22 October 2011


A.  I promised a while back to write on Lewis and Tolkien.  That must have been about a month ago now, and I still haven't done it, so here we are.

B.  First, I'll be frank about what I've read of each.

C.  From Lewis's non-fiction, I've read:

  • The Abolition of Man
  • Mere Christianity
  • A Grief Observed
  • part of Surprised by Joy
  • very little of The Four Loves, and 
  • numerous essays (though not all) from the collections The Weight of Glory and God in the Dock.  

D.  Of his fiction, I've read:

  • The Pilgrim's Regress
  • The Space Trilogy (several times)
  • The Screwtape Letters (including "S. proposes a toast")
  • The Great Divorce
  • The Chronicles of Narnia (many times)
  • Till We Have Faces (several times)
E.  As for Tolkien (past The Lay of Leithian, all posthumous):
  • The Hobbit (several times)
  • The Lord of the Rings (more than half a dozen times)
  • Farmer Giles of Ham
  • [I feel like I've read "Leaf by Niggle" but can't remember.  I know the story in any case.]
  • Smith of Wootton Major
  • The Lay of Leithian
  • The Father Christmas Letters
  • The Silmarillion 
  • Unfinished Tales
  • parts of his Letters
  • Mr. Bliss
  • Roverandom
F.  Now a brief personal history.  I've been acquainted with both authors from a very young age.  Some of my earliest memories include my dad reading from The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to me and my sister.  I was also acquainted with Tolkien through the old animated film of The Hobbit.  There was also that old BBC miniseries of the Narnia books.  In any case, I was fixated on The Hobbit and as soon as I was capable of reading the book, I did.  The first time I finished it was in second grade.  So, in short, I grew up with these two famous Inklings, and read their books incessantly through middle school.  But while Lewis always seemed more of a pleasant momentary distraction (very much akin to George MacDonald's children's stories), Tolkien offered gravity, breadth and depth.  Tolkien's work focuses on the drama of personal struggle and the virtue of hope.  He has a lot to say about suffering and wisdom and an expansive universe in which to illustrate the narrative forms he's interested in.  

G.  Around middle school I started branching out, read some Dumas, some of the Dune books, a lot of Madeleine L'Engle, some Victor Hugo, and the ususal array of young adult fiction (Catcher, Lois Lowry, Harry Potter, Orwell, etc.)  I had a very strong attachment to Tolkien, because he presented a world that was valuable to me.  This was, again, perhaps largely because where Tolkien's characters did things that meant things, and struggled against evils that were very clearly defined, the real world was full of uncertainty, meanness and a kind of bare-bones absurd drama in which very little was at stake and the development of things totally unpredictable.  I'm reminded of the following, from Either/Or:
"Most people complain that the world is so prosaic that things do not go in life as in the novel, where opportunity is always so favorable.  I complain that in life it is not as in the novel, where one has hardhearted fathers and nisses and trolls to battle, and enchanted princesses to free. What are all such adversaries together compared with the pale, bloodless, tenacious-of-life nocturnal forms with which I battle...?"
Of course, Kierkegaard is writing about his own anxiety, which was not really a problem I had on my mind at that stage.  But it's true: there is something comforting in clearly definable struggles, even if the hero has to endure a lot before he wins through.  Tolkien has this advantage over Lewis.  His characters know the cosmic significance of whatever they're doing.  They can point vaguely eastward to the Sauron or Morgoth who is causing everything bad.  Lewis's characters never have to deal with anything all that terrible.  Eustace and Jill get bullied at school.  The Pevensies get hungry while on an afternoon hike.  Even in the Space Trilogy, where the cosmic meaning of things becomes clear, Ransom doesn't really struggle much, nor do the Studdocks.  Their problem is usually being lost as much as anything else.

H.  Nothing I've said so far really gets at the reason I prefer Tolkien to Lewis.  There have been times when I said the opposite.  Through most of high school I lamented that I had wasted five years of my life reading fantasy fiction, instead of Plato or Hegel or Kant.  Of course, it's good that I didn't waste time trying to read such things in my early years.  I wasn't ready for serious non-fiction until late in middle school, when someone told me I should read Mere Christianity.  I read it, and saw how something of the drama I'd encountered in books was actually present in real life, saw a glimpse of transcendent meaning, and started understanding that Christianity had more depth than the little catchphrases I'd grown up on.  After that I read The Abolition of Man, understanding it only very roughly, and The Great Divorce.  My understanding of Christianity was slightly more informed than it had been, but I was still directionless.

