Friday, December 09, 2005

The Heart and Soul of Lewis and Tolkien

Narnia and Middle-Earth are different in every way. One is for children, the other for adults. Narnia parallels our world; Middle-Earth is our world, from a distant past. Narnia replicates Christianity; pagan Middle-Earth anticipates Christianity (or shows the need for it) by revealing how tragic its heroes are. Narnia offers unimaginative allegory, Middle-Earth the rich mythic tapestry of a pre-historical era.

The friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was peculiar. Without Lewis' praise and encouragement, Tolkien said he would never have finished writing The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien could never reciprocate; his feelings for The Chronicles of Narnia were less kind. As a pre-Vatican II Catholic he didn’t approve an Anglican like Lewis communicating the faith on a popular level. And he found the allegorical signposts in Narnia to be artistically offensive, cheap, and completely demeaning to literature.

Part of it was just that Tolkien had impossibly high standards: as far as he was concerned, literature stopped in the year 1100 ("after that it was only books," he said). But more relevant is the fact that he wasn't a convert like Lewis -- he was born into Catholicism and simply took its dogmas for granted -- and had nothing to prove about Christianity. He thought evangelism was odious in the extreme. And because he was secure with his beliefs, he could respect the Norse and Anglo-Saxons on their own right. He actually loved and emulated pagan themes: courage against all odds, pagan doom, the hopeless struggle against evil -- carried out simply because it's the right thing to do. Middle-Earth is so rich in culture, believable in its history, and refreshingly authentic for the suffering and loss its people go through knowing they will lose in the end.

The journalist Steven Hart once wrote that

"Tolkien's soul was in God's keeping, but his heart quickened to a pagan drumbeat."

It's one of my favorite quotes ever. And I would say, by way of contrast, that

"Lewis' soul had found God, and his heart ached to share that a bit too much."


Blogger Michael Pahl said...

Loren, I'm enjoying this series of posts on Lewis-Narnia/Tolkien-Rings. I enjoy both Lewis and Tolkien, but in different ways and on different levels. As a Christian and a father, I enjoy the world Lewis has mirrored, especially in reading Narnia to my children and using it as a springboard to explore our faith together. But as a reader of literature (and a former English major) I enjoy in a very different way the world Tolkien has created, for all the reasons you have suggested in your posts.


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