Thursday, May 09, 2013

Narnia and Middle Earth: A Clash of Writing Styles

An article in the newest issue of MYTHLORE (the journal of the Mythopoeic Society) discusses why J. R. R. Tolkien disliked C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. The best-known reason was that Tolkien disapproved of mixing characters and creatures from several different mythologies in the same story, e.g., Father Christmas, fauns, and dwarfs. Another reason was Tolkien’s professed dislike of allegory (which the article questions, because he did write some allegorical fiction himself, such as “Leaf by Niggle”), and he thought the Christian message in the Narnia books was too obvious.

However, Josh B. Long, the author of this article, highlights a more fundamental motive for Tolkien’s negative reaction to THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE and its sequels: Long quotes Lewis’s biographer, George Sayer, as saying Tolkien felt those novels were “written superficially and far too quickly.” Tolkien also disapproved of the lack of a coherent background for the Narnian universe, so different from the depth and detail of Tolkien’s own imaginary world. The fundamental objection, though, seems to have been what Long summarizes as, “Tolkien was opposed to Lewis’s compositional carelessness, superficiality, and haste.” As friends and colleagues critiquing each other’s works in progress, Tolkien disapproved of Lewis’s speed and “fluency,” while Lewis showed exasperation with Tolkien’s extremely meticulous slowness of composition. As Long puts it, “Tolkien needed someone hammering him to be productive, while Lewis needed someone to remind him to slow down and pay attention to the details.”

Now I get it. Tolkien had an aversion to Lewis’s approach to writing fiction because Tolkien was a plotter and Lewis was a pantser! Consider the diametrically different ways they created their worlds: Tolkien, as a professor of ancient languages and literatures, began by inventing his Elvish languages as a leisure-time hobby. Then he constructed a world in which those languages could be spoken. Over many years, he created the myths and legends of this world as the SILMARILLION (not published until after his death). Only later did he write THE HOBBIT, retcon its events to fit into his subcreated world, and follow up with THE LORD OF THE RINGS. For Lewis, on the other hand, every work of fiction began with “pictures.” He seems to have been a very visual thinker. For example, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE developed from an image of a faun walking through a snowy wood with packages and an umbrella. He described his plotting process as something like “birdwatching.” Mental images would come to him spontaneously, and after a while several of them would feel as if they belonged to the same story. Only after he had accumulated a cluster of such “pictures” would he start the conscious work of constructing sequences of events to link them all together.

As a side effect of this plotting technique, the Narnia series does show inconsistencies among the various novels. Long mentions that “Lewis had planned to revise The Chronicles of Narnia to make them more consistent, but unfortunately passed away before he could do so.” I’m reminded of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels, which at first she wrote as one-shot books that she never intended as part of a series, with the result that geography shifts from book to book. She eventually rewrote the earliest novel, SWORD OF ALDONES, as SHARRA'S EXILE to make its events fit better into the established universe.

Contrary to Bradley’s and Jacqueline’s world-building advice not to commit yourself to any “facts” you don’t need to establish for the current story, because you might end up getting locked into something you'll want to change for a later book, Tolkien did exactly that. He built the whole world and its history before writing THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. This method at least tends to avoid inconsistencies. Tolkien, however, did revise THE HOBBIT in later editions because it wasn’t originally envisioned as part of the Middle Earth universe. I admire parts of both Lewis’s and Tolkien’s methods. I don’t see anything wrong with fast, “fluent” writing; I envy that gift. But I also delight in a deeply detailed, all-encompassing fictional universe.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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