Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 2: Literary Breadth and Depth

tolkien vs lewis pbs

For the last couple of weeks I have been looking at questions of C.S. Lewis scholarship, beginning with my own journey. As I am deep in a scholarly study, I decided to design a thought experiment. By creating a sort of fighting words thesis–that Tolkien Scholarship is stronger than Lewis Scholarship–I am hoping to do a few different things. I would like to bring out strengths that I and readers see in both fields without just listing great books. I would like to play with the links between an author’s work, the publication industry, and the reading community. And I want to encourage stronger and more adventurous by Lewis scholars.

By thinking about the links between an author’s work, the cultures around the work, and the approaches of scholarship, we can perhaps gain some inside on all those areas. My basic claim has already been challenged here on A Pilgrim in Narnia and in social media after I had the temerity to launch Part 1 of this series entitled, “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?” Perhaps I am wrong, but in my reading, the 50 best Tolkien works of scholarship are simply stronger than the 50 most important works of Lewis scholarship. In last week’s post, I listed Lewis scholars that do great work. However, if we look at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, the finalists for the last few years in the category of Inklings Studies in the Mythopoeic Awards, or recent academic press catalogues–all places where Lewis and Tolkien are relevant–there is a vibrancy and critical depth to leading Tolkien scholarship that only individual books in Lewis scholarship can meet.

tolkien vs lewis 2So my question is this: Why is does the culture of Tolkien scholarship invite a critical depth and quality of adventurous scholarship that is found far more rarely in Lewis scholarship? In Part 1, I talked about four moments in Tolkien readership that resulted in bursts of creative scholarly energy, including the early audiences of Tolkien and Lewis readers, Tolkien and Lewis as literary scholars, the fight for “literary” recognition, and the impact of Peter Jackson’s adaptations for inspiring scholarship. Before I turn next week in Part 3 to other factors, such as the tools and techniques that Lewis and Tolkien scholars have used, this week, I take the daring approach of comparing and contrasting the work of Lewis and Tolkien. I am not saying that one of these literary greats is a greater great in the full sense of how we understand greatness, but there are qualities to their work that invite different kinds of responses. Others have already tried to pull out some of these ideas, though it is harder to know by these traits why scholarship is weaker or stronger, more adventurous or more risk-averse, more integrative or more disconnected from the core of the work. Instead, I’ll just discuss three areas connected to images of “depth and breadth.”

This series of articles is simply here to create a start to the conversation–though I do have hopes to provoke greater Lewis scholarship. Feel free to critique my reasons or enhance my understanding of Inklings studies with your own insights. 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, and if you can write it well enough, I’ll even give you space here to publish it. But this is what I would offer as a conversation-starter set of reasons why the fields are different.

Broad street Oxford

5. Depth and Breadth, Trees and Aquifers 

tolkien tree & leafThere are different ways to think about depth and breadth. I have estimated that Lewis wrote 5,000,000-6,000,000 words that are now in published form. By contrast, in Tolkien’s five major Middle-earth texts published in his lifetime, we are looking at a little over 700,000 words. Add the 25 or so books published since, and we probably get to about the same word count as Lewis, or a bit more. The two Inklings were each fairly productive in their book-writing–especially when we count the work published after their deaths.

However, Tolkien’s corpus is defined by depth, with intentional, integrated speculative world-building links throughout most of what he wrote to a central core. Like Niggle, Tolkien was always bringing leaves he painted into the great tree that was his life’s work. No one doubts the stunning corpus that Tolkien created and that his son (and some other scholars) helped bring to life for eager readers. Lewis’ writing, by contrast, is about breadth and diversity of form, having written forty or so mostly short books that were published in his own life–books that encompass something like 25-30 pretty distinct genres. That’s a remarkable output in terms of diversity of form, but approaches nothing like Tolkien’s grand, deep project.

While I appreciate nice, tight close-readings of Tolkien’s writing, scholars truly excel in approaching his work as a literary and imaginative whole, selecting the most pertinent links and connections to make the material clearer or more meaningful. Very few, though, have it all in their minds at any one time. As a result, the field of Tolkien scholarship is filled with stone carvers discovering the image in the stone with the work of a million small cuts.

