Hobbits and Narnians:
There were eighteen long years between Jack Lewis’s conversion on the way to Whipsnade and the beginning of his writing of the Tales of Narnia. Throughout this time, while Tolkien was writing his Hobbit stories, Lewis was musing on the physical similarities that men and beasts have in common.
This is why he felt that Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind in the Willows, made the right choice in giving his principal character the form of a toad (pictured above). The toad’s face, with its fixed ‘grin’, bears such a striking resemblance to a specific type of human face that no other animal would have suited the part so well. Lewis saw these physical similarities as extending still further: some animals can be most interestingly used in picture books and children’s literature as representing the actual archetypes of some human and animal characteristics. He had an uncanny eye for their specific traits.
Walter Hooper was born in 1931 in North Carolina and began corresponding with C. S. Lewis in 1954 while serving in the US Army. After his service, he read theology and lectured on Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Kentucky. Early in 1963, he visited Lewis in Oxford and subsequently became his secretary during Lewis’s long illness. Following his death in November, Hooper became the Trustee of the C. S. Lewis estate. In his 1980 paperback, Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to the Chronicles of Narnia, Hooper argued that there was also an essential relationship between Lewis’s experience of intense longing and the Narnian Chronicles.
A Heartfelt Longing for Heaven:
The Pilgrim’s Regress, partly autobiographical, is the story of the Pilgrim’s quest for a far-off island, whose vision stung him with ‘sweet desire’. When Lewis realised that the word Romanticism in the subtitle was misunderstood, he wrote a preface to the third edition (1943) explaining the meaning he gave the word. For him, it meant ‘Joy’, the same Joy, or longing, that we can feel for our own far-off country, as in the Welsh word hiraeth, meaning a ‘heartfelt longing’: a longing which, although painful, is felt somehow to be a delight. A hunger more satisfying than fullness; poverty better than any wealth. A desire that is itself the object of desire, so much so that the new desire becomes an instance of the original one. We feel we know what the object of our desire is, but in the final achievement of that desire, we know that the real object of our desire is somewhere else entirely …
… eluding us like the cuckoo’s voice or the rainbow’s end. “All I want”, someone will say, is a university degree, or a happy marriage, or a steady job … But when he is married or settled into the right job, or gets whatever it was he wants, it proves itself to be a cheat. It is not enough. It is not what he is actually looking for.
Lewis reasoned that if we find in ourselves a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for a different world. A happy marriage or a successful career was never intended to fulfil our desire for the far-off country; more likely, they were meant to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. The far-off land is Heaven, and nothing other than God can be our ultimate bliss. Lewis wrote that there is also a connection between our longing for Heaven and fairy tales. However, every aspect of modern life fixes our minds on this world, and to bring up the subjects of Heaven and fairy tales in some quarters was to be howled down as nostalgic, romantic, sentimental, or adolescent.
By 1940, Lewis was already an established writer of serious books on literature and religion, but, as a bachelor who did not know many children, he had never thought of writing a book for young readers. However, when he visited Northmoor Road, the Tolkien children liked him because he did not talk too condescendingly to them; and he gave them books by E. Nesbit, which they enjoyed. The nature of the Second World War changed Lewis’s perspective in that because it was ordinary citizens, including children, who suffered most, as their small island home was bombarded by four hundred planes a night in the infamous “Blitz” that changed the face of war, turning civilians and their cities, big and small, into the front lines.
It was also during the Second World War when children from London were being evacuated to the country, four youngsters were billeted at Lewis’s home, The Kilns, in the Oxford suburb, Headington. Surprised to find how few imaginative stories his young guests knew, ‘Jack’ decided to write one for them and scribbled down the opening sentences of a story about four children who were sent away from London because of the air raids and went to stay with an old professor in the country. That is all he wrote at the time, but several years later, he returned to the story. The children (now named Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) found their way into another world, which he eventually called ‘Narnia’. More pictures came into his mind: a ‘queen on a sledge’ and ‘a magnificent lion’. But, for a long time, he did not know what these meant nor what the story was about.
After that, all kinds of elements went into the making of Narnia. There was the intriguing question of the youngest evacuee as to what was behind the big old wardrobe which stood in The Kilns. And there were his childhood memories: how he and his brother, Warnie, used to climb into that very wardrobe, made by their grandfather, and tell each other stories in the dark. Some of Jack’s inspiration came from the books he had loved as a child: the talking animals in the tales of Beatrix Potter; the magical adventures that happened in the stories of E. Nesbit, such as The Railway Children (1906); the wicked queen from a Hans Andersen fairy tale; the dwarves from the old German myths; Irish folk tales, myths and legends, and mythological creatures from the legends of Ancient Greece. But these were just some ingredients for what Jack mixed into an entirely original confection of the oldest stories ever told, those of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.
The Narnian Books – Allegories & Moral Tales?
In his History of Modern Britain, chronicling political and cultural events since the Second World War, Andrew Marr has described what emerged from Lewis’s pen as the Narnia books as a religious allegory for children. He characterises it as part of a period in which:
… there still existed an Anglican sensibility, a particularly English, sometimes grave, sometimes playful Christianity, with its own art and thought. It may have been wispy and self-conscious but it was also alive and argumentative, as it is not today. It was of course a limited and élite movement. Already, saucy revelations were where most people turned when they thought of immorality, not to sermons. … Were the British in the forties any more moral… than the modern British? This is one of the hardest questions to answer. Conventions and temptations were just so different. On the surface, it was certainly it was certainly a more discreet, dignified and rule-bound society. Divorce might have been becoming more widespread, but it was certainly still a matter for embarrasment, even shame.
In the early thirties, the average number of divorce petitions in Britain was below five thousand per year. During the war, it jumped to sixteen thousand. By 1951, with easier divorce laws, it was more than thirty-eight thousand. In the forties and fifties, it still carried a strong stigma across classes and reached up to the aristocracy and monarchy. As late as 1955, when Princess Margaret wanted to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, the innocent party in a divorce case, a Tory cabinet minister, Lord Salisbury, warned that he would have to resign from the government if it allowed such a flagrant breach of Anglican principles.
This became a significant issue for a devout Catholic like Tolkien in the late 1950s when Lewis decided to marry divorcée Joy Davidman. Its role in the relationship of the two men should not be underestimated by those looking back to the period with more modern, socially liberal and secular eyes. Yet there was also a good deal of hypocrisy behind the fifties’ supposedly more morally ‘upright’ social attitudes. Tolkien was probably well aware of the continuance of the wartime boom in domestic adultery and homosexuality in Oxford. Still, he might have been shocked by the vast number of prostitutes in the red light districts of other cities, such as in Edgbaston in Birmingham, where he spent much of his childhood and adolescence. ‘Discretion’ was a keyword for Tolkien and his colleagues, and their issue with Lewis was over this in the late fifties rather than with the morality of divorce itself.
Finishing Frodo & Sam’s Quest – Into The Mountains of Shadow:
By the beginning of 1944, The Lord of the Rings had lain untouched for many months, and Tolkien wrote: I do not seem to have any mental energy or invention. But Lewis had noticed this and provided the impulse for him to get going again and finish the story. Tolkien admitted that he needed its pressure and would ‘probably respond’. So, at the beginning of April, he resumed work, beginning to write what eventually became the fourth book, which takes Frodo and Sam Gamgee across the Dead Marshes marshes towards Mordor, where they hope to destroy the Ring by hurling it into the Cracks of Doom. Tolkien was already writing long letters to his son, Christopher, who had been called up into the RAF and sent for training in South Africa. These letters carried detailed accounts of the book’s progress and his reading to the Lewis brothers and Charles Williams in the ‘White Horse’, at that time their favourite pub. The following extracts reveal the continuing role of Jack Lewis, in particular, on Tolkien’s writing:
Tuesday 18 April:
‘I hope to see C. S. L. and Charles W. tomorrow morning and read my next chapter – on the passage of the Dead Marshes and the approach to the gates of Mordor, which I have now practically finished. Term has almost begun...
Sunday 23 April:
‘I read my second chapter, Passage of the Dead Marshes, to Lewis and Williams on Wed. morning. It was approved I have now nearly done a third: Gates of the Land of Shadow. But this story takes charge of me, and I have already taken three chapters over what was meant to be one! And I have neglected too many things to do it. I am just enmeshed in it now, and have to wrench my mind away to tackle exam-paper proofs and lectures.’
Wednesday 31 May:
The Inklings meeting was very enjoyable. Hugo was there: rather tired looking, but reasonably noisy. The chief entertainment was provided by a chapter of Warnie Lewis’s book on the times of Louis XIV (very good I thought it); and some excerpts from C. S. L.’s “Who Goes Home” – a book on Hell, which I suggested should have been called rather “Hugo’s Home”. I did not get back until well after midnight. The rest of my time, barring chores … has been occupied by the desperate attempt to bring “The Ring” to a suitable pause, the capture of Frodo by the Orcs in the passes of Mordor, before I am obliged to break off by examining. By sitting up all hours I managed it and read the last two chapters (“Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choice of Master Samwise”) to C. S. L. on Monday morning. He approved with usual fervour, and was actually affected to tears by the last chapter, so it seems to be keeping up’.
