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.

LOTR as Life

John Piper, in his first message at the DGNatCon, brought to our attention this lovely quote from C. S. Lewis on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (Collected Letters, 3:971–2):

I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves — but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me. Particularly the heart-breaking quality in the most beautiful places, like Lothlorien. And it is so like the real history of the world: “Then, as now, there was a growing darkness and great deeds were done that were not wholly in vain.” Neither optimism (this is the last war and after it all will be lovely forever) nor pessimism (this is the last war and all civilization will end), you notice. No. The darkness comes again and again and is never wholly triumphant nor wholly defeated.

(Also see Tim Keller on LOTR here.)

C.S. Lewis, Imagination, and Discipleship

Kevin Vanhoozer, in his 2013 Desiring God National Conference plenary message Saturday:

Let me state, in my own terms, what I think I’ve learned from Lewis.

Theology ministers understanding, so that we can live out our knowledge of God. Theology is practical, it is all about waking up to the real, to what is, specifically to what is ‘in Christ.’ For Christ is the meaning of the whole, the one in whom all things are held together.

And disciples demonstrate understanding by conforming to that what is ‘in Christ.’ It’s all about living out our knowledge of Christ. There are no armchair disciples. You cannot be a disciple in theory. So doctrines tell us what is ‘in Christ’ and that’s what we live by.

What is ‘in Christ?’

Incarnation, Trinity, atonement are not abstractions to be thought but meaningful patterns to be lived and entered into. The imagination, then, helps disciples act out what is ‘in Christ.’ Theology exchanges the false pictures that hold us captive with truth, disciplining our imaginations with sound doctrine.

Discipleship is a matter of the indoctrinated imagination.

Now, of course, we have to beware of having our imaginations taken captive by other things. Many of Screwtape’s things have to do with capturing the imagination for Satan’s purposes. If you control the metaphors and stories people live by, you’ve got them.

Imagination is where God gives creative form to his thoughts, and literary forms to his word. Jesus used what we could call the ‘parabolic imagination’ to give story form to his thought about the kingdom of God. And similarly, disciples need this ‘parabolic imagination’ so we can live in that kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus doesn’t describe what the kingdom looks like, he tells us what kinds of things happen there. The metaphors the disciples live by are those that awaken them to the kingdom things God is doing ‘in Christ.’

The Most Important Paragraph On Parenting (Outside the Bible)

What follows are 10 sentences from C. S. Lewis’s book The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 1949), pages 45–46. These sentences are not written to parents, nor are they concerned specifically with the the fine art of parenting. And of course they have far-reaching implications for all of life. But for me the most frequent situations when these lines bubble up from my subconscious is when I’m thinking about my kids and parenting them well. So that’s where the title comes from. But enough of me.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously.

How C. S. Lewis Processed Great Fiction

C. S. Lewis to an inquirer, as published in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 2:644:

I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas. All this reading, though dedicated ad Dei gloriam [to the glory of God] in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.

This is a nice concise summary of principles more fully unpacked in Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism.

C. S. Lewis on “Little Cyclones” (Young Boys)

As the father of two spirited boys, aged 10 and 4, I chuckled at these excerpts from the letters of C. S. Lewis, writing as a 55-year-old “crusted old bachelor.” (There’s some fine parenting advice mixed in here, too.)

December 21, 1953 [Letters, 3:389–390]:

We have had an American lady staying in the house with her two sons aged 9 1/2 and 8. I now know what we celibates are shielded from. I will never laugh at parents again. Not that the boys weren’t a delight: but a delight like surf-bathing which leaves one breathless and aching. The energy, the tempo, is what kills.

I have now perceived (what I always suspected from memories of our childhood) that the way to a child’s heart is quite simple: treat them with seriousness and ordinary civility — they ask no more. What they can’t stand (quite rightly) is the common adult assumption that everything they say should be twisted into a kind of jocularity.

December 23, 1953 [Letters, 3:394]:

We have not much news here; the chief event has been that last week we entertained a lady from New York for four days, with her boys, aged nine and seven respectively. Can you imagine two crusted old bachelors in such a situation? It however went swimmingly, though it was very exhausting; the energy of the American small boy is astonishing.

This pair thought nothing of a four-mile hike across broken country as an incident in a day of ceaseless activity, and when we took them up Magdalen tower, they said as soon as they got back to the ground, ‘Let’s do it again!’ Without being in the least priggish, they stuck us as being amazingly adult by our standards and one could talk to them as one would to ‘grown-ups’ — though the next moment they would be wrestling like puppies on the sitting room floor. The highlights of England for them are open coal fires, especially if they can get hold of the billows and blow it up…

December 26, 1953 [Letters, 3:396]:

My brother and I have just had the experience of an American lady to stay with us accompanied by her two sons, aged 9 1/2 and 8. Whew! Lovely creatures — couldn’t meet nicer children — but the pace! I realize have never respected young married people enough and never dreamed of the Sabbath calm which descends on the house when the little cyclones have gone to bed and all the grown-ups fling themselves into chairs and the silence of exhaustion.