Thursday, January 10, 2013 – Oxford
Already in this series, I’ve singled out several excellent movies that meditate on the First World War. Another treats the effects of WWI briefly, but movingly: Chariots of Fire. Coincidentally, it came out the same year as Gallipoli: while that film is decidedly a movie about WWI that uses running as a theme, Chariots is about running, but with WWI, or the memory of it, a key theme.
Early on, the student-athletes, too young to have fought in the war themselves, disembark from their train and are assisted by two veterans: one clearly embittered (“That’s what we fought the bleedin’ war for: give sh**s like them a decent education!”), and the other bearing terrible facial scars — a common enough phenomenon that some film historians believe inspired the rise of horror movies in the 1920s. Then as the young men arrive at school, they dine beneath the roster of honored dead who had, brief years before, preceded them in study, while the college Master delivers a soliloquy that aptly sums up the myth of the “Lost Generation”:
I take the War List and I run down it: name after name which I cannot read and which we, who are older than you, cannot hear without emotion. Names which will be only names to you, the new college, but which to us summon up face after face full of honesty and goodness, zeal and vigor, and intellectual promise; the flower of a generation, the glory of England. And they died for England, and all that England stands for. And now, by tragic necessity, their dreams have become yours. Let me exhort you: examine yourselves; let each of you discover where your true chance of greatness lies. For their sakes, for the sake of your college and your country, seize this chance; rejoice in it; and let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.
Alas, Chariots was set in Cambridge, but let’s pretend that it was Oxford, since that’s where we’re headed today, on the 9:06 from Paddington Station.
Quickly, my three favorite things about Oxford, which I visited too briefly for my dissertation research: (1) that I passed both a Mongolian barbecue place and a KFC (okay, I didn’t pass the KFC; I ate there — go ahead and judge me) walking from the train station to the Bodleian Library, where (2) before gaining admittance, all researchers must take a rather archaic vow that they do not intend to commit arson; and (3) this novel.
Literature is a hugely important theme in the cultural history of World War I, and so I am tempted to take a longer trip, to Edinburgh, where one can visit a small museum dedicated to the great war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who got to know each other while convalescing from shell-shock at the Craiglockhart War Hospital (now part of a local university).
But that’s an awfully long way to go to see a hospital that’s no longer there. And Bethel students’ reading tastes being what they are, I can hardly deny them the pleasure of visiting the place where Lord of the Rings and The Screwtape Letters were written. Fortunately (for the design of this course, not for these authors’ own well-being), both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were themselves veterans of the Western Front.
Before getting into Tolkien and Lewis, it’s also well worth noting that Oxford is one of the settings for the very best memoir by a British veteran of WWI: Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Though it’s a relatively quick appearance for the town, since Brittain rather quickly abandoned her university dreams — at the time it was still the rare young woman admitted to study at the Oxbridge schools — in order to take up nursing (as a way to maintain a vicarious connection to her fiancé, serving as an infantry officer on the Western Front). Here’s what she wrote him in the early weeks of the war: “I sometimes feel that work at Oxford, which will only bear fruit in the future and lacks the stimulus of direct connection with the War, will require a restraint I am scarcely capable of. It is strange how what we both worked for should now seem worth so little” (104).
Tolkien, older than his future friend by nearly seven years, entered military service first, arriving in France in June 1916 — not quite three months after getting married and mere weeks before the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. He recalled, “Junior officers were being killed, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then… it was like death.” And while he suffered a severe case of the lice-born ailment known as “trench fever,” Tolkien survived the war. All but one of his best friends, he later recalled, did not. Several commentators have detected the influence of Tolkien’s time on the Western Front in his best known work, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly in two landscapes: cratered Mordor and deforested Isengard.
The influence of the war on Lewis is simultaneously harder to discern and, most likely, more significant. Leaving the nearly-depopulated Oxford as a nineteen-year old infantry officer in late 1917, Lewis arrived at the front itself early in the last year of the war. Like Tolkien he contracted trench fever; unlike Tolkien he returned to the front and was gravely wounded in the spring of 1918, during the last great German offensive of the war (which nearly broke through to Paris and ended the war before American troops could arrive in sufficient numbers to make much difference). Lewis was a victim of what Americans now call “friendly fire”; an English shell landed short of its mark, and the young officer was hit with three shards of shrapnel, one of which pierced his left lung. It also killed Lewis’ closest friend, an officer named Laurence Johnson (Lewis wrote later to his father: “I had him so often in my thoughts… that I can hardly believe he is dead”) and a sergeant named Ayres who had taken the overwhelmed Lewis under his wing (“I was a futile officer… a puppet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me almost like a father”).
Lewis managed to crawl to safety and eventually recovered. He was then sent home, to resume his studies at Oxford and eventually become one of its leading lights.
Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs, in his wonderful biography of Lewis, The Narnian (on which I’m relying heavily for this post), observes Lewis’ obvious familiarity with the emotions and confusion of warfare (even when his literary battles, as in the Narnia books, couldn’t be less like the way of war in France, 1918), but also Lewis’ reluctance to talk about his experience of war:
It is hard to know how much these descriptions owe to Jack’s [Lewis’ nickname] own experience as a soldier, but certainly they mesh with what many soldiers of the Great War said or wrote about their time at the front…. In his letters Jack wrote very little about his battlefield experience: in the rougher periods there was no time, and all he could manage were scrawled notes telling his father that he was alive; in freer times—most of which were spent in the military hospitals at Le Tréport and Étaples—he chose to describe primarily whatever he was reading, as he had always done before… (74)
Nor does Lewis go into detail in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, with one notable exception:
But for the rest, the war—the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E. [High Explosive], the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night until they seemed to grow to your feet—all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. (Surprised by Joy, p. 196)
Jacobs draws two equally plausible conclusions from this statement:
- Lewis was consciously rejecting the public remembering engaged in by veterans like Brittain and Robert Graves (Good-Bye to All That), perhaps thinking that they tended “to overemphasize their misery” (75).
- Lewis wasn’t being fully honest with the reader, or at least with himself. From other letters of Lewis’, we know that, while recuperating from his wounds, he suffered “nightmares—or rather the same nightmare over and over again.” And over two decades later, when a friend wondered if he would put on a uniform again at the onset of World War II, he replied, “I am too old. It [would] be hypocrisy to say that I regret this. My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years.” Jacobs won’t insist that battlefield nightmares continued for decades, but “Clearly those [long-term] effects [of the war] were greater than he was willing to let on… it seems to have been part of his character to minimize his own suffering” (75, see point 1 again)
P.S. World War I continues to inspire interesting literature. The New York Times recently featured a review of Bright’s Passage, the tale of a West Virginia farm boy who starts hearing voices in the trenches of the Western Front, avoiding death on several occasions as a result. Intriguingly, the book is by alt-country singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. Even more intriguingly, the Times review is by none other than Steven King.
And this year’s Tony-winner for Best Play was The War Horse, which originated in London’s West End and is currently playing at the New London Theatre (and hopefully still playing there in January 2013, so we can see it during the trip). Rather than give a capsule plot, here’s a British TV ad:
Tomorrow we’re back in London for one last day before crossing the Channel.