Tolkien’s ‘No’ to Narnia


If I had a time machine
that could set me down in any place and time, 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 J. R. R. 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 need not only 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’s 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’s Narnia tales were being published, and he was a hugely popular writer — while Tolkien had only just published his masterpiece, and it would be another ten years before the books would hit it big. It was also around this time that Tolkien and Lewis’s 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 disliked the Narnia stories for other, more profound and professional reasons.
 
Tolkien was bothered by the tales’ inconsistent use of mythological figures. Characters from classical myth are scattered through the stories, alongside figures from modern folklore and kiddie lit. He 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 mishmash.

Furthermore, Tolkien didn’t share Lewis’s 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 alternate worlds, and he mistrusted magical literary devices in which children popped 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-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.

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 dialectical. It 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 Sacred Scripture, 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 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 his 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 permeates 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 recount not an argument but an experience. A few years ago, while lounging in a hot bath and rereading The Two Towers, some beautiful and true detail struck 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, and serves on the staff of St. Mary’s, Greenville.
His latest book is Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing. Visit his Web site and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

By

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    Amen!

  • Scott Hebert

    A cogent analysis. I read both Tolkien and Lewis, and the differences you highlight seem quite correct in their form.

    Yes, Lewis certainly ‘hits his readers over the head’ with his message, but I don’t necessarily find anything wrong with that. In all honesty, I have run across people here and there who say that there’s nothing Christian in Narnia. That’s kind of a showstopper. However, if Lewis’s overt theme can be (and is) denied by some, how much more can Tolkien’s less obvious but more pervasive theme be denied?

    In some ways, Tolkien and Lewis ‘inherited’ (a bit inaccurate, but a close enough approximation) different areas of Chesterton’s work. Lewis has the clarity of thought that pervades Chesterton’s works, while Tolkien has the sense of beauty and wonder that pervades Chesterton’s works. Both authors contain elements of both items, but they each focus and refine a different item.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Great stuff, Fr. Dwight. I’d love to see it explored in more depth. I particularly liked your contrast of Lewis’s haphazard approach to myth-making with Tolkien’s “ground-up” approach.

    From my own reading on the Inklings, I’m inclined to agree with every one of your observations. I’d list the reasons for Tolkien’s coldness towards Narnia in descending order of significance:

    1. The above-mentioned contrast between Tolkien’s lovingly meticulous and airtight process of “sub-creation” and Lewis’s more cavalier approach. (I recall reading that Tolkien remarked, “It just won’t do,” upon first reading LWW.) To be fair to Lewis, he did work hard at back-filling his myth as the series went on (something that even Tolkien had to do a little of — with the changes to the second edition of The Hobbit, for instance); even if he never approached the satisfying completeness of Middle-Earth, his Narnia did become more properly epic as the books went on.

    2. The transparent allegorical and symbolic Christian elements in the Narnia books. I’m sure that to Tolkien it smacked, as you suggest, of a hamfisted didacticism. That Aslan turned out later to be, not a symbol of Christ, but Christ himself, was probably too little, too late.

    3. Let it not go unsaid: a bit of dudgeon on the part of the somewhat sensitive Professor Tolkien, both over his personal fallout with Lewis and the greater initial marketplace success of Narnia compared to Middle Earth.

    Interestingly, I think a case could be made that, despite Narnia’s greater fame, Lewis’s Space Trilogy represents his best fiction, and a more original (the borrowing of Numanor/Numenor aside) myth.

  • John Jakubczyk

    I have enjoyed both writers and appreciated their contribution to great literature. I was fascinated with the analysis and find it quite compelling.

    And I may add i also find the Space trilogy to be a more striking work with deeper tones which resonate within the soul.

    What is wonderful about both series is that I have been able to have serious and profound conversations with my children about the books and about each author’s exploration of the human person and of human nature. More than simply the adventure, there is the development of the relationships among the characters in both stories. These relationships provide great opportunities for parents to teach their children about life.

    Fr. Longenecker’s article will provide some interesting conversation around the table as well.

  • Charles Miller

    see Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. Fascinating point of view that I find to be a compelling elucidation of the pattern of Narnia. Perhaps Prof. Tolkein would have been more understanding if he would have been told.

  • Jay Anderson

    Todd M. Aglialoro wrote: I’d love to see it explored in more depth.

    The theme is discussed at great length here:

    http://tinyurl.com/684qp3

  • Joseph Susanka

    Rev. Dwight Longenecker wrote: 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 wonder if part of Father Longenecker

  • Jen

    I agree with much of what Rev. Longenecker says here, and with Joseph Susanka’s further qualification about the different intended audiences. I think there’s no question that Middle Earth is far more subtle and incarnational than Narnia.

    Personally, though, I do see a real value to the straightforward, obvious “analogy” approach, as well: I love the fact that Aslan presents Christ to me in a way that is familiar in some ways, but startlingly fresh in others. Hearing the Gospel stories can often unfortunately make me less attuned to the great mysteries underneath; (I’m ashamed to admit I have to stop myself from skimming certain parts of the Gospel and thinking, “Yeah, yeah — I know this part.”) There are several scenes throughout the Chronicles were I suddenly find myself face-to-face with some aspect of Christ in a way that gets underneath that familiarity and they never fail to move me very deeply.

    I would say that both Tolkein’s and Lewis’s approaches have their distinct purpose as well as a distinct audience.

  • Ann

    I dearly love children’s literature in all its forms. For me, the weakness in most children’s writing is that it talks down to them. The good stuff aimed at children does what Lewis accomplished: good stories that children can very much enjoy.

    I suspect that Tolkien may have felt when using myth, that children should be exposed to it on an adult level. The child will take from the story the surface at first, but as they mature, each time they experience the myth, they will gain a deeper understanding of the layers of meaning.

