J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis knew about battles. As fantasy writers, they crafted some iconic scenes. As veterans of World War I, they lived through some horrific scenes.
They also knew how craft sentences to win rhetorical battles. In their writing, both turned their attention and wit to Nazis.
Tolkien and Lewis can teach us two important truths about fighting such ideologies.
We should unequivocally distance ourselves from them.
After Tolkien released The Hobbit in 1937, a Berlin-based publisher wanted to release a German translation. They just had one request: Tolkien needed to provide proof of his Aryan descent.
Obviously, this did not sit well with The Lord of the Rings author so he sent two letters to his British publisher as possible replies.
One dismissed the issue altogether, which allowed his British publisher to reject the request without potentially damaging whatever business relationship existed prior to World War II.
The other response went all Middle Earth on the Nazis for making such a request. From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien:
25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.
I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and
remain yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien
It is worth noting that The Hobbit was not published in Germany until 1957.
Tolkien recognized that his own German name could make it appear as if he had some affinity for the Nazi’s twisted worldview, so he wanted to set the record straight.
There should be no room for equivocating or ”whataboutism.” We should all clearly and loudly condemn the actions and views of those who espouse hideous, racist ideologies.
Ideas of racial supremacy are not new, but they must continually be rejected as vile attempts to ignore the image of God present in every human being.
White Christians bear a particular responsibility to address these individuals and groups because they claim to speak on our behalf.
We must make it clear that any theology or ideology that does not recognize the image of God in every human and argues for the supremacy of an ethnicity cannot be called Christianity.
They can make up whatever name they’d like, but the name of Christ belongs to a Kingdom filled with people from every nation, tribe, people and language. It does not belong to them.
We need a solid moral framework from which to denounce them.
What later became Mere Christianity began with Lewis giving radio addresses during World War II. Obviously, Nazism was on the minds of his audience. The German Blitz of London had only ended a few months prior to Lewis’ first broadcast talk.
So Lewis took his listeners’ shared repulsion of Nazism and built a case for objective morality with it. That first address became ”The Law of Human Nature,” the first chapter in Mere Christianity.
He mentions Nazis three times:
When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another? Have any of the changes been improvements? If not, then, of course, there could never be any moral progress. Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better. If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others.
The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something—some Real Morality—for them to be true about.
This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behavior was obvious to everyone. And I believe they were right. If they were not, then all the things we said about the war were nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the color of their hair.
When Christians make this claim of objective morality outside of events like a Neo-Nazi white supremacist running over people with a car, others hear this as Christians claiming to be the only ones who know what is right and wrong.
But notice, Lewis is making exactly the opposite claim. He is saying everyone knows the truth about morality. Some just choose to ignore that truth.
But if you say morality is “Whatever is true for you,” what do you do with the guy who says hating all non-whites is “true” for him? As Lewis wrote about the original Nazis, you can oppose him, but you can’t really blame him.
Lewis is arguing that we all know what is right and wrong, but some people choose to violate that absolute standard. If there were not such a standard, we could not condemn the Nazis or anyone else.
When something truly horrific happens even those who were claiming subjective morality the day before, suddenly find the need for an objective standard of right and wrong.
But it can’t merely exist when we feel like it should. To truly defeat Nazism and similar hateful ideologies, we need an unchanging moral foundation.
With their writings and their lives, Tolkien and Lewis can teach us a lot, but right now, they can teach us about fighting Nazis.