It is a question that has been nagging me for some time: Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?
By this, I do not mean any particular insult to Lewis scholars. I am one, in fact. As I note in some of other writing in various places, we have critical Lewis work of significant note Colin Manlove, Charles Huttar, Gilbert Meilaender, Paul Ford, Marsha Daigle-Williamson, David Downing, Diana Pavlac Glyer, Corbin Scott Carnell, Joe Christopher, Edith Humphrey, Charlie Starr, Monika Hilder, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Don King, Don Williams … oh, and Michael Ward, who some folks might have heard of. Plus the ones I have forgotten, and some that you may appreciate that I haven’t fully considered.
Beyond these critical scholars who have written books of note, there are dozens of really important journal articles. There are also some cool theses now nearly lost in the stacks and interesting popular work by folks like philosopher Peter Kreeft, professor Devin Brown, or pastor Will Vaus. Even listing them–and I have altogether left out the biographers, resource-makers, editors, reception studies scholars, those engaged with Lewis and philosophical thought, and writers of particular studies–puts me in some danger, for a reason that I note below. And there is some work I haven’t gotten to yet, like Steven Beebe’s work on rhetoric (okay, I peeked) or the writing on Lewis and education (except Joel Heck’s book).
There are some truly terrible C.S. Lewis studies and popular books, too, though I don’t care to list them here. I’m sure these exist for J.R.R. Tolkien as well. However, I think it is more likely that novelists will write terrible Middle-earthish novels than popularizers bowdlerize Tolkien’s thought, popularize him beyond recognition, or otherwise measure him for peculiar procrustean beds.
Though I think the biographies between the two most popular Inklings are largely comparable, there is a rich current within the best of Tolkien studies that is remarkable. I simply have never encountered something in Lewis studies like Verlyn Flieger‘s Splintered Light–a lyrically beautiful critical study, tight and thematically vibrant, invested in the entire corpus and yet completely accessible as a single study of light and darkness, word and language, using two of Tolkien’s lectures to focus the material (Meilaender’s study of Lewis is close, but not as beautifully written). Is there an historical Lewis study comparable to John Garth‘s Tolkien and the Great War? Is there a parallel within Lewis studies to the strong medievalist approach to and with Tolkien? Has there been a Lewis scholar with the prestige (and accent, well, maybe accent) of Tom Shippey–not just an Oxford and Cambridge scholar, but one who is quite literally Tolkien’s successor as a medievalist? And then there are the linguists and lexicographers: there is nothing like them in the world of literary studies, I think, let alone any study like these attending to Lewis’ work in any particular way (except perhaps Joel Heck’s chronology).
Go further: take a look at, say, the Palgrave Macmillan catalogue of Tolkien studies and compare it with any imprint with a Lewis catalogue and you can see the difference in scholarly quality of the field as a hold. Or look at the last 5 years of nominees for the Mythopoeic Awards for Inklings Scholarship. It is hard to compare, frankly.
Without denigrating the good Lewis scholarship or neglecting the fact that Lewis scholars have created great popular-level materials, how do we account for the differences? Here are some of my theories as a conversation starter. In Part 1, I talk about four moments in Tolkien readership that resulted in bursts of creative scholarly energy. In Part 2, I take the daring approach of comparing and contrasting the work of Lewis and Tolkien. And in Part 3, I look at other factors, focusing especially on the tools and techniques that Lewis and Tolkien scholars have used.
I have not done anything like a full scan of Tolkien scholarship, so feel free to critique my reasons or enhance my understanding of Inklings studies. You are welcome to use the comment section or social media to challenge me or develop an idea further. If you want to write an essay in response proving me wrong or right, I’ll even give you space here to publish it (if it is well-written). But this is what I would offer as a coffee-time, conversation-starting set of reasons why the fields are different.
1. Tolkien and Lewis Fandoms: The First Break in Tolkien Scholarship
Lewis and Tolkien’s fiction has different paths in both the public and in literary studies. As Stephanie Derrick relates in her 2018 reception study, The Fame of C.S. Lewis, Lewis’ growth in popularity was slow, beginning with some note and notoriety for Lewis with Screwtape, then growth of his public profile, and finally a slow evolution of the importance of his Chronicles of Narnia in public view. In particular, it was America that seized upon Lewis as a literary light, especially in education and the Christian community. The UK was begrudging in its acceptance, so that Lewis only received a degree of admiration in the new century. By contrast, Tolkien’s popularity after the publication of The Lord of the Rings was explosive. From “Frodo Lives” movements to local societies, the commitment of Tolkien readers has been clear.