Book IV of The Lord of the Rings was typed and sent to Christopher in South Africa. By this time, Tolkien was mentally exhausted by his feverish burst of writing. When my weariness has passed, he wrote to his son, I shall get on with my story. But in August, he wrote: I am absolutely dry of any inspiration for the Ring. By the end of the year, he had produced nothing new except a draft synopsis for the remainder of the story. Instead, he turned to other projects, including the idea of collaborating with Lewis on a book about the nature, function and origin of Language. But this came to nothing, and Lewis, referring sometimes later to this omission, described Tolkien as that great but dilatory and unmethodical man. ‘Dilatory’ was not altogether fair, but ‘unmethodical’ was often true. Tolkien made little, if any, progress on the story during 1945. On 9 May, the war in Europe ended, the same day that Charles Williams was taken ill. He died a week later, and though he and Williams had not always agreed on literature, they had become good friends by this time, and Tolkien felt the loss very deeply. It was a sign for him that peace would not bring an end to all troubles, something that Tolkien wrote in one of his letters to Christopher:
‘The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on; and it is no good growing faint.’
In the autumn of 1945, Tolkien became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and, therefore, a Fellow of Merton College, which he found ‘agreeably informal’ after Pembroke. However, C. S. Lewis was passed over for the Merton Professorship of English Literature. Tolkien was one of the electors for this, and though there is no reason to suppose that he did not support Lewis in the election, the gap between the two friends widened again. There was undoubtedly a cooling on Tolkien’s part, which Lewis overlooked at first, and when he did notice it, he was disturbed and saddened. Nevertheless, Tolkien continued to attend gatherings of the Inklings, together with his son Christopher, who had resumed his studies at Trinity College. He was invited to read aloud from The Lord of the Rings typescript, as Lewis joked that he read better than his father. He later became an Inkling in his own right. But there was no longer the same ‘intimacy’ as of old between his father and Lewis. This may have been hastened by Lewis’s sometimes severe criticisms of details of The Lord of the Rings, particularly his comments on the poems, which he tended to dislike. Tolkien was often hurt by Lewis’s comments and generally ignored them, so Lewis later remarked, No one ever influenced Tolkien.
In the summer of 1946, Tolkien told Allen & Unwin that he had made a great effort to finish The Lord of the Rings but had failed to do so; the truth was, however, that he had scarcely touched it since the late spring of 1944. Nevertheless, he told them that he hoped to have it done by the autumn and did manage to resume work on it in the following weeks. By the end of the year, he told his publishers that he was “on the last chapters,” but then he moved house to the centre of Oxford, to a Merton College house which became available for rent. He and Edith moved in with Christopher and Priscilla in March 1947. By then, John was working as a priest in the Midlands and Michael, married with an infant son, was a schoolmaster. But the new home was very cramped, even for the four of them. Ronald had no proper study, only an attic ‘bed-sitter’, so it was agreed that the family would move again as soon as a bigger house as soon as one became available, but for the time being, they would have to ‘make do.’
Meanwhile, Rayner Unwin, the son of Tolkien’s publisher, who as a child had written the report that secured the publication of The Hobbit, had secured himself a place as an undergraduate at Oxford, and he made the acquaintance of Professor Tolkien. In the summer of 1947, Tolkien decided that The Lord of the Rings was sufficiently near completion for Rayner to be shown a typescript of the greater part of the story. After reading it, he reported to his father at Allen & Unwin that it was a weird book but a brilliant and gripping story. He remarked that the struggle between darkness and light made him suspect allegory, and he further commented:
Quite honestly I don’t know who is expected to read it: children will miss something of it, but grown-ups will not feel ‘infra dig’ to read it; many will undoubtedly enjoy themselves.
He had no doubt that the book deserved publication by his father’s firm and suggested that it would have to be divided into sections, commenting that in this respect, Frodo’s Ring resembled that of the Nibelungs. Stanley Unwin passed his son’s comments on to Tolkien, who was always annoyed by the comparison with the Nibelungenlied and Wagner. He once said that both rings were round, and the resemblance ceased. Then, on suspicion of allegory, he replied:
‘Do not let Rayner suspect “Allegory”. There is a “moral”, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals – they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.’
