C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The two literary giants forever shaped the fantasy genre’s landscape and greatly influenced the way many people think about Christian art. The two friends are beloved today as much for the lives they led as for their writing.
At some point, however, Narnia invaded Middle-Earth and subjected it to its rule. While Christians continue to revere both men, they tend to imitate only one. There is a prevailing expectation that proper Christian art should echo Lewis’ writing—full of vivid symbolism, rich allegory, and evangelistic messages. In fact, anything less overt is often deemed to be somehow sub-Christian. This sentiment is unfortunate for several reasons, but perhaps none is more lamentable than that it undercuts the most beautiful legacy the friends passed down—their differences.
Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Two Diverging Paths
Although Lewis and Tolkien will forever be grouped together—their friendship as legendary as their writing—the two could hardly have been more different. One was loud and boisterous, the other reclusive and introspective. One was a carefree and playful soul, the other a tormented perfectionist. One was a new Protestant, the other a staunch Catholic. Their differences extended to their approach to writing fantasy.
Tolkien began with a narrative curiosity. Weary of grading papers, he absently scribbled on a blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” Later, he decided he should find out what a hobbit was and what one would do…and off went Bilbo Baggins on his grand adventure.
Lewis began with images— “a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion.” These pictures, which had lingered in his mind since youth, needed a narrative home…so the Pevensie children went through the wardrobe.
Tolkien’s fantasy was an untold adventure that needed finishing. Lewis’ fantasy was an array of images that needed a purpose. The authors’ different starting places carried over into their intents.
A Difference of Intent
Tolkien devoted his life to completing his narrative—the histories, languages, characters. He was more concerned about faithfully creating his world than about any meaning or purpose others might derive from it.
The deeper down the well of Middle-Earth mythology one dives, the wider the distance between Tolkien’s writing and any possible Christian allegory. Tolkien once wrote, “I am in any case myself a Christian; but the ‘Third Age’ was not a Christian world.” He had little interest in inserting religious symbolism into his epic tale (an inclusion he found stifling in his friend’s writing).
Lewis, on the other hand, devoted his work to presenting powerful images—a lion (Christ), a stone table (the cross), Aslan’s Country (heaven). Although many Christians refer to Narnia as an allegory (à la The Pilgrim’s Progress), Lewis refuted such claims. To him, Narnia was better understood as a parallel world. If Christ came to Earth in the form of a man, Lewis supposed Christ might appear as a mighty lion to a world of talking animals.
The powerful images of Narnia serve an important evangelistic function. Lewis observed that familiarity with Bible stories often renders a person numb to them, and intellectual barriers to religion prevent many people from truly experiencing the Gospel narrative. By presenting these stories through fantastical images that were fresh and unhindered by religious stigma, the message could steal past these “watchful dragons” and take root.
Lewis sought to glorify God through the messages his writing passed on to his readers. For Tolkien, the creation itself was his worship. God created the universe, and Tolkien—made in the image of His own creator—created a fictional universe (a process he famously referred to as sub-creation, a student paying homage to his master rather than a rival challenging for supremacy). Against the backdrop of these different intentions, it’s unsurprising that Lewis churned out seven books in seven years, while Tolkien worked on his manuscript for 17 years before completing it with these words: “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can do no other.”
Two Men, Two Approaches, One God
Lewis and Tolkien—Jack and Tollers—never saw eye to eye on their approach to Christian art (although Lewis was a bigger fan of Tolkien than Tolkien was of Lewis; Tolkien referred to The Chronicles of Narnia as “almost worthless.”). Despite their differences, the two writers supported each other along their diverging literary paths. Both left behind a unique and powerful legacy. They did not establish a rigid template for how Christians should create or appreciate Christian art. They demonstrated that there is no template.
There are many ways to worship and honor God through art. Christians need not limit their creative expression or artistic enjoyment to just one approach. The world needs Christian art like Lewis’, but also like Tolkien’s.
In short—it’s time to let the Hobbits out of Narnia’s wardrobe.