I.   We can compare the two authors on what they set out to do and what they accomplished.  Tolkien set out to create languages that he found interesting, and then to describe the world in which they were spoken, and finally to tell the stories which would take place in such a world.  His project is basically of constructing a set of folk tales, myths and epics which should have already existed in reality.  To write the sort of things he himself would have wanted to read.  He does this splendidly.  His characters have tremendous moral depth and teach us something about virtue.  Perhaps one of the reasons he insisted so fiercely that his books were not an allegory for anything is that he saw that the kind of hermeneutic applied to allegories would destroy the real value of his work.  It's all there in plain sight.  You get to know the characters, you see things the way they see them, you love them, and you're sad when they go.  It's as far from an ideological campaign as you could get, and yet it's very effective in demonstrating certain high-level moral truths to people, and instilling in them a taste for moral goodness.

J.  Lewis is on an ideological campaign.  Some of the Narnia books are simply frivolous children's stories (e.g. The Horse and His Boy), but usually they're trying to make a not-so-subtle point about Christian living.  This is all fine and pedagogically effective, but because the characters and situations are contrived for this purpose, they lack a more general usefulness or humanity.  Lewis works off of stereotypes and adapts them to fit his narrative needs.  Tolkien on the other hand works from total unknowns and then lets them reveal themselves progressively through the narrative.  The one stereotype he consistently takes advantage of, in fact, is the eccentricity of the Bagginses' Took ancestry.  There is a lot of eccentricity in Tolkien, and a dearth of it in Lewis, and while we might feel more comfortable and familiar with, e.g. a Mrs. Dimble or a Peter Pevensie than we would with a Meriadoc Brandybuck or a Turin, it's difficult to deny that the latter have more personality than the former.

K.  As for the non-fiction, Tolkien prudently published only within his (extremely narrow) field.  And even there, he didn't publish much.  I remember reading once that his scant output was something of a disappointment to his colleagues at Oxford, as he was the most talented English philologist of his day.  Obsessive perfectionism always got in the way, and no doubt there were many half-finished projects sitting in his files upon his death.

L.  Lewis on the other hand became, in Tolkien's (disapproving) phrase, "everyman's theologian".  After his return to Anglicanism, Lewis published first the short novel The Pilgrim's Regress, a re-telling of Bunyan for the modern academic.  It's a very good read, and still remarkably applicable to the present situation, though there are a few crucial missing pieces (and I would like a bigger role for Mother Kirk).  He is probably best known for his war-time talks, which became Mere Christianity, and the epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters.  Screwtape is a clever little book, a useful manual for bourgeois protestants to help them think about temptation.  For Catholics who make regular use of the sacrament of Penance, it is probably less helpful, though the contents are true.  Mere Christianity, on the other hand, seems to function for the average protestant reader as a kind of general catechism.  Given how little objective content the book has, this should demonstrate to us the sheer poverty of normal protestant catechesis.  (Mind you, I read the book nine years ago and have barely looked at it since, except to quote the last page.)  Still, most of what is said is correct, as far as my skimming eye can tell.  Lewis is by no means a bad catechist.  My problem is that he doesn't go very deep into things, and he is very unsystematic.

M.  What I mean by "unsystematic" isn't that he lacks a totalizing, reductive "purely rational" account of things.  I mean that, while he generally gets things right, he presents them as a sort of anthology: a bunch of flowers he picked and gave to us.  The flowers are nice, and they're from the plant we're looking for, but he doesn't show us the ground the flowers grew from, and the ones he presents haven't gone to seed or born fruit.  Lewis probably never meant to be "everyman's theologian", he probably only meant to give people a very basic, popular glimpse at the contents of the Christian faith.  But the way he's read today, you would think that he rivals Augustine or Aquinas in theological brilliance and depth of insight.  Everyone talks about Lewis, in the same way that everyone talks about Chesterton.  (For the record, Chesterton is almost intolerably glib.  His arguments can usually be reduced to witticisms, and his bombast is incredibly obnoxious.  Lewis a hundred times before Chesterton.)  But what does Lewis have to offer?  His books make miserably little reference to scripture, which is the very soul of theology.  He tries his best to comfortably accomodate the English bourgeoisie of his day, and his style is condescending without fail.  Where in Lewis is the greatness of the Christian faith?

N.  This has gone on long enough, I think.