Join Me in Romania on Friday with Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson and Malcolm Guite: C. S. Lewis and Kindred Spirits

It is not often I am thinking about Eastern European time! However, this Friday, on April 23rd at 7 pm EEST, I will be speaking to the C. S. Lewis and Kindred Spirits Society, which has connections in Romania and has served as a conversation point for Inklings scholarship and imaginative artistry in Eastern Europe. Canadian George MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson will host an hour or so of conversation with myself and scholar-poet-priest, Malcolm Guite, followed by a good amount of time for Q&A. I am excited for the time when we can all sit at table together to talk about great and beautiful things. Meanwhile, though, Zoom allows for great conversations to go global, and I hope you can join us.

Here are the times as they might relate to you:

  • 7 pm EEST
  • 5 pm BST (I think the poster might be wrong on that one)
  • 1 pm AST (my time in Prince Edward Island!)
  • 12 pm EST
  • 11 am Central
  • 10 am Pacific
  • 1am Japan Time (Saturday morning)

The free registration is here (and you can find the announcements all over Facebook). Below is the announcement that went out in the newsletter. I would encourage you, scholar or reader, to consider being a member or support of the Society as it does ground-breaking work on the continent. And I hope to see you there!

C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Connected Presents ‘Inklings of Imagination’

On April 23rd at 7 pm EEST (4pm BST) ‘Inklings & Kindreds’ scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson will host these two delightful raconteurs in an exploration of the value of imaginative literature generally, and why the work of ‘C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits’ specifically is significant for the world today. As highly regarded scholars for their work, these consummate teachers are equally admired amongst peers and students for their deep love of and playful enthusiasm for that material. For them it is not stuffy scholasticism, rather, it is the Stuff of Life.

The cup of tea/coffee is optional and local!

We are very much looking forward to seeing you.

On behalf of the Organising Team,
Denise Vasiliu
Lector, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi
CEO of Adora Christi Foundation

Register Here


The Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is a Fellow of Girton College Cambridge, where he was also chaplain. Now retired to focus on his poetry, performance, and academic writing, Malcolm continues as a visiting professor at such institutions as Regent College (Vancouver), Duke University, and Durham University. Malcolm has lived in Nigeria, Canada, and England.

Dr. Brenton Dickieson is host of the highly regarded ‘Pilgrim in Narnia’ blog, a free-lance writer, and associate professor at multiple universities including Regent College (Vancouver), University of PEI, and the online Signum University. Perhaps the only scholar of both the creator of Narnia and that of Anne of Green Gables, discussing ‘kindred spirits’ is truly Brenton’s language. Brenton has lived on two of Canada’s three coasts, and also in Japan.

For further introduction, visit:

Membership Information

The C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society was created in 2018 by the Agora Christi Foundation of Iași, Romania. In turn, the CSLKS Society has established a “Friends of C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society” to support the project of Agora Christi in cooperation with the English Department at the “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași, organized around the study of the lives and works of the Inklings, beginning with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. This project is not limited to Iași or Romania but has already reached post-communist Eastern Europe as well as Western Europe, Asia, and North America.

In November 2020, we hosted a C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Connected ZOOM meeting on “Of this and other worlds: Narnia at 70” celebrating the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we produced our first newsletter in January 2020, and we hope to launch a CSLKS Society website soon.

Now, we are glad to announce that we will be sponsoring:

  • another C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Connected ZOOM meeting on 23rd of April with a lively discussion between Inklings scholars Malcolm Guite and Brenton Dickieson, moderated by George MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jefferson, and
  • in November 2021- the 5th edition of the C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits International Interdisciplinary Conference, originally scheduled for November 2020 and postponed because of COVID19

Some of the papers given at the 2018 conference have been published in Linguaculture (Iași) Volume 10, Number 2, 2019, which can be accessed at  Linguaculture, Volume 5, Number 2, 2014, also published several papers from previous meetings at Articles from these volumes can be downloaded as pdfs.

We encourage all of you to support the work and mission of the C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society by becoming a member of the Friends of the CSLKS. Click here to become a member.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 3: Other Factors

tolkien vs lewis pbs

As I have been chest-deep in academic works about C.S. Lewis and at least knee-deep in the same kinds of J.R.R. Tolkien books and articles, I conceived of a thought experiment. Without even glancing at my bookshelf, I can name a dozen essential scholarly volumes treating Lewis’ thought, writing, and impact, and some other creative, beautiful, and transformational projects. However, there is just something that invites Tolkien scholarship that is a step above in quality–both in individual examples and in the weight of the work as a whole.

Thus, as a thought experiment, I began a series where I consider factors that could explain a difference, if there is one. My goal wasn’t to set Lewis scholarship as a whole next to Tolkien scholarship, or to create a thunder dome atmosphere where I set scholarly works against each other–though some of that happened as I thought and wrote and engaged with others. In Part 1 of this series entitled, “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?,” 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. In Part 2, I took the daring approach of comparing and contrasting the work of Lewis and Tolkien. While Lewis excels in a playfulness of genre, quick output, and a broad range of topics in his work, Tolkien was a master of literary and imaginative depth. There is a factor in Lewis scholarship that I call the “Piggyback” effect, where journalists and scholars mistake Lewis’ accessibility for a lack of depth, but there is also the internal reality that Tolkien produced an epic, while Lewis wrote fairy tales and romances.

Of the internal, literary reasons I provide in JRRT vs. CSL Part 2, I think there is a good case to be made about why Tolkien scholarship might invite more depth as it mirrors the depth of its master. But a reason is not a necessity–and in terms of critical approach, literary care, or the adventurous nature of the work, it cannot explain why the culture of Tolkien scholarship has simply been more effective. In Part 3, I develop thoughts from the first two articles by turning to other factors, such as the tools and techniques that Lewis and Tolkien scholars are comfortable in using in their work.

This series of articles is simply here to create a start to the conversation–though I hope to inspire Lewis scholars to dig in and take greater risks. 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. I think someone is taking me up on this for next week. And I will conclude when this conversation is done with some lessons learned.

tolkien vs lewis 1

8. Other Features of the Field: Christopher Tolkien vs. Walter Hooper

christopher-tolkien pipeAmong the other pieces of news in 2020, it was that year that saw the passing of both Christopher Tolkien–whom I called the “Curator of Middle-earth“–and Walter Hooper, one-time literary secretary and lifelong editor of Lewis’ works.

