Tolkien’s ‘No’ to Narnia

If I had a time machine that could not only set me down not only in a particular date, but a particular place, I’d choose the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford on a Tuesday night in 1950 when C.S.Lewis was reading selections from his Chronicles of Narnia. He’d be there before a roaring fire with Tolkien and the other Inklings who gathered at the Bird and Baby, to drink beer, smoke pipes and read excerpts from their work. Tolkien would listen quietly, then pitch in with his intelligent and well-aimed criticisms.

Alas, I would not only need a machine that visited the past, but a machine that changed the past. The scholars tell us that the Inklings had pretty much gone their separate ways by 1949, and Lewis’ Narnia stories were never read aloud to the group. Nevertheless, Tolkien did have firm opinions about his friend’s children’s stories. He didn’t like them.

Why did Tolkien dislike Narnia? Was it a case of sour grapes? By the mid 1950s Lewis’ Narnia tales were being written and published. By this time Lewis was a hugely popular writer while Tolkien had only just published his masterpiece, and it would be another ten years until it hit the big time. About that time Tolkien and Lewis’ famous friendship cooled. Did Tolkien feel that Lewis was borrowing ideas from him (references to Numenor and the Tolkien myth pop up in That Hideous Strength) and vulgarizing them? Did he feel that Lewis was leapfrogging from his own work? Was Tolkien resentful that Lewis churned out his children’s fantasy stories so easily and quickly while his own  mythic masterpiece was the painstaking labor of a lifetime?

Perhaps some of these elements had a part in Tolkien’s dislike of Narnia and his dwindling relationship with Lewis. There were other personal issues involved in the cooling of the friendship, but Tolkien’s disliked the Narnia stories for other, more profound and professional reasons. The first thing that bothered Tolkien was the inconsistency of the tales’ use of mythological figures. Figures from classical myth are scattered through the stories along with characters from modern folklore and kiddie lit.

Tolkien couldn’t see how a story could feature both fauns and Father Christmas, dryads and dragons, Baachus and Beatrix Potter-type talking animals.It was all too derivative, too contrived, too much of a poorly conceived, partially thought out mish mash.

Furthermore, Tolkien didn’t share Lewis’ love of children’s literature as such. While Tolkien appreciated fairy tales and myth, he didn’t think they should be relegated to literature for children. He disliked dream tricks (as Lewis used in The Great Divorce) to transport people into alternative worlds, and he mis-trusted magical literary devices in which children popped across into other worlds through mirrors, wardrobes or rabbit holes.

In short, Tolkien took myth more seriously. Read More 

  • Heloise1

    The book of my enemy has been remaindered. Seems to sum it up quite neatly.

  • Caroline Moreschi

    I think it’s a question of priorities: Tolkein was creating a world from the ground up, meticulously designing language, mythology, culture and history, while honoring past mythologies. Lewis really wasn’t trying to do that at all, and it was more about storytelling. I don’t think the children he wrote for were up in arms about talking animals living with dryads and fawns – unless they were very cultured, intelligent children with knowledge of mythology. I like both myself :)

  • Manny

    I enjoyed this post very much. I think you hit on the things that irritate me about Lewis’ creative works. Perhaps you can reduce the difference between the two to this, and correct me if I’m wrong: Tolkien is the finer artist while Lewis is the better theologian.

  • James Patton

    I think that the anti-Catholic writings of C.S. Lewis was central to their weakened friendship coupled with Joy Gresham basically driving a wedge between Lewis and all the Inklings.

  • Dave Lozinger

    This article is very timely, Father…my 10-year-old, Tolkien-obsessed son has been criticizing Narnia for the same reasons these last few weeks. He hasn’t been able to engage with Narnia due to the inconsistency of the characters, especially compared to the rock-solid, watertight world of Middle Earth. He said that your words describe his feelings exactly! Thank you!

    Dave & John Lozinger, Allentown PA

    PS. I enjoyed your talk in Houston last month.

  • BM

    I agree with Tolkien. The Narnia stories always felt contrived to me, even as a child.

