It cannot have been easy to shock Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury queen. Bohemian to the core, she presided over a circle of literary hedonists whose escapades the BBC deemed racy enough to turn into a television series earlier this year.
And yet, Mrs Woolf confessed to being thoroughly shocked when “Tom Eliot” (TS Eliot) revealed that he’d converted to the Church of England. “Dear Tom Eliot may be called dead to us all from this day forward,” she wrote to a friend in 1927. “He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to me to be more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene to me in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”
These sentiments were perfectly in tune with the times. The Great War was a painful memory, tormenting survivors who had fought and those who had welcomed them home. Confusion, despair and cynicism had replaced the patriotic idealism that had sent millions to their deaths in the trenches.
As Joseph Loconte shows in this marvellous, idiosyncratic chronicle of that era, the intelligentsia, like ordinary people, were rebelling against the old order that had allowed so much innocent blood to be spilled. Identified with that order were the churches which, at the outbreak of the war, had been part of the Establishment: “The Church is … engaged in a Holy War,” declaimed Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London. His German counterparts were no less ready to see their army made up of Christian soldiers on the march for God.
With God and King moribund authorities, autonomy, independence and the temptation of a freedom that recognises no limits gradually replaced them – helped in part by the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud. “With God discredited,” writes Loconte, “a new hedonism took off … it all helped produce the modern secular zealot, the revolutionary who sought to create heaven on earth.”
Two lone figures held out against this tidal wave of anti-religious sentiment: the Catholic JRR Tolkien and the Anglican CS Lewis. The authors, both First World War survivors, created fiction that shaped 20th-century literature and faith.
Loconte describes how the two responded to the spiritual crisis of their generation with a Christian imagination that produced some of our best-loved works of literature. The similarities between the visions of these two Oxford-based friends are striking: both loved the English countryside and hated technology for destroying it. Both sought to fashion fantastical parallel worlds where mythical creatures played out the eternal struggle of good and evil. And both sought to describe the difficult, often painful but ultimately rewarding relationship between mankind and an ever-loving God. Despite their wartime experiences these geniuses drew strength from their shared faith and believed their shared values would triumph.
Loconte is himself a Christian and subscribes to these values. In his reading of The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he highlights the search for truth and the temptation to indulge our basest instincts: fear and hope. In a 21st century where terror is commonplace, reading Tolkien and Lewis does offer spiritual comfort, as Loconte makes clear. The reader need only peel back the layers of imaginative fiction, populated by speaking lions and clever elves, sly witches and monstrous Mûmakils, to discover a glorious narrative of sin, regret and redemption. It is a narrative whose Christian message is never explicitly articulated, which entrances children, and which, thanks to this book, will find a new grown-up audience.