Disparaging Narnia: Reconsidering Tolkien's View of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Article excerpt

It is well-known that Tolkien disliked The Chronicles of Narnia, but what were his reasons? They appear to be complex and manifold. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we have only one (published) statement from Tolkien on the matter, and it remains ambiguous at best. Writing in 1964, he observes, "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" (Letters 352). This tells us almost nothing. My intention in this article is to come to terms with why Tolkien disliked Narnia. Many reasons have been offered, but it is not always easy to separate the facts from the fancy; more often than not, the lines between the two have been blurred. I will begin by reconsidering the secondhand accounts of Roger Lancelyn Green, Nan C.L. Scott, and George Sayer; Tolkien evidently told each of them at different times why he disliked Narnia. Second, I will defend Humphrey Carpenter's accounts in Tolkien and The Inklings, although several scholars have called them into question. Finally, I wish to introduce and analyze an unpublished letter in which Tolkien briefly discusses Narnia.

The most well-known secondhand account is certainly Green's. In 1974, he published a joint biography with Walter Hooper entitled C.S. Lewis: A Biography. In it, Green recalls that after Lewis had shared the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with Tolkien, "who had disliked it intensely," Lewis then read it to Green. Shortly after, Tolkien saw Green and remarked, "I hear you've been reading Jack's [Lewis's] children's story. It really won't do, you know! I mean to say: 'Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun'. Doesn't he know what he's talking about?" (qtd. in Green and Hooper 241). (1) Green provides no explanation of what Tolkien meant; however, this has not prevented critics from interpreting Tolkien's comment.

Joe R. Christopher observes that Nymphs and their Ways is one of the books which appears on Mr. Tumnus's bookcase in Chapter II of The Lion. According to Christopher, Tolkien was bothered by this scene because Lewis was distorting and sentimentalizing the myth ("Narnian Exile" 41). He suggests, "[I]f Lucy had really met a faun--that is, a satyr--the result would have been a rape, not a tea party" (Christopher, C.S. Lewis 111). Hence, the reason Tolkien alludes to The Love-life of a Faun--a book that doesn't actually appear on Mr. Tumnus's bookcase but is absurd all the same. In short, Lewis failed to maintain the mythical archetype of fauns as lustful.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Christopher's argument certainly seems valid. In contrast to Lewis, Tolkien preserved the traditional qualities of his races in The Lord of the Rings. In Appendix F, he notes that dwarfs have "at last" been relegated "to nonsense-stories in which they have become mere figures of fun"; he has employed the unconventional plural dwarves to "remove them a little, perhaps, from the sillier tales of these latter days" (1137). He comments similarly on the notion of elves: "This old word was indeed the only one available, and was once fitted to apply to such memories of this people as Men preserved [...]. But it has been diminished, and to many it may now suggest fancies either pretty or silly, as unlike to the Quendi of old as are butterflies to the falcon" (1137). Rather than adopt the modern notions of these races, popularized in such works as J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Tolkien sought to restore the historical integrity of these beings, found in such works as the Volsunga saga, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (2)

Lewis did not take the same approach towards his stories. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, he suggests that "mythical poetry ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients" but "[w]hat it does with the ingredients may be as novel as you please" (54). …