In the throes of one of the most destructive and dehumanizing wars in world history, something extraordinary occurred, never to be repeated. It happened on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1914.
The "Great War" had been raging, inconclusively, for five ferocious months. Deployed into France, most of the original British Expeditionary Force of 160,000 men had been wiped out at Mons, Le Cateau, and Ypres. Casualties among the French and German armies were even more staggering. By the end of December, they sustained combat losses of well over 600,000 soldiers, with many more wounded or missing. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand.
And, yet, on Christmas Eve, the armies on both sides of the Western Front put down their weapons, sang hymns, and treated their enemies as brothers.
No one ordered the now famous "Christmas truce" of 1914. It arose spontaneously, among officers as well as ordinary soldiers, along hundreds of miles of fortified defenses. The Biblical Angel of Death descended upon the households of Egypt during Israel's captivity, and destroyed them. This visitation was its reverse: an outbreak of humanity that swept through the lines across the Western Front. Beginning on Christmas Eve and extending into Christmas Day, the killing machines of the Great War went silent.
"Between the trenches, the hated and bitter opponents meet around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols," Josef Wenzl, a soldier in the German infantry wrote to his parents. "This once in a lifetime vision I will not forget." Soldiers came out of their trenches and greeted their adversaries in "No Man's Land," the dead-zone separating enemy defenses. They gathered to sing "Still Nacht" ("Silent Night") and to exchange food, drinks, and tobacco. The Christmas spirit, it seemed, had conquered the battlefield.
It would not last long. Within 24 hours the fighting resumed, and the spirit of the Prince of Peace was dragged back into an abyss of war and desolation. Much of the vigor and confidence and decency of the West seemed to vanish with it. "Injuries were wrought to the structure of human society which a century will not efface," wrote Winston Churchill, a veteran of the war, "and which may conceivably prove fatal to the present civilization."
One of the injuries of which Churchill spoke was the erosion of belief in a moral universe. The so-called Christian West, after all, had embarked on a suicide pact, a war of attrition that claimed the lives of nearly ten million soldiers and left entire populations bereaved and destitute. Men had been bayoneted, bombed, and obliterated without mercy -- with almost nothing to show for it. Hemingway spoke for many post-war authors when he wrote in A Farewell to Arms that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene."
Yet two remarkable authors and friends -- both war veterans -- resisted the mood of cynicism and psychological gloom that became fashionable in the 1920s and 30s. J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met in 1926 at Oxford, where they formed a literary circle that defied the conventions of their age. Tolkien went on to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, while Lewis created The Chronicles of Narnia, stories of virtue, valor, and heroism amid the sufferings of war.
Neither man could glamorize combat. Tolkien fought at the Battle of the Somme, and Lewis was seriously injured at Arras. They lost most of their closest friends in the conflict. Yet both became convinced that the tragedy of the human condition -- the universal lust for power -- made war a grim necessity.
A theme throughout their works is that indifference or "neutrality" in the face of palpable evil is a moral evasion: an effort to escape the dictates of conscience and the burden of human responsibility. Think of Shasta, untested and full of fear, yet determined to help defend Narnia from the wicked Calormene army: "All swords out now, all shields up to the nose, all prayers said, all teeth clenched." Or recall the words of Aragorn as the Fellowship embarks on its desperate quest to destroy the Ring of Power. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men," he says. "It is a man's part to discern them."
And so it is for us. Many in the post-WW1 years ultimately lost their belief in goodness. Part of the achievement of Tolkien and Lewis was to reclaim this faith for their generation, and for ours. The enthusiasm over Hollywood's release of the last of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, is encouraging news for a society awash in cynicism and doubt. It reminds us that the existence of a moral order -- where God and grace are the ultimate realities -- retains its narrative power.
The forces of darkness in our own world are real enough, even if the forces of light seem harder to find. For Tolkien and Lewis, though, our responsibility remains: to shake off our doubts, discern the good, and play our part in the great battle.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and author of the forthcoming A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 (Thomas Nelson, 2015)