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 with powerful images which came together around a Lion one day in his mind. He said that he had no idea of where the Narnia stories were leading and no plan, at the beginning, to write a longer series once he had finished the first book to be penned, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His world of Narnia, far from being fully developed, was a means to an end: the whole point of it was to bring about change and realisations in the children who visited it through various portals, most notably the wardrobe in the first book, and thereby to bring change about in his readers.
But what happens if we switch things around, and pretend for the purposes of enlightenment that each set of books was written differently, namely with the methods used by the other author? What if, for instance, Narnia had been created step by step, beginning with the languages spoken in the land of Narnia, in neighbouring Archenland and Calormen, and far away Telmar? What if Lewis had concentrated his efforts on delineating the entire history of the creatures of Narnia and their encounters with their neighbours, their dealings with each other, and the tales of legend which grew out of these meetings? A whole opus might have grown up as a private hobby for Lewis, just as Middle-earth was for Tolkien, without any real bridge or link to any prospective reader. It wouldn't have been until Lewis reached the time of the Hundred Years’ Winter, during which the White Witch ruled Narnia, that his imagination would have needed to produce anything resembling a connection with the world in which readers live. Would he have solved the problem of the Witch and her dominance of Narnia in some other way? Or would he have inevitably been led to the possibility of bringing in children from our own world as catalysts to her overthrow and to the eventual return to Narnia of its creating god, Aslan? Or is this all incorrect, and would he have brought in those connections much earlier when pondering how the whole world of Narnia came into being, as was eventually told in The Magician’s Nephew?
To me, these are fascinating questions, but the main point of looking at Narnia in this way is to indicate just how differently it was put together, and why. Lewis was not as interested in philology, the study of languages, as much as Tolkien, who had a life-long fascination with words; his focus was more on theology, having been brought back into Christianity by Tolkien, but only so far as Anglicanism, as opposed to Tolkien’s own staunch Roman Catholicism. For Lewis then, becoming a Christian was to engage with the world in a new way: Christ was present but invisible, and the whole purpose and meaning of existence was something to be discovered by ‘finding a way into' a higher or purer world. Thus Narnia and its wardrobe was a reflection of a deep mode of thinking, not a creation for its own sake, but a device used to evoke a spiritual experience in its readers.
Middle-earth was different. It’s hard to imagine Tolkien tackling its creation in any other way than he did, but if we attempt it we can perhaps glimpse some important truths about it. What if Tolkien had only come up with Middle-earth as a backdrop to the adventures of a set of visitors from our own world? It’s a strain on our imaginations, but the natural question would be when in its history would such visitors have appeared, given that their function would have to be that of catalysts, as in Lewis’s Narnia? Let’s stretch things and assume that the key moment for visitors from another world to intervene in the history of Middle-earth would have been during the time of The Lord of the Rings, with Sauron the Dark Lord threatening to dominate the whole of that world. How would such visitors have arrived? Through what portal?
There is actually much more beneath the surface of this imaginative exercise: both Tolkien and Lewis had similar intentions - to write works which would inspire and move readers to reject the worldly culture around them and ultimately embrace Christ, Lewis more overtly, Tolkien perhaps unconsciously. In having that as an underlying purpose, one would expect to find similar mechanisms in their work despite their varying approaches.
To make contact with the reality in which readers live, any story needs to have something within it with which readers can identify or feel an affinity for, or recognise. In Lewis’s Narnia, this is the school children, meant to be more or less exact replicas of the readers of the Narnia books, though some now find their portrayals dated; in Tolkien, this was the hobbits, whose lifestyles are not entirely dissimilar to those of English village life a few centuries ago, and whose language and behaviour are designed to act as a ‘bridge’ to the ordinary reader.
In both Narnia and Middle-earth, we should also expect to see some kind of representation of the Enemy as Tolkien and Lewis saw it: the encroaching materialistic, power-hungry, godless reality which the authors saw growing stronger all around them in the mid-Twentieth Century, and which they strove to reject in fiction and in Life. For Lewis, in the Narnia books at least, this began as the century-long winter ‘without Christmas’, created and held in place by the White Witch; in later books, this evolved into other forms, such as the evil invaders of Prince Caspian or the sinister giants and their ally the Green Witch in The Silver Chair. In the final book of the series, The Last Battle, this evil becomes more amorphous and pervasive and manages, it seems, to turn the world of Narnia into an mage of our own world, hollow and full of despair. In Middle-earth we see similar representations: in the early myths, Tolkien presented us with Morgoth, the Foe of the World, a fallen angel meant to directly evoke the idea of Lucifer; then, as Middle-earth’s history progressed, this darkness spread, to appear in forms as diverse as the wraiths of corrupt men, or the twisted form of the former hobbit Gollum. Against this Enemy, stand the protagonists of both authors’ works: children or hobbits, accompanied by archetypal warrior-kings or powerful wizards.
In both Tolkien and Lewis, then, despite the very different ways in which the authors approached the creation of their fantasy worlds, there are similar patterns at work. In Narnia and Middle-earth, there are key objects which act to shift the balance of power. One of the things I find most interesting is that in both worlds, there is a linking device, a mechanism which connects the world of the Good (ultimately) to the world of the Bad (in the end). In Narnia, this is most clearly the wardrobe: it conjoins our darkened world, the world from which the Pevensie children have been evacuated from a war zone, to the world in which Narnia and Aslan, and Aslan’s Country, all exist.
At first glance, there does not appear to be an equivalent to the wardrobe in Middle-earth. Tolkien’s world, built ‘brick by brick’ with its own complex history, geography and even theology, is apparently only connected to our own by a ‘feigned history’, the conceit that somehow all of Tolkien’s stories were discovered in an ancient manuscript, the Red Book of Westmarch, which has found its way down through the millennia to us from some unimaginably distant past. That is, until one realises that Middle-earth is a different kind of sub-creation from Narnia: in it, the ‘dark world’ from which the Pevensies come in Lewis’s work is, in Middle-earth, projected into a future known as the Dominion of Men. And that gloomy future, with its cruelty, savagery and material obsessions is hinted at in the rise of Sauron, and chiefly represented through the symbol of the One Ring.
I think, therefore, that, whereas Lewis’s portal was the wardrobe from which children emerge into a new reality, eventually taking some of that reality back into our own, Tolkien’s ‘portal’ was the One Ring, which had the opposite power: to take the goodness of the created world of Middle-earth and draw it ever deeper into the darkness. Lewis’s wardrobe is a channel through which heavenly influences might find their way to us; Tolkien’s Ring is a channel through which devilish influences might overwhelm us. Lewis’s focus was, therefore, on opening his channel as convincingly as possible to bring enlightenment to readers; Tolkien’s emphasis was on the destruction of a channel through which we might be corrupted.
More on this in future articles. And, if you're interested, get my book The Myth Makers: Essays on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.