Made-Up Worlds and Their Citizenry


Made-Up Worlds and Their Citizenry,

or, Tolkien and Lewis as Mythmakers, or The Impressive Ability to Overthink Fairytales

(Disclaimer: I thought about digging up quotes from both authors, but that seemed like work rather than fun. Much of what I discuss here is axiomatic as well as legendary. “It’s common knowledge that...” or “It’s thought...” could be inserted at any point in this piece. Anyone who cares to can conduct an internet search and find many essays and discussions on this debate, regarding these two men. For my part, I mean to speculate and ramble).

There’s a funny schism between my favorite authors. Tolkien, the god of Middle-earth, and Lewis, the god of Narnia. Lewis adored Tolkien’s Hobbit stories, encouraging his friend for over a decade to keep working on his story about evil rings and invented languages, and for the first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, his own review was printed on the back of the book. Lewis at the time (the 1950s) commanded wider recognition and respect on the world’s stage. His endorsement was helpful, and sincere. Tolkien would soon outpace him; even to this day there are likely more fans or even people with casual knowledge of Middle-earth, where Narnia diminishes. Some might say this is due to the success of the Rings movie trilogy, which certainly had a hand in adding to the story’s acclaim, but it should not be forgotten how popular the books were on their own, from the 60s to the early aughts when the Peter Jackson films were released. In any case, that’s not what I want to write about. I mentioned a schism. Lewis really did love Middle-earth. Tolkien shared early versions of The Lord of the Rings with Lewis and friends during its formation; some reacted with, “Not another elf story!” while Lewis urged Tolkien to tell more, read more, to keep sharing his creation. Lewis found it fascinating and entertaining. Tolkien, with respect to Narnia, did not think much of it. This isn’t to paint one man in a bad light and the other in a good; there is no law that says one must like his friend’s writing, or at least say he likes it. There were several reasons Tolkien thought little of Narnia. They’re too allegorical, they’re too simple. But only one reason intrigues me. Narnia was too mixed, too mythically mongrelized. Grecian creatures such as fauns and centaurs populating the same landscape as European dwarves? Why, that could never happen! Fantasy should be pure. All the races native to Middle-earth were of the same real world stock. Norse mythology was some of Tolkien’s favorite sort (Lewis was equally fond of it), so the elves and dwarves of his land worked cohesively together. You’d never find a dryad in Lake Helevorn. You wouldn’t meet a minotaur in Arda, no matter how far into the land of the Easterlings you might travel.

I don’t intend to tear down one world and build up the other; Middle-earth and Narnia are equally dear to me. I’ve read biographies and books of personal letters from both authors simply because I like them, not just their work. I am resentful that I was born thirty and twenty years after their deaths. I do, however, puzzle over the question of world-building. As a fantasy writer, I often think about cohesion and myth-making. Tolkien had every right not to really enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia all that much, or at all. He certainly didn’t owe Lewis anything except for gratitude for his years of support and encouragement. Still, I can’t help but think there’s a fair amount of double-standards here. Where does Tom Bombadil fit in the purity of Middle-earth? The character is curious and entertaining, yet surely sticks out like a sore thumb to most readers. It’s not surprising he was completely dropped from the films. Or better yet, let’s briefly look at the tonal progression of the trilogy itself. The attitude and style of the hobbits, leaping straight from Edwardian England, with their fireworks and tea-times and pastoral diction. And over time, as the story progresses, we are transported into wonderful realms of Celtic horsemasters and stone cities of Gondor. The way Aragorn speaks compared to Bilbo Baggins is different by a thousand years, an ancient king of noble tongue and a pleasant chap more like a grocer than a burglar, existing in the same space. There’s nothing wrong with this. I greatly enjoy the range of Tolkien’s ability to create characters and moods. I study after it. But there are wrinkles all over Middle-earth. They aren’t bad wrinkles. They’re the twisted warpings in a tree trunk that make it beautiful. Where does one go too far, I wonder? Again, you have river gods and naiads in Narnia. But what of Ulmo the sea god in Middle-earth? He’s essentially Poseidon. He’s effectively Neptune. What is the analog for balrogs in Norse myth? Surtr? The comparisons are faint. On some level, Tolkien made up what he wanted to. Perhaps he could direct you to each and every counterpart in real mythology from where and whom he draws, but he’s still creating his own world. Hang on, where do Hobbits come from? Fortunately, we know, and it has nothing to do with ancient myth. One day while grading papers (and understandably bored), Professor Tolkien scribbled down, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He made them up.