There is no doubt that Christopher Tolkien was an irreplaceable feature in Tolkien studies. With the help of others, he brought together a readable version of The Silmarillion before going on to edit the 12-volume History of Middle-earth, as well as a number of other highly edited and prefaced archival publications. Christopher Tolkien focussed so heavily on giving us as many literary, historical, and linguistic layers as possible in the legendarium that he has succeeded in moving The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings from the bedroom shelf to the study (though my paperback copies are still in the bedroom, of course!). It was scholarship that bred scholarship, modelling good practices (many that he had to make up as he went along) while giving ample space for future readers and researchers to come along after him.

While Christopher Tolkien naturally took up his father’s unfinished work, Lewis’ literary estate was in a far different condition when the Narnian died a decade earlier in 1963. Within a half-decade of Lewis’ life, it was clear that there was not a natural successor to Lewis in his family–either of Lewis’ stepsons or his brother, Warren–or his closest friends. Warren gave it a strong beginning with his collection of letters and an attempt at a biography. However, he lacked various capacities for continuing the work. Owen Barfield could very well have curated Lewis’ materials and did a great deal over the decades, but he was beginning a renewed career as a lecturer and public thinker and he excelled in matters other than archival research. Through the decade after Lewis’ death, a role evolved for Walter Hooper to edit Lewis materials, bring poems, letters, stories, and essays together over the next four decades.

Walter HooperWithout offering a critique of Hooper’s work, it is no surprise that he naturally reflected Lewis’ diversity of writing in his approach to curating Lewis materials. Hooper gathered letters and poems and short pieces from locations far and wide, and then published them in thematically linked or comprehensive collections. There are a few archival pieces, but unlike Tolkien, most of this material came from magazine indices and collected volumes. Lewis published many of his poems pseudonymously, so there was a bit of trick to the trade. But the overall result reflects Lewis’ own approach to writing: eclectic collections that are thematically linked but could feel distant from the whole. The Weight of Glory is quite different from either God in the Dock or Collected Poems.

And then there is what I argue is Hooper’s most important contribution: the Collected Letters. What a profound resource these letters are–and a personal encouragement in my own writing and faith. While we have some of Tolkien’s letters–many of the more important ones–it is a project that was not at the centre of Christopher Tolkien’s skillset or vision for his father’s legacy.

Ultimately, then, Lewis and Tolkien scholarship followed the resources that were available to them. Oversimplifying the matter, Tolkien scholars followed the material into greater and greater depth, while Lewis scholars followed him out into various areas of study. These are not really “better” and “worse” categories–and I believe that Lewis and Tolkien scholars are equally adept at biographical criticism–but could be a factor in the difference between the scholarship.

Mythopoeic Awards9. The Bugbear of Literary Theory

In my first post in this series, I invited readers to look at academic book catalogues or award finalists and compare Lewis and Tolkien scholarship. One trend is clear in three important Tolkien books from Palgrave MacMillan:

  • Dimitra Fimi, Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Mythopoeic Award winner in Inklings Studies
  • Jane Chance, Tolkien, Self and Other: “This Queer Creature” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Mythopoeic Award nominee in Inklings Studies
  • C. Vaccaro and Y. Kisor, eds, Tolkien and Alterity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

Each of these strong volumes represents theoretical approaches to literary criticism in this generation. There are many great Tolkien volumes that are not driven by literary theory particular to the last century, such as (for the most part) Amy Amendt-Raduege’s 2020 Inklings Studies award-winning volume, “The Sweet and the Bitter”: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (The Kent State University Press, 2018). However, with exceptional strength in linguistic theory and medieval studies, Tolkien scholarship is often able to walk with literary theory in fruitful ways.

experiment in criticism cs lewisWithout a doubt, I have discovered a real resistance in many strands of Lewis scholarship to using literary theoretical tools. That there is a broad and energetic conversation about “Queering Tolkien” is telling: there really isn’t anything like that in Lewis studies, though I think Lewis’ fiction invites such a reading. Lewis’ work begs for a discussion on “alterity”–or “the taste for the other” in Lewis’ own words. What can linguistic theory, in-depth political science questions, or speculative world-building scholarship teach us about Lewis’ fiction? We don’t know–or don’t know fully–because of an anxiety in the field about literary theory.

I think this resistance to lit theory comes from four main points of resistance, I think: 1) following Lewis in resisting certain kinds of reading approaches (like psychological approaches or the conversation in The Personal Heresy that actually helped stimulate the “New Criticism” theory movement); 2) a conservative resistance to identity studies among some Lewis scholars; 3) the elitist nature of the literary theory conversation itself; and 4) theoretical conversations about Lewis’ work that have not always read Lewis well or that aren’t evidentially based.

Personal Heresy by CS Lewis 60sHowever, I think it is a missed opportunity if we follow this rule of thumb: literary theory is only as good as the readings it produces. A lot of terrible work in psychological criticism comes from the fact that the critics were not great readers. Gender and feminist critics of Lewis–and they abound–have not always read carefully in their haste to bring up concerns or save Lewis from criticism.

Frederick Crews’ The Perplex and Postmodern Pooh are pretty great volumes for showing the silliness that tempts some “cutting-edge” literary theorists. But these books also show the potential–a potential worked out in some daring scholars. A great case is Monika B. Hilder’s Mythopoeic Award-nominated C.S. Lewis and gender series, consisting of The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (Peter Lang, 2012); The Gender Dance: Ironic Subversion in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy (Peter Lang, 2013); and Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C.S. Lewis and Gender (Peter Lang, 2013). This is solid, engaging work that invites me more deeply into Lewis’ writings. I hope that others look for opportunities to expand their literary toolkit in the years ahead.

10. Literary Societies

taylor-inklings-forever-lewis-and-friendsMy first academic paper in Lewis studies was at the C.S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium at Taylor University, co-sponsored by the C.S. Lewis and Inklings Society. It was a brilliant conference, and I found myself drawn into a world of great reading and writing. In 2018, I spoke at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, a society approaching four decades of scholarship and conversation. These are two great societies, and I hope to one day get to the The New York C.S. Lewis Society, founded in 1969, six years after Lewis passed away. These groups and a dozen others have their own niche, producing and giving space to scholarship and popular writing in various kinds of modes. I have nothing but good will for these folks who have taught me so much.

tolkien societyHowever, none of these societies has the kind of energy and productivity of the Tolkien Society. The Oxford Lewis society produces occasional volumes and has a partnership of some kind with The Journal of Inklings Studies. The NY CSL Society’s journal is a great history of Lewis reading for more than 50 years with sparks of brilliance and good solid work. But before Tolkien had passed away, the Tolkien Society was already on the move. Today, programs like Oxonmoot, the Birthday Toast, Tolkien Reading Day, and various meetings create a unique global readerly and scholarly energy. More than that, though, various scholarly journals and publications combine with The Tolkien Society Awards to encourage scholarship in a way that Lewis societies cannot match. The Mythopoeic Society does this well for both Lewis and Tolkien, but the Tolkien Society with its local smials have energized rooted scholarship for decades.

11. The Beautiful Problem of Scholarly Friends

the-company-they-keep-diana-pavlac-glyerIt is odd, perhaps, to end with a positive-negative, but it is worth doing. Part of the story I have told of my journey into Lewis studies has been the support and encouragement of other scholars. There have been times that the community has split, such as the “Lindskoog Affair.” But part of the reason that rift in Lewis scholarship was so painful was because there has always been a desire to engender fellowship among Lewis scholars. I think this comes from a desire to reflect the Inklings’ ability to inspire some of the more important books and stories of the 20th-century from within a small collective. But we also must admit that there is some sense in which Lewis scholarship is endeavouring to be Christian scholarship and fellowship in a way that Tolkien scholarship as a whole is not.

There is a lot that is beautiful about this community of scholarly Lewis friends, but there is a downside. Pick up a volume of one of the Lewis scholarly journals–I just picked up the 2020 Sehnsucht, a critical Lewis scholarship journal–and you will find warm, glowing reviews nearly across the board. They are well written and respectful, offering a point or two of rebuttal or correction, but they are rarely reviews that really challenge the work at its core or in detail. When they do, it is sometimes because the author under review has been tempted to co-opt or misinterpret Lewis–so the reviewer is operating on an instinct to protect Lewis.

Allegory of Love CS Lewis new reprintI am not saying that these are bad critics, that they missed things in the books under review in this recent journal, or that protecting an author is totally bad. My review writing is usually pretty glowing, I admit. I want to read good books I want collaboration–and this same volume of Sehnsucht has a correction by Joe Ricke of something that Charlie Starr and I did together. It is a great example of how a good challenge is an opportunity for growth. But there is little in Lewis scholarship and almost nothing in the reviews like the Lewis-Barfield belief that “opposition is true friendship.” The iron-sharpens-iron approach is just too rare in Lewis studies.

And frankly, for me anyway, oppositional friendship is exhausting. I don’t want to spend time reviewing bad books, and I don’t want to critique my friends publicly. Indeed, if I had enemies–or even a nemesis–I wouldn’t want to critique them either! I just completed a largely negative review for an academic journal and wish that I had never heard of the book rather than have to spend my time that way. Indeed, I have mostly given up academic reviewing because I cannot seem to balance the negative and positive well. And as someone who does all this for free, I can make that choice.

Moreover, when I have endeavoured to make this sort of public challenge–as I did of Michael Ward’s generative Planet Narnia thesis–some caring scholars reached out to me to make sure that I walked carefully. Many Lewis readers have really invested in the Planet Narnia approach and I might cause some harm to myself or others. Michael Ward himself seemed pleased rather than otherwise to find I was challenging him–though I have not spoken to him since it was published. But there is a whiff of bad faith about those who step out of the fellowship of scholars and challenge too much.

Quenya_Example.svgThe reader will see that I am naming my weakness here as much as anyone’s, but it is an intriguing problem. I have compensated for this weakness that is also a strength by cultivating scholarly connections in Lewis studies that will, I am afraid, leave me no quarter when I am not at my best.

And I want to caution readers that I am saying nothing bad about Tolkien scholars communities. As much as my small forays into the Tolkien studies field have been so positive and encouraging, their dynamic is more critical. Indeed, I have suggested that there such a thing as a Tolkien Expertise Anxiety Syndrome (TEAS). I am certain that whenever I talk about Tolkien in lectures and writing, two Tolkienists are in the back of the room mocking me in Quenya. So it goes! But most of my experiences have been both thoughtful and positive.

12. No More Lewis Studies, Please

narnia-film-poster-lion-witch-wardrobeLastly, and just as a brief note, there is an odd phenomenon in Lewis scholarship. Because of a perception of too much published content in the mid-2000s with the release of the Disney Narnian adaptations and the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death in 2013. There has been some resistance among publishers to take new Lewis studies into their catalogues. This is enhanced, I think, by the piggyback phenomenon I talked about last week, what others call Jacksploitation or “the Lewis industry.” “No more Lewis studies, please” was what I was told just as I began my PhD a few years ago–a pretty discouraging thing to hear as a new scholar!

It is true that there is a challenging sales dynamic for in-depth literary studies. In order to make a book or series affordable to a hungry Lewis-reading audience, the book has to be written and designed to meet that smart but not always academically trained readership. It is a delicate balance of research, writing, editing, and book production that challenges scholars and may make some editors hesitant. I know that there are some strong academic Lewis studies books where the scholar has struggled to find a publishing home. But I also know that there are some small- and medium-sized presses wanting to extend their Inklings line–as well as some large presses like Peter Lang or Oxford that will consider a Lewis book of exceptional value.

So I end with a note of hope. Perhaps a publishing industry hesitancy has existed at times, but there is still room for a great book to come along–including yours, perhaps?

cs lewis books new series select

Posted in Original Research, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Help Me Find Video Resources for Undergrad Student Research, Writing, and Life

Dear teacherly friends and students of all descriptions, I am trying to create a resource bank of video tutorials and talks (and the odd short reading) to supplement the in-class student experience. Part of this is practical: I have a very specific destination in mind. But I have also learned a lot in the sudden COVID-era move to remote emergency education. As someone who has taught online for 15 years, I was surprised how different it was to teach in a setting for which the class was not designed. This last 13 months of teaching has revealed to me some gaps in student experience and learning I never saw before, and some places where I can improve as a teacher.

Would you be willing to share your great discoveries with me? I am particularly interested in certain areas of the student experience:

  • The basics of researching and writing
  • Aspects of inquiry and curiosity that we don’t often think about
  • Improving reading, writing, research, and discovery skills
  • More advanced tools for research, writing, and discovery
  • Tips for designing the student experience and navigating university
  • Resources for professional student success, like organization, communication, and the like
  • Resources for personal student success, like navigating university with a learning disability, struggling with mental illness, asking for help, and building resources of courage, imagination, and perseverance

Granted, my focus is generally liberal arts and humanities–though I think some of these tools would be helpful to most undergrads, even in specialized and STEM programs. Writing, research, inquiry, leadership, group work, the dynamics of success and failure, designing the student experience, building a portfolio, strengthening personal resources, choosing the right risks to take–these are skills that all undergraduate and college students need or else their diploma is a next-step ticket of overly-limited value.

So, will you help? Do you have a resource that you have found helpful? Is there a TedTalk or mini-lecture you love? Have you made a resource I should consider? Can you share this with a student success guru who can set me right? My own list is far too small and I need your help.

Here is an example of a helpful, not terribly professional video that helps students avoid clear mistakes in writing essays. And it has a battle axe.

And I have done some helpful tutorials, but they aren’t terribly fun or snappy. This one on the “Anatomy of a Paper” is basic and good and useful for beginners:

And my “Art of the Paragraph” tutorial is okay, but could be better:

I have another one below on “How to Use Wikipedia Well in Paper Writing” and “Quotation, Paraphrase, Allusion,” but I will gratuitously share my “Shaping the First Paragraph Tutorial” because it deals with my work with Charlie Starr on “The Archangel Fragment” in Sehnsucht Journal (2019):

All fine, but just fine. But I won’t more and better resources. Here are some examples of things I’d like to include:

  • How to make a great research question
  • How to do great peer feedback
  • How to improve from your teacher’s feedback
  • How to Organize Research
  • Time Organization
  • How to Get Started on a Paper
  • Writing a More Captivating Sentence
  • Making the best Hook & Conclusion for your work
  • How to Generate a Thesis
  • Simple Ways to Elevate your Writing
  • Beautiful, Evocative Openings to Paper
  • Things to Avoid in Paper Writing
  • How to Conclude With Power
  • Tips for Perfect Paper Formatting
  • Tech Dangers for Students
  • How to use Grammarly to Help your Writing
  • Formatting in MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.
  • Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
  • Quotations, Allusions, and Paraphrasing: Using Sources in Writing
  • What is an introduction?
  • What is a research question? an argument? a thesis statement?
  • What is a literature review? (and how to do it)
  • A review of methods and methodologies in undergrad research
  • Quantitative v. qualitative methods
  • Using Images in Academic Writing
  • How to do Case Studies
  • Bringing your interests and specialities into your academic writing in other courses
  • Working through and with your learning disabilities
  • Finding support for Mental Illness as a Student
  • Building perseverance

That’s just a few ideas. Perhaps you can add some more! Use the comments, send me a tweet, or go to the discussion on my Facebook wall that is already in play.

Posted in News & Links | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

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).

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Near-Inkling Martyn Skinner’s Near-Future Pandemic Poem: A Reading by Dale Nelson

Old Rectory or The Interview by Martyn Skinner.  Wilton, Salisbury, Wiltshire: Michael Russell Ltd., 1984.  107 pages.

Luke, known as Old Rectory, took up the hermit’s life many years ago, even before the time of the pandemic that sprang from a virologist’s laboratory.  Luke’s nickname refers to his residence near an abandoned church that he uses as a painter’s studio. The deadly Porton Sneeze killed most of the people then alive, and “progress” was held in abeyance.  Now, though, English cities have revived, but, though empty houses may still be shunned for fear of the plague, hermits have settled in “Barns, disused churches, signal-boxes, sheds.”

The journalist Fossick, and his friends Ponder and Baytre, intend to record the seldom-seen painter-recluse, Old Rectory, for a series on such folk.  The hermit psychically senses that they are coming.  He gives them drink…

The recluse and his three visitors settle in at the rectory.  The recluse talks for the tape machine (though he privately regards it as a “product of the second Fall of Man”).  Then, having put the three visitors to sleep, he mentally summons two hermit-friends.  They come and listen to the tape

Like 2021’s TV interviewers, the three visitors (at first at least) had hardly let Old Rectory open his mouth before they tumbled out their own ideas.  Fossick’s notion of fantasy versus reality is, Rectory tells his hermit-friends, the opposite of his own.  (I was reminded of Malcolm Muggeridge’s pungent late-life remarks about the pervasive unreality of journalism.)

But eventually Rectory was able to tell how, many years ago, he relocated from suburb to village – “A country lane was my Damascus Road.”  The idyll soon proved false.  It turned out that his neighbors were dull folk absorbed by gadgets and TV, and he was dismayed by their loose and noisy dogs that mobbed the roads.  He moved again.

He found treasure on earth in the remote rectory where he settled.  The simple life was beautiful.  But his credo of love of nature proved to be defective on the score of vulnerability and inadequacy.  As a solitary he was susceptible to erotic fantasies, and moreover he, so far, lacked an abiding sense of a personal God.  He groped for a divine First Cause, for the Creator; though natural beauty enchanted him, it was not enough.  He’d learned that there are similarities among the testimonies of mystics, though his quest would not stop there.

But at that point in the interview, though Rectory had not reached the nub of his argument, Fossick had suggested a halt.  One of the other visitors, the inquisitive J. J. Ponder, wanted to probe the matter of sexual temptation further and the recorder stayed on a little longer.

Old Rectory gave the visitors more to drink and soon they fell asleep.

Having listened to the tape, hermit-friend Dirk Willett grants that Old Rectory laid a foundation, and the recluse says, “It’s our Christian plight; Before re-building we must clear the site.”  Ralph Brompton Ralph, the other hermit visitor, thinks that Rectory may have been at his best when dealing with lesser matters – comparable to marginal manuscript illuminations that charm with decorative mermaids, gems, and peacocks but distract from Bethlehem and Calvary.

Rectory had hoped he could help the interviewers to consider “the verities Of death, redemption, and Apocalypse” and bear such truth into the world.  But he realized they had no interest in metanoia.  He now believes the three hermits themselves need to go forth, for the sake of a new world to be “grounded in redemptive grace.”

The three recluses, joined by their hermit-friend Malachi, visit Rectory’s studio in the abandoned church.  Now we readers see what Rectory has been doing during these many years.  His paintings include works derived from the masters—Breughel’s phantasmagoric Fall of the Rebel Angels, Piranesi’s Aqueduct of Nero with its image of the Cross as two intersecting, living branches growing above the ruins, and Rubens’s Adoration of the Kings.

Removed from a world enduring catastrophe, Rectory has followed what Charles Williams called the Way of the Affirmation of Images.  The poem’s allusions and references remind us of great art and books – especially the Book; what a contrast with our present culture of forgetfulness, replacement, and obliteration.  Skinner makes you want to read and view such things more gratefully.

