The Catholic and the Convert: A Brief Exploration and Comparison of the Spiritual Influences Behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia
Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are known to have been committed Christians for most of their professional lives (all of Tolkien’s professional life, actually), and it is also well known that this commitment to Christ greatly influenced the writings of both authors. While Lewis was quite outspoken about his faith both in his apologetic writing and in his fiction, Tolkien’s spiritual focus was much deeper, beneath the surface; it was by no means less real or important, but it was definitely more difficult to detect to the casual observer. For example, in Lewis’s Narnia, it almost takes conscious willpower to not see the obvious parallels between Christianity and the world Lewis created.
However, it was not until after several readings (and the help of other books about Tolkien and LOTR) that I began to see and understand the importance of the fundamental spiritual underpinnings of Middle-Earth. Authors such as Ralph C. Wood, Devin Brown, and Tom Shippey have helped me to see the important role that Tolkien’s faith had in shaping all of Middle-Earth. And while Lewis’s faith is easy to detect in his writings, my own readings of Narnia have been supremely aided by the writings of David C. Downing and Alan Jacobs. I recommend all of these authors to anyone interested in an in-depth look at the lives and writings of Tolkien and of Lewis.
It is my belief and the contention of this essay that the primary (though by no means the only) reason for this drastic difference in writing style is not due to any major differences in the authors’ beliefs, but that it is due to their drastically different spiritual experiences. Thus, this paper will first explore the different paths that each author took in coming to Christianity, and then together we will explore the different ways each author wrote about and examined common spiritual themes, looking to detect the influences of their own journeys on their writings. Far from being an exhaustive study, this essay will simply seek to illustrate the differences by using a few well-known examples from each author’s stories.
Different Journeys to Similar Conclusions: Tolkien’s and Lewis’s Paths to Faith
Tolkien was a staunch Catholic, taught the faith by his mother beginning in childhood, and so his writing reflects this deep confidence and abiding trust in God’s sovereignty over all things. Rather than write about spiritual truths or apologetics or use allegory to talk about his faith, Tolkien simply wrote great stories about timeless truths based on his Christian worldview. Tolkien referred to The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” This shows that his writing, even before he was aware of it, was being informed and shaped by the beliefs he had held dear since he was eight years old. In fact, his beliefs had become even more dear to him due to his mother “who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it.” Thus, his mother’s teaching and her example of self-sacrifice resulting from her faith deeply shaped Tolkien’s understanding of and commitment to Christianity. (Letters, #142, pg.172)
Because of this deep and sincere commitment to the faith of his childhood, and also due to Catholicism’s historical lack of emphasis on evangelism, at least when compared to much of Protestantism’s history, Tolkien did not set out to write a “religious work” even after it was published; he simply wrote, and what he wrote was religious because he was religious. As Devin Brown put it, “The Christian viewpoint, and Tolkien’s own words tells us that he has included one, has been absorbed, has been embedded into his stories and so, except for a few very minor instances, cannot be seen on the surface…We could say that Tolkien’s fiction is permeated with his beliefs, that the Christian element has been infused into the story.” (Brown, ‘Christian World of The Hobbit’ pg. 25-26)
C.S. Lewis’s journey to Christianity is much different and has been told in detail in numerous scholarly works, including his autobiography Surprised by Joy, which tells his own remembrances about how he came to the faith. Other worthy works on the topic include David C. Downing’s The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith and a shorter introduction to it in the opening chapter of his Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. As a child, Lewis attended the Anglican Church in his hometown, only to actively turn his back on faith as a teenager, becoming an atheist until his early thirties when he journeyed through spirituality to Theism and eventually back again to Christianity. When describing his atheism, Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy, “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world.” (p. 115)
Upon returning to the faith of his childhood, it is apparent that Lewis was not only wholly committed to Christ but also that he was grateful that God had called him back to that faith, rather than letting him continue in his atheism to the point of destruction. Because of this gratitude and his desire to share his Joy with others, Lewis felt compelled to discuss his faith with others. However, as Alister McGrath wrote in If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis, it is possible that Lewis might not have begun actually writing about it had he not received an invitation from Ashley Sampson to “contribute a volume to a series of books he had edited, dealing with challenges to Christianity.” As a result of accepting this invitation, The Problem of Pain became Lewis’s “first work of apologetics.” (pg. 166) Thus began Lewis’s journey of writing Christian works of fiction and non-fiction, of apologetics and adventure, works of profound thought and enduring enjoyment.
