If I had a time machine that could not only set me down not only in a particular date, but a particular place, I’d choose the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford on a Tuesday night in 1950 when C.S.Lewis was reading selections from his Chronicles of Narnia. He’d be there before a roaring fire with Tolkien and the other Inklings who gathered at the Bird and Baby, to drink beer, smoke pipes and read excerpts from their work. Tolkien would listen quietly, then pitch in with his intelligent and well-aimed criticisms.
Alas, I would not only need a machine that visited the past, but a machine that changed the past. The scholars tell us that the Inklings had pretty much gone their separate ways by 1949, and Lewis’ Narnia stories were never read aloud to the group. Nevertheless, Tolkien did have firm opinions about his friend’s children’s stories. He didn’t like them.
Why did Tolkien dislike Narnia? Was it a case of sour grapes? By the mid 1950s Lewis’ Narnia tales were being written and published. By this time Lewis was a hugely popular writer while Tolkien had only just published his masterpiece, and it would be another ten years until it hit the big time. About that time Tolkien and Lewis’ famous friendship cooled.
Did Tolkien feel that Lewis was borrowing ideas from him (references to Numenor and the Tolkien myth pop up in That Hideous Strength) and vulgarizing them? Did he feel that Lewis was leapfrogging from his own work? Was Tolkien resentful that Lewis churned out his children’s fantasy stories so easily and quickly while his own mythic masterpiece was the painstaking labor of a lifetime?
Perhaps some of these elements had a part in Tolkien’s dislike of Narnia and his dwindling relationship with Lewis. There were other personal issues involved in the cooling of the friendship, but Tolkien’s disliked the Narnia stories for other, more profound and professional reasons. The first thing that bothered Tolkien was the inconsistency of the tales’ use of mythological figures. Figures from classical myth are scattered through the stories along with characters from modern folklore and kiddie lit.
Tolkien couldn’t see how a story could feature both fauns and Father Christmas, dryads and dragons, Baachus and Beatrix Potter-type talking animals.It was all too derivative, too contrived, too much of a poorly conceived, partially thought out mish mash.
Furthermore, Tolkien didn’t share Lewis’ love of children’s literature as such. While Tolkien appreciated fairy tales and myth, he didn’t think they should be relegated to literature for children. He disliked dream tricks (as Lewis used in The Great Divorce) to transport people into alternative worlds, and he mis-trusted magical literary devices in which children popped across into other worlds through mirrors, wardrobes or rabbit holes.
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 on one allegorical relationship with abstract truths, they do point clearly to greater truths and greater characters in the Christian story. Tolkien objected.
The reason Tolkien disliked allegory so intensely, is that it was too didactic. Allegory is too ‘inyerface’ and there was 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’. In other words, the artist was producing a work of the imagination which worked 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 an alternative world with symbolic pointers to Jesus Christ and the cross. Instead the alternative world would have to have a whole history and unique inner dynamic that would incarnate the universal truths in a totally fresh way.
The difference between Narnia and Middle Earth points to the underlying difference between the imagination of Lewis the Protestant, and Tolkien the Catholic. For the Protestant, truth is essentially dialectal. Truth consists of abstract propositions to be stated, argued, and affirmed or denied.
For the Catholic, Truth, while it may be argued dialectically, is essentially something not to be argued, but experienced. The Truth is always linked with the mystery of the incarnation, and is therefore something to be encountered.
Many Protestants will argue, for instance, that God’s primary revelation is the Sacred Scriptures, while Catholics maintain that God’s primary revelation is Jesus Christ. That Lewis produced works that were profound, worthy and beautiful, but less than fully incarnational, while Tolkien produced a masterpiece that incarnated the same truths in a complete, subtle and mysterious way reflects the deeper theological differences that remained between the two men.
Far be it from me to throw stones at either C.S.Lewis or Narnia. I continue to be delighted by my own visits to Narnia, and I look forward to the release of Prince Caspian with great joy. However, like many others, I admire Middle Earth more. My admiration for Tolkien and his accomplishment is wrapped up, not only in the depth of Tolkien’s work, but in the realization that his work cannot be separated from his own humble personality and devout Catholic faith.
Narnia is populated with wonderful characters, inspiring insights and admirable truths, while in Middle Earth the magic is written in at a far deeper level. When I visit Narnia my mind is engaged and my spirit is lifted as it might when I visit an art gallery, but when I visit Middle Earth my heart is engaged and my spirit is lifted as it might when I visit a great cathedral. In the first there is much to admire. In the second there is much to adore.
I cannot express the difference better than to re-count not an argument, but an experience. A few years ago, while re-reading Lord of the Rings, I was lounging in a hot bath, and half way through The Two Towers, some beautiful and true detail stuck home, and I sat up and exclaimed out loud, “This could only have been written by a daily Mass Catholic!”
Rev . Dwight Longenecker is Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. He also serves on the staff of St Mary’s, Greenville SC. Visit his website and blog here: