A Contrast Between Tolkien and Lewis

From Tolkien contra, an article on the C.S. Lewis site:

Tolkien and Lewis each produced an apologia for fantasy literature, Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories” (Essays), Lewis in “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” (On Stories). Though the two essays share a number of assumptions, it is the differences between the two that best illuminate the separate fictions created by Tolkien and Lewis.

Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” asserts that the unique domain of fairy stories (now more commonly called fantasy literature) is the realm of Faerie, the Perilous Realm of magic and enchantment where ordinary mortals must sometimes venture to fulfill a quest. For Tolkien an authentic fairy story is not simply an extension of our Primary World, but the creation of a plausible and self-consistent Secondary World, subject to its own laws. Tolkien suggests that too much emphasis has been placed upon “representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of [this] world,” (Essays 51) without enough attention to sub-creation. Fantasy, for Tolkien, is at heart the “making or glimpsing of Other-worlds” (Essays 63).


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.

There is a difference between creating a world, in Tolkien’s style, and using art as an expression of your soul, as C.S. Lewis saw it.

In my work at Stellar Reaches, I do like my detailed world creation, but mainly I write to educate, entertain, and inform. Perhaps it is tied to my Calvinist theology, or because a substantial amount of the Traveller universe was created before I began to write.

It was Lewis who complained that popular writers frequently created new worlds and then didn’t make any good use of them: “[Too often] the author leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or even galactic travel has become common. Against this huge backcloth he proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story. This seems to me tasteless. Whatever in a work of art is not used is doing harm. The faintly imagined scene and properties only blur the real theme and distract us from any interest it might have had” ( On Stories 57).

This is something I hope to keep in mind. I have an entire sector’s worth of worlds, sophonts, and history to write, and it needs to be handled with respect and depth if my work is to stand on its own two feet.

I guess that the many wars of sci-fi are an attempt to bring vast reaches of space into play, as for most men there is nothing so broad, engaging, or dramatic as a war. I am more focused on interactions between the various tribes of my bit of space. Wars are rather two-dimensional and flat, a poor substitute for seeing what’s before your eyes, listening to the other party, understanding what is going on. They may be necessary, but they are often suboptimal solutions to a problem. To know a land, you have to listen.


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