However, on the whole, he was delighted with Rayner’s enthusiasm for the book and concluded by declaring: The thing is to finish the thing as devised and then let it be judged. Yet even then, he did not finish ‘the thing’; he revised, niggled and corrected earlier chapters, spending so much time on it that his colleagues began to regard him as lost to philology. So the final full stop seemed further away than ever. But in the late summer months, ‘the thing’ finally reached its conclusion. Tolkien recalled that he ‘actually wept’ when writing the account of the welcome given to the hobbit heroes on the Field of Cormallen. He had long ago resolved to take the chief protagonists across the sea to the West at the end of the book, so with the writing of the chapter that describes the setting sail from the Grey Havens, the huge manuscript was almost complete. But not quite, for Tolkien, as he had once said, liked ‘tying up loose ends,’ and he wished to make sure that there were no loose ends in his epic story. So he wrote an epilogue with Sam Gamgee telling his children what happened to each of the principal characters who did not sail West. It ended with Sam listening to the sigh and murmur of the sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
But now Tolkien had to revise, over and over, until he was completely satisfied with the entire text, which took many more months. It was not finished until the autumn of 1949, though it was still not ready for publication. Earlier in the year, however, his Farmer Giles of Ham had been published. Tolkien now lent the completed typescript of The Lord of the Rings to C. S. Lewis, who replied after reading it:
My dear Tollers,
‘Uton herian holbytlas’ indeed. I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst. Once it really gets under weigh the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it would indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me. In two virtues I think it excels: sheer sub-creation – Bombadil, Barrow Wights, Elves, Ents – as if from inexhaustible resources, and construction. Also in ‘gravitas’. No romance can repel the charge of ‘escapism’ with such confidence. If it errs, it errs in precisely the opposite direction: all victories of hope deferred and the merciless piling up of odds against the heroes are near to being to being too painful. And the long ‘coda’ after the eucastrophe, whether or not you intended it or no, has the effect of reminding us that victory is as transitory as as conflict, that is (as Byron says) ‘there’s no sterner moralist than pleasure’, and so leaving a final impression of profound melancholy.
Of course this is not the whole story. There are many passages I could wish you had written otherwise or omitted altogether. If I include none of my adverse criticisms in this letter, it is because you have heard and rejected most of them already (‘rejected’ is perhaps too mild a word for your reaction on at least one occasion!). And even if all my objections were just (which is of course unlikely) the faults I think I find could only delay and impair appreciation: the substantial splendour of the tale can carry them all. ‘Ubi plura nitent in carmine non ego paucis offendi maculis.’
I congratulate you. All the young years you have spent on it are justified.
Tolkien himself did not think the book was flawless, but we don’t know how he received Lewis’s response. Based on previous reactions to his friend’s criticisms, we can guess that he was not altogether pleased with it, despite the generally favourable terms in which his criticisms were ‘topped and tailed.’ But probably mindful of Lewis’s comments, he told Stanley Unwin:
It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can do no other.
Narnian Nymphs & Fauns – Fairy Stories of Other Worlds:
The continuing coolness between Lewis and Tolkien was probably due, on Tolkien’s side at least, to his open dislike of Lewis’s Narnia stories for children. In 1949 Lewis began to read the first of them, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, aloud to Tolkien. It was greeted with a snort of contempt as Tolkien told Roger Lancelyn Green:
“It really won’t do! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their ways, The Love-life of a Faun’!”
Nevertheless, Lewis completed it, and when it and its successors were published, Narnia found as broad and enthusiastic an audience as The Hobbit had enjoyed. Lewis said that ‘marvellous’ literature evoked his desire for Heaven; at the same time, he believed that there is no literature less likely to give a person a false impression of the world than fairy tales. His thoughts on the subject are clearly revealed in his essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children. In it, he first draws our attention to a fundamental point made by his friend Tolkien that fairy tales were not originally written for children but gravitated to the nursery when they became unfashionable in literary circles.
Some children and some adults like fairy stories; some do not. Lewis maintained that so-called ‘realistic’ stories are far more likely to deceive than fairy tales because, though their adventures and successes are possible, they are almost infinitely improbable. While it is possible to become a duke with a palace or a millionaire with a yacht, it is unlikely that this will happen to all but a very few of us. On the other hand, no one expects the real world to be like that of fairy tales. The longing for fairyland is different, for it cannot be supposed that the boy who longs for fairyland really longs for the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale. Lewis wrote further on this theme in his essay:
It would be much truer to say that fairyland arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension in depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.C. S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children
But Lewis maintained that at first, there was nothing specifically Christian about the pictures he saw in his mind, but that that element, as with Aslan, pushed its way in of its own accord. In another of his essays in Of Other Worlds; Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said, touching directly on the Narnian stories, Lewis wrote that he chose the fairy tale as the form for his stories because of its brevity, its severe restraints upon description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’.