The reveries of the four hermit-friends are interrupted by the clamor of the journalists demanding to be let in for more interviewing.  It’s evident that they represent a great many survivors who have learned little or nothing from mankind’s disaster.  The ailing Malachi volunteers to stay behind while the other three friends slip away.  What the results of their mission will be, they entrust to God.

Skinner’s fluent long poem, combining blank verse and rhyme and language-play, was dedicated to his old friends Hugh Waterman and Bede Griffiths, the trio whose real-life “experiment in common life” is described so memorably in Griffiths’ The Golden String (1954).  That was one of the first books with material about C. S. Lewis and the Inklings.

When I read Old Rectory’s praise of candlelight I was reminded of a passage in Griffiths’ book.  Like Griffiths, Skinner was a friend of Lewis; Skinner and Griffiths were in the penumbra of the Inklings.  I’m sure Lewis would have found Old Rectory to be delightful.

In 2018 I wrote about two earlier book-length poems by Skinner (1906-1993) here at Pilgrim in Narnia.  These were The Return of Arthur and Sir Elfadore and Mabyna.  You will find more about Martyn Skinner in those columns.

Dale Nelson is a columnist and reviewer for CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society and Beyond Bree, a monthly Tolkienian newsletter.  His work appears in fanzines such as Pierre Comtois’s Fungi, William Breiding’s Portable Storage, and Bob Jennings’s Fadeaway.  He lives in rural North Dakota with his wife and four cats, and is a member of the local Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation.

Note on Muggeridge

Skinner’s contemporary Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a print and television journalist and editor.  A notorious satirist during much of his career, he was often mocked for his late-life public embrace of Christian faith.  Among his books is Christ and the Media.

“I don’t want to keep abreast of current affairs, and if I did want to, [television is] the last place in the world to look.  What you keep abreast of is not current affairs but a fantasy called ‘ the consensus’ which is presented by various interests.  The idea that people are better informed because of television is to me a most laughable thing.  They’re better informed – but with lies! …the most essential thing for human beings is to have an awareness of their Maker, God, and to see their own lives in time in relation to God and in relation to eternity.  …But in fact, partly through the media, this awareness of God has been enormously eroded and people think increasingly that man can live his life in purely mortal terms.  That he can shape his own destiny.  …the concepts of good and evil on which all law, all morality, and all transcendentalism are based have largely gone.” – Muggeridge in a 1974 interview published in the Berkeley Christian “underground paper” Right On! (May 1975).

In The End of Christendom (addresses given at the University of Waterloo in 1978), Muggeridge said, “A strange thing I have observed over many years in this business of news gathering and news presentation is that by some infallible process media people always manage to miss the most important thing.  …In moments of humility, I realize that if I had been correspondent in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should almost certainly have spent my time knocking about with the entourage of Pontius Pilate, finding out what the Sanhedrin was up to, and lurking around Herod’s court with the hope of signing up Salome to write her memoirs exclusively.  I regret that this is true.”

Muggeridge had firsthand experience of the alliance between journalism and fantasy in the early 1930s.  As correspondent in Stalin’s USSR for the Manchester Guardian, he was the first reporter to break the story of the Holodomor, the state-engineered terror famine that killed millions in Ukraine.  (Muggeridge’s reports were followed days afterwards by Gareth Jones, subject of a recent movie.)  The famine story was soon suppressed.  Instead, the infamous New York Times reporter Walter Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for his (false) account of Russian affairs, denouncing reports of the famine, and, a few years later, defending Stalin’s show trials.

Muggeridge refers to Duranty here (about 7:30):

MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE: “Reflections on Stalin’s regime and THE HOLODOMOR” – YouTube

I wrote about Right On! in the fanzine Portable Storage #3 (the San Francisco Bay Area issue), pp. 82-87.  PS is in no way a Christian publication; but the editor has been remarkably receptive to my work.

PortableStorage-03.pdf (

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Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 1: Creative Breaks that Inspired Tolkien Readers

 tolkien vs lewis pbsIt is a question that has been nagging me for some time: Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?

Meilaender Taste For The Other 2By 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).

tolkien vs lewis 3There 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.

Verlyn Flieger splintered lightThough 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).

Mythopoeic AwardsGo 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.

Frodo Lives banner1. Tolkien and Lewis Fandoms: The First Break in Tolkien Scholarship

Derrick The Fame of C.S. Lewis audiobookLewis 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.

tolkien vs lewis 22. 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.

tolkien beowulfLewis 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.

lord of the rings ballantine 23. Is this Literature? The Third Break in Tolkien Scholarship

Brian Attebery Strategies of FantasyIn 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.

lord of the rings banner4. The Films: The Fourth Break in Tolkien Scholarship

lord of the rings film box setThere 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.

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Wounds that Never Fully Heal: An Easter Reflection on Frodo Baggins — by Laura Schmidt

Here is a smart, personal, and bookish Inklings-related piece by my friend, Laura Schmidt. Laura has served as Archivist at the Wade Center in Wheaton, IL, since 2005. She is a deep lover of Tolkien’s works and as an archivist, she has helped countless scholars and writers make connections between the authors they love and the questions in their hearts. “The Wounds That Never Heal” makes a good meditation for Good Friday–and, in our hope of ultimate healing, a thought that welcomes Easter.

Off the Shelf

Broken plate Image: CHUTTERSNAP,

Stories hold a special ability to deeply impact their readers. Those who enjoy reading imaginative fiction like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings by the Wade Center’s authors already know the truth of that statement. From the page to the screen, from the parables Jesus used for the spiritual benefit of his audiences to the trials of two small hobbits struggling up the slopes of Mount Doom, stories engage the heart in ways that other forms of expression cannot accomplish. We yearn for that kind of engagement and feel nourished once we find it, like taking a breath of fresh spring air or a drink of water after a long thirst.

J.R.R. Tolkien calls this nourishment “recovery” in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” explaining that stories can help us see life afresh and reawaken or illuminate spiritual truths:

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal…

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“Small” and “Little”, a Literary Experiment on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit with Sparrow Alden

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienI have talked about Sparrow Alden’s work before, the creative Digital Humanities project to stage all of the words in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Her “Words That You Were Saying” blog then offers up visual word studies that invite us to imagine dominant, peculiar, and hidden themes in this literary fairy tale. Digital Humanities work is not magic; we consider the data, doing all the work before we know if we will see a result. But I have found Sparrow’s word studies have consistently made me reflect on the text in fresh ways. 

