Narnia: A Brief Observation

I think I mentioned that I've been listening to The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien on Audible lately.

I haven't read Tolkien in years. I read him when I was young -- twelve or thirteen, I think -- when I received the boxset from the same kind* Christian relative who'd gifted me the Chronicles of Narnia boxset two or three years before. Christian literature was highly preferable in our house, due to the concerns of my parents for edifying literature, and fantasy literature of a non-Christian nature was largely forbidden, since my mother had a strong aversion to dragons, believing them to be symbols of Satan.**

I might have read Tolkien again in my later teens, but I've not read him since college, and it's been surprising to me just how much of the novels I remember. Obviously the movies and games and social folklore have helped to reinforce my knowledge, but even so, I'm struck by how much of the non-movie/non-game material I remember of these novels, given that I only read them maybe two or three times. And this is particularly interesting because I've been surprised lately at how much of Prince Caspian I didn't remember, when I must have read it many more times. I read all the Narnia books at least a dozen times, except The Last Battle, so you'd think those would be the ones I would recall the most clearly, and not Tolkien's works which, for all their many virtues, did have an unfortunate tendency to get sometimes bogged down with poems and food, neither of which interested me much as a child.

But now I'm already off and rambling from my point.

Something I've noticed with Tolkien is that he shares a habit with Lewis: a penchant for running away from the narrative to tell us the past or future of some minor character. I don't mean general world-building, which Tolkien has an obvious fondness for and Lewis mostly does not; I'm speaking more of the introduction of minor characters and then telling us what becomes of them, like Lewis' "Narnian girls" and "Telmarine boys" and narrative asides about the protagonists and their friends and relations (some of which are particularly on my mind, because I've been reading Dawn Treader this weekend).

It's struck me though that there's a very fundamental difference between Tolkien's use of this narrative style and Lewis' use of the same. Almost every time Tolkien runs off from the narrative to tell us the pasts and futures of minor characters, it's in order to tell us something nice. He tells us about Barliman Butterbur the Innkeeper and how even though he was out a great deal of money on behalf of the protagonists, it came out alright in the end because their escaped ponies eventually came back via a roundabout route to Butterbur and he ended up with some sturdy work-ponies in the end. And, indeed, Tolkien tells us in the same breath about those ponies -- who missed a frightening adventure and were happier as work-ponies -- as well as another pony, later, who brightened under the care of Sam Gangee and developed a talent for treading carefully in order that the wounded Frodo Baggins is not too badly jostled. And this trend continues so far largely unabated: narrative asides about minor characters are usually positive ones. There's a very strong sense coming through the text that Tolkien actually cares about these characters, even the smallest ones.

Part of this may be rooted in a narrative need. Tolkien is writing a very dark story, so it makes sense that he might have felt the need to sprinkle in good things to lighten the road along the way. And perhaps the converse is true of Lewis: the Narnia books are largely intended to be happy and cozy, and perhaps asides about Telmarine boys being turned into pigs and driven into the woods are meant to inject some hard drama into the series, to bring it back down to earth a bit. And it would probably be a mistake to read too much theology and philosophy into the narrative styles of two very different authors. But it's hard to shake the impression I've gotten lately that Tolkien describes life as a hard journey sprinkled with unexpected joy, whereas Lewis describes life as a cozy existence but with cruel caprices (usually from an ineffable god whom we are not to criticize) always lying silently in wait. Given a choice, I have to say I far prefer the former worldview to the latter.