Having explored the differences in the spiritual journeys of Tolkien and Lewis, the remainder of this essay will focus on the different approaches used by each as a result of their experiences, looking at the influences of their own journeys upon their exploration of common spiritual themes: first, life as part of a Grand Narrative, or Story; second, the nature of Evil; third, the power and purpose of Good; and finally, their contrasting ways of focus in terms of the End. In many ways, the two authors had similar views of life as a story, of good and evil, the power and importance of friendship, and of the need to keep the End in mind throughout life’s journey.
That they had such different paths yet nonetheless came to similar conclusions should come as no surprise since they were indeed friends themselves for much of their adult lives and greatly influenced each other, though in different ways: one of the immediate causes of Lewis’s conversion (or re-conversion, depending on which authors one reads) was a late-night conversation with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson (another fellow Inkling) in September 1931 about how Christianity is a ‘true myth’. It could be said that without Tolkien, the world at large (i.e., outside of academia) might not have ever heard of Clive Staples Lewis. If this is so, it is equally true that if not for the persistence and encouragement of C.S. Lewis, few people outside of Oxford would have learned of an obscure philologist named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. This theme of friendship, which so strongly linked these two titanic twentieth-century authors, will be further explored later.
Tolkien, Lewis, and Life as Story
Both Lewis and Tolkien wrote much about the importance of understanding that life, as it comes to us, is only part of a much greater story. If asked, they might both say that this was due to their own understanding of the Christian worldview, with its story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. However, the ways in which they each explored this theme were informed and shaped by their own spiritual experiences: in Middle-earth, Tolkien almost playfully explores this theme in a conversation between Sam and Frodo, whereas in Narnia, Lewis mentions the importance of one’s story in a serious exchange between Aslan and Shasta.
From comments by Elrond relatively early in The Hobbit to comments made by Gandalf both late in The Hobbit and in The Return of the King, in various passages throughout the stories set in Middle-Earth characters have conversations that let the reader know the characters are aware that they are only a part of a much larger Story. In perhaps the most fully developed treatment of this topic, Sam and Frodo discuss how their story is part of a much larger story. This particular dialogue comes in chapter eight of The Two Towers when the two hobbits, being led by Gollum, have left the Crossroads and are heading toward the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. Sam has realized that his view of stories has changed due to his own experiences on their travels, from thinking that people went looking for adventure to realizing that most of the time people simply find themselves part of a great Story.
From here the conversation continues into a discussion of how the readers may be able to guess what sort of Story the characters are a part of, but the characters themselves do not know. Not only that, but we find out that the characters themselves may not even know which side of a story they are on, as evidenced by Sam asking Frodo if Gollum thinks of himself as the hero or the villain. Sam even realizes that their story is quite explicitly tied to the larger Story of Middle-Earth through the light of the Silmaril that is captured in the star-glass that Galadriel gave to Frodo.
The important part here, though, is not whether the characters know what story they are in, nor whether they are good or bad; the key is that it is entirely understood, even taken for granted, that the characters realize their part of the tale is minor and that the Story existed long before they came along and will continue long after their individual parts have ended. This understanding is crucial, because it is a large part of what motivates the hobbits to do their part in the fight against Evil. They do not expect any reward for their efforts; they hardly expect to survive. And yet, they continue to journey on, through toil and suffering, heartbreak and tragedy, until their part of the Story has reached its conclusion.
In Narnia, C.S. Lewis also weaves many stories together as part of a larger Story. His common thread is the will and work of the lion Aslan who is at work in Narnia, either explicitly or implicitly, from its very creation as told in The Magician’s Nephew through its final destruction in The Last Battle. As the Story progresses and the books continue, there are various references to previous events, thus helping the reader tie the story together and remember the importance or significance of things that came before.
Here we already see one major difference in the writing: the narrative style of Lewis is much more obviously geared toward being ‘reader-friendly,’ if such an expression can be used. That is, Lewis was writing not to create an entire mythological universe that was consistent in every way; rather, he was writing to tell an enjoyable story, and in doing so he thought it would be helpful to remind readers of important things that had already happened, so that they could more easily make connections between current and past events in the timeline of Narnia.
