Did Tolkien Object to Narnia on Doctrinal Grounds?


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.

13 thoughts on “Did Tolkien Object to Narnia on Doctrinal Grounds?

  1. Whoa … you’ll need someone with graduate degrees in literature and philosophy for this one! Isn’t neo-platonism pagan? I’m surprised that Lewis would be involved with this. I see the connection between neo-platonism and gnosticism in that they both reject ‘material’ over spiritual but I just don’t see these tied to Lewis. However, I am NO literary or philosophy expert by ANY means so I will say no more. But, I’m disappointed … “Mere Christianity” is one of my all-time favorites. I knew he wasn’t Catholic but I always thought that his views were SO Catholic that all of the Catholic theologians gladly accepted his views. Again … this only relieves all that I clearly do not know.

  2. Ooops … typo. I said in my last sentence that this only ‘relieves’ what I don’t know … I meant ‘reveals’.

  3. It would be beneficial to understand what is meant by “neoplatonism” and “platonism” as they pertain to this article.

    I’m familiar with the 19th century invention of the word (neoplatonism) in which its use indicates the predilection of historians to divide periods in history, e.g., neo=new + platonic. From an historical perspective then, neoplatonism meant the “new phase” in the development of the Platonic tradition started by Plotinus in the 3rd century A.D. Plotinus, however, regarded himself simply as a “platonist” insofar as it pertains to the exposition and defense of the philosophical position. From a contemporary metaphysical perspective, “platonism” is the view that there exists abstract objects (non-spatial/non-temporal).

    I guess I’m wondering how neo-platonism = pagan (as put forth by Jennifer) or why platonism/neoplatonism have seemingly negative connotations from a theological perspective.

  4. Okay, I started questioning my memory but on the Catholic Encyclopedia, it states:

    It is of interest and importance, not merely because it is the last attempt of Greek thought to rehabilitate itself and restore its exhausted vitality by recourse to Oriental religious ideas, but also because it definitely entered the service of pagan polytheism and was used as a weapon against Christianity. It derives its name from the fact that its first representatives drew their inspiration from Plato’s doctrines, although it is well known that many of the treatises on which they relied are not genuine works of Plato. It originated in Egypt, a circumstance which would, of itself, indicate that while the system was a characteristic product of the Hellenistic spirit, it was largely influenced by the religious ideals and mystic tendencies of Oriental thought.

    So, I guess its beginnings were in paganism but it seems that it later became more of a spiritual over material philosophy. As for why there are negative connotations from a theological perspective, this is all new to me! It appears that as Catholics, we are to understand that the material part of our world is every bit as important as the spiritual … is this correct, Father Angelo? So that their denial of the material realm being part of our after-life goes contrary to our beliefs that the material IS part of our after-life. I took an intro to philosophy course over 20 yrs ago … lots of cobwebs here.

    I don’t know .. this pretty much exhausts my pathetic background on such topics! My head hurts now.

  5. Basically, the specific idea of Plato’s that I am referring to is illustrated by his allegory of the cave. Material things are only shadows of true reality. For Plato true reality belongs to the realm of universal ideas. Fluffy, Boots and Precious are all cats, but they are only shadows of the universal idea of CAT that exists only in the spiritual world.

    The universal idea, so important to philosophy and theology–to reason in general–for Neoplatonists, not only is the basis for philosophical knowledge, but exists separately from its shadows, so that Fluffy, Boots and Precious are not real cats, only shadows of the heavenly CAT.

    Plato’s notions have been used by the likes of St. Augustine, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure and so can be corrected. In fact the things of this world do point up, not only in terms of a Prime Mover, but also in terms of Infinite Good. But there are dangers.

    Platonism can lead to dualism, namely the idea that matter and spirit are radically opposed, that the real world is purely spiritual and the material world a sham at best, and at worst downright evil. Hence the association of Neoplatonism with Gnosticism.

    It is in the context of Lewis’ comments on the resurrection of the body that I bring up Platonism and its associations with Narnia.

    Lewis was not a pagan by any means. Please do not misconstrue me. I admire and enjoy much of Lewis’s writings, including Narnia, but I certainly do not think he is beyond criticism. In any case, I am only trying to get to the bottom of what was Tolkien’s view of the matter.

  6. Does anyone have an old college English prof that they’re still in touch with? There was a Tolkien course taught at my college a couple of decades ago by a Jesuit, I believe. I wonder if he still teaches it and whether this is something he’s researched before. I can’t believe that someone doesn’t know more on this. It is quite fascinating. Father, didn’t you have some books in the library from Tolkien’s son? I wonder if he knows more.