The Magician's Nephew HarperCollinsLewis is not like Niggle, though.

Instead of a single picture of a majestic tree, Lewis has provided an orchard of wondrous variety. Anyone approaching Lewis’ corpus needs a different set of lenses to see what draws the material together. To use a metaphor from William Griffin’s study, Lewis’ thought is like an aquifer moving silently beneath the earth from which we draw water in various individual wells. Fellow Inkling Owen Barfield has famously said that “what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything” (“Preface,” in The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C.S. Lewis as Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer). I argue that there is a linking stream of thought that brings all of Lewis’ work together. The best scholars appreciate this stream, though few have discerned it in full and clear forms. The definitive (or foundational) volume of C.S. Lewis’ theology or philosophy or speculative world-building has yet to be written. I think that Tolkien studies needs a nudge toward theological complexity, but I would expect that Lewis readers should be theological aware in the way that Tolkien readers are linguistically and intertextuality aware.

In principle, these two different œuvres need not invite any difference in the depth of scholarship. However, all too frequently, Lewis scholarship lacks a comprehensive approach to his work. Two examples that are generally good and from the leading press are John Stackhouse in his Making the Best of It, thinking of Lewis as a Christian realist, and Michael Peterson in his recent C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview. These books are written by people that like Lewis, have read him with faithful attention, and find him helpful about thinking about culture or philosophical questions. They are far from complete studies, though–and we miss the completeness within otherwise smart readings. We miss the depth. And not all the examples of too-thin readings of Lewis are good ones–though I won’t name them here. I recently reviewed a compilation of essays on Lewis where various essayist presented readings that were already in the field or biographical comments that needing correction, if they had cared to look at the scholarship.

I am not saying, “Don’t say anything until you have accounted for everything Lewis has read.” I am saying, “If you decide to write a book on Lewis, you should know that Lewis readers are looking to see that you have understood his diversity of work with depth and integrative insight.” For Tolkien scholars certainly have understood this.

Birds_on_branches_stone_wall_art Yu Lung San Tien En Si (Jade Dragon Temple)

6. Depth and Breadth: The Piggyback Effect

narnia-film-poster-lion-witch-wardrobeThe “Piggyback Effect” is a particularly nefarious version of the previous conversation about missing Lewis’ depth because the breadth seems insurmountable. Particularly after the release of the Narnia films, there has been a tendency for journalists, writers, and scholars to pick up Lewis’ story and run with it. Scholars in other fields, as well, sometimes feel free to take up Lewis without necessarily committing to becoming comprehensive experts in his thought–or even aware of his deeper resonances. Whether cherry-picking from Lewis’ best and worst bits, or simply using the energy of a public conversation to sell books or to capitalize on media attention, there is an assumption that scholars and commentators can simply walk in, quote a bit of Lewis, and feel like they have captured the whole.

Lewis is a deceptively accessible writer.

The pretty terrible term that Robert MacSwain uses for this phenomenon in The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis is “Jacksploitation.” Though the term may be inelegant, MacSwain argues well that unoriginal and unscholarly treatments of Lewis make assessing his work and impact more difficult–a question that Sam Joeckel takes up brilliantly in The C.S. Lewis Phenomenon.

This may happen in Tolkien studies, but I suspect that most scholars approach the field of Tolkien studies warily from without. I am certainly aware that whenever I talk about Tolkien in public, there are two linguists in the back of the room mocking me in the Quenya tongue. Fair enough. I think, though, that when scholars speak about Tolkien, they recognize that they are getting a few brushstrokes of the painting. With Lewis, however, some are deceived by his simplicity of presentation into thinking it is also a simplicity of thought.

tolkien middle earth collection

7. Depth and Breadth, Fairy Tale and Epic

lewis-of-other-worldsIn the end, when it comes to literary scholarship, it is difficult to compare Lewis’ fiction with Tolkien’s.

Tolkien did some translation and interpretation work that was foundational to his development, and told some stories that are not central to the Middle-earth legendarium. However, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion are supplemented by about 5,000 pages of Middle-earth materials, creating what is a single library of a world, if not a single book.

