War Stories

Shortly after the release of The Return of the King, the final installment in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, radio talk show host Dennis Prager parodied an interview with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter has become known as a human rights activist, a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and a pacifist. In the mock interview, Carter suggested the blockbuster film sends dangerous messages to the world's young people. He stressed that war is not the answer. Instead, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate encouraged "compassion for Mordor."

I don't know if President Carter has weighed in yet on the climactic battle sequences in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But if he's consistent, he may want to suggest an alternate ending. Perhaps, instead of sacrificing Himself, Aslan could begin a round of "peace talks" with the White Witch and negotiate a treaty with her hungry wolves.

Narnia and The Lord of the Rings films are often mentioned in the same breath. And for good reason. Both stories are fantasies that involve large scale battles between good and evil. They were written by friends and contemporaries and have become cultural landmarks. Of course, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's worlds were informed by their religion. But another, often overlooked factor contributes to the strength of those stories.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were soldiers.

Tolkien was sent to active duty on the Western Front and served in the Lancashire Fusiliers, the most-decorated British unit in the war. After four months in and out of the trenches, he succumbed to "trench fever", a typhus-like infection common in the insanitary conditions, and was sent back to England. Lewis chose to volunteer for active duty in World War I and served in the British Army, fighting in the muddy trenches of northern France.

It probably goes without saying, but the impact of this war -- the clashing of superpowers, the loss of life, the defense of virtue -- had tremendous influence upon the stories they would later tell.

There's a sense that conflict, temptation and adversity, always bring out the highest and noblest in people. Of course, this is not to trivialize war or diminish the sacrifices made for land and loved. I am simply suggesting that the richness and trenscendence of those stories is due, in part, to the battlefield. If Tolkien and Lewis had never served with a band of brothers, defended something they loved, fired on enemy troops and watched their friends die in combat, these stories could have never been written.

These ideas grate on post-modern man for two reasons. First, it implies that some wars are necessary (which rankles pacifists). Second, it implies real Good and Evil (which chafes relativists).

If Tolkien was a pacifist, rather than fight the Orcs, Aragorn would negotiate a land-for-peace deal, use the One Ring to barter with Saruman, and Gandhalf would become a diplomat to Mordor and the Orcian State. If Lewis was a relativist, Edmund would have broken no Moral Law and never needed rescued; Aslan could have spared Himself from dying and Narnia would begin a golden age of tolerance toward witches.

As long as there is real Good and Evil, war is necessary. As long as there is a real Devil, we must stand against him. As long as there is genuine Darkness, Light must be sought. As long as there are Bad People, Good People must arise. These are the stakes of all good stories, the necessary components of all great storytelling.

Oswald Chambers put it this way:

The old Puritan idea that the devil tempts men had this remarkable effect, it produced the man of iron who fought; the modern idea of blaming his heredity or his circumstances produces the man who succumbs at once.

The problem with modern man and his storytelling, is that there's no more Devil. The Hitlers and Sadaam Husseins of the world are people we must "understand" or "appease," not destroy. Nowadays, the only Truth worth standing up for is your own "personal truth" -- and you better not infringe on anyone else's in the process. In the age of postmodernism, the only real Temptation, is the temptation to see things black and white. But however you look at it, these concepts produce weak stories and spineless storytellers.

Tolkien and Lewis were soldiers and their stories were war stories. The war was physical, it involved armies and armaments. But behind the swords and spears was another War -- a battle for Goodness, Morality and Virtue. If it's true that struggle and adversity are grist for the mill of stories, then as writers, we can expect God will allow us our share of battles. And all of our stories will be, in some way, War Stories.


Gina Holmes said...

Mike, I appreciate that post, even if it does ruffle some feathers. For everything under heaven there is a season. I never thought of the importance of telling a story with definite parameters of good vs. evil. You're right, the flavor of the day seems to be to turn everything and everyone into a homogenous gray. No good. No bad. Just misunderstood.

CFisher said...

Wow! A truly excellent post.

And you nailed the problem with so many literary novels where nothing really happens. In so many books these days, there's no real conflict because there is no real enemy. It's not P.C. to have "enemies."

michael snyder said...

Another great post, Mike. I've read my fair share of navel gazers, simply to experience the beauty of the prose and the author's imagination.

