I have, I think, a rough model of the broader discursive-etymology of Middle Earth/Narnia — their strange hybrid of medieval/Anglo-Saxon and bourgeois 19th/20th century worldbuilding, their Arthurianism (once-and-future kingishness, merlin-y wizards, battles of good against evil), their complex relationship to allegory — and also their relationship to the tradition of Scottian historical fiction and literary antiquarianism.
This comes from the first post in Adam’s re-read of LOTR, which I am pleased to see, first because I am always glad to hear from Adam on fantasy, second because I am excited that he’s writing a book on fantasy, and third because I am currently teaching a class on fantasy which includes LOTR and I want to learn from him.
So there will be commentary! — on Adam’s posts but also on what I’m teaching. In fact I have a post on George MacDonald’s Phantastes that’s queued up for Monday. And speaking of …
Adam is right about the features that link the work of Lewis and Tolkien, but here let me just flag a major difference: they disagreed about as strongly as two writers could on the value of what we might call mythopoeic promiscuity. As I wrote in my biography of Lewis, explaining Lewis’s debt to the early-modern writers in whom Tolkien had no interest:
The consistency and integrity that Tolkien believed necessary to all “sub-creation” demanded that the “real” world and the imaginary world of Faery be kept completely separate. But such was not the view of Spenser and Sidney and other “romancers” of their time. That Christian theology should “break in” to Arcadia, or to Faery, was in that era a “convention … well understood, and very useful. In such works the gods are God incognito and everyone is in on the secret. Paganism is the religion of poetry through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.” This is a very precise account of what Lewis himself does in Till We Have Faces and, in a different way, in Narnia. It is wrong, therefore, to suppose that the difference on this matter between Tolkien and Lewis can be described in terms of a careful, scrupulous Tolkien and a thoughtless, inattentive Lewis. Tolkien may have been a greater writer of fiction than Lewis — indeed, I feel sure that he was — but not because he had a sound theory of subcreation while Lewis was just playing with his toys. The approach Lewis took has deeper historical roots than Tolkien’s, and in following it Lewis was walking in the footsteps of great predecessors indeed.
It’s the model of Spenser and (especially) Sidney that Lewis draws on when, for instance, he brings Father Christmas into Narnia — about as flagrant a violation of consistency in world-building as could be imagined. Tolkien was horrified and attributed such jarring juxtapositions to incompetence; but Lewis knew what he was doing.
What I didn’t say in that passage was that in embracing mythopoeic promiscuity, Lewis was also following in the footsteps of his “master” MacDonald. In the fifth chapter of Phantastes we get the myth of Pygmalion, and in the sixth Anodos encounters Sir Percival; MacDonald is perfectly happy to have a wide range of mythological, legendary, and literary worlds knocking against one another. And if I were to make a defense of this procedure, I’d begin by noting that a great many myths and tales and legends are always knocking against one another in our own heads.
Not for nothing does he choose this passage about “true fairy tales” [echten Märchen] from Novalis as the epigraph to his tale:
Die ganze Natur muss wunderlich mit der ganzen Geisterwelt gemischt sein; hier tritt die Zeit der Anarchie, der Gesetzlosigkeit, Freiheit, der Naturstand der Natur, die Zeit von der Welt ein…
All of nature must be wonderfully mixed with the whole of the spirit world; here comes the time of anarchy, lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of nature, the time of the world….
Anyway, go read Adam’s post now — there is much insight in it.
P.S. The title of this post comes from this.