Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tolkien vs. Lewis: Not the Last Battle

Well the truce between the forces of J. R. R. Tolkien and those of C. S. Lewis--two men who were friends during their lifetime, but whose ideological progeny have it out every time a movie comes out based on one of their works--has been broken again. Once again we are fighting about the relative merits of their literary imagination.

The immediate cause of this most recent skirmish is the release of Prince Caspian, a cinematic retelling of the second of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, and the first shot appears to have been fired by Rev. Dwight Longenecker, at InsideCatholic.com, in a piece that pretty much sums up what I have said about this (only he does it much better). He reminds us once again that Tolkien's vision was deeper and more expansive than Lewis's. Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con adds his amen, a chorus in which I'll join once again.

Tolkien's criticism of Lewis's work did not amount to a literary feud, it was more in the nature of friendly advice. Tolkien had enthusiastically recommended the first two books of Lewis's Space Trilogy to the publisher (one wonders why, since they suffer some of the same faults as Narnia), but he apparently expressed more severe criticism for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. According to Lewis, Tolkien "disliked it intensely."

"I hear you've been reading Jack's children's story," Tolkien told Roger Lancelyn Green. "It really won't do, you know!"

In Carpenter's words,
He disliked works of the imagination that were written hastily, were inconsistent in their details, and were not always totally convincing in their evocation of a 'secondary world' ... Moreover, the story borrowed so indiscriminately from other mythologies and narratives (fauns, nymphs, Father Christmas, talking animals, anything that seemed useful for the plot) that for Tolkien the suspension of disbelief, the entering into a secondary world, was simply impossible.[1]
Longenecker states the case rather well:
In short, Tolkien took myth more seriously. He built his alternative world from the ground up. Beginning with the language of the elves, Tolkien created the race that spoke the language, then conceived and carefully created not only the other races and their languages, but the whole world in which they lived, complete with its geography, history, and comprehensive myth. Tolkien may have been scornful of the rapidity and ease with which Lewis created his stories, but he was so not simply because the works were produced quickly, but because it showed.

Tolkien's real objections to Narnia, however, run deeper. Tolkien disliked allegory, and the Narnia tales were too allegorical for his taste. Lewis protested that they were not an allegory (he had already written an allegory in his Pilgrim's Regress) but an analogy. While it is true that the characters in Narnia do not have a one-to-one allegorical relationship with abstract truths, they do point clearly to greater truths and greater characters in the Christian story. Tolkien objected.

Tolkien disliked allegory so intensely because he felt it was too didactic. It leaves no possibility that any other levels of meaning in the work could exist. Tolkien understood the artist, created in God's image, to be a "sub-creator" -- producing a work of the imagination that functioned best when it followed God's own complex action of creation.

To do this most successfully, a complete alternative world had to be created in which the work of redemption could be played out within its own consistent and logical constraints. It was not enough to create a world with symbolic pointers to Jesus Christ and the cross; that world would have to have a whole history and unique inner dynamic that would incarnate the universal truths in a totally fresh way.
Both men were heavily influenced by George MacDonald, the author of The Princess and the Goblin, but Lewis had other influences, one of which was John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim's Progress, as straightforward an allegory as has been written. In fact, Lewis sometimes seems two parts Bunyan to one part MacDonald.

But the issue of influences is not limited to who influenced the two writers. More importantly it was a matter of how the influences manifested themselves. Although Tolkien certainly had his influences (you can see pretty plainly E. R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany in his work, on top of that of early English writers such as the Anglo-Saxon authors of Beowulf and Pearl), Lewis's used his influences more consciously than Tolkien. Carpenter plays upon this point liberally in his book:
Indeed one can regard all Lewis's most successful literary work as pastiche. He chose a form from on source, an idea from another; he played at being (in turns) Bunyan, Chesterton, Tolkien, Williams, anybody he liked and admired. He was an impersonator, a mimic, a fine actor; but what lay at the heart of it all? Who was the real C. S. Lewis?[2]
Tolkien was, in short, more original than Lewis. Lewis pasted his world together from others he had at hand, while Tolkien created his own world with materials less recognizable. While Narnia is strange and fantastic, Middle Earth is fantastic too, but in a different way. Middle Earth was there before we knew of it; Narnia is a late discovery. This is why Middle Earth can be lived in, while Narnia can only be visited.

Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy has responded to Longenecker, saying that he unjustly uses Narnia as representative of all of Lewis's fiction. He points to Till We Have Faces as an example of fiction written by Lewis equal to Tolkien's. But ironically, it is the allegorical aspect of Till We Have Faces that is the only really valuable aspect of the book. In fact, it seems to me that it fails the test of a good allegory in a way that the Narnia books themselves do not: that you can enjoy the story quite apart from the allegory. I do think Till We Have Faces does a better job of creating a convincing world, but the story just isn't as compelling as Lewis's children's books.

Anderson doesn't do his case any good either by, I think, misunderstanding G. K. Chesterton. Longenecker argues that Tolkien's vision is innately Catholic in its essential incarnational vision, a point with which Anderson disagrees, and he tries to use Chesterton to make his case:
...[T]he fiction of G.K. Chesterton–no slouch of a Roman Catholic himself–is even more didactic than Lewis’s. At points, his stories serve only as backdrops for his characters’ always amusing and edifying speeches. For Longenecker’s argument to stand, he would have to agree that Chesterton’s imagination was more Protestant than Catholic–a thought, I’m sure, which Chesterton would himself reject, and which would be difficult for any reader of Chesterton to sustain seriously for long.
I don't know which stories Anderson is referring to here. Certainly Chesterton's characters make some interesting speeches, and certainly his fiction has flaws, but you simply cannot look at something like The Man Who Was Thursday (a work written, by the way, when Chesterton was an Anglican) and view it as a backdrop for anything other than Chesterton's own original genius. Chesterton's stories were perfectly suited to Chesterton's vision of the world: a place where mirth and magic underly every ordinary thing.

To say that Chesterton's vision is didactic is sort of like saying that The Divine Comedy is didactic: it's true, but it is so inadequate an assessment as to tell us nothing essential about the work. It also doesn't prove Anderson's point. There is a certain didacticism to Chesterton, but Chesterton, unlike Lewis, isn't trying to create a secondary world. Chesterton doesn't need a secondary world to instruct us about this one. To Chesterton, this world is fantastic enough.

In his Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife, by Macdonald's son, Greville MacDonald, Chesterton makes an observation about MacDonald's imaginative vision that speaks directly, not just to the difference between Lewis and Chesterton, but to the difference between Lewis and Tolkien:
...[F]or this is the very important difference between his sort of mystery and mere allegory. The commonplace allegory takes what it regards as the commonplaces or conventions necessary to ordinary men and women, and tries to make them pleasant or picturesque by dressing them up as princesses or goblins or good fairies. But George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and he dressed them up as ordinary men and women.[3]
Lewis tries to makes us see our own world by means of a different one; Chesterton makes us see a different world by means of our own. Lewis's thought is replete with Platonisms: he speaks of heaven as being more real than this world. But Chesterton is an Aristotelian, and he would never say this. The real world in Lewis's Narnia books is mundane: it is only Narnia that is fantastic. For Chesterton, the really fantastic thing is this world, "in spite of its defects, such as dragons." Lewis has to create a fantastic world from scratch; for Chesterton, all that is required is to recognize this one for what it is.

In a sense Tolkien's genius is his ability to do both of these things. While being fantastic, Tolkien's world still has a familiarity to it absent in Narnia: that is why it doesn't require a wardrobe to get into Middle Earth. Middle Earth is our own world. I don't think it was an accident that Tolkien chose this particular term, "Middle Earth". You come across the expression frequently in early English literature, and it is never a reference to another world, but always a reference to our own.