It was a form he had long been in love with, and when the time came, he felt he would burst if he did not write one. Choosing that form, he said, was allowing the author in him to have its say. But then the man in him began to have his turn. He also saw how stories such as he had in mind could ‘steal past’ certain inhibitions that he had had in childhood. He believed that the reason we find it so hard to feel as we ought to about God and the sufferings of Christ is that an obligation to do so freezes feelings.
The stories in these seven books began as a series of pictures in the author’s head. Then, when he was forty, he decided to try to make a story out of it. He once said, “People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself.” In doing so, he wrote books millions of others also wanted to read. The first of these to be written was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950 with illustrations by Pauline Baynes, a young artist who perfectly captured, in line drawings, the pictures that ‘Jack’ Lewis had imagined. It began with the image of a snowy wood with a little goat-footed faun scurrying along carrying an umbrella and a pile of parcels. He later recalled that this picture had been in his mind since he was about sixteen.
Excellent as Lewis’s descriptions are, the books are so enhanced by the illustrations of Pauline Baynes that it would be a serious omission not to refer to her part, right from the start, in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as the collection of successful books eventually became known. The combination of stories and illustrations is one of the happiest collaborations in children’s literature. Recalling, in 1978, her early meetings with the author, she told a documentary film-maker:
C. S. Lewis told me that he had actually gone into a bookshop and asked the assistant there if she could recommend someone who could draw children and animals. I don’t know if he was just being kind to me and making me feel that I was more important than I was or whether he’d simply heard about me from his friend Tolkien.
Lewis had indeed admired Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham (1949). Later, he wrote to Walter Hooper that he had endless admiration for her illustrations of his Narnian books, particularly her drawings of his animal characters. Hooper wrote that she was very near the top of the list of all those who had drawn anthropomorphic beasts and fantasy creatures.
The seventh and last book for children in C. S. Lewis’ Tales of Narnia is The Last Battle, first published in 1956. This was just a year after the ‘first’ book of the ‘Chronicles’, The Magician’s Nephew, was published in 1955, though actually, the sixth book Lewis wrote. It told of how the journeying between the two parallel worlds, ours and Narnia, began, as well as explaining various mysteries, such as how the wardrobe came to be a door into Narnia, and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood.
In the opinion of Walter Hooper, The Last Battle is the best written and the most sublime of all the tales of Narnia, the crowning glory of the whole Narnian creation. Everything else in all the other six stories finds its ultimate meaning in relation to this seventh and final book. Lewis’s didactic purpose should be apparent to those conversant with orthodox Christianity. He uses his own invented world to illustrate what the Church has been teaching since its beginning, which was becoming increasingly neglected or forgotten. Namely, this world will end; it was never meant to be our real home – that lies elsewhere; we do not know, nor can we, when the end will come, but we know that it will come from without, not from within.
As the cover of its 1961 reprint (below) shows, this final book, The Last Battle, won the Carnegie Award for the best children’s book of 1956, then the highest mark of excellence in children’s literature. Yet, even then, Ronald Tolkien could not find it in his heart to reverse his original opinion. In 1964, in the year following Lewis’s death and five years after the last story, The Last Battle, had been published, he wrote, albeit somewhat mournfully:
‘It is sad that “Narnia” and all that part of C. S. L.’s work should remain outside the range of my sympathies, as much of my work was outside his.’
Tolkien probably felt that Lewis had, in some ways, drawn upon Tolkien’s ideas and stories in the books. Just as he resented Lewis’s progress from ‘the convert’ to ‘the popular theologian,’ he was perhaps irritated by the appearance that the friend and critic who had listened to his tales of Middle-earth had, as it were, got up from his armchair, gone to the desk, picked up the pen, and ‘had a go’ himself. Moreover, the sheer number of Lewis’s books for children and the apparent haste with which they were produced undoubtedly annoyed him. The seven Chronicles of Narnia were written and published within seven years, fewer than half the number of years it took Tolkien to write and publish The Lord of the Rings. This provided another wedge between the two friends and colleagues.
The Fellowship of the Ring:
When Lord of the Rings was finally accepted for publication in 1952, C. S. Lewis wrote to congratulate his old friend and colleague, remarking: I think the prolonged pregnancy has drained a little vitality from you: There’ll be a new ripeness and freedom when the book’s out. But at that particular moment, Tolkien felt anything but free. He wanted to read the typescript of the book once more before it went to the printers and to iron out any remaining inconsistencies. Moreover, this was at a time when he had decided to move house again because the place the Tolkien’s had been living in since 1950 was made almost unbearable by the stream of motor traffic that roared past, day and night. So by the spring of 1953, Ronald had found a house in Headington, then a quiet suburb to the east of the city. He and Edith moved there in March.