  • Howard

    I think Tolkien took his imaginary world too seriously. This is a real occupational hazard for any scholar, but it is indeed a HAZARD. Remember the song “Pure Imagination” from WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY? It can be taken as a description of Hell. We were designed to spend most of our time in God’s creation, not our own sub-creations.

    You are right about Narnia not being sufficiently incarnational, though. Aslan has no mother, and he shares no real family ties with even the lions of Narnia.

    • Guest

      I don’t know if I agree. Tolkien obviously spent massive portions of his time on Earth working out the mechanics of Middle Earth. This is because he set for himself a massive goal— giving England a proper myth untainted by the invasion of 1066. So Tolkien’s sub-creation was crafted with an intent to serve God’s creation.

      I’d also add that Tolkien was known to dislike hearing about people taking is work as means to run from reality. I don’t think he was a fan of the 60s counter-culture running wild with this books.

      “Fantasy” at it’s heart is means to confront reality, not run from it. I think Tolkien may have been one of the few myth-makers to understand that.

    • Scaevola

      Tolkien on subcreation: “What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ’sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”
      “Every writer making a secondary world wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.”

      Participating in the creative act of God is something beautiful. Being stupidly, ridiculously good at it (like Tolkien was) isn’t something to be repulsed by. Did his subcreation take him away from his Creator? Did it weaken or destroy his faith? Only then would it be a hazard.

  • Jamie Wilson

    The difference between an art gallery and a cathedral – that’s it exactly.

  • TeaPot562

    Fr. Longenecker:

    Some biographical data suggests that Tolkien, as a practicing Roman Catholic, felt that Lewis, then a “high church” Anglican, had enough information to make a decision to “cross the Tiber” (an expression used by Anglicans concerning converting to Catholicism) and had failed to do so.

    I do not recall that Lewis ever did convert, but his hesitancy in that regard was a matter of concern to Tolkien.

    Note also that Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” – the first work that received wide acclaim for children’s literature – might be considered derivative from the second part of Beowulf. (A knight, well known for valor, leads a party of twelve to assault a dragon guarding a treasure.)
    Surely some of the Inkling group would have been aware of the parallels.

    FWIW, my children and grandchildren have enjoyed the films on the first four Narnia books, through The Silver Chair, made in the UK in the 1980s and released on DVDs. I don’t know how many of them have read the complete series; but Tolkien’s novels are longer and more difficult reading.


  • Joy W. McCann

    On the subject of what writing teaches us about God, there is a rather delightful (possibly arrogant) book by Dorothy L. Sayers–who was not quite an Inkling, but knew them. It’s called *The Mind of the Maker,* and it relates to the seriousness of purpose you discuss WRT Tolkien’s writing: taking seriously the act of creation. (Sayers, like Lewis, was COE, but she was very sympathetic to Roman Catholicism.)

  • J Miller

    The problem with the Narnia books can be expressed in one word: Aslan. The lion is presented as having a one-to-one correspondence to Jesus, obvious from the first book and made explicit in the conclusion to the final book. In this way, Lewis is putting words into the mouth of the Lord, and presenting these words to an intended audience of children, whose understanding of Christ is still forming. This is not a Catholic vs. Protestant concern; it should be a concern for any Christian.

    The important difference between Narnia and LOTR is that in the latter there is no one-to-one correspondence (in fairness to Lewis, in the Silmarillion Tolkien does present Illuvatar/Eru as God the Father, and the Flame Imperishable/Secret Fire as the Holy Spirit; however, these ‘characters’ do not really speak and are presented as mysterious). In LOTR, Gandalf is resurrected after a final battle with evil. Aragorn is the true king who has returned, and who goes to the dead to call them to his service. Frodo carries the ring (sin) like a cross. But none of them is supposed to be Christ; no single character in the LOTR is comparable to Aslan, no character puts words in the mouth of the Lord.

    Obviously you can’t go overboard with this. E.g., The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde contains an allegory for Christ, and does not seem objectionable. But in the course of the Narnia stories, Aslan basically presents to the reader a body of teaching, about various things. The character ‘stands in’ for Jesus in a way that is dangerous.

