I go to a church in Oxford that bares the accolade of having had C.S. Lewis attend. Indeed, being an Oxonian, I have had the privilege of walking through the Magdalene College deer park just as both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S Lewis did. This relatively intimate connection with these two world-renowned authors and academics led me to the first in a series of talks being done by the University Chaplaincy called Café Theologique.
The talk was on faith and fantasy in the works of Lewis and Tolkien. It was hosted at Zero-Degrees bar — and, yes, it was full. The University Chaplain Mark Laynesmith interviewed Alex Gushurst-More, who works at the Business School and has done Post-Graduate research.
Her interest in Lewis and Tolkien was sparked when she studied Tolkien at A-level. Following this, her father introduced her to some more of their books. She had not yet thought of the religious dimensions in Tolkien’s work, but for post-graduate research, she decided to do Roman Catholic symbolism in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Lewis and Tolkien lived both similar and different lives: similar in the sense that they both lost their mothers when they were little, different in that while Lewis became a strong Atheist after this point, Tolkien became a stronger Roman Catholic.
However, Lewis would return to Christianity later in life. It is said that while walking in Magdalene College deer park with Tolkien he was convinced that myths pointed to Christianity. But, and there is always a but, unlike Tolkien, Lewis took — not a Roman Catholic path — but a Protestant evangelical path draped in Anglicanism.
So, what drove them to write about fantasy? Well, it seems that they saw fantasy as a mirror of our own existence, or for our two authors, it is a way of reflecting the Christian truth. Accordingly, unlike what you might think, Tolkien believed the magic should be taken seriously — not a mere children’s story.
Gushurst-More pointed to two differences in the way that they used fantasy to reflect the Christian truth. On the one hand, C.S. Lewis was more explicit and allegorical. His Space Trilogy (which Gushurst-More specialises in), for example, is a Christian message through Sci-Fi; and, of course, Aslan in Narnia represents Jesus Christ.
Tolkien on the other hand dislikes the allegorical. His Christian message is woven into the fabrics of the work. According to Gushurst-More, for example, The Lord of the Rings follows the Christian calendar, which most definitely was not a mistake.
Reflecting this was the second difference between the two: Tolkien’s work was Roman Catholic, while Lewis’s was Protestant in flavour. Tolkien has far more Marian imagery (in Galadriel) and sacramental imagery in the very beauty of the creation. Some of this can be found in Lewis’, work but it is less noticeable than other themes.
However, there are other similarities in the works. They both discuss the struggles of life. With regards to Tolkien, a key aspect was the concept of ‘eucatastrophe’, which is about how a seemingly terrible event is rescued at the last minute. For example, the eagles save Sam and Frodo from certain death, and this can be seen to have a Christian parallel in the idea of unpredictable grace.
It was also mentioned that they both have an environmental theme: that is, they both had a strong dislike of modernity, which they saw as a corrupting force upon humanity (think of the ring and Sauron) and upon creativity. Technology dumbs us down and makes us do less and less with our minds and bodies.
Afterwards, I felt a greater attachment to Lewis and Tolkien than I had before. Partly this was because I had strong agreements with them on a number of points (though I lean slightly more towards Lewis than Tolkien). However, it was also because the interview highlighted more the depth of intelligence and understanding these two had, and when I next read over their works, I shall do so in a new light.
Other Café Theologique events:
Monday 21st November, 7:30PM – Science, Religion and Children: How conflicting messages make it difficult for young people to have faith – Dr Keith Chappell, School of Biological Sciences, researcher for the LASER project, UoR
Monday January/ February time, 7:30PM – Sin: Is it time to ditch the concept? – Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, Dean of Kings College, Cambridge
Monday 6th March, 7:30PM – Christian faith, ethics and mission rests on the word ‘with’ – Revd Dr Sam Wells, – Vicar of St Martin-in-the-fields, contributer on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, former research Professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School