Of the many discussions of the importance of knowing one’s place or role, the most telling passage in The Chronicles of Narnia takes place in the third book (for the purposes of this essay, the books are treated in the order of their narrative, rather than publication, beginning with The Magician’s Nephew through The Last Battle), The Horse and His Boy. This book differs from the first two volumes in the series in that much of what takes place has less to do with the country of Narnia and more to do with the neighboring kingdom of Calormen.
Toward the end of this story one of the main characters, Aravis, the daughter of a Calormene nobleman, is learning from Aslan that he is the lion who attacked and her earlier on in her journeys. He explains the reason for this is to teach her what her actions caused to happen to another person, her stepmother’s slave whom Aravis caused to fall in to a drugged sleep so that Aravis could escape. Upon learning this, Aravis asked Aslan if any more harm would come to the slave because of Aravis’ actions. Aslan’s telling response is, “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” (Horse, pg. 202) This echoes a similar statement that Aslan made to Shasta earlier in the story, and reemphasized the point that our stories are our own, and that when we recognize that we are part of a larger story, our life is put into much better perspective.
Though Lewis’s focus here is different than Tolkien’s as seen above, it is important to note that it is taken for granted that each story is connected with a larger Story, and that each person is only given a small part. Here, Lewis reveals his own understanding of Story, that each person has a part to play, and it must be played to the full, even while understanding that the entire Story is known only to Christ. As with the Hobbits, so with the Narnians and Calormenes.
A final point to note about the importance of Story is the importance of the act of story-telling in the writings of both authors. Throughout the tales of Middle-Earth, various characters recount past deeds of heroes or villains, both as entertainment and as ways to teach or instruct. In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis does much the same thing, even having a bit of fun at the expense of people like himself who spend much of their time reading and writing essays. Having just introduced Aravis’ character to his readers, Lewis the narrator gives Aravis the task of telling her story. But before Aravis does so, Lewis ends the chapter with the witty observation that, “in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.” (Horse, pg. 35) The importance of Story is not easily missed.
Lewis, Tolkien, and Similar Views about the Nature of Evil
In Narnia and Middle-Earth, evil is a very real and present thing. Throughout its many forms—human, natural (meaning: from what we would call ‘nature’), supernatural, bestial, physical, and even spiritual—it has at least three common threads that will be explored here. First, at its core, evil starts with pride. Second, evil is often the result of an over-pursuit of knowledge stemming from a motive of a selfish desire for power over others. And third, evil ultimately results in a loss of ‘self’ for the evil being. These traits are seen at every level of evil in the writing of both Tolkien and Lewis, and they strongly reflect the Christian worldview and subsequent understanding of evil that informs the writing of each author.
In Middle-Earth, evil resulting from pride is seen at every level of character. In the first chapter of The Gospel According to Tolkien, Ralph C. Wood argued that Tolkien structured Middle-Earth in a hierarchy that reflected his own understanding of the world; not to say that certain beings are somehow lesser than others, but to reflect the reality that people have different callings which position them at different levels of Creation. Accepting this structure, then, allows the reader to also see that evil is present at every level, from the highest orders of Creation to the lowliest creatures.
The way in which evil is manifested differs according to the creature and the power of the creature, but it is evident nonetheless. It is seen from the greatest of the Valar (powerful spiritual forces that help in the shaping of Middle-Earth in its very creation), through Wizards such as Saruman, further down through fallen Elves and Men and even down to lowly hobbits, such as Ted Sandyman, whose relatively low status causes his evil to be manifested in simple meanness and selfishness. However, Tolkien also makes clear in his writing that the evil is not any different or worse at the various levels: evil is evil no matter how it is shown, and evil is, at its core, selfish and prideful.
In Narnia, Lewis demonstrates a similar understanding of evil, showing that it exists in various forms from high to low, from Queen Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew all the way down to Shift the Ape in The Last Battle. How much damage is done by the different characters depends on their power, their status, and their own situations; but Lewis also pulls no punches in showing that evil is what it is, no matter who is practicing it. Lewis does not seem to purposefully structure Narnia in a hierarchy, even going so far as to challenge traditional English views about the importance of understanding one’s place in the social order, especially in his character of the cabbie-turned-king at the foundation of Narnia.
However, Lewis also does point out that evil is fundamentally self-centered and prideful: from Queen Jadis’s selfish desire to destroy her own world rather than concede victory in Charn’s civil war in The Magician’s Nephew, through her desire to rule all of Narnia as her own in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; it is seen in the selfish pursuit of Queen Susan by Prince Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy, all the way to Shift’s selfish desire to rule over others in The Last Battle. In every case, evil is done in the name of selfish and prideful ends.
