The Worlds of Tolkien and Lewis


C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, pictured above in my pencil sketch, are bound together for posterity as friends and as members of the writers’ group known as the Inklings which met in Oxford during the 1930s and 40s. This small group, meeting until late 1949 during Thursday evenings in C. S. Lewis's college rooms at Magdalen College (though also gathering from time to time in local pubs such as The Eagle and Child) was an informal literary discussion group associated with the University of Oxford, England. Members were literary enthusiasts who were especially interested in narrative in fiction and encouraged the writing of fantasy.

Their individual and collective impact on the culture is inestimable and goes far beyond anything they might have imagined during the period in which they were regularly meeting. Since the publication of the first in the series in 1950, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia has sold over 100 million copies and has been published in 47 languages; while Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954/55, has sold over 150 million copies, not to mention the many other Middle-earth books that have been released since then as well as the hugely popular film series based on them. Lewis is remembered as one of the great Christian apologists of the Twentieth Century, while Tolkien in particular is regarded as the father of a whole new genre in fiction known as ‘High Fantasy’.

But the approach taken to their fictional subject matter, while having many elements in common, was fundamentally different. Perhaps the best way to examine this is to take a look at each of their major works as though the other’s approach had been applied to it.

For example, Tolkien’s usual method of writing fiction was to take a long time over it, starting with language, developing firstly the peoples who would have spoken the words he created, followed by stories about them. Tolkien started putting together his magnum opus of works about Middle-earth and its inhabitants way back in the First World War, and was still working on them until his death in 1973 - almost sixty years of virtually continuous creation, though of course he was often physically busy doing other things. In this slow, painstaking way, Tolkien gradually built up over decades his own world, ‘sub-created’ as he called it based on underlying principles and myths until it contained every possible detail, from lengthy genealogies to invented flowers, from the rise and fall of kingdoms to the small doings of hobbits, the diminutive race he made up as part of the whole.

Whereas Lewis, contrastingly, began