I hope all is well with everyone! I’m picking up from last month with my series on war in history and what we can learn from it that might help our fiction.
In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand or perhaps just blindly disbelieve because they desperately wish it were otherwise. I hope you find them useful!
Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is going to obliterate our human life. Christians and soldiers are still men; the infidel’s idea of a religious life and the civilian’s idea of active service are fantastic.
–C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
War seems to do nothing outside of extremes. War is not just bad, it is terrible. A brotherhood formed by war is not just strong, it is unbreakable. In war, even boredom is hardcore: all pervasive and overwhelming. We know this. Countless historians and soldiers have testified to it. And that leads those of us lucky enough to have avoided war to misunderstand those extremes entirely. Does the experience of war always become the dominant influence in someone’s life? While that is possible, it isn’t axiomatic.
The problem comes when we, as authors, try to vicariously put ourselves into the shoes of a soldier through our imaginations. We look at war in all of its horrific grandeur and ask, “How could you survive that and be normal?” The issue is compounded by the liberal history of the Vietnam War, which in its quest to justify the Left’s opposition to the war, makes American soldiers out to be either monsters or victims. The idea is that the war wrecked so much damage on those who fought it that they simply cannot readjust to a regular life. Many authors take those assumptions and carry them over to all soldiers as a rule (or something very much like one).
Don’t get me wrong: War has the potential to destroy the lives and sanity of anyone who becomes involved, but that isn’t guaranteed. As Lewis noted above, for many millions of soldiers through history war and military service are just one more strand in a much larger tapestry that is their lives. When they return home, they don’t sulk or suffer–they just move on with life. That has been true of every war humanity has ever fought. The idea that being a soldier must, by definition, wipe out someone’s identity and future is “fantastic.”
The first and last point we should remember about any soldier is this: That he or she is human. As an individual, he or she will react differently to adversity, especially the extremes of war. War might break some people to pieces (metaphorically, in this case), while others can come out on the other side essentially intact. As authors, let’s avoid assumptions. After all. It is our job to think through the individuals we create and let their character show through.
Next Week–We welcome Rachel back into the rotation on Fridays. I’ll look forward to seeing everyone soon!
In my post last week on C. S. Lewis and war, I discussed what was apparently one of Lewis’s key survival mechanisms that allowed him to survive the emotional trauma of World War I. Lewis had the ability to segregate himself from his surroundings and retreat into his imagination in even the most horrific of circumstances, thereby preserving his essential self to some degree or other. This allowed him to emerge from the war not unscathed, but still himself. Unfortuantely, the effects of the war and this ability on Lewis’ mind have often been misinterpreted.
Subsequent Lewis scholars have tended to misinterpret the war’s apparent effect on him, and therefore on his later work, by making assumptions of what the war must have done to him. Authors observe the obvious fact that Lewis does indeed willfully shut himself off from portions of his wartime experience and presume that some massive trauma must have preceded it. One author goes so far as to accuse Lewis of repeated “posing”, “posturing”, and “masking” when discussing the war (Gilchrist 67, 73, 108). In fact, Lewis’s pre-existing intellectual defenses–which many authors often fail to identify let alone understand–may have made it possible for him to emerge from the gauntlet carrying less emotional baggage than most. He shut himself off from the experience at the time, thereby preempting at least some of the damage that others suffered. Therefore, Lewis’s silence on the details of his war service may then be exactly what it purports to be: silence and nothing more. Barring the new introduction of unreviewed evidence, it is practically impossible to answer the question more authoritatively. To pursue this line of thought scholars must begin with the premise that Lewis could not actually have meant what he said, and then work downhill into varying degrees of absurdity from there.
The propensity to inject massive emotional trauma where it may well not exist is exacerbated by the fact that many modern authors see war and its effect on people through the considerable mythology surrounding soldiers since American involvement in Vietnam. War is supposed to be so traumatic that part of what makes the experience of it valid to the larger academic culture (most of which have never served in the military) is that it first desecrates and then dominates the individual who survives it. The worse it is, the deeper the scars, the more credence it seems to be given. People who can face war and then somehow emerge to live normal and productive lives are often treated as if their experiences are somehow less legitimate than those of people who can never adapt to the normal world. (B. G. Burkett and Glena Whitley illustrate this tendency in their book, Stolen Valor) This leads to either the belittling of genuine veterans or, at times, the search for some hidden trauma that the author assumes a priori must exist. He/she will then “find” it, whether it is there or not.
On the contrary, for all the tortured souls that war leaves in its wake, there are others who are able adapt to their experiences and move on, and Lewis may well be one of them. In “Learning in Wartime” Lewis remarked on the notion that war must by definition consume an individual, and he thought it nonsense: “Neither conversion nor enlistment in the army is going to obliterate our human life. Christians and soldiers are still men; the infidel’s idea of a religious life and the civilian’s idea of active service are fantastic” (The Weight of Glory 51-52). While it is impossible to prove a negative, there is no obvious reason to believe that Lewis must, by default, be hiding some conscious or subconscious trauma and that this must be expected somehow necessarily bleed through into Narnia.
Of course, this is not to say that those five violent months did not affect Lewis in some significant and lasting ways. Though he understood that war could be unavoidable he never forgot its darkness, and often took the opportunity to reprove young Douglas Gresham when the boy spoke about war or warriors with “words of admiration” emphasizing that “no matter what people or newspapers or politicians try to tell you, there is no glory in war” (Gresham 44-45). He flatly stated that war literally “threatens every temporal evil” ( The Weight of Glory 89). He also notes that for years after the war he suffered from terrible nightmares about being back in the trenches (Gresham 51). Even here, though, it seems that the war mostly affected an existing problem, rather than created a new one. Lewis elsewhere references the regular “night-fears” he faced while growing up and remarked that “I would not wish to heat the fires of that private hell for any child” (Of Other Worlds 30). So, the war did not so much cause his fear as provide fodder for a pre-existing condition.
In the end, Lewis emerged from the war scarred from it and undoubtedly carrying some sort of emotional baggage—as any sane, feeling human would—but not he did not continue to be dominated by it. Much of what has been blamed on what he faced in the trenches, he could just as easily have carried to war with him. Retreating into his mind, he insulated himself from what he saw and did and emerged on the other side having been influenced by his experiences, but not necessarily more so than he would be by other important eras of his life. Therefore, when considering the topic of war in Narnia, we need not expect the specter of wartime trauma to be lurking behind every Telmarine or Calormene. It was a necessarily important, but not controlling element. War was, in fact, simply one of a number of incidents that Lewis drew from when constructing his stories.
Next week, we’ll consider some of the literary influences on Lewis’s writing about war, and how they may have kept some of his personal experiences in check.
The content of this series of posts was first presented to the world in the excellent little Lewis journal, The Lamp-Post 31:4 (Winter, 2010): 3-23, and was given in a talk at the 41st meeting of the Mythopoeic Society in Dallas, TX, in July 2010. A greatly expanded version is under consideration with the journal Mythlore.
Burkett, B. G. and Glena Whitley. Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. Dallas, TX: Verity Press, 1998.
Gilcrist, K. J. A Morning After War: C. S. Lewis and WWI. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.
Gresham, Douglas. Jack’s Life: The Life Story of C. S. Lewis. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005.
Lewis, C. S. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. San Diego: Harvest, 1994.
________. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperOne, 2001.