Despite the dislocation, Tolkien completed the first volume of The Lord of the Rings by mid-April and the second volume soon afterwards. Although the book was one continuous story and not a ‘trilogy’ – a point that Tolkien was always keen to emphasise – the publishers felt that it was best if it came out volume by volume, in three books, each with a separate title. Tolkien and Rayner Unwin eventually agreed upon The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King as the three titles. When Lewis was elected to a new chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge in 1954, which obliged him to spend much of his time away from Oxford, he and Tolkien met on comparatively few occasions after that. But despite this apparent widening of the ‘distance’ in their relationship, on 14 August 1954, a few days after the first volume had been published, C. S. Lewis published a review of The Fellowship of the Ring in Time and Tide, as he had done for The Hobbit seventeen years previously:
This book is like lightning from a clear sky. To say that in its heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, it has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism, is inadequate. To us, who live in that old period, the return – and the sheer relief of it – is doubtless the important thing. But in the history of Romance itself – a history which stretches back to the Odyssey and beyond – it makes not a return but an advance or revolution: the conquest of new territory.
Perhaps it was a little excessive for Lewis to contribute to the publisher’s ‘blurb’ and review the book, but he was determined to do everything he could to help Tolkien. However, before sending his contribution to Rayner Unwin, he had warned Tolkien that his name might do him more harm than good. Many literary critics writing in the 1950s and early 1960s equated ‘fantastic’ literature with ‘escapism’ and wishful thinking. More than one critic reviewing Tolkien’s book in August 1954 displayed an extraordinary personal animosity towards Lewis. But J. W. Lambert, writing in The Sunday Times, at least focused on the story, which he said had two odd characteristics: no religious spirit of any kind and, to all intents and purposes, no women. Neither of these statements was entirely fair, but both were reflected in the comments of later critics. But he also wrote that it sweeps along with a narrative and pictorial force. Tolkien wrote that the reviews were better than he had thought. After all three volumes had appeared, the critics could fully assess The Lord of the Rings as a whole story. Lewis paid another tribute in Time and Tide:
The book is too original and too opulent for any final judgement on a first reading. But we know at once it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men.
High praise also came from Bernard Levin, by then already a well-known writer and broadcaster, who wrote that he genuinely believed the book to be one of the most remarkable works of literature in our, or any, time. He added that it was comforting, in this troubled day, to be once more assured that the meek shall inherit the earth. But opinions were firmly polarised. The book had acquired its champions and enemies. As W. H. Auden wrote, nobody seemed to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, they consider it a masterpiece of its genre, or they cannot abide it.
The ‘Clubbable’ Bohemian retires; Jack dies:
This is how it remained for the rest of Tolkien’s life: extreme praise from one faction, total contempt from the other. But it soon ceased to bother him much so long as he had a close group of friends and colleagues. C. S. Lewis wrote that he was a man of ‘cronies’… always best in some small circle of intimates where the tone was at once Bohemian, literary and Christian. So, when he retired from the Merton Professorship in the summer of 1959, he experienced a measure of unhappiness. In these later years, he still saw a little of Lewis, making occasional visits to the Bird and Baby and to ‘the Kilns’, Lewis’s house on the other side of Headington.
Tolkien and Lewis might have recovered and preserved something of their old friendship had Tolkien not been puzzled and even angered by Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman, which lasted from 1957, after Lewis had finished his Chronicles of Narnia, to her death in 1960. Some of Tolkien’s attitudes may be explained by her having been divorced before she married Lewis and by the more widely felt resentment at Lewis’s expectation that his friends should ‘pay court’ to his wife. In contrast, in the thirties, Lewis had regularly ignored the fact that his friends had wives to go home to. It was also almost as if Tolkien resented the intrusion of a woman into his friendship with Jack, just as Edith had resented his intrusion into her marriage. Ironically it was Edith who became the closest of friends with Joy.
The cessation in the mid-fifties of Tolkien’s regular meetings with Jack Lewis marked the closing of the ‘clubbable’ chapter in the life of ‘Tollers’, a chapter which had begun nearly fifty years earlier with the TCBS, the ‘Tea Club’ in Birmingham, and had culminated in the Inklings at Oxford. From this time, he was a solitary man who spent most of his time at home, taking care of Edith’s health and well-being as she became increasingly immobile. This was also a deliberate withdrawal from university society, for Oxford itself was changing. His generation was making way for a different breed of men, less discursive, less sociable and certainly less Christian. Besides, he still had The Silmarillion to complete, which Allen & Unwin were highly keen to publish, having been waiting for it for several years. During the sixties, Tolkien completed two other books for publication. Then, in 1961, his aunt Jane Neave, then eighty-nine, wrote to ask him if he wouldn’t get out a small book with Tom Bombadil at the heart of it, the sort of size of book that we old ‘uns can afford to buy for Christmas presents. The result was The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The verses Tolkien selected for this book had been written mainly during the 1920s and ’30s, the exception being Bombadil Goes A-Boating, which was composed especially for the book. Again illustrated by Pauline Baynes, the book was issued in 1962, just in time to delight his Aunt Jane, who died a few months later.
The following year, he lost his friend of nearly forty years. Jack Lewis died on 22 November 1963, aged sixty-four, after a year-long illness. A few days later, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla:
So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age – like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an ax-blow near the roots.
Despite these emotions, or perhaps because of them, he refused to write an obituary for Jack, who, as we now know, had already written one for him. Tolkien also turned down an invitation to contribute to the memorial volume. Instead, soon after Lewis’s death, he began to keep a diary again, something he had not done for many years. Like all of his previous journals, this was more often a record of sorrows than joys, so it does not provide a balanced picture of his ‘life after Jack’ at Sandfield Road, Headington. It does, however, indicate the appalling depths of gloom to which he now sank, albeit for only a short period. Typically, just as his despair over his failure to finish The Lord of the Rings led to him writing Leaf by Niggle, so his anxiety about the future and his growing grief about the onset of old age led him to write Smith of Wootton Major.
A Return to ‘Heroic Romance’:
Tolkien’s revision of the lecture, On Fairy Stories, was then published in 1964 together with Leaf by Niggle under the overall title Tree and Leaf, but he had not begun anything new. An American publisher had asked Tolkien to write a preface for a new edition of George Macdonald’s The Golden Key. He usually rejected such requests, but perhaps because Lewis had been passionately devoted to Macdonald’s work, he accepted. He set to work on it at the end of January 1965, when his spirits were at their lowest. He found much of Macdonald’s writing spoilt for him by its moral allegorical content. But he pressed on with the task as if he had to get something finished to prove that he was capable of doing so. He began to explain the meaning of the term Fairy to the young readers for whom the edition was intended. He wrote:
Fairy is very powerful. Even the bad author cannot escape it. He probably makes up his tale out of bits of older tales, or things he half remembers, and they may be too strong for him to spoil or disenchant. Someone may meet them for the first time in his silly tale, and catch a glimpse of Fairy, and go on to better things. This could be put into a short story like this. There was once a cook, and he thought of making a cake for a children’s party. His chief notion was that it must be very sweet …
The story was only meant to last for a few paragraphs, but it went on and on until Tolkien stopped, realising that it had acquired a life of its own and should be completed as something separate from the preface. The first draft was called ‘The Great Cake’, but he soon adopted the title Smith of Wootton Major. Tolkien called it an old man’s story, filled with the presage of bereavement, and said that it was written with deep emotion, partly drawn from the experience of the bereavement of “retirement” and advancing age. Like Smith, the village lad who swallows a magic star and so obtains a passport to Faery, Tolkien had, in his imagination, wandered through mysterious lands. Now, he felt the end approach and knew he would soon have to surrender his own star, his imagination. So it was the last story he ever wrote. He showed it to Rayner Unwin, who was delighted with it, and it was published in Britain and America in 1967, with illustrations by Pauline Baynes. It was well received by the critics, though some of them detected an element of allegory, which Tolkien duly and firmly denied. The Macdonald preface was never finished, however.
By the mid-sixties, much of Tolkien’s writing appealed to American students and its implied emphasis on protecting natural landscapes against the ravages of industrial society harmonised with the growing ecological movement. But its chief appeal lay, as Lewis had seen, in its unabashed return to heroic romance. Harsher critics called it ‘escapism’ and compared its influence to that of hallucinatory drugs in some student circles. However, The Lord of the Rings became the ‘go-to’ book of millions of young Americans, surpassing all previous best-sellers. At the end of 1966, at Yale University, it was selling better than William Golding’s Lord of the Flies at its peak; at Harvard, it was ‘outpacing’ J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Branches of the Tolkien Society ‘mushroomed’ along the West Coast and in New York State and eventually grew into the Mythopoeic Society, devoted also to studying the works of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. At the same time, an interest in Tolkien’s books showed a marked increase in Britain, partly as a reflection of the cult that had grown up in America. British book sales rose sharply, a Tolkien Society began to meet in London and students at Warwick University renamed the ring road around their campus ‘Tolkien Road’.
Nightmares – ‘The Human Race’ against the ‘Modern Reformer’:
Many professional educators of the 1950s and ’60s claimed that the Narnian battles and wicked characters frightened children and gave them nightmares. While Lewis agreed with them that nothing should be done likely to give the child those haunting, disabling pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless, he was strongly opposed to the notion that we must keep out of the child’s mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. In this matter, he declared himself to be on the side of the human race against ‘the modern reformer’:
Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.
Early in 1963, Walter Hooper had travelled to Oxford simply to have afternoon tea with C. S. Lewis. Within a week, the Professor asked him to become his ‘companion-secretary’, a post he fulfilled for the remaining months of the Professor’s life, also becoming the son I should have had. Besides being the joint author of a biography of Lewis, he edited ten volumes of Lewis’s works and continued to deal with a lot of the Professor’s ‘fan-mail’, much of it from children. Hooper claimed that while he had met some adults who considered Lewis’s fairy tales too violent for children, he had never met a child who did not love the Narnian adventures intensely. During his lifetime, Lewis received thousands of letters from children, and seventeen years after his death, Hooper still had to answer these letters, which children from all over the world continued to address to the author.
Stealing past Dragons – Writing for Children:
It would, perhaps, have been an intelligent guess to assume that Lewis began with the things he wanted to say about Christianity and other interests and then fixed on the fairy tale as a way of expressing them. But that is not what happened. Lewis said he could not and would not write that way and never actually ‘made’ a story. Instead, it all began with seeing ‘pictures’; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. It was, he remembered, more like ‘bird-watching’ than talking or building. Sometimes a whole set of images would join themselves together. Still, it was necessary to do some ‘deliberate inventing’, contriving reasons as to why characters should be doing multiple things in various places. But all this invention was done to use his fairy tales as a means to ‘steal past’ the usual treatment of Biblical stories:
The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all of these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
But Lewis shared Tolkien’s dislike of allegory. Even those likenesses that seem to bear the closest resemblance to historical events in this world can be similar without being the same. These similarities did not need a mature theological analysis for their perception; Lewis regarded children as the most aware of his readers. They were the first to respond to the ultimate likeness, as his reply to one little girl in 1960 reveals:
All your points are in a sense right. But 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 restoring and the Son of God (or the Great Emperor-Over-Sea) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, all have been like?’
Hooper argues that such parallels, variously transfigured as they are in Narnia, are not what the books are about. It is not the identifiably biblical elements which make us think of the Narnian stories as Christian. On the contrary, almost every page of every book is suffused with the moral quality that no one, whatever their confessional beliefs, could object to. The tales are not based on premeditated moral themes, but these themes grew out of the telling and are as much a part of the narrative as scent is to a flower. So, Lewis did not see his Narnian books as moral manuals for children, and he insisted that the stories were not ‘allegories’ in the traditional sense of the term.
By allegory, he meant using something real and tangible to stand for something real but intangible. Anything immaterial can be allegorised and represented by physical objects, but Aslan the Lion, for example, is already a physical object. To try to convey what Christ would be like in Narnia is to turn one physical being into another. That does not fall within Lewis’s definition of what constitutes an allegory. On the other hand, there is much in the tales, especially in The Last Battle, which would fit Lewis’s own description of symbolism, that we are the ‘frigid personifications’; the heavens above us are the ‘shadowy abstractions’. He believed that Heaven is the real thing, of which earth is an imperfect copy.
By the time C. S. Lewis became a Christian, he had already come a long way towards seeing that ‘Joy’, the deepest of longings of all men, is, at the bottom, a desire for Heaven. In this context, from the last book that C. S. Lewis was to write, Letters to Malcolm, the final paragraphs have become possibly the most famous he was ever to pen:
I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity, I do think that while we are in this ’valley of tears’, cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.
For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in in the ’serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some ways, a ’via crucis’…
… It is only in our ‘hours-off’, only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. … But in this world, everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.
Following his friend Jack’s death, Ronald Tolkien apparently spent many hours pondering these thoughts and others from C. S. Lewis’s last book. But from death and grief, as Lewis wrote, Christians must move on to the culmination of the triumphant theme of Joy as the serious business of Heaven.
Humphrey Carpenter (1977, 2016), J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin/ HarperCollins Publishers.
The Tolkien Estate Limited, http://www.tolkien.co.uk
Walter Hooper (1980), Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. London: Fount Paperbacks (Collins).
Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.
C. S. Lewis (1956, 1961), The Last Battle: A Story for Children. London: The Bodley Head.
C. S. Lewis (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Harper Collins.
C. S. Lewis (1944, 1952), Mere Christianity. London: William Collins (HarperCollins).
A. J. Chandler, C. S. Lewis’s Tales of Narnia, from Genesis to ‘Shadowlands’ – Stealing Past Dragons. Online article@chandlerandrewjames: