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.
So 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.
5. Depth and Breadth, Trees and Aquifers
There 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.
Lewis 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.
6. Depth and Breadth: The Piggyback Effect
The “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.
7. Depth and Breadth, Fairy Tale and Epic
In 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.
And 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).