Narnia is fantastic because it is different. We may be like Peter, and Lucy, and Susan, and Edmund, but we are not like Prince Caspian, or Mr. Tumnis, or Reepacheep, or the White Witch. The only characters in Narnia with which we can really identify are not from Narnia. Middle Earth, on the other hand, is fantastic because it is familiar. There is a little bit of Frodo in all of us--and Bilbo, for that matter, and Aragorn, and Merry and Pippin.

Why is it that the place constructed from a less original vision should seem so distant, and the place created from the more original vision should seem so familiar?

But we need to be careful here lest we make the perfect the enemy of the good. While Tolkien's world is a more convincing one, the result of a more mature vision, that does not make Narnia any less fantastic in its own right. It is hard to capture the imagination of a child. I have raised four children, and read to all of them. Without exception, they have loved the Narnia books. In fact they see them in a way I have never been able to see them because I read them as an adult. So while we may live in Middle Earth, there is something very delightful, every now and then, about visiting Narnia.

1The Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter, p. 223.
2Carpenter, p. 244.
3G. K. Chesterton, "Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife," by Granville MacDonald.


Sir Galen of Bristol said...

the mastery of the Christian literary imagination

Do you really mean for this phrase to sound as silly as it does?

Most of this is over my head; I'm just a regular guy, not a literary scholar.

It seems to me so obvious that The Lord of the Rings and The Chronciles of Narnia are very different in what they are trying to do, to the point that there's little point in comparing them. And I think this is true from the very beginning. Each of the Narnia stories is about how people from "our world" grow through visiting Narnia.

Middle Earth, by contrast, is self-contained, no one from here visits there in the context of the story.

Too, I think they're very obviously aimed at different audiences. The Narnia stories, as evidenced by the preponderance of child heroes, are children's literature. Lord of the Rings clearly is not.

The world is made richer by having both. My 6-year-old son has already enjoyed have all the Narnia books read to him, and will probably read them himself this summer. He's enjoyed both Narnia films. He's not yet old enough for Lord of the Rings, in either book or movie form. I'm sure the one will help prepare him for the other.

Martin Cothran said...


I think you're right about that sentence. I'm going to change it, I'm just not sure how yet.

I agree with you that there is a good deal of difference between what the two were trying to do, but one of the things they were trying to do was to create a secondary world. On that score, I think Tolkien just does a better job of it than Lewis. Tolkien really wanted it to be real, and he spent 11 years (more if you count his creation of the actual languages) doing it. Lewis just didn't spend the time and effort to do it as well.

I do agree, however, that they can both be enjoyed in their own right, which was what I was trying to say at the end.

Coat said...

I think that the real problem with the comparison is that Lewis was NOT trying to create a secondary world. He was offering a secondary version of this world--one where it is possible to visit other realms. Tolkien, on the other hand, WAS trying to create a secondary world. Also, the Chronicles are for children, and I think could be read by kids at least 2-3 years before LOTR. This probably accounts for the maturity of vision. It is a vision for a more mature audience. This doesn't indicate that it springs from a more mature mind or a cleverer or richer imagination. I've read Ulysses and Sound and The Fury, and I class the Simarillion with those two pieces in terms of difficulty. Even Till We Have Faces would be at least a level or two below that work.
But to claim that Tolkien's literary mind was superior on that ground is like suggesting that an author of college logic textbooks is superior in intellect to the author of text books for high school aged students. Neither of us would be comfortable with that suggestion!
Great post, just thought I would join the fray!

Auggybendoggy said...

I agree with the last post. Truly both are amazing stories and to pit the two against each other is like pitting Star Wars against The Matrix. Silly if you ask me.

I'm not impressed if Tolkien spent 1000 years writing new languages for his stories. All that matters to me is that the stories are told well and vivid. And I can hardly think either really fail at that.

I do recall ending the Last Battle and wanting so desperately for Narnia to continue. To me Lewis did an excellent job. Whether he was surpassed by Tolkien of not, means nothing to me. I love em both and am grateful they disagreed and were different in their styles and approaches.