Tolkien, Lewis, and Life as Story
Both Lewis and Tolkien wrote much about the importance of understanding that life, as it comes to us, is only part of a much greater story. If asked, they might both say that this was due to their own understanding of the Christian worldview, with its story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. However, the ways in which they each explored this theme were informed and shaped by their own spiritual experiences: in Middle-earth, Tolkien almost playfully explores this theme in a conversation between Sam and Frodo, whereas in Narnia, Lewis mentions the importance of one’s story in a serious exchange between Aslan and Shasta.
From comments by Elrond relatively early in The Hobbit to comments made by Gandalf both late in The Hobbit and in The Return of the King, in various passages throughout the stories set in Middle-earth characters have conversations that let the reader know the characters are aware that they are only a part of a much larger Story. In perhaps the most fully developed treatment of this topic, Sam and Frodo discuss how their story is part of a much larger story. This particular dialogue comes in chapter eight of The Two Towers when the two hobbits, being led by Gollum, have left the Crossroads and are heading toward the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. Sam has realized that his view of stories has changed due to his own experiences on their travels, from thinking that people went looking for adventure to realizing that most of the time people simply find themselves part of a great Story.
From here the conversation continues into a discussion of how the readers may be able to guess what sort of Story the characters are a part of, but the characters themselves do not know. Not only that, but we find out that the characters themselves may not even know which side of a story they are on, as evidenced by Sam asking Frodo if Gollum thinks of himself as the hero or the villain. Sam even realizes that their story is quite explicitly tied to the larger Story of Middle-earth through the light of the Silmaril that is captured in the star-glass that Galadriel gave to Frodo.
The important part here, though, is not whether the characters know what story they are in, nor whether they are good or bad; the key is that it is entirely understood, even taken for granted, that the characters realize their part of the tale is minor and that the Story existed long before they came along and will continue long after their individual parts have ended. This understanding is crucial, because it is a large part of what motivates the hobbits to do their part in the fight against evil. They do not expect any reward for their efforts; they hardly expect to survive. And yet, they continue to journey on, through toil and suffering, heartbreak and tragedy, until their part of the Story has reached its conclusion.
In Narnia, C.S. Lewis also weaves many stories together as part of a larger Story. His common thread is the will and work of the lion Aslan who is at work in Narnia, either explicitly or implicitly, from its very creation as told in The Magician’s Nephew through its final destruction in The Last Battle. As the story progresses and the books continue, there are various references to previous events, thus helping the reader tie the story together and remember the importance or significance of things that came before.
Here we already see one major difference in the writing: the narrative style of Lewis is much more obviously geared toward being ‘reader-friendly,’ if such an expression can be used. That is, Lewis was writing not to create an entire mythological universe that was consistent in every way; rather, he was writing to tell an enjoyable story, and in doing so he thought it would be helpful to remind readers of important things that had already happened, so that they could more easily make connections between current and past events in the timeline of Narnia.
Of the many discussions of the importance of knowing one’s place or role, the most telling passage in The Chronicles of Narnia takes place in the third book (for the purposes of this essay, the books are treated as if the timeline of Narnia is one consistent with the events in Narnia, beginning in The Magician’s Nephew and continuing through The Last Battle, rather than treating Narnian events in the order of publication), The Horse and His Boy. This book differs from the first two volumes in the series in that much of what takes place has less to do with the country of Narnia and more to do with the neighboring kingdom of Calormen. Toward the end of this story one of the main characters, Aravis, the daughter of a Calormene nobleman, is learning from Aslan that he is the lion who attacked her earlier on in her journeys. He explains the reason for this is to teach her what her actions caused to happen to another person, her stepmother’s slave whom Aravis caused to fall into a drugged sleep so that Aravis could escape. Upon learning this, Aravis asked Aslan if any more harm would come to the slave because of Aravis’ actions. Aslan’s telling response is, “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” (Horse, p. 202) This echoes a similar statement that Aslan made to Shasta earlier in the story, and reemphasized the point that our stories are our own, and that when we recognize that we are part of a larger story, our life is put into much better perspective.
Though Lewis’s focus here is different than Tolkien’s as seen above, it is important to note that it is taken for granted that each story is connected with a larger Story, and that each person is only given a small part. Here, Lewis reveals his own understanding of Story, that each person has a part to play, and it must be played to the full, even while understanding that the entire Story is known only to Christ. As with the Hobbits, so with the Narnians and Calormenes.
A final point to note about the importance of Story is the importance of the act of story-telling in the writings of both authors. Throughout the tales of Middle-earth, various characters recount past deeds of heroes or villains, both as entertainment and as ways to teach or instruct. In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis does much the same thing, even having a bit of fun at the expense of people like himself who spend much of their time reading and writing essays. Having just introduced Aravis’ character to his readers, Lewis the narrator gives Aravis the task of telling her story. But before Aravis does so, Lewis ends the chapter with the witty observation that, “in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.” (Horse, g. 35) The importance of Story is not easily missed.
Lewis, Tolkien, and Similar Views about the Nature of Evil
In Narnia and Middle-earth, evil is a very real and present thing. Throughout its many forms — human, natural (meaning: from what we would call ‘nature’), supernatural, bestial, physical, and even spiritual — it has at least three common threads that will be explored here. First, at its core, evil starts with pride. Second, evil is often the result of an over-pursuit of knowledge stemming from a motive of a selfish desire for power over others. And third, evil ultimately results in a loss of ‘self’ for the evil being. These traits are seen at every level of evil in the writing of both Tolkien and Lewis, and they strongly reflect the Christian worldview and subsequent understanding of evil that informs the writing of each author.
In Middle-earth, evil resulting from pride is seen at every level of character. In the first chapter of The Gospel According to Tolkien, Ralph C. Wood argued that Tolkien structured Middle-Earth in a hierarchy that reflected his own understanding of the world; not to say that certain beings are somehow lesser than others, but to reflect the reality that people have different callings which position them at different levels of the Creation. Accepting this structure, then, allows the reader to also see that evil is present at every level, from the highest orders of Creation to the lowliest creatures. The way in which that evil is manifested differs according to the creature and the power of the creature, but it is evident nonetheless. It is seen from the greatest of the Valar (powerful spiritual forces that help in the shaping of Middle-Earth in its very creation), through Wizards such as Saruman, further down through fallen Elves and Men and even down to lowly hobbits, such as Ted Sandyman, whose relatively low status causes his evil to be manifested in simple meanness and selfishness. However, Tolkien also makes clear in his writing that the evil is not any different or worse at the various levels: evil is evil no matter how it is shown, and evil is, at its core, selfish and prideful.
In Narnia, Lewis demonstrates a similar understanding of evil, showing that it exists in various forms from high to low, from Queen Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew all the way down to Shift the Ape in The Last Battle. How much damage is done by the different characters depends on their power, their status, and their own situations; but Lewis also pulls no punches in showing that evil is what it is, no matter who is practicing it. Lewis does not seem to purposefully structure Narnia in a hierarchy, even going so far as to challenge traditional English views about the importance of understanding one’s place in the social order, especially in his character of the cabbie-turned-king at the foundation of Narnia. However, Lewis also does point out that evil is fundamentally self-centered and prideful: from Queen Jadis’s selfish desire to destroy her own world rather than concede victory in Charn’s civil war in The Magician’s Nephew, through her desire rule all of Narnia as her own in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; it is seen in the selfish pursuit of Queen Susan by Prince Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy, all the way to Shift’s selfish desire to rule over others in The Last Battle. In every case, evil is done in the name of selfish and prideful ends.
Part 3 on Sunday 27th of December.
Joel 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.