    One example to close the post (nb: I got this example from an article I read, can’t remember the name of the author). In the first Narnia book, Aslan encourages the character of Peter to kill, and is pleased to see blood on his sword; in the Gospel accounts, the Lord commands the real Peter (namesake of the character in another obvious allegory) to put away his sword, and heals the ear of Malchus.

    Lewis’ works of apologetics are a great gift to the Church; my own conversion to Catholicism owes something to reading his books in my first year of college. I also recommend
    his space trilogy and Until We Have Faces, both of which are more along
    the lines of Narnia. But Aslan is problematic.

    • Howard

      Not really. Every work of art that shows Christ is in some way imaginary. Every statue and every painting of course falls short in some way, and yes that includes icons and the Divine Mercy image. Literary depictions of Christ are not inherently worse than visual representations of Him; in either case they can be done well or poorly.

      You are right that the problem is Aslan, but not because he appears as a lion (Jesus appeared as a Lamb in St. John’s vision), and not because words are put into his mouth. (There are good works of literature that do this well and effectively.) The problem is that Lewis had a stunted and distorted understanding of Jesus. As I said below, the problem largely comes down to the fact that Aslan had no mother.

      As for the two Peters … Peter Pevensie is not always and consistently just a representation of St. Peter. Aslan may “really” be Jesus, but Peter Pevensie is certainly not a Galilean fisherman. And unfashionable though it may now be, there have been times when God has commanded people to kill, and even more times when He expected them to understand what they had to do without any miraculous message.

      • J Miller

        Not sure why you mention art, as my post had nothing to do with depicting Jesus visually. Visual art is something analogous but not the same as literature. Pictures often communicate even more than words can, but words are not simply the same as images. The Church’s rejection of iconoclasm does not in itself constitute a justification for works of fiction that have a thinly-veiled “Jesus” teaching the author’s own theology, however good or poor that theology may be.

        The problem is not simply about Lewis’ Christology. There is a fundamental problem with putting words into Jesus’ mouth. Even if Lewis was operating from an excellent Christology, this would still be dangerous. No Christology is so excellent as to warrant a fictional “Jesus” as mouthpiece for the author.

        As for Peter, I wasn’t saying that the character is a one-to-one allegory for the Apostle; clearly that is not the case. I was highlighting the fact that the two scenarios are similar (Jesus + Peter + sword), and that the Narnia scence presents precisely the opposite teaching from “Jesus” (Aslan). The point is that it was to function as an example of the danger inherent in a one-to-one allegory for Jesus: namely, that distortions can enter in very quickly and almost imperceptibly.

        @ Steve – Who ever said that the incident with Peter was the only scripture relevant to war or violence? The Church has always recognized that some wars are just, and has a developed teaching to that effect. But Christianity is ‘pacifist’ in a certain sense, in that it always prefers (genuine) peace to war; God does not desire the destruction of any of his creatures, even though no one can bring destruction like he can (just ask Sodom and Gomorrah). Jesus went like a lamb to the slaughter, though he could have easily killed all of them (the Jews accusing him, the Romans executing him). His example of peace does not negate God’s support for Israel’s army in the OT, but each needs to be read in light of the other.

        My point about Aslan is that Lewis’ imagines that he is simply paraphrasing the teaching of Jesus, but he is often changing it without intending to. Again, the difference with LOTR is significant: Gandalf also teaches, but he is not a one-to-one allegory.

        • Sir Mark

          No, no, no, no. Read what Lewis said about Aslan. You have it exactly wrong. Aslan is NOT allegory. He was not meant to be allegory. Lewis fought the label constantly.

    • steve5656546346

      The problem is that the incident with Peter is not the only thing that the Bible has to say about violence. And not even in the New Testament. There are times indeed when God was pleased with violent actions and military victories. I guess that’s why we are not pacifists?

  • Matthew Wolf

    I wonder if you’ve read Planet Narnia by Michael Ward? His analysis of Lewis’s work is a strong counterargument to the notion that the mixing of fauns and Father Christmas shows that Narnia is poorly thought out. Or the notion that it is less than incarnational.

  • Michael Ward

    A few points:

    According to Humphrey Carpenter in ‘The Inklings’: the Chronicles were never read aloud to the group. Lewis gave a private reading to Tolkien of the first few chapters of the first book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. It was this that he objected to.