There's something else, too, and it will be relevant to the upcoming discussion of Susan in the Prince Caspian Disney adaptation. I like that Tolkien envisioned that the journeys his heroes underwent would indelibly mark them, and not always for the better. Merry and Pippin may return home taller and bolder and stronger than they left, but Frodo and Bilbo carry the wounds of being former ring-bearers, even though the ring is destroyed. And Frodo's shoulder pains him and his nightmares plague him. I don't think this is meant to be grimdark for the sake of grimdarkness; I do feel that Tolkien had placed himself in Frodo's shoes and empathized with him. I think he arrived at the realization that if he'd lived through such things, he would carry painful baggage with him as a result. And I think after that realization came, there was nothing for it but to write it in, and to try to provide Frodo and Bilbo with some sort of peace by means of sending them away with the elves. And I think it's by that same process of empathy and self-insertion that many*** of us came away with the idea that we too would be permanently marked -- and perhaps permanently damaged -- by the events in Narnia.

So that's kind of interesting to me.



* I was not close to that relative in question and have grown even farther away since, due to very strong personal differences. And it probably didn't help that later Christmas and birthday gifts from him were notifications of "donations" made in my name to charities I didn't approve of. Still, those boxsets must have have cost him a significant amount of money, invested on behalf of a child he almost never saw and had no real relationship with. And this is perhaps evidence that people can sometimes surprise you with kindness when you least expect it.

** I was deeply distressed the day that Patricia C. Wrede was banned from the house. I must have checked her Dealing With Dragons book out of the library dozens of times, before my mother noticed the dragon on the cover and found out that it wasn't a foe to be fought and defeated. I was henceforth banned from reading her work, since sympathy with dragons could lead nowhere good. I remember being so distressed and upset that I wrote her name on a slip of paper and kept that slip hidden among my things for years until I went to college and was free once again to read her. This incident also taught me the value of never discussing my library books with my parents. 

*** Though obviously not all of us, and that's okay. I absolutely respect the point of views of many of you who have explained why Narnia would not have damaged you, had you been a Pevensie, and I recognize that we are all individuals here who handle different life events very differently.

17 comments:

Scribblegoat said...

I think you're exactly right, Aidan Bird: Tolkien *loved* his world, inhabited it emotionally, put so much continuing thought into it during his "Real Life" -- which I think explains why Lewis's fantasy worlds have so many Unfortunate Implications that go unacknowledged, while Tolkien was very aware of many of the UIs and wrote on them privately.

Two more reasons: 1.) Tolkien never thought of his Middle-Earth work as covering the entirety of the world -- the introduction on my edition of the Silmarillion contains a letter in which he literally says that he knows there is more to the world than he can write, and he likes that this infuses the existing text with mystery, whereas Lewis literally comes in at the end of the series to write the creation and destruction of the world to make his allegory complete. (Somehow one can't imagine Lewis being fanfic-friendly.)

2.) Tolkien didn't think that the presence of loose ends, violence, and even unresolved, hideous pain had the power to destroy his world. Each of these is a major theme of the works' scope. Lewis could not allow such things to intrude upon his didacticism in any of his work, whereas Tolkien (to my reading) does not find there to be a didacticism to foul up. He's telling a story that shares much of its underlying morality with his Christian faith without trying to construct a permanent teachable moment. He saw his work as "sub-creation" (his term), a worshipful mimicry of the act of imbuing a world with life -- I honestly would feel comfortable saying that he probably would have found something offensive and obscene in making everything in his sub-created world tie up so nice and neatly that every bad thing that happened, happened to someone who somehow deserved it.

Given the reins of Narnia, Tolkien wouldn't have dismissed his extraneous girl character by making her interested in lipstick and nylons and invitations. He would have told us something like "Now Susan was bereft and burdened after the long journeys that had come to so little for her, but found solace in being beautiful for her lovers, and in the society of her friends who were forever asking her to parties and to go with them to entertainments. This lifted the weight of what she had lost for a little while. But the lipstick and nylons and invitations were insufficient to calm the ache in her heart, and in time she withdrew into the house she had inherited from Diggory Kirke, where she read books and touched the historical artifacts all she pleased until she had some hope for a semblance of peace."

Fm said...