But fiction, like life (and football), deals in pain and gain. Like it or not, stakes matter. Insignificant risks may lower the potential for rankling and chafing, but it also greatly dilutes the payoff.

Story-wise, I much prefer emotional stakes to ticking time bombs or ghosts or guns. But the war wages either way, whether in the soul or on the battlefield.

mike duran said...

"Ticking time bombs, ghosts or guns?" How'd you hear about my WIP, Mike? I've had enough emotional wars in my lifetime. I need to fight something more winnable. Hey, thanks for the comments, everyone.

Ame said...

And what lies we feed our children when there's no distinction between good and evil? It's impossible to read the Bible without the two being very clearly laid out and never do their definitions overlap.

My five year old said one day last spring, "Momma, can God make me into anything?" "Yes, God can make you into anything." "I want God to make me into a long-tail dinasaur. Then I'm gonna take my big long tail and SMASH Satan with it!!!" LOVE IT!!!

I want my kids to know it's fierce out there, and I want them to know how to think and reason and discern, with wisdom, Truth from Lie, Good from Bad. And I want them to know there is a God who has already won.

The world wants to make EVERYthing okay till it affects them personally - is it okay for me to drive my car into your house? Well . . . don't care if you do it to my neighbor's house, just don't do it to mine!!! Funny, we have a more active legal system with fewer distinguishable rules. If there are no rules to follow, why do we need so many to enforce them? Hummm . . . perhaps we need so many to dismantle them.

And if we need fewer definitions of good and evil, why are we significantly less safe? We want everybody to have an excuse and to be okay, and then we pay untold dollars for security to protect ourselves. Uhhhh, hello??!!!

"'The priests did not ask, 'Where is the Lord?' Those who deal with the law did not know Me; the leaders rebelled against Me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.'" Jer 2:8

It seems the only time it's politically and socially correct to define good and evil is when people are fighting against good. Not politically or socially correct to fight FOR good.

Mirtika said...

Excuse me while I say, "AMEN!"

I think every sane person wishes war never happened, never was necessary. It's an ugly, ugly thing. And if all we had were some Red Letter sermons here and there, we'd think God was a pacifist. STrangely enough, God himself ordered a lot of battle, and has battle yet to accomplish in the last days. (If one takes all that as more than mere metaphor in the prophets or having been accomplished in A.D. 70 or thereabouts.)

If everything could be solved by mere "talking", God would have put David on the throne and had him chat up the Philistines. Joshua could have had some civilized peace negotiations with the Jerichoites and the Aiites, maybe over some nice hot tea. Abraham could have just offered ransom, rather than fought the coalition of kings. Heaven knows Samson could have skipped that whole jawbone fiasco with some parlay! And Jacob..he could have had a nice tete-a-tete with the Angel, instead of wrestling himself vigorously into a disability of the lower extremity.

Sometimes, very good, very godly men and women gotta fight, and fight hard. Turning the other cheek is idiomatic, it's about personal insult, not about battling outright evil. If talking does the trick, great. If negotiation works, fine. But at some point, only the sword works: In fiction, in life.

Terrific post, Mike. Thanks.


Heather Smith said...

Great post, Mike. I of course love both of these books and the movies made from them. I am apparently a warmonger. Seriously though, the trend to mix black and white until all that you see is a sea of gray is alarming. There is right, and there is wrong, and as long as I am able, I'll stand for the right!

Elaina Avalos said...

This is a great post. Mostly everything's been said in the comments already since I'm happening upon this blog a week after this was written.

I will add that "ruffling feathers" as Gina mentioned is sometimes a necessity. It's not alway necessary for people to like us, as I can attest to. But it is necessary that we speak Truth. The truth about good and evil and the truth that following a post-modern road leads us to worlds we ought not to mess with.

I also want to point out that being a "war-monger" as some would call it is actually not in conflict with being a person of peace, love and compassion. Yes, it seems a contradiction to many that a warrior can kill with one and hand and yet caress with the other. But it's not. Evil that knows no bounds, must be dealt with in a manner that it will understand, if "talking" doesn't work. And those that do this "dealing" may be called men of violence but in reality, they offer the greatest love; to lay down a life for a brother. Brothers and sisters they never see or will never know.

Translating the good vs. the evil in literature is a task we should not abandon for the less offending ways of relativism.