Again, Lewis excels in diversity. Lewis wrote 7 children’s fantasy novels, a trio of SciFi books, two works of theological fiction (three if you count Letters to Malcolm), a conversion allegory, and his great work of literary fiction, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Within that pretty diverse fiction catalogue are pretty diverse genres. The aptly misnamed “Space Trilogy” contains a classic Wellsian space journey, a neo-Miltonian space opera, and a dystopian “fairy tale” for adults that anticipates Orwell in key ways. The theological fiction is quite diverse in form and voice, and the Narnian chronicles hardly fall into easy patterns, with a diversity of characters, adventures, and speculative constructs throughout. The literary voice of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is clearly different than the desert-tale, The Horse and His Boy, or the sea-journey, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader–and these are quite different again from the “Further Up and Further In” chapters that close The Last Battle.

Lewis till we have facesAnd then there is Till We Have Faces, which continues to intrigue and interest literary scholars. If there is going to be a Lewis book in a secular university curriculum outside of children’s literature, it will be Lewis’ last completed novel, Till We Have Faces. So I believe that there is a great deal of depth in Lewis’ work–though his accessibility can be deceptive. Lewis’ depth, though, is like the groundwater that emerges in different wells.

However, in the end, Lewis was a fairy tale writer and Tolkien produced an epic. The Lord of the Rings, especially when read with all the materials that go with it, is simply a “greater book” than the Narniad when one approaches the text as a literary critic. It is certainly of a more substantial nature and greater literary beauty than Lewis’ other speculative fiction from that same point of view. I will someday make a counter-argument to this assertion, partly because people fail to consider the genres when they talk about literary “greatness.” My wife is a better teacher than I am, but my grad students are superior in research skills to her kindergarteners. It is easy to become confused on the matter. When it comes to sheer clarity of literary, descriptive nonfiction prose, Lewis might be a better “writer” than Tolkien–just as Tolkien’s word-hoard is larger and the imaginative scope creates a more expansive single fictional world. And so on. Side-by-side contrasts are difficult to evaluate on their own. When it comes to scholarly consideration, however, Tolkien’s fictional corpus offers greater potential for discovery (in both the medieval and modern senses of that word).

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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28 Responses to Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 2: Literary Breadth and Depth

  1. Owen Barfield says:

    Thanks for this instalment of your Inkling overview. It’s rewardingly wide-ranging while keeping concise and nicely put.

    The reason … Owen Barfield … said that “what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything” is because he too shared this trait and recognized it.

    The long cross-country walks that these three took in the April of 1937 & 1938 [84 years ago this month (7×12)] when they styled themselves the ‘The Cretaceous Perambulators’ may have some bearing on your discoveries.


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  3. robstroud says:

    “…mocking me in the Quenya tongue.”

    Ah, those darn linguists!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Shall I follow Tolkien’s acknowledgments to suggest cheekily that The Lord of the Rings is significantly a ‘work’ of C.S. Lewis?

    Reading Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer has somehow gotten me to comparing the (so to say) authorial personae of Chaucer and Lewis in their works – e.g., Chaucer as the speaker in The Book of the Duchess, explicitly the experiencer and relater in The House of Fame, and, of course, one of the pilgrims and contributors as well as the writer-down of it all in The Canterbury Tales, to which we may compare Lewis the friend of Ransom, with or without Ransom (depending on Preface) the translator of The Screwtape Letters, the dreamer of The Great Divorce, and the acquaintance and chronicler of Professor Kirke, the Pevensies, et al., and the friend of Malcolm. Is there more than one ‘fictionalized’ Lewis – or are these all the same one (as I take the fictionalized Chaucer of the three works mentioned to be)?

    My great desideratum – and/or possibly aspiration – is to see the works of Paul Ford and Michael Ward complemented with a ‘treatment’ of Narnia as both ostensible scholarship/chronicling by ‘fictional Lewis’ and as science fiction of a novel sort by the author of the Ransom cycle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Further re. ‘Lewis in his fiction’, I’ve recently become acquainted with a series of collaborations published in the 1930s “written down by Gascoigne Lumley” but featuring Frank Hives – put in terms of “Told by” or “As seen by” Hives (rather than, say, the sort of ghost writing H.P. Lovecraft did, where, if I’m not mistaken, he was not usually named). I can’t think of having heard a one-word term for this, but it is also a fictional device practiced, for example, by Arthur Ransome in ‘writing down’ the adventures of the children in Swallows and Amazons and its sequels. And this seems the device of Lewis in both the Ransom cycle and Narnia. This may have received a wealth of attention unknown to me, but I cannot immediately think of examples, and it seems worth pondering.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cecilia Zeichner says:

        I always thought Lewis included himself in the Space Trilogy to echo Wells and Verne, but it seems that it was a device he used throughout almost all of his fiction, including Screwtape, which is ostensibly an epistolary novel.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          It’s also interesting that his first two major ‘literary’ works, the poetry volumes, Spirits in Bondage and Dymer, were both published pseudonymously, but the third, The Pilgrim’s Regress, was published under his own name. (I should reread that, and see if there are any suggestions that Lewis knows ‘John’ who related a dream vision to him… either answer would be interesting, in light of later fiction). A lot of his later poems were also published pseudonymously – I wonder if there are any handy lists of which were published under what name? And, I wonder who knew who was behind the pseudonym(s)? Did many – or any – Punch readers in 1947 know that the misspeller of Númenor as ‘Numinor’ in ‘The End of the Wine’ was Lewis, the misspeller in That Hideous Strength?


          • Owen A. Barfield says:

            My understanding is that ‘John’ in The Pilgrim’s Regress relates to Owen Barfield.


            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Wow! Thank you for this! (I have not yet caught up with the Annotated Pilgrim’s Regress, but think the idea of annotated editions of Lewis’s fiction a good one – I have also not yet caught up with Dr. DuPlessis-Hay’s doctoral dissertation annotating That Hideous Strength but have enjoyed Sarah Thomson’s unpublished annotations to Williams’s Descent into Hell, and remembering the first two annotated editions of Dracula, am inclined to say, ‘ the more, the merrier’ – though with Inklings still in copyright, they would either have to be produced in some form of cooperation with the Estates, or take the shape of ‘companion annotations’ (so to put it), like Sarah Thomson’s and those other excellent ones of Arend Smilde at his Lewisiana site.)


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          As I should have begun by saying, thank you for the attention to Wells and Verne – whom I clearly need to reread! I wonder if this is a ‘classic’ science fiction narrative device?


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Something that occurs to me with respect to both – and other Inklings – is, range of scholarship (so to put it). I consider ‘fanzines’ often a sort of ‘popular scholarly’. And what of the range – or ranges – of ‘academic scholarly’? Some (national/linguistic) academic traditions involve (multiple) printed copies of theses/dissertations, some commonly involve a (sometimes somewhat popularized) edition thereafter. How much good Lewis, Tolkien, Inkling scholarly works are largely unknown due to the traditions where type-written (or, even earlier, hand-written: or is that too early for any Inkling?) works exist in a couple copies, fiiled away locally? And, what of academic perspectives? For example, in the early 1980s nobody at Harvard was sure who could supervise me, if I worked on Williams, and at Oxford, Lorna Fergusson was (as far as I know) the first person accepted to work on Tolkien, and I the first to work on Williams, and for both of us the University had to go outside and ask Humphrey Carpenter if he was willing to supervise us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      There are ups and downs with the progess of ‘digitalization’ in this context, too – ups, in that many theses are being made available online, downs, in that some theses that were earlier available complete and inexpensively to the (young) scholar in microfilmed format, are no longer available in that way, but have not (yet?) been selected for digitalized online presentation.


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  7. lolalwilcox says:

    I approached reading this series with as much caution as you have writing it; it is a bit of testimony that I am reading them because I have come to trust your deeply held conviction to hold to the truth. My caution is based in how much I love both bodies of work, and how important both writers have been to me personally, as a person of faith (due in part to Lewis), and an author (my central role- models for fantasy). I also had a bit of “Ho, hum, do I really care?” rumbling around. And I find I do care, and that what you are presenting is fascinating, and reveals and resonates what I’ve felt a lot and thought about briefly now and then through the years. If asked I would have said “breadth and depth” but Tolkien is broad and Lewis has depth, so I would leave it alone and go on, considering loving them both enough. The image for Lewis of the water table under the orchard rising in wells expresses something I understood almost unconsciously, because for me Lewis’ works were never contentious with one another.


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