Of course, no one creates ex nihilo. Writers steal; we call it “inspiration.” The more obvious the stealing, the more likely one is to be declared a hack and probably run into legal troubles of some kind. The writer with integrity and a genuine interest in creativity will admit that it’s not possible to make up something from nothing, but it is possible to add a new spin or iteration. Tolkien’s elves are taken straight from European fairy tales and Viking lore. They are called the Fair Folk, just as they have been for centuries in the real world. And Tolkien always intended that his books be read as a sort of forgotten history that took place long ago. But Tolkien’s elves are not impish. They are not akin to Shakespeare’s Puck. They are beautiful and ethereal, more like the elves in Norse mythology. They are a warrior race. They are wise and solemn, magical and timeless. He pushed the concept of elves in a new direction. Not wholly his own idea, but he developed them into having a lengthy history that solidified them as a race essential to earth’s condition. The attitude and look of Middle-earth elves is supremely appropriate; they feel right. It is a credit to Tolkien’s genius in how he rendered them. Most fantasy writers since have ripped him off. But let’s return to Lewis and Narnia. Yes, he mixed myths from multiple cultures. Again, I don’t see the problem with it. Narnia is uniquely Lewisian. His fauns are humble and merry, not really anything like the lechers of Greek literature. For them to co-exist with the dwarfs of Narnia, in a fairy world far smaller and less storied than Middle-earth, what of it? I return to dryads—tree spirits, are they any different than Ents? Certainly. Are they wildly different? Are the elementally different? They are tree guardians, creatures that are not trees themselves but are the essence of trees, in a manner of speaking. The truth is that of all Earthly cultures throughout time and geography, there’s a great deal of overlap in what we cooked up.

Now, the first entry in the Chronicles of Narnia is, admittedly, the motliest. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe not only contains fauns, centaurs, minotaurs, dryads, naiads, and the rest—Father Christmas himself makes an important appearance. A rather unassuming appearance, in my opinion; this story was written by a nostalgic Irishman in the late 1940s, remember, so there aren’t any ho ho ho’s to suffer through. Rather, Father Christmas comes as a symbol of the broken power of the enemy, and a grandfatherly giver of gifts. He heralds the coming of Aslan, the Christ of Narnia, just as the coming of Christ is celebrated at Christmastime. Still, he jars some readers, which I understand. Narnia was meant to be the place where myths were true, a theme prevalent in Lewis’ life. There are other oddities, like Mr. Beaver making reference to Lilith, “Adam’s first wife,” from Jewish folklore. But if we’re picking nits, how does one defend Gandalf’s anecdote on the invention of golf in The Hobbit. Or the troll’s talking purse. I don’t mind either references in either book; I find them all charming. Tolkien didn’t. In 1960, he attempted to rewrite The Hobbit, which had already put his name on the map as an imaginative, refreshing storyteller. But, in working out The Lord of the Rings and the rest of his legendarium, The Hobbit irked Tolkien as juvenile. I daresay it was juvenile, Professor. It was written for children. For the sake of cohesion and purity in his world, he wished to revise the personality out of an already beloved book, and thank Eru he gave up on the task, and The Hobbit survived its own creator’s scrutiny.

There are still many curiosities in Middle-earth. Ghostly, gangly Gollum. Old Tom Bombadil, the perpetual example, yellow-booted and singing songs more suitable for nurseries than the halls of Gondolin. Talking animals, same as Narnia: Eagles, dragons, wolves, spiders, a particularly random fox in The Fellowship of the Ring. Yet I know of no significant sect that cries blasphemy or impurity when examining these quirks. Most shrug and smile, saying it’s a fantasy world. I suppose the philosophical, literary rebuttal is that all these elements still fit into a consistent Norse/Gothic/European backdrop. There are no Mediterranean intrusions. Fine, though I suppose we can ignore Numenor, the ancient country which sank into the sea, just like Atlantis, as Tolkien was fond of comparing it to. Atlantis, of course, that famous Viking myth. And although he pays homage to the polytheism of the Scandinavians of yore with his Valars, the Holy Ones of Middle-earth, lesser gods—in all reality these are angels; Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and Arda has one God. Eru Iluvatar, literally “the one,” who created all life. Monotheism and polytheism, cleverly the cake and the eating of the cake, yet even so, not exactly consistent with real world mythology. Tolkien did his fair share of mix-matching.

This is probably a personal opinion (really this entire document is), but as amazing as Tolkien’s larger world-building is, it’s also some of his most unreadable. Unreadable is too strong a word, but The Silmarillion is not exactly a page-turner. It’s a history book. I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist. But there’s a lot more personality and range in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, at least in terms of style. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and so on all read roughly the same way. While I enjoy the high, archaic language of these stories, the characters blur, the names blur, a lot of it’s redundant and forgettable. Again, some people eat this background information up. For me, it’s good enough to have a working knowledge of all the cities and empires that rise and fall in Middle-earth. I might enjoy reading about them, but they themselves are not enjoyable to read. These histories are well-calculated and serious, yet dry and lacking in color or tension.

Don’t misunderstand me. My goal is not to paint Tolkien as a hypocrite and a bore. If anything, I believe he was simply an obsessive perfectionist, plagued and blessed by his frenzied aspirations to create a complete history of an invented epoch. He wrote so much that they’re still finding ways to publish his unfinished leftovers. Perhaps he was too harsh a critic on others, but as I said, there’s no law that said he had to like Narnia. In further defense of Lewis, he became much more inventive as the Chronicles progressed. Creating creatures like marsh-wiggles, tall froggy humanoids who live in wigwams in the fens and wear pointy hats. Puddleglum, a marsh-wiggle in The Silver Chair, is probably the best character of all the Narnia tales. That’s my opinion, of course, but it’s correct. There are gnomes, dying worlds, worlds at the earth’s core, teleportation, sea voyages, enchantments of all kinds. Narnia’s simply a different beast. I find it endlessly interesting. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is without a doubt more complete, more consistent, more “pure” if that really is the right word. It’s more fully realized. But Narnia is not a collage of various cultural clippings. It makes its own myths and history.

