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From the tab archives: Lewis on Tolkien


Series announcement: From the tab archives

Some entries in my near-infinite tab list are open because there’s something I have to do, others out of laziness. But no small amount of them hangs around because they deserve some attention. Of these, some could just be sent to a friend or dropped on social media with a clever remark. But many deserve more than some rapid read-fire-forget; they call for processing and rephrasing and actual, honest-to-god retention. These will end up here, on a blog nobody reads, but that may serve as reference material just in case of future need.

Lewis on Tolkien

At this point, we all know about Mr Narnia and Mr Middle-Earth and their Inkling- and religion shaped friendship, what with Tolkien being a big factor in the re-conversion of Lewis (although, one should note, to the CoE, not to Catholicism), so I’ll skip the rehashing. However, I was surprised to find out that C.S. Lewis reviewed the first two parts of the Lord of the Ring. Jumbled thoughts to follow.

I should probably link to my book site here.

Review the first

Lewis references a ton of things that I did not know and that I spent a very enjoyable lazy Saturday looking into. He opens by comparing LotR to [Blake’s] Songs of Innocence, which led me to read some Blake, of whom I think I had only read the Tyger before. I’m not suddenly a Blake fan, it’s very clear why it’s Tyger and Jerusalem that are famous, and not the 480 (!) other Songs of Innocence. There’s a lot of chaff. He also quotes Naomi Mitchison, a friend of Tolkien’s and a prolific writer in tons of genres, who even wrote some scifi in the 60s that I’ll check out. She sounds really cool – read her Wikipedia page!

I don’t think I’ve ever thought about Tolkien in terms of romanticism. That’s mostly because I associate that term so much with the 18th century movement – but it’s useful as a category beyond that, and of course, Tolkien is a romantic in many ways.

The Lord of the Rings is such a fixture in our popular culture and in my life (I think I was nine when I read it first!) that I also had not considered how the opening would read to somebody who had no inkling of the worlds contained in the book – On Hobbits and even the first chapter is worlds away in tone and content from where the books go. That’s important for the dramatic tension, and to show the stakes! But also, especially with the Hobbit being already published and known, Lewis isn’t wrong that it’s a bit of a risk.

I love that the Hobbits are described as “peaceable yet almost anarchical” – it took me many years to pick up on the fact that the Hobbits are the only ones that don’t have a King, Lord, Despot etc of some kind – they have mayors and family elders, and that’s plenty, thank you very much. But, of course, they can only exist with outside help and protection, as Lewis notes, which they carefully do not think about at all.

Lewis defends Middle Earth against the expected attack of escapism (ironic to me – when I was nine, Middle-Earth was pure escapism and could be nothing else), noting that it’s a myth, that it’s a “sane and vigilant invention”, and that, surely, escapism would not force us through this much anguish, again and again. (Anguish is also not a word I’d have thought to use, and it’s well-chosen.)

Review the second

The Fellowship seems to have been criticised for having one-dimensional characters (or, as Lewis calls it, black-and-white). Well. Lewis rebuts this by pointing at Boromir and his moral conundrum, which … is not quite it, either? I don’t think Tolkien’s characters are all, generally, one-dimensional, though some are. It’s a myth, you don’t get to have a myth with this headcount without some simple motivations. However, many characters are, in my opinion, two-dimensional, in that they want two things, conflicting things, and have to make choices and go through anguish (that word again) and trials in making their choice. And more often than not, one of the components is duty: both doing it when you’d rather not, and finding out what it really is.

Is Boromir’s duty to his father? His country? His brother, his captain, his king? (I’ll never stop being a fan of this change in the movie, it captures the tone so well for the big screen.) Aragorns duty seems clear to us, but to him both being sure of it and having the will to follow it are far from clear. Frodo is possibly one of the least conflicted character about his huge duty, beat only by Sam, whose loving take on duty is everything. Eowyn’s transformation of duty is (or can be read as) brilliant, and even the healed Theoden has to figure out how to actually set about his duty to his people – the movie cuts out the debates, but reading the book is tense. And we all know how perverting their sense of duty into pride works out for Saruman and Denethor.

What we see here instead, as Lewis points out in not quite these words, are not entirely black-and-white characters, but a black-and-white morality underpinning the world. “There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby.” has possibly never been more fitting than when looking at this world – especially talking about the second part, when one particular Grey gets reset all the way back to White.

Lewis also accurately notes that while everything rests on Frodo’s side of the story, their dire, slow crawl through Mordor would be hard to bear without the relief of much more open, active, happy, and, in the end, much less relevant stories about the rest of the party. On re-reads, I tend to skip much of the Mordor parts because they pull me in just as much as the rest, and I often can’t (or don’t want to) engage with the endless, hopeless suffering.

His rebuttal of Middle Earth as an allegory for the war (the Ring as nuke, Mordor as Russia) is better to read than even Tolkien’s, and rings with beautiful scorn – I’ve quoted it below. Of course, some of Middle Earth echoes with European wars, just as it echoes with anxieties about powerful evil, and corrupted goodness, and many other things that can be mapped onto WWI or WWII – that’s the nature of a myth. You bundle up all the things, all the basic human needs and vices and virtues, in the way that are most accessible to you in your lived human experience, and you can’t be surprised when others try to open the bundle and find … well, exactly what they’d have put in there.

Lewis closes “The book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our re-readings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.”, and I think I’ve been sparingly enough with my re-readings that I deserve another ration, right about now.


Lewis isn’t a bad writer. Some quotes: