Note: This is the article form of a talk that was given at Lewolkien 2022 by DJ Edwardson.
Why study Lewis and Tolkien? Why come to a conference like this? Stop a moment and consider that. Various reasons surely come to mind. Perhaps it is because you love good books and good conversation. Perhaps you seek fellowship with other bibliophiles. Perhaps you desire rest and a time of contemplation. Perhaps you are seeking to deepen your walk with Christ by learning to see his truth in new and wonderful ways.
You may be here for all those reasons or a myriad of others, but whether you know it or not, you are here in large part because of conversation. A conversation between Clive Staples Lewis and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Two Englishmen born in the nineteenth century and alive through most of the twentieth. They lived in momentous times. They experienced two world wars, fighting in the first of them. They saw the advent of the motor car, the airplane, and space travel. Radio, television, and motion pictures all came to be within their lifetimes. They were writers, of course, but also professors and husbands and patriots and friends and thinkers and sinners like you and me.
None of Lewis’ friends called him C.S.. He was known to everyone as Jack, and had been from an early age, taking up the name of a beloved family dog after it had died. We could think of them as Jack and John, two very common names, two very ordinary names. And yet the stories they created and the lives they lived were anything but ordinary.
We don’t know exactly when the conversation in question between these two friends took place, but a good estimate seems to be around 1936. Tolkien recorded it in the following manner:
L. said to me one day: ‘Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.’ We agreed that he should try ‘space-travel’, and I should try ‘time-travel’. His result is well known. My effort, after a few promising chapters, ran dry: it was too long a way round to what I really wanted to make, a new version of the Atlantis legend. The final scene survives as The Downfall of Númenor. This attracted Lewis greatly…and reference to it occurs in several places in his works…We neither of us expected much success as amateurs, and actually Lewis had some difficulty in getting Out of the Silent Planet published. And after all that has happened since, the most lasting pleasure and reward for both of us has been that we provided one another with stories to hear or read that we really liked – in large parts. Naturally neither of us liked all that we found in the other’s fiction.
What we have here is a challenge by two men. Tolkien would have been 44 years old and Lewis 38 at the time, and they made this challenge to write some stories of the kind that they both liked. Two Oxford professors with a shared love of what Lewis would call “Northerness” and a thirst for the transcendent had found each other amidst a century of war and growing secularism. And years later, and for us now coming upon nearly a century, we have all these books from this conversation between these two men. And if not for those books we would not be here today.
Both had by that time in 1936 already been writing other things. Lewis had published his allegory, Pilgrim’s Regress in 1933 and Tolkien had finished The Hobbit in 1932 and would publish it in 1937, shortly after this challenge was taken up.
Tolkien had also been working for many years on what would later come to be known as his legendarium, a collection of stories and poems that would give voice to his invented Elvish languages.
In a note penned by Lewis to Tolkien in 1931, Lewis had the following response to the reading of an epic poem entitled, The Lay of Leithian.
I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the rëaf. I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it. I should have enjoyed it just as well as if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader.
That last sentence is particularly telling. What Lewis received from this poem, and what both he and Tolkien would go on to pursue in their work were these twin qualities of reality and myth. The value of a sense of reality, of what Coleridge called the “suspension of disbelief” is obvious, but the importance of myth is often lost on modern readers. As Lewis describes it, the essence of myth is that it has no taint of allegory to the one writing it, and yet it will imply or lend itself to allegorical or symbolic meanings in the mind of the reader.
Of thought and experience
Understanding this mythical quality is vital to understanding the work of Lewis and Tolkien. Myth is a word that has had an unfortunate journey in the lexicographical trail of history. It has become a synonym for “falsehood” “misbelief” “fabrication” “a figment of the imagination” “an old wive’s tale”. Myths are, by definition not true. As Lewis remarked while still an unbeliever, they are “lies breathed through silver.” Beautiful shams.
But the primary meaning of myth still survives and that is as a story dealing with supernatural beings or events. But even that definition does not go nearly far enough to capture what Lewis and Tolkien meant by this word.
Lewis, in his brilliant essay, “Myth Became Fact,” unpacks the rich significance of the place of myth in our lives. He begins by observing that there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of knowledge. The one we get from our experiences of things, for example a dog, a pleasure, a pain. And the other we get from thinking about things.
Thought, he points out, is inherently abstract. It sets us apart from the thing considered. The Latin word, abstractus, from whence we get our word abstract, has the idea of being withdrawn, alienated. When we begin to think about something we no longer experience it in a direct way. It’s impossible to contemplate the nature of humor while roaring with laughter, and yet the moment we stop laughing, we’ve lost something in our understanding of what laughter is.
It’s not that one type of knowing is superior to the other, but that both are necessary to understanding reality. As Lewis writes elsewhere, “a pleasure is not fully grown until it is remembered.”
Thought is universal. It contemplates such things as courage, friendship, proportion, origins, the relationship of one thing to another. But the moment we stop experiencing the friend, the meal, the itch on the back of our neck—and we turn to the contemplation of such things, they become mere instances and examples of a larger concept.
This separation, this great chasm between thought and experience creates in us a dilemma. “The more lucidly we think,” Lewis writes, “the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think.”
Of sweetness and perception
To illustrate this, consider a piece of candy. You might ask yourself the following questions as you ponder it. Where was it made? What are the ingredients? How would it compare to other candy you’ve eaten in the past? What has candy got to do with myth? Or with Lewis and Tolkien? You see we can separate all of these things in our minds from the candy. The thoughts are connected to it, and have value, but they are separate from the candy itself.
But your understanding of the candy transforms completely once you eat it. You will see immediately that the experience is entirely different from your thoughts about the candy. You know the candy in a new way. There are qualities to it that you would never have guessed from merely looking at it if you had not eaten it before.
The candy exercise helps us see the disconnect between thought and experience. The moment you start thinking about the candy, you’re not tasting it anymore. The experience fades into the background. The taste is lost, and by this time tomorrow it will be lost even further, and a year from now further still. But the idea of candy, and perhaps even the memory of this particular candy, may live on.
The bridge of myth
But there is this gulf between reason and experience, a severance between our thoughts and our senses that can never be mended. Or can it? For Lewis and Tolkien, it is into this irreconcilable gap that myth enters in.
It is only a partial cure to the malaise of our disintegrated knowledge, but it offers a way of turning thought from something which is wholly abstract into something more concrete.
Lewis uses the example of Orpheus leading Eurydice out of Hades to illustrate this plight of the disconnect between our experience and our thought. When Orpheus turns back to look at the woman he loves, to make sure that she is still there, she vanishes. This scene captures our imagination in a way this discussion about reason and its fading connection to reality does not. This is not the literal meaning of the myth. If it were, that would make it allegorical. But the power and beauty of myth is that from it may spring a multiplicity of meanings. Lewis puts it this way:
What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley…It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.
Transcending time and place
So Lewis and Tolkien wanted to create not just stories, but myths, stories which are larger than the books that contain them. Stories which would transcend their own time and experiences and speak to all times and cultures. Ordinary stories are for individual readers and may appeal in varying degrees to different readers based upon their experience, stage of life, intellect, etc. But myths are stories for a whole culture. They are known and speak to us and inform our experiences even if we have not read them.
How many of us have actually read the myths about Thor and Zeus? And yet something of them is known to almost every Western person. They are part of our birthright. In the same way not everyone has read The Hobbit, but almost everyone knows what a hobbit is. That is part of the curious power of myth.
Lewis took a different tack. His stories were more about creating fresh myths to retell the true myth, the Christian myth. They are not allegories in the strict sense, but fresh imaginings of the Christian story. Aslan from Narnia and Ransom from the Space Trilogy give us new ways of experiencing that myth with new eyes.
Both Lewis and Tolkien, each in their own way, were mythmakers of the first order, giving to the world stories that would transcend their own time and place and allow readers to bridge the gap between thought and experience.
The rest of the story
Certainly, not all of their stories had the same mythopoetic quality. And myth in itself is not the sole end or measure of a good work. If all that Lewis and Tolkien had enjoyed in books were mythic tales, a great deal of what is in their work would not be present. If all they had given us were stories reminiscent of Beowulf and The Odyssey, I do not believe we would be talking about their writing here today. Because myth was not all that they loved in literature. They also loved the truth.
And this is why we see the unique blend of Artist and Sage within both Lewis and Tolkien. This is what truly set them apart from their contemporaries and from most writers who have come since. For though good art and genuine myth are not prescriptive in their meanings, nevertheless, a certain character comes through, whether for good or bad ends, in any piece of fiction. And Lewis and Tolkien wove Christian ideals and biblical truths all throughout their stories, sometimes intentionally, other times unintentionally.
Lewis is certainly the more straightforward of the two on this point. As he points out in his insightful essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What Needs to Be Said,” every work of literature is a contract between the Artist, who is inspired with a vision of something that he is compelled to write, and the Man, who comes in after and weighs whether it would be good to invest his time in bringing that vision to life. And the good that is aimed it by the man will very much depend upon the warp and woof of that man’s soul.
Aiming at some good
When you read a book, you are not merely “passing time” or “engaging your mind” or “having an adventure”. You may be doing all of those things, but deep down what you are doing is opening your mind to that of another, to that of the author. As Gilbert Highet put it, “these are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.”
