Rod Bennett writes me about C.S. Lewis and Tolkien
Here’s something that might be bloggable:
I have my own theories about why Tollers “disliked” the Narnia books. (He didn’t actually say this, BTW; he said he disliked allegory, and then that he found Narnia too allegorical…which is close, but not exactly the same, as disliking Narnia).
Here’s my own theory.
Lewis repeatedly denied that the Narnia stories were allegories. In a 1954 letter to some American 5th graders he wrote this:
“You are mistaken when you think that everything in the [Narnian] books represents’ something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing in that way. I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’; I said, ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, just as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there‑and then you imagine what would happen.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing.”
Another letter he said this:
“…I’m not exactly ‘representing’ the real (Christian) story in symbols. I’m more saying ‘Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Eternal Son of God … went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours … what might that redemption, in that world, have been like?’ Perhaps this comes to much the same thing as you thought, but not quite.”
Basically, Lewis is saying that Narnia isn’t an allegory, it’s a “parallel universe” story…almost a “science-fiction” story, that imagines how soteriology might possibly work on a wholly different world…the fairy-tale world of talking animals.
Now, Tolkien and Lewis discussed these kinds of distinctions often, and the LOTR author was very familiar with his friend’s thought in general. So I doubt that he was unaware of Lewis’ denials when the charge of allegory was brought. And yet Tolkien insists on calling them “too allegorical” anyway. How come? Is he missing Lewis’ distinction? I doubt it. Is he just flat out contradicting him? I don’t think so…or not SIMPLY doing that, anyway.
What is behind it, then?
I think it’s this. Tolkien was always much more theologically astute than Lewis. Known as he is for theological writing, Lewis always confessed himself an amateur in this area…and, indeed, part of Lewis’ appeal as an apologist lies in the fact that he, himself, isn’t really much further down the road than his readers. Just like them, Lewis is “discovering this stuff for the first time.” But Tolkien not only grew up with “this stuff” (christology, typology, trinitarian theology, etc.) but was actually raised by priests in a monestery…and not just any monestery, but Newman’s own Birmingham Oratory. A place where the Greek Fathers (and their very sophisticated Christologies) dominated everything.
This being the case, I think Tolkien realized something very disquieting about Lewis’ Narnia conception…to wit, that if one were to take it entirely seriously (as a theological proposition about redemption in another world) it would have to be deemed heretical.
The heresy would consist in mitigating or minimizing the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ isn’t just God the Son pretending to be a man in order to interface with men (which would be docetism), or God the Son temporarily made man (which would be, I believe, Monothelitism), He’s God the Son in a permanent hypostatic union with the Man Jesus. Permanent as in “for all eternity”. Which leaves God the Son no room at all to unite Himself to the lion Aslan…no matter how bad Narnia needs rescuing. He already “took the plunge” once (in Mary’s room at Nazareth) and there’s no going back now.
This being the case, I think Tolkien would have been able to protect his friend from being tarred as a heretic in his mind only by reverting back to the allegory model. Taken as an allegory, Narnia could fail literarily, rather than theologically…much the better way to fail, of course, for the Christian!
Just my own guesses, of course, but I’m pretty sure this is what’s happening…
PS – If you decide to blog any of what I’ve written here, Mark, make sure and reassure everyone that I LOVE C.S. Lewis, Narnia, Aslan, and all the rest. And I don’t consider Lewis a heretic (not consciously, anyway, and certainly not in the Nicene sense).