Fantasy Literature and the Great War

The following proposal was accepted for the 2018 Center for Vision and Values conference.

Fantasy Literature and the Great War:

The Response of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Lord Dunsany

It is an understatement to say World War I, or the Great War as it was known before the Second World War, was like no other prior war. Trench warfare was horrifically gory, and the resulting war of attrition was ghastly in its necessary reduction of the human soldier to a mere machine of war numbered among millions of other expendable human military machines. This “Great War,” a most ironic and tragic misnomer, profoundly affected Western socio-political realities and cultural production for decades. The West, indeed the world, would never be the same.

Artists, musicians, poets, essayists, novelists, and dramatists reacted in diverse and profound ways to the horrific realities of this war that was supposed to end all wars. The early twentieth century, for the West, was marked by an unflinching optimism in the progress of science, economics, and culture. National pride and colonial nationalism were at a fever pitch. Notions of patriotism, nationalism, and military heroism were idealistic, noble, and inspiring. When war broke out, many believed this optimistic patriotic idealism would carry the day. As the war dragged on and millions lost their lives and millions others were wounded in battle, early twentieth-century idealism and optimism transformed into existential crisis, horror, disillusionment, apathy, and, in some cases, despair.

The existing cultural norms and artistic tropes no longer made sense considering the existential horror of the First World War. A revolution in literary production took place, giving rise to experimental fiction that privileged the emotional, the descriptive, the subjective, and the psychological, and the preferred literary form was realism. Various cultural grand narratives began to be challenged, and the local, subjective perspectives were privileged. Such literary transformations would be exasperated by the Second World War, giving rise to what was eventually labelled postmodernism.

However, during these anxious post-WW I literary revolutions and artistic crises existed a small group of intellectuals and writers who chose to respond in a radically different and counter-cultural way. These curious writers rejected cynical realism and relativistic subjectivism and embraced, instead, a visionary and even idealistic mythic perspective. Instead of dismissing ancient literary traditions as no longer relevant and even inadequate to capturing the contemporary dispirited spirit of the age, these writers purposely and intentionally invoked epic narrative, quest romance tales, and fantastical myth as literary means to address the intellectual, spiritual, and existential concerns of post-war society.

Mythopoeic fantasy, for these writers, served not as mindless escapism but, rather, functioned as a corrective to spiritually empty and culturally bankrupt realism. In this paper, I will examine how such veterans of WW I as Lord Dunsany, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis wrote mythopoeic fantasy literature as a means of questioning post-war cynicism, challenging the assumptions of materialism, and providing a corrective to the moral and spiritual malaise common in early twentieth-century realist literature.