Summarising the difference, I think one can say that Tolkien's books are like a holodeck: they are not real, but they can be viewed from all angles and even felt, just like real things are. This, of course, means that most charachters in books are imaginary persons for whom Tolkien cares. By contrast, Lewis' stories are like those optical illusions: they can be properly viewed from just one vantage point and break down from any other perspective. This makes most charachters reduced to their role in the narration, and this invariably means that any charachter with negative role is present as bad with few redeeming qualities. Thus Tolkien uses backstories to make charachters more fleshed out, whereas Lewis uses them for a quick charachterisation just so he can avoid fleshing charachters out.
Note that this is also present in other Lewis' books, but there there actually is some fleshing out. "Till we have faces" is significantly less flat, IMHO. Also in Narnia books, we can see as subtext becomes more and more the text, to the detrimant of narrative qualities.

Aidan Bird said...

You summed up one of the reasons why I love Tolkien far more than I ever liked Lewis. Tolkien not only had a beautifully rich world full of various languages, but he really seemed to love his characters as much as he loved his created languages and world. You could see it through the words that were so carefully crafted into such beautifully descriptive passages.

I just love those little side stories about the minor characters, for it showed just how much he loved the world, and how there is all these unexpected joys hidden amongst the pain and suffering. It taught me to look for those hidden joys, to learn more about the stories of other people, and most of all to celebrate with other people when good things happen and empathizing with them (and supporting them in what ways I am capable) when bad things happen. I didn't really find these themes in Lewis's Narnia series; I found them instead with Tolkien, for Tolkien did a much, much better job. I think this is partly because Tolkien didn't set out to write allegory of religion in fiction, and thus there was no points to be made. Tolkien wrote a story about a world he loved and had to share with the world, and he wrote about people as they were in that world. So the little details about life, the lessons that really stay with you, came out clearer and had a much, much larger impact than Lewis's attempts.

This is how I view it and how I experienced it, and so it may be different for others. Other people may have found Lewis better at this, and that's fine. I just wanted to articulate how it was for me reading both series, and why I love Tolkien more. Tolkien's stories just stuck in my mind as a kid and made a huge impact on my desire to be a writer, to live a life of love, to listen to other people's stories, and to share my own stories.

bekabot said...

I don't want to get too simplistic, but I think the secret to the difference between Lewis and Tolkien and their approaches to their characters, plot lines, etc., may have been that Lewis was a snob. I'm not saying that Tolkien was never a snob; what I'm saying is that Lewis definitely was a snob, and that he was a snob of a very specific type. Tolkien was a Catholic* in the best sense of that word: he thought he was going to an ultragood place, and he wanted to take everyone along with him. The 'feel' one derives from his life and his books is that just as, at bottom, he was convinced that his personal destiny had been a happy one (though shadowed with opposition and difficulty) he believed that the universe in general was slated for a glorious finale, even though lots of true and wise things might have to be sacrificed, and permanently sacrificed, as fuel for the journey. To Tolkien, excellence was excellent in and of itself, no matter how many people or creatures might partake of it. To Lewis, OTOH, the rule was that you know you're in the big leagues at the point where the herd begins to thin out.

Not too long ago I read a posting by an MRA dude (transmitted via David Futrelle and Man Boobz.) The posting was incoherent, as MRA postings tend to be, but some parts of it were more consistent than other parts, and one of the parts which was more consistent dealt with how many women get to be hot at the same time. The guy who wrote the posting said, basically, that, since hotness is relative, if too many women got to be hot (at the same time), hotness would lose value as a commodity and most women would end up being rated "less hot" as a result. (Illustration: a "6" might be demoted to a "5", because there would be too many women in the "6" category and someone would end up having to be voted off 6 island.) My impression is that this was exactly the way Lewis thought. That's what's behind the "further up and deeper in" canard. The expectation behind the further-up-and- deeper-in formulation is that relatively few souls are going to find the going comfortable further up and deeper in and that the posers and pretenders to righteousness and all-round also-rans are going to find themselves, um, Left Behind. Groucho Marx once said that he'd never join a club that would have him as a member. Groucho Marx differed from C. S. Lewis principally in the sense that he found it possible to apply the Snob Rule to himself. But Tolkien is remarkable for the extent to which, in the context of his books at least, the Snob Rule disappears.

