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