“You’re a fantasy writer? Like Tolkien and Lewis?”
This is often the response I get when people learn that I’m a Christian fantasy author. Understandably so. The two literary giants have forever shaped the landscape of the genre and, in many ways, established the template for how people think of Christian Art in general.
Yet, at some point in time, Narnia invaded Middle-Earth and subjected it to its rule. I’ve found that while Christians continue to revere both men, they’ve typically given the flattery of imitation to only one. There’s a prevailing expectation that proper Christian art should echo Lewis—full of vivid symbolism, rich allegory, and evangelistic purpose. In fact, anything less is often deemed to be somehow sub-Christian. This attitude is unfortunate for several reasons, but perhaps none more lamentable than that it undercuts the beautiful legacy passed down by the two friends.
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 couldn’t have been more different. One loud and boisterous, the other reclusive and introspective. One a carefree and playful soul, the other a tormented perfectionist. One a Protestant, the other a staunch Catholic. The 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 actually was and what one would do…and off set 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…and through the wardrobe went the Pevensie children.
Tolkien’s fantasy was an untold adventure which needed finishing, while Lewis’ fantasy was a set of images that needed purposing. The difference in starting points carried over into a difference of intent.
A Difference of Intent
Tolkien devoted his life to completing his narrative—the histories, the languages, the characters—driven by a faithful duty to his created world more than any real-world meaning or purpose that 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 the presentation of powerful images—a Lion (Christ), a stone table (the cross), Aslan’s Country (heaven). Although many Christians refer to Narnia an allegory (à la Pilgrims Progress), Lewis always refuted such claims. Narnia was better thought of as a parallel world. If Christ came to Earth in the form of a man, then Lewis supposed that to a world of talking animals Christ might appear as a mighty lion.
The powerful images of Narnia served an important evangelistic function. Lewis observed that familiarity with the Biblical stories can render a person numb to them, and intellectual barriers against religion can prevent many from truly experiencing the Gospel narrative. Thus, 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 bring glory to God by what his written creation might instill in his readers. For Tolkien, the creation itself was his worship. As God created the universe, so too did Tolkien—made in the image of His own creator—also create (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 7 books in 7 years, while Tolkien took 17 years before finishing his manuscript, with the words, “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.”
Final Food For Thought
Lewis and Tolkien—Jack and Tollers—would never see eye to eye on their approach to Christian Fantasy (although Lewis was a bigger fan of Tolkien than Tolkien of Lewis). Nevertheless, both would continue to support each other along their diverging literary paths, and both would leave behind a unique and powerful legacy. They didn’t establish a rigid template for how we should create or appreciate Christian Art, as much as they demonstrated that there is no template.
When I started writing my own fantasy books, I felt the pressure and expectations to be like Lewis. What Christian symbolism would my story include? How many allegorical elements would I weave into the narrative? I have since taken comfort from Tolkien. Christian art mustn’t always be baptized in allegory or symbolism to be rightly deemed “Christian”, any more than I am myself as much a Christian at Church as I am at the grocery store or running a 5K race.
There are many ways to worship and honor God through art. We need not limit our creative expression or enjoyment of art by forcing it to conform to just one approach. There is a need for Christian Art like Lewis…but there’s also a need for Christian Art like Tolkien.
In short…It’s time to let the Hobbits out of the wardrobe.