    According to George Sayer, who knew both Tolkien and Lewis well, Tolkien “soon gave up trying to read” the Chronicles once they began to be published.

    According to Tolkien himself, the Chronicles were “outside [his] range of imaginative sympathy”. He was a man of famously (notoriously?) narrow and exacting literary tastes, for whom even Chaucer was too modern. Lewis, on the other hand, had a – how shall we put it? – much more catholic taste in literature, who loved ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and everything from Homer to Dorothy L. Sayers.

    According to Hooper, Tolkien did think well enough of the Chronicles to give them to his grandchildren.

    Finally, according to ‘Planet Narnia’ (a book with which I have some acquaintance), the Chronicles are actually minutely well organised. The mish-mash is a mere appearance. The substance of the stories is imaginatively of great sophistication. If Tolkien had known the stories better, he would not have been so dismissive. He might have still disliked them, but he would have realised they were no hodgepodge.

  • David M Paggi

    Given Tolkien’s amazingly high standards for himself, his criticism of Narnia in one way is sort of a back-handed compliment, as it suggests the older writer believed his friend was capable of better. I’ve been reading Tolkien for 40 years, and like any really great book, one can read it at a number of levels and enjoy it each time afresh.

    While I’m not nearly as familiar with Narnia, I think comparison may not be fair. Narnia is a good tale, with lively characters, and will likely be enjoyed for generations. The Lord of the Rings is a great epic, on a scale many orders of magnitude larger in scope in every respect. The Lord of the Rings was written to be great literature and achieves that goal. Is there any other work of fiction so ambitious, so comprehensive, and yet so consistent, so real?

    One of the things I love about Tolkien is his beautiful, elevated language when we encounter the good in people, places, or things. While giving due deference to royalty, his ordinary people are treated with respect. But when it comes to evil, his descriptions make the skin crawl. C.S. Lewis said, “… the names are a feast!” and they are. Could anybody be more Goth than Morgoth? Could any character be more tragic than Turin Turambar? Hamlet, of course, but that is the league the longer version of the Children of Hurin is in.

    Dr. Peter Kreeft offers some fascinating observations on how LOTR reflects our own world. Highly recommended.

  • hotboogers

    I enjoy Narnia a great deal. But I love Middle Earth, perhaps too close to the point of idolatry. I wonder whether Tolkien might have been someone who now would be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. His narrow, even obsessive, focus and extreme depth of knowledge fit that profile. I have a soft spot for Aspies and I always wonder about quirky people.

  • SteveTirone

    My understanding was that Prof. Tolkien’s biggest issue with Lewis’s Narnia was that there was an analogy to the Crucifixion (the Stone Table) but there was no analogous Last Supper, and thus no analogous institution of the Eucharist.

  • MM

    Umm, the elephant in the room is that you can’t compare novels written for children to novels written for adults. Of course they are going to be different and the ones written for adults are going to be more sophisticated.

  • Kathy M

    I am very curious to know, since I am currently reading The Two Towers, which “beautiful and true detail” led to your exclamation? Thanks!

  • TroelsForchhammer

    I’ll add a couple more points …

    The readings of the Inklings were never in the pub, but elsewhere – very often in Lewis’ rooms in Magdalen College. In the pubs they drank and gossiped, though doubtlessly the literary discussions occasionally spilled over into the pub :-)

    Tolkien came to dislike his own book, The Hobbit, for some of the same reasons he disliked Lewis’ Narnia books. Though the narrative voice in The Hobbit was probably the most important reason for Tolkien to dislike that book, The Hobbit is also in a great many ways a mish-mash of different incongruous elements that fails to produce any ‘inner consistency of reality’ – a consistency that is entirely missing in Lewis’ Narnia books, which makes them fail in their effort to create Secondary Belief in the reader.

    The Lord of the Rings is, of course, also a mish-mash of diverse elements, Norse, Finnish, Greek, Byzantine, Germanic, etc. but here a greater effort has been put into ensuring the consistency of the work, creating that inner consistency of reality that induces Secondary Belief.