Another observation about the understanding of the nature of evil is that in both worlds, evil is often the result of an over-pursuit or a lust for knowledge, based on a motive of using that knowledge to exercise domination over others. Obviously neither Tolkien nor Lewis (great Oxford men, remember) is against learning or knowledge; quite the opposite in fact. However, both authors point out that the motivations behind one’s pursuit reflect both one’s true desire and one’s true goal: in both worlds, desire for power is shown to turn quickly to evil, while desire for wisdom (most often resulting in humility, not pride) is shown the be the proper motive for desiring knowledge. In addition, both writers also created characters that are set up as examples of how knowledge gained from improper motives also corrupts proper morals, resulting in evil.
In Narnia, this is most clearly seen in both Queen Jadis, as already mentioned, and in Uncle Andrew, whose pursuit of knowledge results in some destruction in London and the introduction of evil into Narnia from its very creation. In both cases, the characters set themselves up as beings to whom traditional rules of morality do not apply, with Uncle Andrew saying, “Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” (Nephew, pg. 21) Later, Jadis repeats the same sentiment about a ‘high and lonely destiny,’ which even the character of Digory remarks as ominous. A final observation to make here is how Uncle Andrew falsely equates knowledge with wisdom, a mistake also made by various characters in Middle-Earth.
In Middle-Earth, two examples will serve to show the point of the danger of an over-pursuit of knowledge that stems from an impure motive. The first is the character of Saruman, known as Saruman the White. He is a Wizard and thus of supernatural origin, originally sent to Middle-Earth as a type of guide and guardian for the other dwellers there. He played a positive role at various times, from the White Council that took place concurrently with the events in The Hobbit to having been a friend and ally to Rohan for many years. However, it is made clear that his original research into the lore of the One Ring that stemmed from his time leading the White Council eventually resulted in a prideful desire to obtain the Ring for himself. Because of that, he slowly but surely turned to evil. In doing so, he left behind traditional views of morality, he forgot his original calling to be a guide and helper, and he eventually revealed himself as openly evil in creating his own army of Uruks to pursue the Ring transported by the Fellowship.
In the conversation between Gandalf and Saruman at Isengard, Saruman showed himself to be on the same immoral path of both Uncle Andrew and Jadis, asking for Gandalf’s aid while also justifying his own corruption, saying, “We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils down by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order…There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.” (Fellowship, pg. 260) Here Saruman reveals his improper motives, his evil intentions, and his mistaken equating of knowledge with wisdom in much the same way as Queen Jadis and Uncle Andrew did in Narnia.
A final observation about Tolkien’s view of evil concerns his many references to how evil is more than simply the absence of good; it often results from the perversion of good. Things that were created with a proper purpose become corrupted, misused, or otherwise changed in ways that result in evil. Again I am indebted to Ralph C. Wood for showing clearly how Tolkien’s understanding of evil comes from his biblical understanding of the world: in the beginning, evil did not exist; it was allowed to come into being because of free will; and it continues so long as creatures are allowed to make choices. But in all of that, evil is incapable of Creation. In The Two Towers, Treebeard explains the origins of trolls as evil’s attempt at creating Ents, and Frodo further explains this to Sam in The Return of the King when he says of the orcs that, “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make.” (pg. 893) This idea of evil attempting and failing at real original creations is also related to the last point to be explored here: despite its inherent selfishness, evil ultimately results in a loss of self for the practitioner.
Evil as de-humanizing (or de-characterizing, since some of the characters are not strictly human) is a theme seen in various places of the literature of both Lewis and Tolkien. The examples to be explored here are the characters of the Nazgul and of Gollum in Middle-Earth, while in Narnia this is seen in both Eustace Scrubb and in Prince Rabadash (though for those most interested in this theme, it would be worth reading Lewis’ Space Trilogy and paying attention to the character of the Un-man).
In Middle-Earth, evil corrupts from within, and as it does so it chips away at the being’s inner self until it is entirely corrupted. This is seen in a relatively minor being like Gollum (minor in the sense of his place in the cosmos), as well as in the much more powerful Nazgul. In the case of Gollum, he had been an ordinary hobbit until he encountered the Ring. Upon seeing it, his selfish desire for it caused him to commit murder, and then he continued to travel down the path of evil by spying on friends and neighbors until he was finally exiled from his community. In his many years of living, he survived by killing and eating orcs, stealing from them, and, if rumors of Middle-Earth are to be believed, preying on other sentient creatures as well. By the time of the events of The Lord of the Rings, he is little more than a shell of a creature: shrunken, misshapen, starved-looking, and with no ties to any community whatsoever.
