The Catholic And The Convert – Part 1

A brief exploration and comparison of the spiritual influences behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. By Joel W. Hawbaker.

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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 examine 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 lifelong 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 calls The Lord of the Rings “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. (Carpenter, ‘Letters’, #142, p. 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’ pp. 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.” (Lewis, ‘Surprised by Joy’, 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.” (McGrath, ‘If I had lunch with C.S. Lewis’, p. 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 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.

Part 2 on Sunday 20th of December.


Joel W. HawbakerJoel W. Hawbaker is a high school history and Bible teacher and soccer coach in Alabama, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His hobbies include sports, literature, music, and spending time with his family. Joel has written for thefellowshipoftheking.wordpress.com.