“So Multifarious and So True”: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring

colbert is a tolkien nerdC.S. Lewis was the first Tolkien nerd. He was certainly not the last. Middle Earth geeks roam the land, tucking into coffee shop corners with beat up Ballantine editions of The Silmarillion or greeting one another in Quenya at insurance seminars. I’ve had conversations about obscure Tolkien interviews while waiting to use a 20% off coupon at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I’ve watched academics leave their long bows and magic swords at the door for paper presentations on Tolkien speculative geography. Once one Ringer spots another, the wheels of fate are set in motion.

In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for C.S. Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Every true LoTRian would have envied Lewis and his friends as, over several years, Tolkien read early drafts of his books out loud in college rooms and crowded pubs. While not all the Inklings were converted Tolkienites, Lewis immediately saw its potential. From his first read of The Hobbit, he committed himself to boosting Tolkien’s work for the world.

Lord of the Rings and HobbitUpon its release, Lewis provided a glowing review of The Hobbit for The Times, and also published one in The Times Literary Supplement, the UK’s “it spot” for discussing literature. His closing paragraph resounds still:

For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. “Alice” is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; “The Hobbit,” on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but “The Hobbit” may well prove a classic.

No one was more anxious to see the “new Hobbit”–what would become the Lord of the Rings–come to print than C.S. Lewis. In his 1945 That Hideous Strength, he links his fictional world to Tolkien’s, promising in the preface that the Lord of the Rings was nigh:

Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien.

Diana Pavlac Glyer-The_Company_They_KeepTolkienists will immediately see Lewis’ mistake in the spelling of Númenor. Tolkien later addressed this in a letter: “The spelling Numinor is due to his hearing it and not seeing it” (Letters of Tolkien 224). But the gaff–both in the spelling, but also in over-estimating Tolkien’s ability to let his work go to print with even the slightest detail out of place–does not mean that Lewis was disengaged. He wrapped his Ransom Cycle up into the story of Númenor, and he worked with Tolkien on various drafts of LOTR. He critiqued the work, and Tolkien often worked to integrate Lewis’ suggestions (see Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep).

When Tolkien finally let his manuscripts go to the publisher, Lewis began working to promote the books. He wrote “The Gods Return to Earth,” a review of The Fellowship of the Ring for Time and Tide. A year later he followed up with a review of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, also in Time and Tide, called “The Dethronement of Power.” Lewis reveled in the fact that “now that all six [books] are before us the very high architectural quality of the romance is revealed” (Image and Imagination 105). At this point, Lewis is not only an Oxford Don, but a Cambridge Professor and the author of the complete Chronicles of Narnia. His voice had some resonance even then.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienLewis also wrote a “blurb” for the cover of The Fellowship of the Ring. The publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, had taken a great risk in publishing LOTR. Though a new generation of Tolkienesque fantasy abounds, it is at the time an unprecedented work of art, a project in world-building never before attempted at this scope. Unwin may have passed it over if not for the encouragement of his son, who as a child had predicted The Hobbit would be a hit. We all know how quickly LOTR became a bestseller, but the publisher could not have imagined even a hundredth of the readership it has received. So he turned to the Narnian, C.S. Lewis, for support.

Lewis was enthusiastic:

I would willingly do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves. Wd. the enclosed be any use? If not, tell me, and I will try again. I can’t tell you how much we think of your House for publishing it (Dec 4th 1953 letter).

Though he cautioned Tolkien against using the blurb–“I am certainly a much, and perhaps an increasingly, hated man whose name might do you more harm than good” (Dec 7th 1953 letter)–Lewis took the time to write it. Here is what Lewis sent to Unwin:

It would be almost safe to say that no book like this has ever been written. If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness. No imaginary world has been projected which is at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws; none so seemingly objective, so disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology; none so relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory. And what fine shading there is in the variations of style to meet the almost endless diversity of scenes and characters–comic, homely, epic, monstrous, or diabolic!

the one ringThe part I have bolded is a profound statement by a fantasy writer who clearly is thinking about how we build fictional universes. It is intriguing that Lewis who wrote (or chose to write) such a leaky world like Narnia, saw the value and potential of an integrated world like Eä. There are gaps. As was pointed out in a recent blog, “potatoes” would have been hard to find in Tolkien’s timeline of Middle Earth history. But, overall, Tolkien’s strength is his ability to integrate conceptual depth with narrative breadth and a refined literary art.