Suggested grounds for research by people who are smarter than me:

1. Why is it that fundagelicals are ga-ga about Lewis but merely admire Tolkien?
2. Could it be said that a certain kind of religiosity counts as snobbism for otherwise undistinguished people?

*said by a person who is not Catholic and whose ancestors existed for centuries in a state of ferocious opposition to the Church

Theo Axner said...

I agree with the observation; there's an occasional truly mean-spirited streak to Lewis' writing which is totally absent from Tolkien's. Some passages in Narnia, not least in Dawn Treader, truly rubbed me the wrong way on this count as a child and still do. I wonder to what extent, if any, Lewis' occasional penchant for imaginary cruelty might have had anything to do with his sexual sadism.

On the other hand, I'm not surprised at all that Lewis was apparently cool with the idea of Narnia fanfic. I would have been much more surprised at the opposite; first because it fit with his whole attitude to words, stories and legends, and second because it seems he never took Narnia as seriously as Tolkien did Middle-Earth.

Ramb12 said...

It's odd...maybe the reason I've been on such a Tolkien-trip this year, while developing a degree of distaste for the intolerant preachiness of Lewis (other than being worked up into a righteous fury by Ana's writeups) is that my life so far could easily be described as a cozy journey with some cruel caprice along the way (for a given value of "cruel"; self-inflicted cruelty mostly), and I'm currently in the process of trying to re-define it and embrace the idea of a hard journey with unexpected joy, which seems a much better, more uplifting way of going through the world.

Isator Levi said...

A thing that occurs to me as a significant difference between Tolkien and Lewis is that, when their respective deity figures are depicted, Tolkien's narrative actually calls out the fact that they're well-meaning but certainly fallible.

Compare what reasons (if any) are given by Aslan for his lack of action against Jadis to the statement that Manwë genuinely believed in and hoped for his brother's redemption (and was himself just incapable of really understanding the spiteful viewpoint of the truly evil), or how their non-interference in Middle Earth was predicated on the fact that their other occasions for fighting directly had caused tremendous collateral damage, and the fact that they're uncertain as to how much it's appropriate in the eyes of God for them to meddle in the affairs of corporeal races.

That and the fact that his omniscient Creator analogue is very deliberately and openly distant (conveyed by the creation story having him basically tell the Valar "here's the basic template of the world, and I'm very interested in seeing what volunteers make of it for themselves, so I'll be taking a backseat").

Ygorbla said...

Another thing about Tolkien that I was thinking about when reading your Narnia deconstructions:

Although Tolkien's work had Always Chaotic Evil orcs in it, he was famously seriously bothered by the idea behind them -- they were required by the plot and the mythology he was drawing on, but he felt that having sentient beings who were automatically and irrevocably evil simply because of their birth contradicted his faith; he said he never really found a satisfactory resolution for it.

It's really, really hard to imagine Lewis worrying about the same thing, partially because it feels like he just didn't put as much thought into his characters, and partially because it feels he wouldn't have felt that it violated his faith.

Ikkin said...

(Somehow one can't imagine Lewis being fanfic-friendly.)

Actually, C.S. Lewis appeared to be entirely amenable to the idea of fanfiction, if the quote from this image that's being passed around on Tumblr is accurate:

"I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I've left you plenty of hints -- especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking... I feel I have done all that I can!"

He was certainly more interested in allegory than the other elements of his own stories, but he didn't seem to have any issue with other people taking those elements and running with them.

I do love your idea for how Tolkien would have handled Susan, though. It's more bittersweet than happy, but it's an awful lot more hopeful than leaving her the way The Last Battle did.

Scribblegoat said...

Oh, did he really? That's rather charming! Thanks for the info -- I did really love the books as a kid and do really love many of the concepts still, so it's pleasant to be reminded that he's not as ... hmmm ... curmudgeonly as his narrative voice sometimes makes him seem.

storiteller said...

