Tolkien vs. Lewis on Faith and Fantasy

I first read the Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, not realizing at the time that C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were close friends and fellow Christians. I thought it was obvious on first reading that Lewis was writing faith-based fiction, with so many parallels between Aslan and Christ.

I was surprised when other readers told me they read all seven Narnia books without noticing any biblical parallels. But I was equally surprised to learn that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, as no one in Middle Earth seeks help or guidance from a Higher Being, nor are there any obvious references to prayer, worship, or faith.

For Lewis, the connection between his faith and his fantasy was explicit, and he actually joked about “smuggling theology” into his stories. By contrast, Tolkien believed that the connection should be implicit, explaining that he deliberately “kept allusions to the highest matters down to mere hints” (Letters 201). Tolkien believed that the highest calling of the Christian artist was to be a “sub-creator,” to create plausible and self-consistent Secondary Worlds, rather than composing tales set in the Primary World in which we live.

The doctrine of sub-creation was especially congenial to Tolkien, both as a Christian and as a fantasy writer.  As a Christian, Tolkien could view sub-creation as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators.  As a fantasy writer, Tolkien could affirm his chosen genre as one of the purest of all fictional modes, because it called for the creation not only of characters and incidents, but also of worlds for them to exist in.

But this same doctrine has created some confusion among Tolkien’s readers and interpreters. Some critics assume that Tolkien compartmentalized his faith and his fiction, that his personal convictions are largely irrelevant to his fantasy tales. Others have erred in the opposite direction, finding allegory in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so that Gandalf = Christ, Sauron = Satan, etc. Tolkien heartily disliked allegory, and he strenuously objected whenever readers tried to “translate” his Middle Earth tales into either theological or historical parables.

So how exactly did Tolkien’s faith find expression in his fiction? A welcome new addition to this discussion is Devin Brown’s The Christian World of The Hobbit (Abingdon Press). Professor Brown is already a distinguished Narnia scholar, so he is especially well equipped to explore the relations between faith and fiction, as expressed differently in the fantasy worlds of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Brown carefully and judiciously explains why The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may be viewed as Christian fantasy, even though they lack the explicit biblical parallels or theological echoes that appear so often in the Chronicles of Narnia.

With the first of three Hobbit movies coming out in December, there is certain to be a lot of “Bilbo baggage” published in the next few years–Hobbit guides hastily composed by authors with little previous knowledge of Tolkien, his critics, or the fantasy genre in general. Brown’s book is certain to stand out from the crowd, as his work is thoroughly grounded in Tolkien’s fiction, his letters and essays, and the work of previous Tolkien scholars.

Professor Brown is a perceptive and judicious reader, one who convincingly explains how Tolkien’s faith is expressed in his fiction. Brown is one of those “attentive readers” Tolkien asked for in one of his letters, the kind who notices all the subtle ways in which God and his angelic emissaries “peep through” the story, as Tolkien phrased it. Brown is especially carefully to detail all the instances of providential good fortune in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, examples of what Tolkien’s fellow Inkling Charles Williams called “holy luck.” Brown  reveals the underlying optimism of Tolkien’s world view, the faith in a nearly invisible Benevolence that weaves together all the good and bad decisions of Middle Earth’s characters into an epic tale that inevitably leads to eucatastrophe, the “good ending” that Tolkien expected to find in all great fiction and in life itself.

As fantasy writers, Lewis and Tolkien were certainly not a mutual admiration society. Lewis greatly admired Tolkien’s genius, and he was instrumental in getting Tolkien to polish up both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and to see them into print. Lewis called Tolkien’s fantasy “good beyond hope,” and he tried to nominate Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tolkien, however, said that the Narnia stories simply “wouldn’t do,” that they fell outside the range of his sympathies. He didn’t like Lewis’s pastiche of so many different traditions—Christian, classical, European fairy tales—and he found the stories too hastily-composed and too didactic. Tolkien’s dislike of the Chronicles may ultimately have been rooted in his differing views about how best to combine faith and fiction.

Fortunately, Devin Brown’s new book on The Hobbit will give readers ample opportunity to admire the creativity and craftsmanship of both Tolkien and Lewis. A valuable addition to his earlier books on Narnia, Professor Brown invites readers to celebrate the distinctive achievements of both Lewis and Tolkien, despite their contrasting strategies for combining faith and fiction.

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David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Downing has written four award-winning books on C. S. Lewis, including Planets in Peril, about the Ransom Trilogy; The Most Reluctant Convert, about Lewis’s journey to faith; Into the Region of Awe, about mysticism in C. S. Lewis, and Into the Wardrobe, a guide to the Narnia Chronicles. Downing’s latest book is Looking for the King, a historical novel featuring C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their friends (lookingfortheking.com).

Devin Brown is a Professor of English at Asbury University and the author of The Christian World of The Hobbit published by Abingdon Press.

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