The Catholic And The Convert – Part 5

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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Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.

Power and Purpose of Good

Any person who has studied the lives of Tolkien and Lewis should find their emphasis on friendship unsurprising. Indeed, they were great friends for much of their professional lives, though their friendship admittedly cooled later in their lives, even if their respect for each other remained strong. C.S. Lewis dedicated perhaps his most unique work of apologetics, The Screwtape Letters, to Tolkien, while after Lewis’s death Tolkien expressed his gratitude to Lewis for his persistence in helping Tolkien finish writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In a letter to the Tolkien Society of America in 1965, two years after Lewis’s passing, Tolkien wrote, “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion….” (Carpenter, Letters, #276, p. 362) It would not be an overstatement to say that without Lewis, much of the world might never have heard of Tolkien; and, in return, it was heavily due to the influence of Tolkien that Lewis rediscovered the faith of his childhood, which resulted not only in timeless works of apologetics, but also in the creation of the wonderful world of Narnia.

The final aspect of the Good to be examined is how in both worlds, all of the good and positive things that exist serve as reminders of or signposts toward something greater that exists. As the characters know that their story is part of a larger story, they are also aware that the good things that exist are merely shadows of the Good that exists as part of the greater Story being told. In Middle-earth this idea is seen in The Two Towers and a comment made by Frodo as he and Samwise Gamgee are passing the Crossroads on their way to Mordor. As they pass, they see an old statue of an ancient king, and they notice the head off to the side of the road; as they look, a beam of light hit the king, and they noticed that a growth of flowers has encircled the king’s head, appearing as a crown, and Frodo exclaims, “Look, Sam! Look! The King has got a crown again!…They cannot conquer forever!” (TT, Chapter 7, Journey To The Cross-Roads). In this brief moment, both Frodo and Sam are reminded that their task is part of a much older story and just one aspect of a much greater Good to be accomplished.

In Narnia it is even easier to discern how the good of this earth is but a foretaste of the Good to come after. Indeed, it would be impossible to pick the ‘best’ example of how this is seen; instead, one will be chosen simply for the sake of simplicity. Toward the end of The Last Battle, Aslan is talking with the children, and explaining to them that, despite their fear of being sent away from Narnia they no longer have anything to fear for they would never be sent away again: “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” Every event, every adventure, every bit of joy and happiness experienced until that point, only served as foreshadowing of the greater joy and bliss that was to be found after. And that takes us to the final examination: the different focuses, but similar views, of the End.

Views of the End

If much of C.S. Lewis’s work has been characterized as joyful, happy, or encouraging, it is equally true to say that much of Tolkien’s writing is characterized by death, and sorrow, and sadness. However, both authors also wrote in such a way as to remind their readers that beyond this world, whether experiences here were happy or sad, there awaited something Greater, an End that would renew all things. But because of their different experiences and viewpoints, each author chose to write about this End by focusing on different things: Tolkien’s writing was characterized by a focus on the difficulties of this life, while Lewis’s writing chose to focus on the Joy that was to follow. In both cases, these are legitimate reflections of their understanding of the world as informed by their Christianity; it is simply the difference between people that might be unfairly classified today as optimistic or pessimistic. In truth, both Tolkien and Lewis were hopeful of eternal life after this earth.

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, death is a theme that is thoroughly explored. It is evident from Tolkien’s personal life that death played a major role in shaping his personality and thus his writing: from losing both his parents at a young age to losing his best friends in the First World War, death was a very real and powerful influence on Tolkien. That he understood death to be a natural part of life is also evident due to his Catholic faith; he knew that no one lived on earth forever, and thus in his creating of Middle-earth he did not shy away from writing about death or its painful influence on those left here to grieve. However, it is also clear that though death was powerful, the fear of death was not something that should shape one’s decisions. Rather, people should do their duty, accomplish their tasks, live their lives, and accept death when it comes. As Gimli says just before the Fellowship begins to turn toward Moria, “However it may prove, one must tread the path that need chooses.” (FR, pg. 297) Here is seen both the implication that one’s path is influenced by outside forces and also the importance of fulfilling one’s task, despite how it may end. It is also important to note that not much of what happens in Middle-earth could be said to come to a ‘happy’ ending, despite Sam’s arrival at home which makes up the final paragraph in The Return of the King. For this final analysis, one must forgive me for going beyond the normal parameters of the story and into the appendices, but it is there that we find the true end to all the tales: every member of the Fellowship has a continuation of their story until death (or travel to the Undying Lands). It seems as though Tolkien simply could not leave off the story with what people might call a happy ending, and one wonders if this is because of his own experiences with death and his desire to sub-create a world that reflected our own so accurately.

This view of death or inability to write a ‘happy ending’ which seemed to elude Tolkien did not afflict the writing of C.S. Lewis. In fact, in the Chronicles of Narnia, it seems difficult to find anything other than what might be characterized by a happy ending, even if those endings take different forms due to their place in the storyline of Narnia. It is clear that Lewis’s approach to death was to present it in a much more positive light; not that death was without pain or tragedy, but that it was most certainly not the end nor even entirely worthy of causing emotions of anxiety or fear in the characters. This may be due to Lewis’s own life and experience with death: he also lost his mother at a young age, lost friends in the First World War, and later in life experienced the pain of losing his wife to cancer. Thus, it would be erroneous to conclude that Lewis wrote happy endings simply because he had an easy or comfortable life, free of tragedy or pain. Rather, it seems as though, because of his evangelical Christianity, that he chose to write about Narnia in such a way as to emphasize the hope and joy rather than the pain. For the characters in Narnia, death was a possibility, but it was never going to be the End. As a result of that, it almost feels as if those stories are more hopeful than the stories of Middle-earth. Perhaps it is because he wrote about pain in other places, most notably in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, that Lewis reserved Narnia as a place that chose to focus on joy.

I believe, however, that the difference between Tolkien and Lewis here is not really an issue of hope or despair, an issue of happy endings or sad. Rather, I believe that these two authors simply chose to write about the End from similar viewpoints but with a different focus. Think of a two photographers who are taking a picture of the same landscape: a landscape that shows much bare ground, some scrub grass, and a few bright flowers in the foreground all with a breathtaking background of mountains and sky and bright clouds. Tolkien’s writing is that of the photographer who focused on the foreground, choosing to emphasize the beauty of the flowers while not glossing over the relative ordinariness or even ugliness of the bare ground. Lewis, then, is the photographer who chose to blur out some of the foreground for the sake of emphasizing the amazing beauty of the background, focusing on what is to come, rather than what is directly at hand. Both authors were masters at their craft; they simply chose to show the picture, the End, in different ways.

Conclusion

The Catholic and the Convert both wrote about life as part of a grand Story, of the dangers and seductiveness of Evil, of the power of Good, and of the End. Ultimately the Christian worldviews of the authors caused them to create worlds in which all of those themes are explored differently but still reflect the same fundamental beliefs. And though their focuses were different, taken together, they give the reader such glimpses of Joy and Hope as can rarely be found elsewhere.

[This essay was originally published on https://thefellowshipoftheking.wordpress.com]

 


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.