It’s a cool project, but I also have been able to make use of it in my scholarly work. In preparing for a lecture in Northwind’s Romantic Theology program, I began playing with words in the text, playing out an image that I think is a bit under-appreciated. Because she is entirely equipped, I reached out to Sparrow to see if she could run the data on “little” and “small” in her magic Digital Humanities project. This is the first part of that project and “Small,”was not far behind. I then spent some time visualizing the data, using it to enrich my close reading. The first picture is of the chapter list of The Hobbit, and some charts to capture Sparrow’s word data.

Small Hobbit Chapters

Small Little Data Chart 1 Hobbit

Small Little Data Chart 2 Hobbit


Small Little Data Chart 3 Hobbit

I think this is a good example of cooperative scholarship and digital humanities experimentation at work. Thanks to Sparrow and I hope students found the slight tilt in perspective enriched their reading as much as it did mine!

words that you were saying

Finally! Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Dickieson over at A Pilgrim in Narnia, I have gotten un-stuck from the word which has held me in thrall since October. I hope this is of interest to his students in their study of the power of small ones:

• 1.004 and smaller than the bearded Dwarves.
• 1.004 the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill.
• 1.006 since they were all small hobbit-boys
• 1.059 and a couple of small tables
• 1.068 he sent a smaller smoke-ring from his short clay-pipe
• 1.109 Because it is too small.
• 1.113 a small and curious key.
• 2.022 There was a very small pony,
• 2.112 very small and secret.
• 2.113 too small for trolls,
• 2.123 our small stock of provisions.
• 3.009 some of which were small,
• 3.033 in the story of Bilbo’s…

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The Other Reasons I Became a C.S. Lewis Scholar

the-kilns-lewis-deskAn intriguing, fun, and occasionally perverse part of being a scholar in areas where there is a lively fandom is that I am often asked to tell my “encounter” story. This can be a bit strange in that in the scholarly worlds of the authors I love: Lewis, Tolkien, Montgomery, Rowling, Le Guin (I don’t hear it with Stephen King). These encounter stories can be so powerful that it creates a warm bubble of protection around the author. Reading-encounter stories are often like conversion stories, with all the intimacy and intensity of a revival tent altar call. Who am I to break into that sacred space with a critical thought? When your favourite authors are saints, the best way to write about them is hagiography, after all.

This is obviously less of a problem with Le Guin and Rowling, who were both cultural critics and were each skewered in society in different ways. But outside of questions about gender and violence, there can be in Lewis studies a hedge of protection about the Narnian. I remember offering a critique of Lewis’ idea of “vocation” at a C.S. Lewis and Friends conference once and felt a sudden posture of caution from the crowd.

And I get it! Lewis’ writing is able to awaken my imagination. His works provoke me to think about theology, culture, literature, and spirituality in fresh ways. I understand why, with book sales exceeding 200,000,000 copies, a billion-dollar film industry, and a bookshelf of critical, philosophical, and popular works continually in print, C.S. Lewis is both the beloved author of The Chronicles of Narnia and the leading 20th century English-speaking Christian public intellectual. I like reading his works, so I do.

Because 11 years ago someone helped me think cleverly about the way I shaped my scholarly career, I thought I would write a short piece about “The Other Reasons I Became a C.S. Lewis Scholar.” Going into Lewis studies was not just fan-blindness; I was intentional in my choice to be a Lewis scholar. Here are the reasons I don’t say aloud very often because they are entirely pragmatic. But they may be able to help others shape the way they approach grad school or a book project about C.S. Lewis, another leading writer or public figure, or about any area of study that you truly love.

cs-lewis-selected-literary-essaysC.S. Lewis as Essayist and Me the Writer

A prodigious essayist, it is this area of C.S. Lewis’ work that I find the most provocative. In terms of influence on my life, I feel this more strongly even than of his popular fiction and apologetics books. Whether inspirational or controversial, his brevity, clarity and wit strike through his reviews, lectures, published letters, editorials, sermons, public controversies, papers, and critical essays. Essay writing was an area that Lewis excelled in, leading to nearly 200 short pieces still in print. Frankly, one of the reasons I turned to Lewis was because I wanted to become a better writer of nonfiction. I still haven’t managed to be as concise, but Lewis’ essay-writing has helped me learn to see in pictures and try to capture some of what I see on the page before me.

CS Lewis Essays Presented to Charles WilliamsA Scholarly Community I Can Be Part Of

Sprinkled throughout the 1,100 articles on A Pilgrim in Narnia are dozens of references to what I think is the strongest feature of C.S. Lewis studies: the scholars. I have written here about the “Unpayable Debt” of writing friends, a “Small Circle of Blog Friends,” how senior Lewis scholars are great at mentoring emerging scholars, and dozens of reviews and notes about scholarly work I’ve found valuable. In a recent paper and my PhD thesis, I acknowledge the debt of gratitude of dozens of Lewis scholars and readers for their support, criticism, and conversation over the last decade.

Lewis scholarship is a remarkable place for inviting people to think about the intersection between Lewis and the literary age, culture, politics, gender, theology, and spiritual life. However, when I decided to enter this field, I had no idea what it would be like. The advice that a retired academic gave me was to pick a figure to study that had literary societies in place so that I could enter a conversation already in play–a place where I could present papers, test ideas, and dialogue meaningfully with others. I had no idea how rich that scholarly community would be for me.

collected letters cs lewis volume 3 ed by walter hooperFinding the Books I Need

Because of the work of C.S. Lewis scholars and his lifelong friends, and because of a hungry fanbase of book-buyers, we are in the remarkable position of having Lewis’ entire book catalogue constantly in print. It’s true, I am not always able to get a 1st edition when I need to do precise text critical work–and I own no true 1st editions. However, by keeping my eyes open, I was able to get everything that Lewis published pretty cheaply. And where something is difficult to find, such as his late ’30s essay collection, Rehabilitations, as a non-American scholar, I was able to buy an inexpensive Kindle reprint. Similarly, the 3rd volume of the Collected Letters is extremely expensive, but I was able to use the ebook until I found one at the right price.