The Ariosto reference will connect with very few today, but overall it is an impressive statement. As it turns out, Tolkien and Unwin did use the blurb on the dust jacket flap. It is difficult to know if it was helpful to some readers. Soon, readership took on a life of its own. I do not know if this blurb is on the cover of any of the other early LOTR editions. It was soon unnecessary, as positive reviews from leading papers throughout the world were there to recommend this comic, homely, epic, monstrous, diabolic masterpiece. But it demonstrates C.S. Lewis’ consistent support of Tolkien, and his keen eye in being able to spot the things that Tolkien nerds have loved ever since.

Fellowship of the Ring 1st edition dust jacket

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to “So Multifarious and So True”: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring

  1. As an avid reader of both Tolkien and Lewis, I appreciated this glimpse into their friendship and support of one another. And as a writer, I found myself thinking of my own writer friends who support me and encourage me and offer sound advice, and how invaluable that is to me. Thanks for taking the time to write this. It really struck a chord with me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s brilliant–both the encouragement and the image of your sharing-support group. It is essential for writers, I think, but also poets, artists, lovers, movers, and hopers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        When I got to grad school, there was no inconsiderable attention paid to the theses of The Anxiety of Influence (Bloom) and The Burden of the Past (Bate). It is lovely, rereading your post, “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends”, and this comment of thegatheringfire, to see her and Tolkien’s outspoken gratitude!

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        • I haven’t read Bate, but just finished struggling with Bloom as a sidebar in a longish paper on Lewisian intertextuality. It is good anxiety, I think! Lewis thought that good writing was layered writing, like an architect adding on to a cathedral.

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you! I feel sure I’ve read this blurb before, but, if so, I did not remember “none so relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory.” Wow! At the outset, Lewis in fact doing his best to preempt the allegorizers – apparently, with little success. (And, how usual or unusual was such a reference to ‘relevance’, then, I wonder?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think–and I could be wrong–the word “relevant” for Lewis was nothing more than an adjective. It lacked the buzz-word quality, as if relevance was a good in an of itself. That he said it of Tolkien may have been to counter the perceived irrelevance of a romance in a technocratic age.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Whatever the buzz-word-ization history of ‘relvance’/’relevant’ may be, these are two very fine and persuasive observations, as far as I can see!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “The Ariosto reference will connect with very few today”: and with how many when The Fellowship came out, I wonder? There were various English translations of Orlando Furioso for those whose Italian was not up to the original (and how available was it?), but I suspect they were not common outside very good libraries. I wonder if Lewis had heard advanced news of A.H. Gilbert’s prose translation which came out in 1954? And, I wonder if more people have gotten the chance to get acquainted since Penguin brought out Barbara Reynolds translation in the 1970s than maybe ever before? Having a look at Internet Archive, I found that at least some children of the Tolkien-Lewis generation on both sides of the Atlantic would have had a chance to make some second-hand acquaintance thanks to selected retellings by H.C. Hollway-Calthorp in Paladin & Saracen: Stories from Ariosto (London: Macmillan, 1882) and “a Lady” in Tales from Ariosto Retold for Children (Boston: Roberts, 1880). (Funnily enough, I remember asking the (Italian) Tolkien-loving friend who ended up getting me past the Ballantine emus to try him, if Tolkien’s Orcs were like Ariosto’s sea-montrous one – which I had encountered thanks to Richard Hodgens selection in Lin Carter’s 1970 anthology Golden Cities, Far.)

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    • To be honest, I never even heard of Ariosto until I read C.S. Lewis’ “Allegory of Love.”
      Reading the poetic Edda in Dodds’ (not you, another, Jeramy Dodds) new translation really filled in the background of Middle Earth for me–more the mythology than the hall tales.

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  4. mdellert says:

    Reblogged this on MDellert-dot-Com and commented:
    What a great article on the amazing relationship between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

    Like

  5. tom hillman says:

    It is is testimony both to their friendship and to Lewis’ high regard for Tolkien’s work that he went to such lengths to foster and promote it. When you compare the blurb he wrote to the thoughtless or ironic mailed-in blurbs of today — one on the latest unputdownable book of 2013, “the best book I have read this century,” springs to mind — it is at once clear how literate, how learned, how thoughtful, and how on point he is. But that was Lewis.

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    • This is well put, Tom–both the note about friendship, but also the skill of the blurb. Really impressive, really. Lewis wanted to be a poet, and people mostly read him for his fiction, but I think it is his literary criticism in prose that shines.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “Lewis wanted to be a poet, and people mostly read him for his fiction, but I think it is his literary criticism in prose that shines.” Wow – very interesting! It would be good to see this, or something like it, developed and explored with relation to the Four Best-Known Inklings, Lewis, Barfield, Tolkien, and Williams – the places in the lives of each of writing poetry, prose fiction, and critical non-fiction prose (and their interactions with respect to all three).

