Steve found this article some time ago and asked me to comment. It’s an extremely interesting topic to me, so I’ll give it a go.
If you are really interested in this topic you can also follow this thread on Mark Shea’s blog from last month. (I have a terrible time getting a link to Shea’s blog to work permanently . Follow the link provided above and then scroll down the page to An Interesting (and Pretty Persuasive) Essay on the Anti-Catholicism of C.S. Lewis and Why It Bugged Tolkien. There are about thirty comments.)
The article, by Eric Seddon, is entitled Letters to Malcolm and the Trouble with Narnia: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Their 1949 Crisis. Anyone who is familiar at all with the friendship of these two literary giants knows that while they both shared an appreciation for mythic literature and for much of each other’s literary work, Tolkien had no use whatsoever for The Chronicles of Narnia, and he made Lewis acutely aware of his distaste for it. In fact, Tolkien’s frankness on the matter seems to have put somewhat of a damper on their relationship, or at least was a contributing factor to its cooling.
Much speculation about the reason for Tolkien’s response has led to a number of theories. The topic is of much interest, since Tolkien and Lewis were such good friends and since they shared so much in terms of their literary inclinations. On the face of things, it seems to many as though Tolkien’s response was disproportionate, especially when one considers how successful the Narnia series has been and continues to be.
Seddon’s theory is that the dislike of Tolkien has more to do with Christian doctrine than it does with his artistic preferences. He proposes his theory on the basis of a statement made by Tolkien in a letter to David Kolb, a Jesuit in 1964:
It is sad that ‘Narnia’ and all that part of C.S.L.’s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his. Also, I personally found Letters to Malcolm a distressing and in parts horrifying work. I began a commentary on it, but if finished it would not be publishable (Tolkien, Letters 352).
Letters to Malcolm is an apologetical work, imagined as a discussion between Lewis and a fictitious character named Malcolm. In it, Lewis argues not only for a his “mere Christianity,” but for a Christianity that is decidedly Protestant. Seddon suggests that, in fact, Letters to Malcolm is an anti-Catholic work. What is more, Seddon opines that Tolkien’s linking of Narnia and Malcolm in the above quote is more than incidental. This is especially important, because while the general public has never seen more than a few quotes from Tolkien’s commentary on Malcolm, we do know its title: The Ulsterior Motive. It seems to be a safe assumption to say that Tolkien did consider Malcolm to be anti-Catholic. And if the mention of Malcolm and Narnia together is more than incidental, then, given the Tolkien’s devotion to his faith, his dislike for Narnia becomes more understandable.
Now some have argued that Tolkien’s view of the work is too harsh, that it really is not an anti-Catholic work at all, but just one that expresses a typical Anglican view. I will leave that to others smarter than me to determine. It is an interesting question. Did Tolkien’s disappointment over the fact that Lewis did not convert to Catholicism color his assessment of Lewis’ actual views, or did he rather have more insight into his friend’s mind than most? Again, what we can, I think, safely conclude is that Tolkien was horrified by Letters to Malcolm because he considered it to be anti-Catholic.
I personally think that Seddon is on to something when he attempts to draw out the connection between Narnia and Malcolm, but I am not convinced that all his conclusions are correct. Seddon says that the problem with Narnia hinges on Lewis’ conception of Aslan. Lewis tells us that the Lion “is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?'” So Alsan is neither an allegory of Christ or an indirect mythic reflection of Christ, but merely Christ under the guise of a Lion in a secondary world. Aslan is what Lewis calls a “supposal” of Christ.
Seddon then goes on to point out all the ways in which the Alsan character in Narnia fails to parallel the gospel accounts of Christ. For example, there is no Last Supper before the sacrifice of Aslan on the Stone Table. Seddon suggests that Tolkien would have found this repugnant.
I am not so sure that these inconsistencies would have been the crux of the matter for Tolkien. It seems more likely to me that Tolkien would have found Lewis’ supposal of a Christ in Narnia to be absurd from the outset and would never have dreamed of suggesting it as a literary possibility. Lewis’ proposal in se prevented him from creating a myth to Tolkien’s liking. If Tolkien preferred “feigned history” to allegory, as he said, how much more would Lewis’ “supposal” of the impossible Lion jar his sensibilities?