  7. On http://www.literarytraveler.com, I found some interesting comments about the Lewis-Tolkien friendship and later falling-out. It doesn’t discuss the neoplatonism but it’s still a good read:

    Tolkien’s logic was enough to persuade Lewis to become a Christian. But to Tolkien’s dismay, Jack chose to join the Anglican Church. This didn’t sit well with Tolkien, who was a Catholic. Tolkien had helped Lewis see the light, but Jack’s fame and celebrity, which arrived soon after, was at odds with Tolkien’s quiet and devout ways. Lewis popularity as “Everyman’s Theologian,” as Tolkien put it, was disturbing. He had become a disappointment.

    Tolkien wrote in 1964, “We saw less and less of one another after he came under the dominant influence of Charles Williams,” a writer who Tolkien perceived as a wedge between himself and Lewis, “and still less after his very strange marriage.” That marriage was to Joy Gresham, unacceptable to Tolkien because she was divorced and American. Though Tolkien later called Lewis “his closest friend from about 1927 to 1940,” by the early 1950s, their friendship had soured.

    http://www.cslewis.org mentions some stuff on neoplatonism but, alas, I’m too tired to look at it.

  8. Thank you father for your explanation. However, new questions arise regarding your statement, “For Plato true reality belongs to the realm of universal ideas.”

    In the Allegory of the Cave we get Plato’s view of the difference between those who claim knowledge but only know the particular things of sense experience and those whose knowledge is of universal principles. So, for the prisoners in the cave their reality is the shadows. They do not want to hear (from the freed prisoner, in this case) that what they think is reality is only a dim shadow of the real.

    The allegory itself is viewed as having many levels of meanings.

    Firstly, Plato uses it to explain why the Athenians execute his teacher Socrates. Socrates was, of course, accused of corrupting the youth by questioning the accepted explanations for things. People, Plato contends, are happy in their ignorance. They resent those who force them to recognize that they are ignorant. Meaning, that philosophers were (and maybe still are?) viewed with suspicion.

    Secondly, Plato’s view of philosophy is characterized as a time-consuming and difficult way of life (as shown in the long and difficult ascent from the cave). Knowing the Forms is not easy but it is possible and Plato describes the proper preparation for the pursuit of knowledge. Basically, through refined careful questioning one can arrive at a better definition which leads us closer to the truth we seek.

    Lastly, the allegory gives us Plato’s view of knowledge and reality. The Forms or general principles of things are the proper objects of knowledge. So Plato thought society’s rulers should be philosophically trained, for they would seek the good of society and would not be misled by a search for fame, fortune, or wealth.

    These things do not seem like ideals so I’d contend that Plato’s “true reality” was not a universal idea but the pursuit of knowledge, a true “love of wisdom.” I’ve read somewhere that Plato himself would most likely not endorse the view of “platonism”. Funny.

    Interesting topic father. I honestly didn’t know (or forgot) that Lewis was an Anglican and I have no doubt that were I to have a friend whom I helped develop their christian foundation only to have them miss the mark as it were I would be quite disappointed both in my friend and myself.

  9. Pingback: Tolkien’s Objection to Narnia - An Essay by Fr. Angelo « ~{Catholic Discussion Blog }~

  10. Evan,

    Excellent comment.

    I used the word Neoplatonism to denote the fact that Plato is variously interpreted by his followers, and often in a way that he arguably would have disagreed with. As I said above the holy Doctors of the Church have used Plato’s ideas successfully, but it has its dangers.

    One of those dangers is the fact (I don’t think it is disputed) of the separate existence of the universal forms, so that, according to Plato, there are not only individual dogs and cats, but a real Dogness and Catness, spiritual realities that are more real than Rover and Fluffy. This idea is not correct, and has led to dualism.

    I am by no means an expert on Lewis, and tread lightly when it comes to criticizing an intellect of his gargantuan stature, but I think the article of Seddon does raise some burning questions.

    The quote from Tolkien in which he mentions both Narnia and Letters to Malcolm is a compelling indication that for him the two works shared the same spirit. I was not, however, impressed with the argument that the “supposed” Lion was inconsistent because he did not do all the things that Christ in the Gospel did, or that the simple absence Catholic truths, such as the Eucharist, would have been the fundamental reason Tolkien had no sympathy for Lewis’ fantasy.

    I personally found the passage of Lewis from Malcolm about the resurrection of the body to be the most disturbing element, and it does appear to me to be a bit Neoplatonic in a dualistic sense. This leads me to wonder if Narnia is much more explicitly a Neoplatonic construction, which a “Mere Christianity” could easily suffer, but which a Catholic Christianity could not. Tolkien’s construction of Middle Earth, I think, is much more careful.

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  12. Pingback: Is Tolkien’s Fantasy Gnostic? | Mary Victrix

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