One of the assignments that I give my students, adapted from the late C.S. Lewis scholar Dr. Bruce Edwards, is for students to get into groups and sketch out an 8th Chronicle of Narnia in the form of a book proposal or film treatment. It is always a rewarding assignment for both me and the students. Students may insert another court tale like The Horse and His Boy, explore the background of Puddleglum or the secret history of Tumnus, or spend time thinking about “The Problem of Susan,” as Neil Gaiman called it. As students creatively integrate their reading experience, artistic talents, and writerly instincts, I have never failed to enjoy reading these assignments. Plus, it helps students think through the process of the creation of Narnia and some effective ways to read the series.
And the assignment fits pretty well with Lewis’ view of the matter. Lewis approved of teachers reading the books with students and playing dramatically with the content (see the 2 Nov 1956 to Walter Hooper). Letters to Children is filled with notes about Narnia, including moments where Lewis encourage children to continue his Narnia tradition:
The Kilns, Kiln Lane,
29th March 1961
Dear Jonathan Muehl,
Yours is one of the nicest letters I have had about the Narnian books, and it was very good of you to write it. But I’m afraid there will be no more of these stories. But why don’t you try writing some Narnian tales? I began to write when I was about your age, and it was the greatest fun. Do try!
With all best wishes,
C. S. Lewis
8 Sept 62
I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself? And why not write stories yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I’ve left you plenty of hints–especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!
All good wishes.
C. S. Lewis
Even with the thing most troubling to fans–Susan’s excision from Narnia–Lewis invited readers to write up the story of her return to Narnia (see the 19 Feb 1960 letter to Pauline Bannister). When you read through his letters, you see that Lewis has a pretty loose view of intellectual property.
The same is not the case with J.R.R. Tolkien’s later work. Delighted to have The Hobbit in print, from the time it became popular through the two decades of working on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien worked to ensure that his text was as accurate as possible. It drove him crazy when people carelessly “corrected” his spelling and grammar (see the 4 August 1953 letter to Christopher Tolkien). If Tolkien thought that this would be a great obstacle for him to deal with, he underestimated the response of the world to LOTR. Almost as soon as it was clear LOTR would sell, it was pirated in America. Tolkien took some months to create an authorized American edition, but many North Americans read about Númenor and the war of the ring for the first time in copies that Tolkien was never paid for.
Then there were the fan fiction requests. This letter to his publisher is among the spiciest of Tolkien’s responses to the phenomenon, filled with a sense of defeat and somewhat lacking in the open approach that Lewis had to his fans.
12 December 1966
76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford
Dear Miss Hill,
I send you the enclosed impertinent contribution to my troubles. I do not know what the legal position is, I suppose that since one cannot claim property in inventing proper names, that there is no legal obstacle to this young ass publishing his sequel, if he could find any publisher, either respectable or disreputable, who would accept such tripe.
I have merely informed him that I have forwarded his letter and samples to you. I think that a suitable letter from Allen & Unwin might be more effective than one from me. I once had a similar proposal, couched in the most obsequious terms, from a young woman, and when I replied in the negative, I received a most vituperative letter.
With best wishes,
J. R. R. Tolkien.
Vituperative indeed. It is notes like this that has created a tentative approach to fan fiction within Tolkien and Inklings scholarship. And is there an author that has created more fan fiction and shadow books that Tolkien? There are memorial volumes, like After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien (1992), and careful disciples like Guy Gavriel Kay‘s The Fionavar Tapestry (1984), but copies of Tolkien’s style, atmosphere, and his elfin invention are myriad and quite varied in quality. Tolkien and Lewis each created a new framework for writing fantasy in the late 20th century, but the degree to which Tolkien’s vision has inspired and impelled fans to write similarly is unparalleled.
Lewis’ relative ease in the face of fan response has a context. If Lewis had faced the pressures that Tolkien felt from early fans, publishers, and pirates, he may have responded differently. Both Lewis and Tolkien were skeptical that film could capture their authorial vision–were they correct? Lewis discouraged stage productions of The Screwtape Letters, encouraging them to simply adopt the “general diabolical framework” and create their own stories. Lewis and Tolkien each attempted to exert editorial control over translations, and Lewis resisted what he considered “fundamentalist” appropriations of his work (see the 9 May 1960 letter to his publisher).
And certainly the Lewis estate did not retain a completely open approach to publishing (as can be expected). Someone did write an 8th Narnian chronicle on the topic of Susan–a Carmelite nun, it turns outs, with the title The Centaur’s Cavern–and it is rumoured to have been denied permission to print. I have read authors that have quietly looped Narnian elements or Tolkienesque elves into their work to good effect. And I generally love intertextual looping. Still, I have little hope that The Centaur’s Cavern and the 30 or 40 others like it out there would be any good.
While Lewis and Tolkien each had their own feelings about how their work was met in the world, I don’t think either of them could have imagined today’s world of fan fiction, spurred on by the digital connectivity that our technology allows. And I’m hardly the person to speak critically about the field. My students get it and they write excellent papers about fanfic, but I just don’t know it well enough. Reading comments by Lewis and Tolkien, though, stirs up opposing feelings.
For one, I feel both rebellious against editorial control and yet I am grateful when the work is protected from idiotic things (see the Anne thing below or what could appear on the right).
And I also wonder if my ignorance of fan fiction has been given to me by osmosis rather than critically chosen. What am I missing? I’d love to know.
Here is a couple of pictures I smooshed together of interpretations of Anne in the Anne of Green Gables series. Anyone who has read the story knows what Anne should look like. Should it be the thin, (sort of) homely, red-headed orphan on the right (Kevin Sullivan’s film), or the blond, buxom, “come-hither” farm-girl on the left (the Amazon print edition)? Perhaps copyright control isn’t totally a bad thing.