In an otherwise interesting—and occasionally amusing—reminiscence (April 1989) Geoffrey Wagner included one statement that was indisputably tainted. Writing of the “exotic world” of Oxford’s dons following World War II’s conclusion, Mr. Wagner said of them that “nearly all had involved themselves in some sort of fictional fantasy life on the side, perhaps to compensate for the lack of reality allowed them in the Holocaust.” Then he proceeded to mention C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, among others, in regard to this alleged flight from reality.

Mr. Wagner seems to imply that Lewis and Tolkien had skirted their duties in wartime. In fact, both Lewis and Tolkien were well acquainted with the brutalities of war; indeed, both saw action in the diabolical trench system of the Western Front. Lewis arrived at the front lines on his birthday, Nov. 29, 1917, suffered from the notorious trench fever and was wounded by three pieces of shrapnel—one of which remained in his body until death—in action at the Battle of Arras. Tolkien, too, suffered from trench fever, and he fought in the four-month horror known as the Battle of the Somme.

In their middle age, both these scholars were members of the Home Guard, and spent many nights on duty in Oxford. Also, it must be noted that Lewis, in 1946, had not “just published Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters.” Perelandra had come out in 1943 and Screwtape in 1942. But these “trifles” of fantasy fiction were not Lewis’s only writings during the war. He also wrote Rehabilitation and Other Essays, The Problem of Pain, A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, and, of course, his Broadcast Talks via the BBC which became Mere Christianity. It has been said that Lewis’s was the second most famous voice in England during the war.


Thus, the records show that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were not the ivory tower, armchair scholars that returning soldiers would have resented, following World War II. Mr. Wagner may have thought Tolkien a humorless bore, and he may deprecate Lewis’s “flat jokes about cats,” but he should not hint that they were cowards. The records say otherwise.

        —Terrence Neal
Brown Memphis, TN