The Catholic And The Convert – Part 4

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.


Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

Power and Purpose of Good

The idea of Good is often oversimplified, so it is important to understand what Lewis and Tolkien meant by ‘Good’ in order to properly view how they wrote about the concept. Both authors, because of their common Christianity, viewed Good as something that exists for its own sake and as part of something larger. They also made it a habit to point out that Good can be done by anyone and everyone, not just the great and powerful; in fact, both made it a point to use unremarkable creatures as heroes in their tales. In addition to their heroes being relatively ordinary in many ways, it is also important to notice that their heroes were never heroic in isolation, but rather they were always part of a community that was greater than themselves. And last, both authors used their stories to show that the Good that exists in this world is important for its own sake and also as a signpost or allusion to an even Greater Good that exists beyond this world.

In order to understand how Tolkien and Lewis wrote about Good, one must first distinguish between the idea of Good and the common understanding of what might be considered Kind or Nice. Often, what the characters of these tales have to do is not Kind (toward themselves anyway) or Nice, but rather it is difficult, dangerous, and costly to themselves and sometimes others. Yet for all that it remains Good, because it is done in service to a larger group or because it serves some higher End that the characters themselves are not in control of. It is also important here to distinguish between a ‘greater good’ of society and the Greater Good of serving one’s fellow creatures; the first one is more of a political interpretation of events (e.g. serving the greater good by allowing certain groups to suffer so that the more powerful parts of society might benefit), while the second is the honorable and proper service of mankind (e.g. the way a soldier willingly sacrifices in wartime).

Doing Good is always right in both Narnia and Middle-earth, though what constitutes Good differs among varying characters. In Narnia, Good is most often seen as serving others at one’s own risk or expense, as in Digory Kirk returning the apple to Aslan rather than taking it to his mother to try to heal her in The Magician’s Nephew. In the story, Digory’s mother is sick and dying, Narnia is in the process of being created by Aslan, and Digory is charged with bringing back an apple from a certain tree to Aslan. Digory does so, but in the process he is confronted by the White Witch, who tempts him to eat the apple himself and so gain immortality or to take the apple to his mother and so save her life. She even makes reference to how, if he fails to take his mother the apple, it must be because he does not truly love her the way he confesses to. However much he is tempted, Digory recognizes that his duty is not to himself or even to his mother, but to the task he was assigned and to which he agreed. Because of this, he duly returns the apple to Aslan despite the great internal pain this costs him. But in the story, even Digory knew that his mother wouldn’t want him to keep the apple or bring it to her, saying, “Mother herself wouldn’t like it — awfully strict about keeping promises — and not stealing — and all that sort of thing. She’d tell me not to do it — quick as anything — if she was here.” (Nephew, p. 177) He had given his word, and he was to keep it no matter the cost; that is one of the major aspects of doing Good in Narnia.

In Middle-earth, doing good for its own sake and as part of a larger good is seen most clearly in the character of Samwise Gamgee. Sam is a hobbit of relatively low standing, a gardener and the son of a gardener, servant (and friend) to Frodo. His task is simply to do whatever is required of him to help Frodo accomplish the goal of destroying the One Ring. This means Sam has to give up home, family, and possibly his very life in order to help accomplish the Good of saving Middle-earth. Thus, it is seen that both authors shape their worlds based on their own Christian understanding of life: there is Good to be done, and it must be accomplished, even if it costs us everything; our role is to play our part as well as we can, not to serve our own ends. And while there is much more that could be said on this topic, Sam also serves as an excellent example of the second aspect of the Good in both worlds, namely, the use of the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary.

In both Narnia and Middle-earth, many of the heroes are ordinary characters, devoid of any special strength or power. In fact, they are often both lowly in society and small in stature, from the hobbits of Middle-earth to the children-heroes in Narnia. This was an idea that was especially dear to Tolkien: “There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. The inter-relations between the ‘noble’ and the ‘simple’ (or common, vulgar) for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find specially moving.” (Carpenters, Letters, p. 220) Here Tolkien gives us a glimpse of just how special this idea is to him, and from it we see just how often this takes place in Middle-earth. Again, Sam serves as the seminal example in that he began as a humble gardener and servant and went on to win renown throughout the World of Men and, perhaps more importantly, he became the Mayor of Hobbiton for many years.

In Narnia, my favorite example of how Lewis also followed this same theme is in the character of Reepicheep. Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, children are used as the main characters and indeed the heroes of many of the tales. However, it is the valiant mouse Reepicheep that best encompasses the theme of using the small to accomplish great things. In Narnia, Reepicheep is a valiant, well-spoken, courtly-mannered mouse; yet he is a mouse: small in stature, with a long tail of which he is perhaps over-fond. Despite the obvious disadvantages of being a mouse, Reepicheep is important in many of the major events in both Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; in fact, it is Reephiceep who is chosen to sail into the East of East at the end of Dawn Treader, there to meet whatever fate Aslan has in store for him.

The second important aspect of Good in Narnia and Middle-Earth is that good is never done in isolation from community; rather, Good is always accomplished by those working together. Of the many instances of this in Middle-earth, the most appropriate to examine is the Fellowship of the Ring, in which nine different creatures, representing the races of the four Free Peoples, are given the task of seeing that the Ring of Power is destroyed. In the Fellowship, there is Gandalf the Wizard, two men, a dwarf, an elf, and four hobbits; it is just this blending of races that enables the Fellowship to ultimately accomplish the task, though by the time it is accomplished one member has died and the rest are split into smaller groupings. Yet, those who remain continue to work toward the Good task assigned to them even when things seemed hopeless. Most important in this Fellowship, indeed in the entire saga of The Lord of the Rings, is the friendship between Frodo and Samwise. To any reader of the story, it is abundantly clear just how much Frodo needed Sam if the task was ever to be accomplished; interestingly, it is equally true that without the often reluctant and never altruistic help of Gollum, the task also would have failed utterly, even at the bitter end. Even the characters within the story understood the importance of friendship; one example will serve: as Frodo and Sam prepare to depart from the company of Faramir, Frodo thanks him for his hospitality, saying, “Most gracious host, it was said to me by Elrond Halfelven that I should find friendship upon the way, secret and unlooked for. Certainly I looked for no such friendship as you have shown. To have found it turns evil to great good.” (TT, pp. 701-702) This importance of friendship occurs again and again throughout Middle-Earth, and it strongly reflects Tolkien’s own understanding and valuation of friendship and fellowship, both in his personal life and in his spiritual life.

In Narnia, this emphasis on friendship and fellowship is also seen clearly from the beginning of Narnia, in which Polly and Digory had a very large role, through all of the adventures of the Pevensie children, through the final destruction (or fulfillment, depending on one’s point of view) of Narnia in The Last Battle. One excellent example of the important role of friendship, already referred to in a different context, occurs late in The Magician’s Nephew, when Digory is being tempted by the White Witch to go back to his mother with an apple, leaving Polly with the Witch. Here, though Digory and Polly have only known each other for a matter of a few days, an important and lasting friendship has already begun, which helped Digory to see through the Witch’s temptation and make the proper decision: “That was where the Witch made her fatal mistake…The meanness of the suggestion that he should leave Polly behind suddenly made all the other things the Witch had been saying to him sound false and hollow.” (MN, pp. 177-178) Here, and in many other places in Narnia, it is one’s reliance on friendship that allows the characters to make the proper decisions, and friendship is indeed shown to be the bedfellow of wisdom.

Part 5 on Sunday 10th of January.

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