    The differences are on the basic level of audience expectations on the part of the author. Lewis expected his books to be read by children, Tolkein expected his books to be read by everyone.

  • Jay Anderson

    From the article I linked to above:

    … This is exacerbated by Lewis’s treatment, or rather neglect, of Eucharist parallels in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

    For a Catholic like Tolkien, any notion of a Passion narrative without the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist becomes maimed–crippled by significant theological problems. And if, as in Lewis’s stated mythopoeic goal, Aslan was intended to accomplish in Narnia what he did on Earth, it would follow that the Last Supper would be as important to parallel as the Crucifixion. Yet in Narnia, while the sacrifice of Aslan is presented, there is no parallel to the Last Supper, nor anything resembling the institution of the Eucharist.

    ***
    The absence of Eucharistic theology is particularly evident near the very end of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when Aslan slips quietly away and Mr. Beaver says wistfully:

    Someone wrote: He’ll be coming and going […]. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion. (Lewis LW & W 180)

    Whether he would have been able to articulate why it bothered him, this moment would undoubtedly have struck Tolkien as being inaccurate as to the character of Christ and the reality he experienced as a Catholic. For him to agree with it in a mythopoeic sense, Tolkien would have had to forget Christ’s telling the apostles “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This would have been impossible, for Tolkien would have understood this quote in reference to the Blessed Sacrament, which he cherished as the focus of his life and faith.

    As he put it in a letter to his son Michael:

    Someone wrote: I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning–and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again […]. Not for me the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of the Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger. (Tolkien, Letters 340)

    The notion of a Christ who comes and goes, sometimes disappearing from life, and leaving no religion or sacraments through which to encounter Him, was therefore quite foreign and repugnant to Tolkien…

    Perhaps that, more than anything else, is why Tolkien felt revulsion (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) toward Narnia.

  • Gretchen

    I am not a scholar, and can only comment as an avid and longtime reader of both Lewis and Tolkien. I became a Christian at age 10 because of the Narnia Chronicles. That, I believe, is the precise reason Lewis wrote those books. The saving of souls motivated him greatly, I believe. I’ve also heard that many have been led to the Catholic Church because of his writings. Lewis’s mixing of mythic traditions never bothered me (either as a child or an adult) because it was so delicious to think of all those wonderful traditions blending into a definitive cosmic Christian truth. I think Lewis wrote with the voice of his childhood, and that is why his books so deeply touch children.

    I do not think that evangelizing was a major motivator for Tolkien. Wasn’t his major motivation the desire to create heroic myth for the British people? I have not read LOTR as a Catholic, so I am sure I will be discovering a different depth there and will find new treasures that point to the truths of the Catholic faith.

    I guess what I’m trying to articulate is that it is difficult to quantify or judge the quality of both authors’ works (through contrasting their literary styles and preferences) when they were springing from such different foundations (not only Protestant and Catholic, but more importantly, mythmaking versus evangelizing). The similarities are superficial, like two different kinds of ice cream. They both include some of the same basic ingredients, but the Pralines and Cream is very different than Double Chocolate Fudge. I can only guess what Heaven’s perspective is regarding the literary merits of both authors. It must depend on the ultimate purpose of each work, I suppose.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Jay Anderson wrote:
    The theme is discussed at great length here:

    http://tinyurl.com/684qp3

    Thanks, Jay. That is really superb. I’m not sure I’m with the author all the way on the “heterodoxy” of Narnia (I’m more inclined to think Lewis was merely sloppy — that, for example, he hadn’t fully worked out all the implications of having Aslan represent Christ directly rather than allegorically; indeed if in the beginning this had even occurred to him at all). But that well-written piece shed light on many other areas related to Lewis’s theology and Tolkien’s disappointment with it.

    I’d anticipated the author’s point about Lewis’s underwhelming conception of the body, something I’ve found evident in Mere Christianity and other works. However I was edified by the way he unpacked the point and connected it to other theological eccentricities of Lewis’s, and how these bore on his writing. Great stuff!

  • David W.

    Tolkien was much more scholarly, and not as accessible as Lewis. Much like Chesterton, who was not a particularly learned scholar of religion but was a wonderful proponent of Christianity. Tolkien derided Lewis’ “everyman” approach to Theology, but you can see Chesterton’s influence on Lewis, especially in his books on religion.

  • Lisa

    Hello,

    I have really enjoyed the posts above. I would like to say that Till We Have Faces is really the only work of Lewis’ that is comparable with The Lord of the Rings. The Narnia books were read to me as a child before I could read them myself, and I re-read them over and over. They are stories for children but they are nonetheless noble and full of truth. For eaxample, after my confirmation as a Catholic i happened to re-read The Last Battle and found in it a perfect illustration of the semantic games being played over the last few decades in the Episcopal Church. (To paraphrase: “We use different words; but we really all mean the same thing.”) These stories are still a comfort and joy to me (and now, to my children.)

    Till We Have Faces , which is my favorite of Lewis’ books, is a different kind of story. It is an epic tale with a courageous but flawed protagonist(Orual), and it would be a tragedy if the God of Love were not merciful. It is also the story of a person learning the truth about herself and those around her. Of course there is much more one could say, but suffice it to say that one can compare two epics but the Narnia books are not, in my opinion, the same kind of work.

    Let’s just be thankful that we have all of these awesome books to enjoy and share!

  • Josh S

    This is seriously one of the goofiest articles I’ve ever read. Catholics don’t have a “dialectical” view of truth? I guess all those scholastic theologians must have been time-traveling Protestants.

  • Kenneth

    …”Planet Narnia” – Michael Ward’s amazing discovery of Lewis’ hidden structure in the Narnia books. If he had, he would have appreciated them a lot more.

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