Letters to Malcolm and the Trouble with Narnia: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Their 1949 Crisis

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IN THE EARLY SPRING OF 1949, C.S. Lewis read part of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, still in manuscript, to J.R.R. Tolkien. Expecting enthusiasm from his longtime friend and colleague, he received instead what would remain Tolkien's permanent dismissal of the work. The assessment was blunt and unequivocal: Tolkien deemed the book almost worthless--a carelessly written jumble of unrelated mythologies. He simply detested it (Sayer 312, 313). Although shaken by this terse and unexpected verdict, Lewis later sought the opinion of Roger Lancelyn Green, whose encouragement lead to the ultimate decision to finish the book (Green & Hooper, 241). It went on to become one of Lewis's best sellers. The first of what eventually became The Chronicles of Narnia, it has been continuously in print ever since. Now half a century from its first publication, the place of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe seems increasingly remarkable. Like The Lord of the Rings it remains embraced and even celebrated by a society steadily annexed by secular values. Its success both in book sales and, more recently, at the box office have even resulted in the somewhat bizarre spectacle of secular critics writing polemical tracts attempting to marginalize, if not deny, the Christian elements of the plot. (1) Thus Narnia's success has remained somewhat oddly stunning--the greatest testimony to its place in literature being this steady endurance in the public imagination, despite the societal shifts since its first publication.

It can therefore seem, at least superficially, that Tolkien's opinion was not simply wrong, but ridiculously wrong. If ever there was any problem with Narnia, the sales history of the work would indicate that it was entirely Tolkien's. This, in fact, has functioned as the underlying assumption of much subsequent scholarly opinion. Moreover, the crisis of 1949 (2) has been identified as a contributing factor to the waning of the two men's friendship, with Tolkien considered primarily to blame. Professional jealousy, artistic narrowness, and even personal complexity as a man are supposed to have conspired against his appreciation of Narnia. He has been portrayed as envious of Lewis's writing speed, annoyed by his popular success, and offended by Lewis's appropriation of his own ideas and mythic histories. Finally, it has been suggested that there was a disagreement regarding the nature and rigors of mythopoeic writing between the two-that Tolkien slaved over every detail of a long gestating masterwork, while Lewis churned out commercially successful books which might have been deemed less scrupulous in craft (Carpenter, Tolkien 201; Sayer 313). Yet despite some compelling aspects of these theories, they seem unconvincing when considered in the broader context of their friendship and careers.

In his 1988 analysis of the Narnia crisis, Joe R. Christopher presents a closely reasoned argument against many of the assumptions surrounding Tolkien's supposed annoyance at both Lewis's writing speed and the borrowing of his own mythopoeic ideas. Christopher pays particular attention to the intellectual provenance of the theories, tracing many of them back to Humphrey Carpenter's interpretations of Tolkien's feelings. He concludes that "four or five motives which Carpenter attributes to Tolkien probably should be taken more as Carpenter's interpretations than as Tolkien's reasons [for rejecting Narnia]." (Christopher Part I 39). The present paper offers no quarrel with this conclusion, but rather adds the following argument: If Tolkien had been truly disturbed by his friend's prodigious output, a simple chronological listing of Lewis's works begs the question as to why he would draw the line in 1949. The fact is that, in the late 1930s and '40s, Lewis produced books at what can only be described as an astonishing rate, among them Out of the Silent Planet (1938), The Problem of Pain (1940), A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), The Screwtape Letters (1942), Perelandra (1943), That Hideous Strength (1945), The Great Divorce (1946), and Miracles (1947). …


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