As a result, many of the 25+ posthumously published Lewis volumes and the many reprints are popular and accessible books, largely pitched to Christian readers and thus very essay-laden. Meanwhile, the 25+ posthumously published Tolkien volumes are mostly careful, scholarly tomes of archival materials that contribute to the single Middle-earth legendarium or to Tolkien’s artistic formation. While there are fans in both camps, Lewis readers of these books-after-life gifts to us are largely people trying to grow in their faith or clarify their worldview; Tolkien readers are, simply, nerds. Tolkien scholarship, then, has a built-in early-days rigour to it that Lewis studies did not need.
2. Tolkien and Lewis as Literary Scholars: The Second Break in Tolkien Scholarship
In the highbrow field of literary studies, the situation is more complex for two reasons: Lewis and Tolkien’s own literary scholarship and the question of whether Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are “literature.” First the question of Tolkien and Lewis as scholars.
Lewis and Tolkien are each regarded as having made small-but-significant contributions in their respective field: Lewis in the literary history of the 16th and 17th centuries and Tolkien in Beowulf studies. In my reading of things, Tolkien’s work has had more critical engagement than scholars working with Lewis. Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost is probably read more often than Tolkien’s Beowulf lecture. In scholarship, however, the Preface is merely there as an interesting point of conversation and an accessible introduction to the poem. It seems to me that medievalists and Beowulf scholars take time to wrestle with the gauntlet that Tolkien threw down in his Beowulf essay far more than Milton scholars take Lewis’ argument serious. Thus, Tolkien’s scholarship seems to invite deeper conversation than Lewis’, which is helpful and enjoyable but does not change the nature of the game as much.
However, I think that these differences are enhanced by the fact that Lewis scholars have not always been attentive enough to what Lewis is doing on a theoretical level. Beyond these two contributions to Milton and Beowulf studies, I don’t think there is any doubt that Tolkien has been more influential in fantasy studies (with his “On Fairy-stories” lecture/essay). However, I think that scholars have simply missed the degree to which Lewis is creating a metacritical framework of thinking about speculative world-building. Likewise, Tolkien is more well-discussed in medieval studies, for excellent reasons. But I argue in my chapter in The Inklings and King Arthur that Lewis is undervalued in thinking about intertextuality, and I argue in my PhD thesis that Lewis suggests a theory of literature that is in strong conversation with the “French turn” of the 1960s. Tolkien scholars are far more adept at considering the consequences of Tolkien’s work in medieval studies than Lewis’ contribution in a quite different way to the same field. Watch the papers at Kalamazoo and you’ll see that I’m not wrong. There are missed opportunities here by Lewis scholars, I believe.
3. Is this Literature? The Third Break in Tolkien Scholarship
In Strategies of Fantasy (1992), Brian Attebery has a chapter entitled “Is Fantasy Literature? Tolkien and the Theorists.” It is quite a question. In the next Part, I will discuss the question of genre, which partly answers this question–The Lord of the Rings is “literature” in a way that Narnia is not.
However, while I know that I am overstating things a little bit, but Tolkien scholars were far better at making the case in scholarship that The Lord of the Rings is “real” literature that deserves to be taken seriously not just as a phenomenon of readership but as a literary work that warrants deep, critical study. Perhaps Lewis scholarship simply stepped to the side and did the analysis they wanted to do without worrying about what the MLA Hall Monitors thought of their work. There is something admirable about that approach. But in challenging the presumptions of literary criticism–in showing up for the fight–Tolkien reader-scholars were able to enter into a field of discourse that Lewis reader-scholars have rarely entered.
4. The Films: The Fourth Break in Tolkien Scholarship
There is a lot of debate about the quality and faithfulness of the LOTR Peter Jackson films–and the Hobbit films are a clear demonstration that you can indeed have too much of a good thing. There is no doubt, however, that the Peter Jackson LOTR films are far superior to the Narnia films on almost every category of comparison. While some might say that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe makes a fine (though not amazing) Disney film, the trio of films go from fine to terrible to unwatchable. By contrast, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is beautiful, expansive, artistic, and evocative–if not always satisfying.
More than anything, however, the LOTR films inspired an entire generation of readers with great imaginations. Beyond sales and fan clubs, the films inspired a generation of new Tolkien scholars to put their minds and hearts to the task of thinking resonantly about Tolkien, the worlds he made, and the worlds he inspired. Young adults, especially, watched the films, bought the books, and read or reread with new eyes. I am one of these who was made to fall in love again with the Middle-earth stories. In the years after, I was slowly drawn in more and more deeply into Tolkien’s unruly and evocative imagination.
It’s true that the Narnian films and books are, by nature, for children, so may be better at forming the imagination and social life than forming vocation. Still, there is a difference in substance that enhances that development so that the Peter Jackson films have inspired any number of budding intellectuals and authors to turn their critical eye and creative pen to the task of scholarship.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, where I consider other facts inside the literature and out in the scholarly worlds.