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        • You are right, but I don’t have the depth to do it. My limited reading of Barfield would suggest that Poetic Diction & Saving Appearances is better than his fiction, but real Barfiledians could tell us better. Williams’ Beatrice and Dove have that level, but I’m not sure they are better than the best of his fiction or poetry. And his partial Arthurian book–is it just me, or is it just very good (rather than great)? I would love to achieve very good, but that’s my thought.
          Tolkien, though: I think his fiction is better than his nonfiction. Even if I include the mythology as “nonfiction”, I still prefer the fiction. And his poetry is not strong.
          Good question though.

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  6. Jared Lobdell says:

    I’d say Lewis excelled at elegy and satire and his fascination with verse forms militated against writing elegy in verse. “The Close of the Middle Ages in Scotland” may be his best elegiac writing, and De Descriptione Temporum manages almost seamless joining of satire and elegy (and wit). Barfield was a philosopher, and his fiction has mostly only recently been published; Williams was a poet and theologian and general essayist (and most of his prose and most of his poetry tends toward the obscure, the meaning — or even what happens — in his short story “Et In Sempiternam Pereat” being largely hidden: Tolkien wrote first-rate literary criticism/history, but not so much of it, though there’s a bit still unpublished I think. Lewis wrote more literary criticism/history than Tolkien, but not necessarily better (if they’re even strictly comparable). Descent of the Dove is eminently quotable and The Figure of Beatrice is important in Dante studies (I think), but I don’t think they re-read as well as the novels or (some of) the verse. I try to keep in mind the distinction between verse and poetry here. And in my view, Owen wasn’t truly a member of the Inklings, though always welcome. Not so much a member as CSL, CWSW#, JRRT — or Christopher Tolkien or John Wain later on, or Gervase Mathew, or originally and early on, Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Lord David Cecil, or Charles Wrenn — all good critics and swcholars, and Coghill perhaps even a poet.

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    • Jared, thanks for the note. I thought your 18th c. context for Lewis was good. Since reading it I’ve been trying to recover a century missing in my reading.
      I am reading the Cambridge inaugural talk again this week, so I’ll watch for that.
      I do extend the Inklings for the sake of conversation. My interest is CSL & JRRT and those that spin in their world (before, during, and after).
      I wouldn’t want to compare Lewis & Tolkien’s lit criticism/lit theory. To be honest, I’m not ever sure when reading either one on areas where they overlap who came up with that idea totally. I wonder if their theories of myth, legend, creativity, art, fiction, fantasy emerged together. We see where Tolkien leads, and Lewis, but I don’t think it is absolute.
      I think that Lewis is a more inversive writer. His ability to see upside down informs his literary criticism, his humour, his fiction. And some of his poetry.
      Why do you think verse form restricts elegy?

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      • Jared Lobdell says:

        Not the form so much as the fascination with form — and the point was suggested to me by Ruth Pitter (not personally but in a note she wrote on a Lewis letter I think). Gray’s Elegy is v. simple in form, Raleigh’s great “O Eloquent Just and Mighty Death” is in prose. Blank verse works. Benet in John Brown’s Body mixes forms, on the whole successfully, and he’s Lewis’s contemporary — but they’re simple forms and not many, and it’s partly a question of rhythm, I think — one of these days I’ll try to work that out more fully. Lewis’s verse isn’t or at least doesn’t sound natural. And by the way, Kipling’s finest lyric is his least characteristic — the road through the woods — on the same principle, don’t you think? And one reason the Inklings got along was similarity in thought (for many) as well as of interest, and Lewis and Tolkien (and Coghill and Dyson and … and … — I’ll get back to you on that). It does make it difficult to assign priority of thought — as a short-cut, if I can’t find reason to believe the contrary, I assign priority in The Alle4gory of Love and the OHEL volume to Lewisw’s esemplastic imagination. But generally I don’t assign priority to Lewis over Tolkien o — or Coghill or Dyson or Williams and certainly not Barfield. More later

        Liked by 1 person

        • I like the word “esemplastic”–I hadn’t thought of it. I am not a genius, or even very good. But I do have the ability to see who two things fit together–often when others don’t see it that way. Perhaps that’s the genius of Stephen King in his fiction.
          And it is resonant of Lewis’s approach. Well done. I think “humour” sits at the base of his approach to writing, criticism, and cultural theology.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      We had a very interesting paper presented to us once in the Oxford Lewis Society by the late Alan Bliss surveying Tolkien’s scholarly publications – how Tolkien was (or could be) known as a writer and thinker prior to, and outside, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: a varied and impressive body of work.

      Perhaps best known, most influential in various ways, and a delight to read and reread (with ever new discoveries of depth and richness of thought), are “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy Stories”. (He seems to have been astonishingly casual about having brought the latter to publication – though I am not ‘up’ on all the details.)

      Liked by 1 person

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