I have no idea whether it's accurate to how the books were written, but I always felt like they had started out as bedtime stories and I could imagine a lot of those asides coming from interruptions from a wide-eyed listener going but, but, what about-?.

I actually think that "wide eyed listener" is Tolkein himself. I've always seen Tolkein as a language-creator and world-builder in search of a plot. The books exist mainly because he loves his world so much that he needed to create a story to share it. I think that's why he loves everyone in that world. Sure, the protagonists are the most important to this particular story, but there are so many he just hasn't written down yet.

CN: PTSD, war
He *did* carry the baggage with him for the rest of his life.

In fact, he served in the Battle of the Somme, which was one of the first battles where medical officials diagnosed people with "shell shock" afterwards. (There seems be an interesting article on the subject here: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+shell-shocked+hobbit%3A+the+First+World+War+and+Tolkien%27s+trauma+of...-a0154698400) Shell shock was later known as post-traumatic stress disorder. In terms of why people accuse him of being "cozy," I think that many Americans forget how incredibly bad WWI was for Britain. America didn't get in until the very end and we only lost 0.13% of the population; Britain lost 2%.

Morgan said...

I read Tolkien at a younger age than I did Lewis (who I first read in my twenties), so that probably influenced it, but... Lewis' voice always came off to me as condescending. I felt myself in his audience of children and he seemed to be talking down to me. Of course, that may have been standard for books written for children around that time, I don't have a base for comparison.

Tolkien, on the other hand, felt like a storyteller reacting to his audience. I have no idea whether it's accurate to how the books were written, but I always felt like they had started out as bedtime stories and I could imagine a lot of those asides coming from interruptions from a wide-eyed listener going but, but, what about-?. Never mind that, as you point out, the asides show good things happening even amidst the worst - the simple fact of them always struck me as fundamentally kind and empathetic.

graylor said...

I read Lewis when I was in elementary school and LOTR in high school and the Hobbit somewhere in between. I tried to re-read the Narnia books when I was a teenager and the magic just wasn't there any more. I never really clicked with Tolkien, but Tolkien would at least engage with his characters on their own terms. Lewis had chess pieces: this character comes on stage, says his line, is an example of this or that larger idea, exits stage left.

We talk about Bella as a self-insert character: that was Lucy for me. There was very little character there, so to speak. With Tolkien there are personalities and disagreements that aren't supposed to reveal Platonic Ideals or whatever Lewis was getting at with the disappearing/reappearing lion. Elves and dwarves have different world-views and can argue and natter and pick, but they can be friends and can learn things from each other. That's a large idea in itself, I guess, but it doesn't have anything to do with the ultimate nature of the divine (at least not without long pondering).

Nathaniel said...

Its the lack of being affected that has always made the four siblings feel hollow to me. I've never liked them, but never disliked them. There's no there there.

mildred_of_midgard said...

I think Tolkien didn't so much place himself in Frodo's shoes as he placed Frodo in his--Tolkien fought in the trenches in WWI, and by the time the war was over, "All but one of my close friends were dead." He *did* carry the baggage with him for the rest of his life.

This is why it not only pisses me off when other SFF authors criticize him for being cozy, glorifying war, letting his characters get out of their adventures scot-free, it baffles me utterly. What on earth are these people reading? because it's definitely not the same Tolkien I'm reading. I've posted on this before, and my only explanation is that these people spent their childhoods in a parallel universe, reading works by a different guy also named Tolkien.

GeniusLemur said...

I'd also point out that Tolkien gives reasons that his small people matter. Hobbits are important, ironically enough, because they're not important. They get their moments of glory, like the assist on the Witch-King, but they're never big warriors and never presented as such. Lewis, on the other hand, flounders around trying to convince us that in a mass battle involving giants, a couple untrained preadolescent boys make a huge difference.

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