I don’t know what to make of all Seddon’s assertions about Lewis’ alleged heterodoxy, such as his Gnosticism and Subjectivism.; however, Lewis’ attitude toward the resurrection of the body, as it is expressed in Malcolm, does more than raise an eyebrow:
About the resurrection of the body. I agree with you that the old picture of the soul re-assuming the corpse–perhaps blown to bits or long since usefully dissipated through nature -is absurd. […] We are not, in this doctrine, concerned with matter as such at all; with waves and atoms and all that. What the soul cries out for is the resurrection of the senses. Even in this life matter would be nothing to us if it were not the source of sensations. […] At present we tend to think of the soul as somehow “inside” the body. But the glorified body of the resurrection as I conceive it–the sensuous life raised from death–will be inside the soul. […] “But this,” you protest, “is no resurrection of the body. You give the dead a sort of dream world and dream bodies. They are not real.” Surely neither less nor more real than those you have always known? You know better than I that the “real world” of our present experience (coloured, resonant, soft or hard, cool or warm, all corseted by perspective) has no place in the world described by physics or even by physiology. Matter enters our experience only by becoming sensation (when we perceive it) or conception (when we understand it). That is, by becoming soul. That element in the soul which it becomes will, in my view, be raised and glorified; the hills and valleys of Heaven will be to those you now experience not as a copy is to an original, nor as a substitute to the genuine article, but as a flower to the root, or the diamond to the coal. It will be eternally true that they originated with matter; let us therefore bless matter. But in entering our soul as alone it can enter–that is, by being perceived and known–matter has turned into soul (like Undines who acquired a soul by marriage with a mortal) (Malcolm 121-123).
Lewis’ theory is not consistent with Catholic doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which states that while the resurrected body will be transformed, it will still be a material body. Christ’s body after the resurrection is a real body, as He explicitly states: see my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have (Luke 24:39). Yet his body is also able to pass through the door of the upper room. He also disappears before the disciples with whom he breaks bread in Emmaus, and travels between places mysteriously and in times frames that cannot be accounted for by any natural explanation.
Lewis’ reduction of matter to thought through the resurrection of the body–no matter how much effort he makes to assure us that it is still tied to sense experience–is not compatible with the Catholic view. Defenders will be quick to point out that in his other writings Lewis clearly provides a more orthodox view of the material world. I am no expert, but it does seem to me that while Lewis does affirm the goodness of matter, he still tends to reduce it somehow to spirit.
I wonder, humbly and tentatively, if Lewis had wandered too far down the Neoplatonist path. It is clear that the literary Narnia is only a shadow of the real Narnia that is revealed at the end of The Last Battle, just as the our world is only a shadow of the spiritual realm. At the end of The Last Battle, as the true Narnia is revealed Professor Digory explains to Lucy: “Its all in Plato.”
It is true, our world does point to a higher world, but does that mean that this present world merely a shadow of the next? Both Tolkien and Lewis advocated for the escapism of myth. Tolkien said it was not escaping from something, but to something, to a higher reality. However, it is the platonic idea by which the material world is reduced to a mere shadow that seems problematic to me.
It is at least interesting to note different ways in which Tolkien and Lewis went about creating their secondary worlds. Both are influenced by Neoplatonism.
The history of Middle Earth is our prehistory, the codified oral traditions reaching far back into the memory of the elves. . . and hobbits. Tolkien has separated our primary world from his secondary world by the unbridgeable gap an almost unimaginable length of time. There is an ideal world of sorts, but it is not simultaneous with ours.
On the other hand, Narnia is a parallel universe to our own, existing simultaneously, even if time is measured differently in each universe. There are portals between the our primary world and the Lewis’ secondary world that ultimately lead to the real Narnia. If “its all in Plato,” as Digory says, then how platonic is it, really? Is our escape one into higher meaning and ultimately the transformation of material things, or is it something more than that?
Aside from the consideration of Tolkien’s perception of Lewis’ anti-Catholic views manifested in Letters to Malcolm, I wonder if his real concern over Narnia, as revealed by Malcolm, is an excessive Neoplatonism, something that makes a Catholic view of life impossible from the outset. I can see why this might raise concerns of Gnosticism; however, I only raise the question.