This is also seen in the case of the Nazgul, though they are a group of Nine and so are not as isolated as Gollum. Still, once they had been great kings and rulers in Middle-Earth until they accepted the gifts of the Nine Rings. The desire for control, for Rule (as Saruman put it), caused them to accept these gifts; and once that was done, it was only a matter of time until they fell totally under the control of Sauron. Rather than being better or even more powerful rulers, they became less human and less in control of even themselves. And while the evils of the Nazgul had larger effects than that of Gollum, the result for all of them was very similar: both the Nazgul and Gollum lose their names, their homes, their very selves, due to the enslaving power of evil.
In Narnia, the same theme is seen in the character of Prince Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy and in Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Prince Rabadash is a powerful heir to the throne in Calormen, and his desire is to marry a Narnian queen. In his desire, he invades the neighboring area of Archenland as part of his preparation for kidnapping Queen Susan, who has previously spurned his advances. In this, Rabadash is responsible for various deaths and much destruction, and he is ultimately defeated. However, despite his defeat, he remains unrepentant, even go so far as to mock and spurn the good will and grace and mercy of the Narnians and Archenlanders who have captured him. As a result of this, he is turned into a donkey by Aslan himself. Only by returning to his homeland and staying there forever can Rabadash regain his true self. He does this, yet his nickname of Rabadash the Ridiculous stuck with him forever, and he even became a warning for others, who when they acted ridiculous were often referred to as “a second Rabadash.”
A similar fate happened to Eustace Scrubb, a young boy who was transported to Narnia and quickly involved in adventures there. Like Gollum compared to the Nazgul, Eustace’s evils are much smaller than those of Rabadash: he is not guilty of murder or attempted kidnapping, but only of pettiness, meanness, and selfishness. However, on his adventures, and due to his selfish desire to keep the gold of a dragon that he has stumbled upon, Eustace wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a dragon. His desire for gold, his meanness toward his traveling companions, and his lack of any sort of compassion, result in his transformation. Only through the direct and very painful intervention of Aslan is Eustace restored to his true self. And here we see the main exception of Eustace: of the characters explored in this essay, he is the only one who ever regains his true self, and when he does, he finds that he has been transformed into a very different sort of boy than he had been. He is by no means perfect, but he does begin to show compassion and kindness toward others, even if he does still fail sometimes.
So here, in both worlds, we see that evil stems from selfish or prideful motives, and we also see that this desire eventually corrupts and de-humanizes. The main difference in how these themes are explored is in the seriousness, or rather, the gravity with which evil is treated. Tolkien’s exploration of evil has very little, if any, humor, whereas Lewis chooses to make evil the object of its own mockery, as seen in Rabadash. This can perhaps be attributed to the different audiences intended for the books of each author, though it might be more accurately ascribed to the different ways in which Lewis and Tolkien chose to focus their writings and their understanding of the End. This idea of the End will be explore later; before we get to the End, and having discussed Evil, now it is time to explore how Tolkien and Lewis understand and write about the Power and Purpose of Good.
Power and Purpose of Good
The idea of Good is often oversimplified, so it is important to understand what Lewis and Tolkien meant by ‘Good’ in order to properly view how they wrote about the concept. Both authors, because of their common Christianity, viewed Good as something that exists for its own sake and as part of something larger. They also made it a habit to point out that Good can be done by anyone and everyone, not just the great and powerful; in fact, both made it a point to use unremarkable creatures as heroes in their tales. In addition to their heroes being relatively ordinary in many ways, it is also important to notice that these heroes were never heroic in isolation, but rather they were always part of a community that was greater than themselves. And last, both authors used their stories to show that the Good that exists in this world is important for its own sake and also as a signpost or allusion to an even Greater Good that exists beyond this world.