Really, at the risk of being reductive, the schism appears to me like two children playing with their own toys side-by-side, where one mutters to himself about the other, “He’s not playing his game right. He’s not playing by my rules.” Sadly, although the two men were close friends for a long period of their adult life, over time they drifted apart. I wonder how much this plays into the conversation. Furthermore, both had strong opinions about a great many things, and it’s not at all strange that they should butt heads.

Tolkien took the whole thing too seriously, I think. He wrote a lengthy essay On Fairy-Stories defending the fantasy genre at large. It is both a very clever and overly long argument. I understand why he felt the need to write it; at the time, there were popular theories that modern children had evolved beyond ridiculous fairy stories, and both Tolkien and Lewis battled against this notion. Tolkien was a highly intelligent, well-educated man, as was Lewis, who also wrote essays arguing for the purpose of the genre. As a bit of a philistine and a rube myself, I don’t think any of their academic or logical arguments mattered. They both won the debate by telling good stories.

Now, all that being said, I wonder where the line is. In regards to world-building, I mean. Tolkien made up some rules that not even he totally abided, and wrote magical books. Lewis too. But how should one approach world-building? I wonder this as a writer of fantasy. In this genre one can get away with quite a lot of nonsense. Lewis did, Tolkien did. I always thought that was kind of the point. We’re making worlds that are both familiar and foreign, where exciting and bizarre things happen. There might be a bridge too far. The practical side of me thinks only readers can tell you this, that your story was too weird, too incomprehensible. But then, we live in the age where even the worst of films and books have cult followings. For my part, I mean to never write a story about elves. I have no interest in them. They’ve been turned into ridiculous cliches nowadays. The spirit behind them is likely in some of my books; I write about all kinds of ‘forest folk’ who are a bit magic and a bit alien to mankind, but they do not belong to a monolithic ethnic group, nor are they usually very beautiful. Faye, but not Fair. Dwarfs have occasionally popped up in my stories, but they aren’t unified in a race of industrious brawlers; usually they’re little sad fellows who don’t affect the plot much. I really get a kick out of making up entirely new beings. One of my books, The Beast-King, has representatives from at least twenty different “races” in it. It’s fantasy, isn’t it? Each book is the chance to expand the myth. And it’s my myth.

When I write a fairy tale or a fantasy story, I’m chasing after fun. I don’t believe in rules. The only judges involved are myself, as author, and anyone who reads my books. I do believe in basic plot structure and dramatic tension. I think characters should stand distinct from one another. Otherwise, if I feel like a giant creature made of grass needs to make an appearance in a book populated by knights and castles, so be it. Maybe it’ll work, maybe not. Tom Bombadil enters The Fellowship for no real narrative reason, certainly out of place with Sindarin Elves and descendants of Isildur. Bombadil is there for no other reason than Tolkien wanted him to be. Lewis wrote a story about a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood because that image had been in his mind since he was a teenager, put there by God or a fever or what have you, and he wanted to make good on that image. We can talk about sub-creation, Norse origins, Platonic ideals, and ransom atonement doctrines till the world ends. There’s always some deeper meaning or inspiration to written works, but in my experience the only compelling reason we create is because we’re chasing fun. We enjoy it. It excites us. I have my own secrets and symbols in Trixie & Roy or The Sassafras Three, but they’re not there out of obligatory duty to some cosmic law of how one ought to make up a world. It’s perfectly fine that there are people who like to know the deeper meanings behind all these stories. If the author wants to write endless letters or backstories explaining it all, more power to him. But, I’ve noticed, these questions and answers only exist because someone read the story first, and liked it.

As a final note on Tolkien (Lord love him), he was adamant for years that The Silmarillion be published with The Lord of the Rings. He didn’t think anyone would understand the story without all the history attached to it. He even cut ties with his publishers, Allen and Unwin, at the flimsy prospect of another publisher releasing all the stories together. This did not happen. Paper supply was low in England in the days after WWII, and ultimately Tolkien went back to A & U, and they published The Lord of the Rings into three books, promising to release The Silmarillion on its own, when Tolkien had finished it. If the genius had had his way (and I do mean that, the man was a genius), I cast heaps of doubt that Middle-earth would find success among readers. Perhaps some, but in niche quantities, rather than the household status it enjoys today. In the end, Tolkien did not finish The Silmarillion before his death, not as he wanted it. But he got to see thousands of people love The Lord of the Rings, he got to explain all about the deeper lore to those who asked. Good on him. Hoorah for hobbits, hoorah for marsh-wiggles.

For further reading:

Trixie & Roy

The Sassafras Three

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography