Lewis on Tolkien

Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews By C. S. Lewis is a new compilation of short works on literature by Lewis, gathered up and published by Cambridge University Press in their Canto Classics series. The book includes several book reviews and prefaces Lewis wrote, and most of them will appeal only to readers with advanced training in literature and a particular interest in Milton, Chaucer, Boethius, or classic, medieval, and renaissance literature.

But some pieces in this book will appeal to a broader audience of readers. Of special interest to me was Lewis’s rather critical review of his friend Dorothy Sayers’ book, The Mind of the Maker (167–9). He closed the review by writing, “To novelists and poets, if they are already inclined in any degree to idolatry of their own vocation, I recommend it with much caution. They had better read it fasting.” Ha! Also very interesting is Lewis’s preface to a theology book, where he explains what makes for good pastoral theology in written form (181­­–4). I’ll probably have more to say on this particular preface in the future.

But by far (to me) the most valuable pieces in the collection are Lewis’s four published reviews of the works of his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, which include two reviews of The Hobbit (1937) and two reviews of The Lord of the Rings (1954, 1955).

On The Hobbit, Lewis closed one review like this:

It must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice [in Wonderland] is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic. (96)

Decades later, in one of the LOTR reviews, Lewis makes this comment:

Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called ‘sub-creation.’ The direct debt (there are of course subtler kinds of debt) which every author must owe to the actual universe is here deliberately reduced to the minimum.

Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, paleography, languages, and orders of beings — a world ‘full of strange creatures beyond count.’ The names alone are a feast, whether redolent of quiet countryside (Michel Delving, South Farthing), tall and kingly (Boromir, Faramir, Elendil), loathsome like Smeagol, who is also Gollum, or frowning in the evil strength of Barad Dur or Gorgoroth, yet best of all (Lothlorien, Gilthoniel, Galadriel) when they embody this piercing, high elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much.

Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realised. To them a reviewer need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. (99–100)

Such a book — such a world! — was destined for literary applause.

The book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our re-readings, have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables. (108–9)

Though I have a hunch Lewis knew LOTR would become a classic on his first read.

For the patient reader there’s a lot to learn and ponder in this collection Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews By C. S. Lewis.

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