Lewis goes on that same essay to share this famous insight:
“I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say. Then, of course, the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
In this passage Lewis lays his cards on the table. He tells us that story is a way for him not just to express the vision trapped within his imagination, not just to unleash mythopoeic visions, it is also a way for truth to slip into a hardened, skeptical and darkened world where the light to give readers the light they so desperately need.
A different path to the same destination
Tolkien, while less direct in his storytelling when it came to his worldview, wrote that The Lord of the Rings was a fundamentally Christian work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously so in the revision.
But whether direct or not, their stories preserve a place where the great truths of the Bible could penetrate and reach the imagination. In them we see how God uses the weak and broken things of the world to bring to naught the things that are. That Christ, though equal in power with God, emptied himself to die a death and pay a debt for the sins which we could not. In reading Lewis and Tolkien we are reminded that the world is so fundamentally broken by the Fall that even the most noble among us are tainted by it in some way and that human will alone is not enough to save our world.
We need God, working in history through a divine catastrophe, a eucatastrophe, as Tolkien put it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”, an unexpected turn in our story which has nothing to do with us, but which saves us in the end from ultimate defeat. And we discover, like Joseph with his brothers in Egypt, or like Gollum in the Fires of Mount Doom, that God will use even the evil things of this world to fulfill his own purposes. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
Echoes of an older world
These were the great truths Lewis and Tolkien sought to preserve and to engage their readers with. They were truths that were assailed on every side in their day. Both of them saw themselves to one degree or another as sentinels at a post, as soldiers defending a city that had been overrun. They rubbed elbows with the intelligentsia at Oxford. They read the scholarship and listened to the rhetoric of the great minds of the time. They knew the plum line was off, that the world had spiraled into intellectual and spiritual madness.
They knew the castle had fallen and that the Old World they so dearly loved, a world of surety and stability, a world of reason and order, a world of faith and fellowship, was falling away. Europe and England, once bastions of Christian belief and practice, imperfect though they had been in that pursuit, were drinking deeply, if they were not already drunk, on modern materialist philosophy that would lead it to ruin and despair.
Belief in God was an albatross around the neck. It was something to trot out perhaps for show in certain social situations, but otherwise an embarrassment, like some doddering old relative who had to be kept around and occasionally acknowledged but it would have been better and more convenient for all if they would simply stay up quietly in the attic until they passed away.
On the value of dinosaurs
In Lewis’ Inaugural Lecture from The Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University in 1954, he refers to himself as an Old Western man and a dinosaur. He knew very much how out of step he was with the institution which employed him. The medieval world and the truths it championed was not perfect. No age is. But it still had much to teach us.
For one, it was a supernatural world. A world where there existed things beyond what the senses could know. And the way to truth could only be found through a marriage of faith and reason.
It was a bookish time. In fact, books were so few and precious it was better to reconcile the differences between them lest you be forced to throw one away. The medievals believed that if something was written down it must be worth listening to.
It was a storyfied world in which every event, every object had its place in the providence of God. Objects did not operate through impersonal forces or laws working upon them. A rock would fall to the ground when dropped not because it was a slave to gravity, but as a way of showing love and humility before God by taking its proper place.
Medieval thinkers would have found repulsive our modern tendency to reduce everything to its component parts. In the same way that a book is not simply a mass of ink and paper with no significance, or a wedding ring is merely a band of polished gold, air, light, water, the planets, and the stars are more than what we can learn from their molecular composition.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader there is this wonderful exchange between Eustace and Ramandu:
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
[Ramandu answers] “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
An air of melancholy
Lewis and Tolkien were both medievalists. They were men out of time, so it was only natural that they should write time-stories in order to fulfill the challenge between them made all those years ago.
Reverend Robert Murray said of Tolkien, in an interview some years after his death,
“He was a very jovial man, and loved good company, good wine, good conversation, but it frequently came through that he had an underlying melancholy. I think he believed very deeply in the mythical, historical framework that the world is running down from a golden age, and has gone fairly far. And that of course is also the framework of his whole creative work.”
Tolkien wrote of something similar in a Letter to his son Christopher:
“We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water.”
Fighting the Long Defeat
This longing for the old things and the true paths comes through in the fate of the elves in Middle-earth. Their time was passing and they were, little by little, departing and sailing off into the West, into the Undying Lands where truth and goodness and beauty yet lived on.
And yet, Elrond and Galdriel remained to oppose Sauron until the time of the Rings of Power should come to an end. As Galadriel tells the fellowship:
The Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.
Fighting the long defeat. That is what Lewis and Tolkien were doing. They were fighting the long defeat. As Tolkien might have put it, a doom lay upon them. They knew it was an impossible fight. The Old Western world would never return. And yet that did not mean that it was not worth defending. And we can say with certainty that they did not abandon their posts. They refused to give in to the conceits of the modern world and bow the knee to the lords of secular humanism.
A rebellion of words
Lewis and Tolkien knew that the battle would ultimately be a war of words. All revolutions are fundamentally linguistic. When you can change the meaning of words arbitrarily you can control the minds and hearts of a civilization. They watched it happen during WWII where Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, demonstrated that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.
And in a century of mass communication and mass murder they fought against the lies with dignity and grace and words were their weapons. Yes, the war would be fought on many fronts, in academia, in the news and entertainment industries, in the scientific societies and periodicals, in the trenches and on the beaches ruled by power-crazed politicians. But in all of it, it would be a war of words.
Jargon and Jingoism had replaced argument and discourse. Who cares if it’s left or right? The central question is not left or right, it’s wrong or right. Good or bad. In obedience to God or rebellion against him. Loss of words leads inevitably to confusion. Screwtape would surely have looked on the verbal carnage of the twentieth century and been proud.
Lewis pokes fun at the jingoistic thought leaders of his day with a short scene between Prince Caspian and Governor Bumpus on the Lone Isles, with Bumpus objecting to Caspian’s abolition of the slave trade and the detrimental economic impact it would have with these words:
“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasped the Governor. “Have you no idea of progress? of development?”
“I have seen them both in an egg,” said Caspian. “We call it ‘going bad’ in Narnia.”
A war for the West, a war for eternity
Though they may not have put it this way, they were fighting a culture war, a war for the mind and soul of Western Civilization. And as Doug Wilson put it, if you want to fight a tank war, you produce tanks. If you want to fight a culture war you produce culture.
And that is what Lewis and Tolkien did. And they did it marvelously. In book after book, and with all the force of their prodigious imaginations and with all the vigor wrought by their years of study and learning, they fought the long defeat. They sought inspiration on strange shores, in Scandinavian myths and ancient writings. In obscure legends and great traditions of the West.
Lewis and Tolkien are needed even now more than ever. Because reading makes us think. And the ability to understand words and communicate with words is fundamental to the spreading of the Gospel and to understanding the depth of its saving power.
How will they know, Romans says, except by hearing? And how will they hear unless someone is sent? Words and ideas have consequences.
More than just a story
It may seem like fiction and stories are on the periphery. That the real battles are the ones fought in the legislatures and the board rooms, in the opinion sections and the digital streams pouring through the information highway which lives into everyone’s pocket.
But once we get down into those arenas, the battle is all but over. Because we no longer have the ability to think and reason. We no longer have the ability to understand and properly grasp the meaning of words.
Our minds have left the building and we’re swept away by every wind of doctrine, by whatever tickles our ears. Words are a wax nose that we fashion to suit us based upon the winds of popular opinion and our own self-righteous hearts.
The average person will not be swayed by sound argument or a return to the sort of intellectual certainty Lewis and Tolkien so valued in the medieval world. But they will be swayed by the arts.
And the arts, and here I am speaking of all forms of media, whether it be news, podcasts, music, movies, or the visual arts, all sit downstream of the people who write the dictionaries and define the words, who traffic not in popular genres and fads, but who create the source material from which pop culture is generated.
A cultural apologetic
Lewis put it this way in his essay entitled “Christian Apologetics”:
We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s lines of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects–with their Christianity latent.
You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if wherever we read an elementary book on geology, botany, politics, or astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books.
He uses the example of books on science in this essay, but the same principle applies to any other subject and to fiction as well. Lewis’ own conversion had as much to do with the biblical truths he met in George MacDonald’s fiction as it did with the arguments from his friends and colleagues at Oxford. God will use whatever means he chooses, but in all those means, words will play a fundamental part.
Come for the story, stay for the truth
And so Christians must take up the pen and scribble out their literary tanks. They must take Lewis and Tolkien’s example and not surrender their posts. Stories won’t save anyone, but the truth in stories may light a spark which opens them to consider the real truth or it may provide encouragement to those who know that truth already.
The stories they wrote as part of that challenge in the mid-twentieth century are often the reason we come to Lewis and Tolkien. Their myths have a way of being universal while being particular at the same time. They help bridge the gulf between thought and experience. Their myths, more than any other kind of story they could have written, infuse our imaginations with truth and kindle the dormant consciences and souls of readers in a dying world.
Ultimately, it is the truth behind their stories that gives them their lasting value. That is what makes us want to stay in them and carry them with us long after they are finished.
And so, I give you this charge. Seek out such stories and share them with whoever you can. Cultivate a love of good literature, not just the kinds of books you like and enjoy, but the kinds that are good in the truest sense of that word, morally good, and pleasing to God.
And in those books, though you come for the story, may you stay for the truth.