In order to understand how Tolkien and Lewis wrote about the Good, one must first distinguish between the idea of Good and the common understanding of what might be considered Kind or Nice. Often, what the characters of these tales have to do is not Kind (toward themselves anyway) or Nice, but rather it is difficult, dangerous, and costly to themselves and sometimes others. Yet for all that it remains Good, because it is done in service to a larger group or because it serves some higher End that the characters themselves are not in control of. It is also important here to distinguish between a ‘greater good’ of society and the Greater Good of serving one’s fellow creatures; the first one is more of a political interpretation of events (e.g. serving the greater good by allowing certain groups to suffer so that the more powerful parts of society might benefit), while the second is the honorable and proper service of mankind (e.g. the way a soldier willingly sacrifices in wartime).
Doing Good is always right in both Narnia and Middle-Earth, though what constitutes Good differs among varying characters. In Narnia, Good is most often seen as serving others at one’s own risk or expense, as in Digory Kirk returning the apple to Aslan rather than taking it to his mother to try to heal her in The Magician’s Nephew. In the story, Digory’s mother is sick and dying, Narnia is in the process of being created by Aslan, and Digory is charged with bringing back an apple from a certain tree to Aslan. Digory does so, but in the process he is confronted by the White Witch, who tempts him to eat the apple himself and so gain immortality or to take the apple to his mother and so save her life. She even makes reference to how, if he fails to take his mother the apple, it must be because he does not truly love her the way he confesses to.
However much he is tempted, Digory recognizes that his duty is not to himself or even to his mother, but to the task he was assigned and to which he agreed. Because of this, he duly returns the apple to Aslan despite the great internal pain this cost him. But in the story, even Digory knew that his mother wouldn’t want him to keep the apple or bring it to her, saying, “Mother herself wouldn’t like it—awfully strict about keeping promises—and not stealing—and all that sort of thing. She’d tell me not to do it—quick as anything—if she was here.” (Nephew, pg. 177) He had given his word, and he was to keep it no matter the cost; that is one of the major aspects of doing Good in Narnia.
In Middle-Earth, doing good for its own sake and as part of a larger good is seen most clearly in the character of Samwise Gamgee. Sam is a hobbit of relatively low standing, a gardener and the son of a gardener, servant (and friend) to Frodo. His task is simply to do whatever is required of him to help Frodo accomplish the goal of destroying the One Ring. This means Sam has to give up home, family, and possibly his very life in order to help accomplish the Good of saving Middle-Earth. Thus, it is seen that both authors shape their worlds based on their own Christian understanding of life: there is Good to be done, and it must be accomplished, even if it costs us everything; our role is to play our part as well as we can, not to serve our own ends. And while there is much more that could be said on this topic, Sam also serves as an excellent example of the second aspect of the Good in both worlds, namely, the use of the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary.
In both Narnia and Middle-Earth, many of the heroes are ordinary characters, devoid of any special strength or power. In fact, they are often both lowly in society and small in stature, from the hobbits of Middle-Earth to the children-heroes in Narnia. This was an idea that was especially dear to Tolkien: “There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. The inter-relations between the ‘noble’ and the ‘simple’ (or common, vulgar) for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find specially moving.” (Letters, pg. 220) Here Tolkien gives us a glimpse of just how special this idea is to him, and from it we see just how often this takes place in Middle-Earth. Again, Sam serves as the seminal example in that he began as a humble gardener and servant and went on to win renown throughout the World of Men and, perhaps more importantly, he became the Mayor of Hobbiton for many years.
In Narnia, my favorite example of how Lewis also followed this same theme is in the character of Reepicheep. Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, children are used as the main characters and indeed are the heroes of many of the tales. However, it is the valiant mouse Reepicheep that best encompasses the theme of using the small to accomplish great things. In Narnia, Reepicheep is a valiant, well-spoken, courtly-mannered mouse; yet he is a mouse: small in stature, with a long tail of which he is perhaps over-fond. Despite the obvious disadvantages of being a mouse, Reepicheep is important in many of the major events in both Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; in fact, it is Reephiceep who is chosen to sail into the East of East at the end of Dawn Treader, there to meet whatever fate Aslan has in store for him.
The second important aspect of Good in Narnia and Middle-Earth is that good is never done in isolation from community; rather, Good is always accomplished by those working together. Of the many instances of this in Middle-Earth, the most appropriate to examine is the Fellowship of the Ring, in which nine different creatures, representing the races of the four Free Peoples, are given the task of seeing that the Ring of Power is destroyed. In the Fellowship, there is Gandalf the Wizard, two men, a dwarf, an elf, and four hobbits; it is just this blending of races that enables the Fellowship to ultimately accomplish the task, though by the time it is accomplished one member has died and the rest are split into smaller groupings. Yet, those who remain continue to work toward the Good task assigned to them even when things seemed hopeless. Most important in this Fellowship, indeed in the entire saga of The Lord of the Rings, is the friendship between Frodo and Samwise.
To any reader of the story, it is abundantly clear just how much Frodo needed Sam if the task was ever to be accomplished; interestingly, it is equally true that without the often reluctant and never altruistic help of Gollum, the task also would have failed utterly, even at the bitter end. Even the characters within the story understood the importance of friendship; one example will serve: as Frodo and Sam prepare to depart from the company of Faramir, Frodo thanks him for his hospitality, saying, “Most gracious host, it was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.” (TT, pg. 701-702) This importance of friendship occurs again and again throughout Middle-Earth, and it strongly reflects Tolkien’s own understanding and valuation of friendship and fellowship, both in his personal life and in his spiritual life.
In Narnia, this emphasis on friendship and fellowship is also seen clearly from the beginning of Narnia, in which Polly and Digory had a very large role, through all of the adventures of the Pevensie children, through the final destruction (or fulfillment, depending on one’s point of view) of Narnia in The Last Battle. One excellent example of the important role of friendship, previously referred to in a different context, occurs late in The Magician’s Nephew, when Digory is being tempted by the White Witch to go back to his mother with an apple, leaving Polly with the Witch. Here, though Digory and Polly have only known each other for a matter of a few days, an important and lasting friendship has already begun, which helped Digory to see through the Witch’s temptation and make the proper decision: “That was where the Witch made her fatal mistake…The meanness of the suggestion that he should leave Polly behind suddenly made all the other things the Witch had been saying to him sound false and hollow.” (MN, pg. 177-178) Here, and in many other places in Narnia, it is one’s reliance on friendship that allows the characters to make the proper decisions, and friendship is indeed shown to be the bedfellow of wisdom.
Any person who has studied the lives of Tolkien and Lewis should find their emphasis on friendship unsurprising. Indeed, they were great friends for much of their professional lives, though their friendship admittedly cooled later in their lives, even if their respect for each other remained strong. C.S. Lewis dedicated perhaps his most unique work of apologetics, The Screwtape Letters, to Tolkien, while after Lewis’s death Tolkien expressed his gratitude to Lewis for his persistence in helping Tolkien finish writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In a letter to the Tolkien Society of America in 1965, two years after Lewis’s passing, Tolkien wrote, “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion….” (Letters, #276, pg. 362) It would not be an overstatement to say that without Lewis, much of the world might never have heard of Tolkien; and, in return, it was heavily due to the influence of Tolkien that Lewis rediscovered the faith of his childhood, which resulted not only in timeless works of apologetics, but also in the creation of the wonderful world of Narnia.
The final aspect of the Good to be examined is how in both worlds, all of the good and positive things that exist serve as reminders of or signposts toward something greater that exists. As the characters know that their story is part of a larger story, they are also aware that the good things that exist are merely shadows of the Good that exists as part of the greater Story being told. In Middle-Earth this idea is seen in The Two Towers and a comment made by Frodo as he and Samwise Gamgee are passing the Crossroads on their way to Mordor. As they pass, they see an old statue of an ancient king, and they notice the head off to the side of the road; as they look, a beam of light hit the king, and they noticed that a growth of flowers has encircled the king’s head, appearing as a crown, and Frodo exclaims, “Look, Sam! Look! The King has got a crown again!..They cannot conquer forever!” In this brief moment, both Frodo and Sam are reminded that their task is part of a much older story and just one aspect of a much greater Good to be accomplished.
In Narnia it is even easier to discern how the good of this earth is but a foretaste of the Good to come after. Indeed, it would be impossible to pick the ‘best’ example of how this is seen; instead, one will be chosen simply for the sake of simplicity. Toward the end of The Last Battle, Aslan is talking with the children, and explaining to them that, despite their fear of being sent away from Narnia they no longer have anything to fear for they would never be sent away again: “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” Every event, every adventure, every bit of joy and happiness experienced until that point, only served as foreshadowing of the greater joy and bliss that was to be found after. And that takes us to the final examination: the different focuses, but similar views, of the End.