Beyond Lewis’ book publication, circumstances have conspired to give readers a remarkable breadth of materials. Walter Hooper has published 3,800 of Lewis’ surviving letters, scholars have been continually bringing archival material to print, and Lewis’ lifetime publication of 40 books has grown to about 60 in the literary afterlife. Beyond that, Lewis’ books are available in many platforms. I can read Mere Christianity in my old paperback with Thai beach sand stuck in the crevices. Then I can reread and make highlights on Kindle, or read it by audio with Geoffrey Howard’s trusty Lewis voice (aka, Ralph Cosham–now free for US Audible subscribers) or a new version by Julian Rhind-Tutt–supplemented by a few bits of Lewis’ original BBC recordings. As Lewis is mostly out of copyright in Canada, and as Kindle is priced reasonably, I have e-copies of much of what Lewis wrote, giving me text-search capabilities I could not have of the entire œuvre of most prolific authors. In Lewis studies, we are embarrassed by the riches of availability, supplemented by resource-folks like Joel Heck and Arend Smilde. All of this allowed me to get into Lewis studies without great expense, and to launch a chronological reading project that would be much harder (or impossible) to design for many other writers.

cs Lewis The Four Loves3The Hard Part of Reading

I was sitting in a campus cafe, feeling hopeless and far from home, when I got my advice to root my scholarship in the thinking of a public intellectual with established societies. I have always laughed out loud when Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, responded to Moses’ hard work by saying, “What you are doing is not good.” Fathers-in-law can be their own challenge, but this old scholar was my Jethro. I immediately took his advice. I left the conference and walked downtown, hoping that my trusty feet would lead me to a used bookstore in a city I did not know.

I was not disappointed. I spent the rest of the afternoon standing in the aisle, reading through the great theologians who have inspired me. Perhaps I am a lazy reader, but frankly, I found their work dull on extended reading (though if I knew German I may have studied Jürgen Moltmann). Theologians I enjoyed reading were still in process (like Stanley Hauerwas) or had such a large corpus I thought I could not get into the game so late (like John Wesley). Other theologians horrified me in tone or content. Honestly, I left the bookstore disappointed.

Providentially, though, I decided to ditch the conference entirely and drive out of the way to stay with dear friends. Along the way, I put in a CD of C.S. Lewis’ lectures, The Four Loves. I was surprised by the richness of his voice, the humour, the vivid examples, the stirring quotations, and a capacity for deeper thought that could be obscured by occasionally shocking comments. When I got home, weirdly, I chose his Letters to an American Lady, and was blown away by the depth of his “accidental” spiritual direction. I then read Of Other Worlds, a collection of essays on popular literature, and The Screwtape Letters. At this point, I knew that I could read and reread Lewis for a decade. That’s how long it takes to do a PhD and get the thesis out as a book, so I needed someone who could stimulate my thinking and imagination for the entire period.

As I am beginning my second decade as a reader later this year, I have discovered that Lewis’ books get better with rereading and that I never weary of going back to the same bookshelf.

tolkien silmarillion 2Having Something to Say

For the sheer love of entering a world of myth and poetry, I read and reread J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, supplemented by The Silmarillion and all manner of published archival material. It takes me years, though, before I feel I have something original to say. The most popular articles on Tolkien I’ve written are not my close-readings or theological reflections, but Inklings pieces like “The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life,” the publication of essential letters and poems, resource blogs like “Approaching The Silmarillion for the First Time,” and writing pieces like “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings.” My more substantial work on Tolkien is read appreciatively, but not broadly. For example, I quite like this piece I worked on for a long time on (but never got much traction): “Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’“–of course, the title may have only attracted the most serious readers! I have a similar experience in reading Ursula K. Le Guin: I find it rich and fulfilling and I love teaching her, but it takes me a long time to say anything new.

However, when I read Lewis, I am constantly making connections that I am able to talk about in my essays, lectures, and academic pieces. There is something about the way I approach the text that generates productive readings, thoughts about culture, and links to Lewis’ life and thought. And, frankly, there was a uniquely Brenton-shaped hole in C.S. Lewis studies that I am able to fill. If Lewis scholars had answered all the questions, I wouldn’t be here.

lewis letters to malcolmMind the Gap

Part of having something to say is working with an author who has not said everything there is to say. That sounds obvious, but I had certain influential theologians in my young life–Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright, and Sallie McFague, in particular–who had helped shaped me, but I was not able to really say anything in response. As soon as I read Rosemary Radford Ruether’s work, though, I knew exactly what to say and wrote an entire master’s thesis in response. I could challenge and extend the work of Volf, Wright, or McFague now, but a decade ago they were still building into me.

Immediately in reading C.S. Lewis, I was able to think dynamically in conversation with his work. This is partly because he has gaps–generalizations he makes, limitations in his point of view, personal likes and dislikes that get in the way, little shortcuts of mind and form…. Lewis’ limitations do not destroy his utility, but increase it. At least for me. I am able to pick up where Lewis left off, producing what I hope is a richer understanding of life and letters.

In particular, I think that Owen Barfield is right about his old friend, that what Lewis thought about anything is embedded in everything he wrote. Lewis is “integrative”–a holistic thinker whose theology and cultural criticism and image of spiritual life are hard-won but instinctive, emergent, flowing out of his personality and ethic into the world at great speed. One of the services I can provide to Lewis readers is to bring into a cohesive whole Lewis’ thoughts scattered over 20,000 pages of letters, manuscript fragments, poems, journal entries, essays, lectures, sermons, and books. What makes me most excited, though, is that in this way, Lewis is also able to speak cogently to theologians, spiritual directors, literature teachers, cultural critics, social activists, and theorists. Lewis’ gaps are opportunities to think critically and faithfully about his work, and I am pleased to be someone who can help bridge those fruitful gaps.

Brenton Viva Photo 2019There are weaknesses in my work and even in my choice of study. Shockingly, universities are not clamouring to hire a C.S. Lewis expert. However, I hope my experience can provide you with a resource to explore your own paths of curiosity, wonder, and discovery.

Some other posts on PhD Preparation and Academic Writing that Might be Helpful:

And you can read my full academic biography here.

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Reading J.R.R. Tolkien by Audiobook and Adaptation: Thoughts on a Portland Discovery

It was pouring rain in Portland as Nicolas and I wove our way through the artisan-filled streets of this renewed East Coast City. I love Portland, though we were not visiting on the best of circumstances. Just a couple of hours earlier, with too little sleep, Nicolas and I had left a sunny Boston behind. Our pilgrimage complete, we had seen one of our favourite bands, Twenty One Pilots, live at the Gardens. Boston is only a 10 or 11 hour drive from where we live, so it is worth the time and money when the right conference or concert comes our way. That we left Prince Edward Island only a few hours after I had landed from my research trip to England was part of the fun. The torrential rain would later become heavy snow as we headed North to Canada, causing us to seek refuge in a nondescript roadside motel. But we were still riding high as we hit Portland with one destination in mind: The Green Hand.

