Tolkien and Lewis experts that serve to provide the historical context around the events of their lives. The driving force of the series is Loconte’s forceful narration and obvious passion for the subject.
The docuseries is yet to finish filming. The hope is to return to London to begin filming episodes 2-5 in the spring of 2022. Upon completion of the filming the non-profit series will explore distribution opportunities with a hoped for release date of Winter 2022-23.
For fans of Tolkien and Lewis they should eagerly await what will certainly be a can’t miss docuseries. Those interested in supporting the project can visit HobbitWardrobe.com. You can also preview a 5 minute teaser of the series which gives an excellent preview of what is to come.
“A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War” couldn’t come at a more critical time. As society drifts further away from the classics and the humanities that formed the western world it is critical to remember that some of our most beloved stories, including Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, are deeply rooted in philosophy. They were written amidst the study and discussion of these important themes. Without the foundations of the great works of our age, we are left with unsatisfying knockoffs that further separate us from the moral compass needed for civil society.
Ben Wren is an Associate with Long Nyquist & Associates and a Fellow with the O.V. Catto Leadership Initiative. He has participated as a performer and Director in Theatre for over 25 years, and is currently the Chairman of the Board for Split Stage Productions. (Opinions expressed only reflect his own and not necessarily those of his employer or affiliated groups). @benwren