Views of the End
If much of C.S. Lewis’s work has been characterized as joyful, happy, or encouraging, it is equally true to say that much of Tolkien’s writing is characterized by death, and sorrow, and sadness. However, both authors also wrote in such a way as to remind their readers that beyond this world, whether experiences here were happy or sad, there awaited something Greater, an End that would renew all things. But because of their different experiences and viewpoints, each author chose to write about this End by focusing on different things: Tolkien’s writing was characterized by a focus on the difficulties of this life, while Lewis’s chose to focus on the Joy that was to follow. In both cases, these are legitimate reflections of their understanding of the world as informed by their Christianity; it is simply the difference between people that might be unfairly classified today as optimistic or pessimistic. In truth, both Tolkien and Lewis were hopeful of eternal life after this earth.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, death is a theme that is thoroughly explored. It is evident from Tolkien’s personal life that death played a major role in shaping his personality and thus his writing: from losing both his parents at a young age to losing his best friends in the First World War, death was a very real and powerful influence on Tolkien. That he understood death to be a natural part of life is also due to his Catholic faith; he knew that no one lived on earth forever, and thus in his creation of Middle-Earth he did not shy away from writing about death or its painful influence on those left here to grieve. However, it is also clear that though death was powerful, the fear of death was not something that should shape one’s decisions. Rather, people should do their duty, accomplish their tasks, live their lives, and accept death when it comes. As Gimli says just before the Fellowship begins to turn toward Moria, “However it may prove, one must tread the path that need chooses.” (FR, pg. 297)
Here is seen both the implication that one’s path is influenced by outside forces and also the importance of fulfilling one’s task, despite how it may end. It is also important to note that not much of what happens in Middle-Earth could be said to come to a ‘happy’ ending, despite Sam’s arrival at home which makes up the final paragraph in The Return of the King. For this final analysis, one must forgive me for going beyond the normal parameters of the story and into the appendices, but it is there that we find the true end to all the tales: every member of the Fellowship has a continuation of their story until death (or travel to the Undying Lands). It seems as though Tolkien simply could not leave off the story with what people might call a happy ending, and one wonders if this is because of his own experiences with death and his desire to sub-create a world that reflected our own so accurately.
This view of death or inability to write a ‘happy ending’ which seemed to elude Tolkien did not afflict the writing of C.S. Lewis. In fact, in the Chronicles of Narnia, it seems difficult to find anything other than what might be characterized by a happy ending, even if those endings take different forms due to their place in the storyline of Narnia. It is clear that Lewis’s approach to death was to present it in a much more positive light; not that death was without pain or tragedy, but that it was most certainly not the end nor even entirely worthy of causing emotions of anxiety or fear in the characters.
This may be due to Lewis’s own life and experience with death: he also lost his mother at a young age, lost friends in the First World War, and later in life experienced the pain of losing his wife to cancer. Thus, it would be erroneous to conclude that Lewis wrote happy endings simply because he had an easy or comfortable life, free of tragedy or pain. Rather, it seems as though, because of his evangelical Christianity, he chose to write about Narnia in such a way as to emphasize the hope and joy rather than the pain. For the characters in Narnia, death was a possibility, but it was never going to be the End. As a result of that, it almost feels as if those stories are more hopeful than the stories of Middle-Earth. Perhaps it is because he wrote about pain in other places, most notably in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, that Lewis reserved Narnia as a place that chose to focus on joy.
I believe, however, that the difference between Tolkien and Lewis here is not really an issue of hope or despair, an issue of happy endings or sad. Rather, I believe that these two authors simply chose to write about the End from similar viewpoints but with a different focus. Think of a two photographers who are taking a picture of the same landscape: a landscape that shows much bare ground, some scrub grass, and a few bright flowers in the foreground all with a breathtaking background of mountains and sky and bright clouds. Tolkien’s writing is that of the photographer who focused on the foreground, choosing to emphasize the beauty of the flowers while not glossing over the relative ordinariness or even ugliness of the bare ground. Lewis, then, is the photographer who chose to blur out some of the foreground for the sake of emphasizing the amazing beauty of the background, focusing on what is to come, rather than what is directly at hand. Both authors were masters at their craft; they simply chose to show the picture, the End, in different ways.
The Catholic and the Convert both wrote about life as part of a grand Story, of the dangers and seductiveness of Evil, of the power of Good, and of the End. Ultimately the Christian worldviews of the authors caused them to create worlds in which all of those themes are explored differently but still reflect the same fundamental beliefs. And though their focuses were different, taken together, they give the reader such glimpses of Joy and Hope as can rarely be found elsewhere.
By Joel W. Hawbaker