The Green Hand is testimony to the fact that one of the best gifts that Science Fiction has given us is time travel. Stepping into the Green Hand is like stepping back a generation, in the days before big warehouse bookstores become the digital and analog norm. While Portland has a number of great indie bookstores, the Green Hand is entirely dedicated to speculative fiction: fantasy, ghost stories, horror, the supernatural, the weird, classic and contemporary SciFi, and all manner of genre fiction at the edges of our imaginative possibilities. The Green Hand is my destination for hard-to-find Stephen King and Ursula K. Le Guin editions or stumble-upon classic sf discoveries. It takes hours to truly explore the store, including occasional deposits of pirated fan papers like early Tolkien language guides. That it has an entire section dedicated to Philip K. Dick says much.

Heading back to the car, we popped into Enterprise Records. Our excuse was to let the hardest rain pass by, but it is hard to resist the lure of used vinyl. There are a few great places in Downtown Maine, like Moody Lords and Electric Buddhas, but Enterprise Record’s vintage sign and straight-up bin-discovery set-up means there is usually something to find for collectors and something leftover for abecedarians like me. This time, I was content to find a $3 Abbey Road–playable, but not good enough to be collectable.

On a whim, I checked the audiobook bin and made a startling discovery. I found a beautiful, library withdrawal copy of the Nicol Williamson’s abridged reading of The Hobbit. Although there are some pirated versions of this edition that make their way through the Tolkienist versions of the not-so-mirky web (i.e., it’s on Youtube), the LP is a pretty rare find. I was able to get this copy in pretty good shape for $30–a bargain at twice the price, though still a conversation I would have to have with my very patient wife.

I am hardly any kind of collector as so many Tolkienists are. I have a US 1st edition of The Silmarillion, which I got for $10 at a used bookstore in Vermont where the owner did not seem like she wanted to sell any of her books. I have a nice boxed anniversary edition of The Hobbit, printed beautifully and well-illustrated. I have that original wide-sized printing of the Tolkien-illustrated Mr. Bliss, and I purchased the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth Bodleian coffee table book because I love Tolkien’s work in pen and ink. And I like the look of my UK 2nd edition Lord of the Rings on the shelf, though nothing of mine is terribly valuable.

What drew me to the Nicol Williamson recording was my particular love of well-produced audiobooks or audio rarities, like the recordings of Tolkien that are now digitally available but were once pretty hard to find. While I would normally consider any abridgement a kind of literary sin–more because of the terrible quality of most abridgments rather than any authorial loyalty–this version has become a kind of cult classic. I have no interest in Martin Shaw’s abridged reading, but I was curious about this Nicol Williamson LP. I only found out later that I had done well in the bargain.

Truth be told, listening to Tolkien’s tales on tape has produced mixed results for me. Nicol Williamson’s version is peppy and lively, very hobbit- and dwarf-focussed, bringing dialogue and adventure to the front of the story. For a Hobbit audiobook, I prefer Rob Inglis’ voice in the unabridged reading–including all the little details that, for me, make The Hobbit a gateway to Tolkien’s epic. Right now, I am listening to Inglis’ version of The Lord of the Rings and quite enjoying it. I don’t love the voicing of Gimli and Legolas–I think Peter Jackson‘s characters have burrowed into my imagination–but Inglis brings the world alive for me, creaky singing voice and all.

Still, I remain a little hesitant. I did not love the bits of the dramatized versions that I have heard of The Lord of the Rings–though I have it in a full audiocassette boxset if I want to give it a try. I liked the BBC’s Tales from the Perilous Realm stories, though Derek Jacobi wins the prize there, for me. I read Andy Serkis’ version of The Hobbit earlier this winter. It was excellently done, but I did not love it. When reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I want the books in my hand–and not the fancy versions, but my trusty, cheap, well-worn paperbacks that I bought in Japan when I was missing the sound of the English tongue. So I have Timothy and Samuel West’s Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin on my audible wishlist, as well as Christopher Lee’s The Children of Hurin, but I have never pulled the trigger. I see that Unfinished Tales will land on audio by the Wests, but I probably won’t pre-order it until I’ve read the other attempts.

My hesitation is a little strange to me. I love audiobooks, and I think Beren and Lúthien one of the best things I have ever read. Also, Martin Shaw’s deep, resonant reading helped The Silmarillion come alive for me. While I had powered through–as I discuss here–now I reread the tale of the Silmarils with a new kind of delight. The audiobooks are a fun way to reread quite a number of the tales that might slide to the edge of my bookshelf otherwise. And yet it was that reading by Andy Serkis that made me yearn for the text itself rather than a storyteller’s interpretation in my ear.

As I thought about this seeming contradiction, I realized that what the audiobooks were doing for me was to push me back to the text. This is undoubtedly a good thing. As I read (i.e. listened), I found myself wandering over to the bookshelf to look up a passage I had not noticed before.

The Andy Serkis reading of The Hobbit was fresh for me because his voicing of the text began to match with certain elements of the films that I had seen only years before. This is no surprise. Serkis was the voice of Gollum in the Peter Jackson films, including brief appearances in the first installment of the Hobbit trilogy. Back when they were released, I wrote reviews about the bumbled but interesting nature of the Hobbit films, admitting that I loved more of Tolkien’s world, but they had rather overdrawn the story. What was surprising to me, however, were a number of tiny text details that I had never noticed before that flashed into my mind as film images, provoked by Andy Serkis’ reading. These include little turns of phrase, particular details of costume, the habits and movements of the characters, and the way the poetry is capturing either an element of atmosphere, a critical point of lore, or foretelling an aspect of the adventure.

In the original Jackson LOTR film trilogy, which I still love, there simply is not time for the long, luxurious time that The Fellowship of the Rings spends in Rivendell, particularly at the council–one of Tolkien’s longest chapters. In over-drawing the Hobbit films, however, there may be more details available to us than would have been the case with a nice, three-hour fairy-tale film like The Hobbit deserves. By an odd circuitous route, then–from the fan-favourite Nicol Williamson reading that was fun but unfulfilling, to the excellent Andy Serkis reading that I did not love, to the over-produced Peter Jackson films that I enjoyed with grave reservations–I have found what I love best about both audiobooks and adaptations: they send me back to the text richer, inspiring me to read more deeply and to hear the text with different voices.

It really is amazing what you might discover in downtown Portland!

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