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 Earthpoints 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!"