Lewis and Tolkien on Fantasy – an Analysis

I just read an interesting article, “Smuggled Theology” by David C. Downing and R. W. Schlosser, discussing the differences in C.S. Lewis’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s views of fantasy, or as they would say, faerie stories. The most intriguing premise of the article is that their basic difference stems from their difference in theology.

Tolkien embraced the concept that the writer, and especially the fantasy writer, participated in sub-creation, the very essence of what it means to be made in the image of God. Lewis had a slightly different view on the subject:

C. S. Lewis apparently subscribed to Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and he recommended “On Fairy-Stories” to those who asked him about his own views on fantasy. (Glover 30, 37) Yet Lewis never took the idea of sub-creation as much to heart as Tolkien did, and Lewis’s own essay on the subject, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” strikes a rather different note.

This brief but illuminating essay begins by distinguishing two sides of the writer: the Author and the Man. (Lewis used the male gender to denote the general case, as was the usual practice in his time; I follow that convention in this paragraph summarizing his essay.) The Author simply writes to release a creative impulse. He begins with an idea or a compelling image “longing for a form” for some coherent expression. Soon, however, the Man enters into the writing process with his own values and purposes, his desire to shape the writing toward some significant end. The Author may write only to please–himself or his readers–but the Man is concerned to please and instruct, to communicate something of who he is and how he views his world. Lewis illustrates the process by explaining that his own fairy stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, originated as a series of mental images that began connecting themselves into story-lines. But then, as the narratives began to take shape, Lewis saw that they could be used to imaginatively express the central truths of Christianity in a fresh way.

This dual emphasis on the Author and the Man involved in the creation of fantasy may seem only a slight variation on Tolkien’s views, but it explains in large part the markedly different character of the two men’s work–as well as the fact that Tolkien was never “able to enter into full sympathy” (his own words) with Lewis’s fantasy stories. (Carpenter 227) Though Tolkien certainly expressed his values implicitly in The Lord of the Rings, he affirmed the Author’s act of sub-creation as an end in itself. Lewis, however, agreed that a writer can’t even begin without the Author’s urge to create, but felt he shouldn’t begin without the Man’s desire to communicate his deepest sense of himself and his world.

It seems to me that these two differing views are still at the heart of the question: What constitutes Christian fiction?

For an example of actual Christian fantasy, consider reading the CSFF Blog Tour’s April feature, The Begotten by Lisa T. Bergren. Read about the book and author from these fine bloggers:

Brandon Barr/ Justin Boyer/ Jackie Castle/ Karri Compton/ CSFF Blog Tour/ Gene Curtis/ D. G. D. Davidson/ Jeff Draper/ April Erwin/ Karina Fabian/ Beth Goddard / Marcus Goodyear/ Todd Michael Greene/ Michael Heald/ Christopher Hopper/ Joleen Howell/ Jason Joyner/ Kait/ Carol Keen/ Mike Lynch/ Terri Main/ Margaret/ Melissa Meeks/ Pamela Morrisson/ John W. Otte/ Rachelle/ Steve Rice/ Ashley Rutherford/ Chawna Schroeder/ Rachelle Sperling/ Stuart Stockton – welcome back, Stuart! 😉 / Steve Trower/ Speculative Faith/ Robert Treskillard/ Laura Williams/ Timothy Wise

*bold type indicates bloggers who have already posted about the book.

One Comment

  1. Both. However, most authors aren’t (and probably shouldn’t be, except in rare instances) adept at both. Christian fiction is far too broad a territory to be master of all. The division of Man and Sub-World are the two major empires, but within each are a variety of kingdoms.

    Christian fiction can be a full dedication to the careful construction of sub-world (becoming steward and craftsman in the image of God in one’s work, and saving overt Gospel instruction for one’s “real life” or works of non-fiction). Christian fiction can be a carefully shaped and engaging allegory of theological construction and instruction. The one thing that Christian fiction can’t be is a set of gates by which the reader is lead to a prescribed experience or viewpoint. Good fiction can’t dictate, but it should resonate.

    One of the dangers of blending allegorical with creational fiction is that the allegory can become too literal on the one hand, or the creation can become to unrealistic on the other. I can think of only one work that somehow achieved both, and it was done long ago: Dante’s Paradiso.


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