Reading a Story for What It Is

I just finished reading Alister McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. This caused me to reflect once more on the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, which in turn led (in a round-about way) to this post.

In the course of reading hundreds of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads over the past few years, I’ve noticed that instead of asking: “What question is the author asking in this story?” many readers assert (in one way or another): “This author didn’t do what they were supposed to do in this story.”

Now, I understand that in genre fiction certain tropes exist and the author should deliver them. I also understand that if a story makes a promise to the reader early on, the author must follow through on that promise by the last page of the book.

But I’m not talking about either of those things here. I’m talking about readers insisting that their preferred philosophy of story-telling is the legitimate approach to telling a story, and any story that doesn’t fit their philosophy is rubbish. IMO, this represents a rather narrow approach to reading!

One of the best examples of this gap between philosophies of story-telling is already fairly well-known among lovers of fantasy fiction: Tolkien’s dislike of The Chronicles of Narnia. If you are the type of reader who wants to know more about the authors of your favorite stories, then you probably already know that Tolkien didn’t appreciate Narnia. Apparently he disliked what he considered the patchwork quality of Lewis’s world-building.

And it’s not difficult to understand how strange Narnia would seem to Tolkien, a man who spent nearly his entire life building a world of magnificent depth and detail, and who spent many long years agonizing over continuity, rewriting passages, and rewriting them again, in an effort to achieve perfect consistency. Tolkien attempted to execute his philosophy of writer as sub-creator with exhaustive (and often exhausting) precision, and the result was an astonishing body of work that has engaged millions of people all over the world for several generations.

Now, I’ll confess right here that I don’t entirely disagree with Tolkien’s view that Narnia could have been fleshed out in more detail. I’ve often wished Lewis had done so! And I also recognize Tolkien didn’t necessarily demand that every writer measure up to the rigorous goals he set for himself. (Proof of this is in Tolkien’s positive and balanced comments about the world Lewis built in Out of the Silent Planet (the first volume in Lewis’s Space Trilogy), to be found in Tolkien’s Letters.)

Still, while Tolkien had every right to find Narnia not to his taste, I’m not aware that he ever acknowledged Lewis’s goal in creating it. Lewis never intended Narnia to be primarily an exercise in sub-creation in the same way that Tolkien approached his own work. In other words, Lewis’s work didn’t live up to Tolkien’s standard, but Lewis never intended to measure up to Tolkien’s standard.

So to the extent Tolkien viewed Narnia only through his own lens, it’s no wonder he was disappointed.

Lewis said the reason he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was in answer to a specific “supposal” (what we might call the question at the heart of a speculative work): What would it look like if Christ were to become incarnate in a world of sentient animals and mythological creatures?

This is not a question Tolkien asks in LOTR. Quite the opposite: He said that although he wrote LOTR to be consistent with Christianity, he also avoided addressing the Incarnation in his mythology.

So even though both Tolkien and Lewis wrote fantasy fiction, the goals (philosophies) behind the creation of Middle Earth and the creation of Narnia could not have been more different.

And yet, despite the vast gap between these two authors’ goals for their stories, millions of readers love them. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that many of the same readers love both Tolkien and Lewis (although people who love both undoubtedly represent a smaller subset of readers).

But the only way the same reader could love both LOTR and The Chronicles of Narnia is if that reader is willing to read each on its own terms. The reader must be willing to at least respect each author’s philosophy of story-telling, and appreciate these stories for what they were intended to be – rather than finding fault with them for what they were never intended to be.

For example: If we insist that a Christ-figure must appear in LOTR, then we’re going to spend a lot of time and energy trying to make Gandalf or Aragorn fit a Messianic profile, even though this was not Tolkien’s intent.

And if we demand that The Chronicles of Narnia measure up to Tolkien’s personal standard of world-building and myth-making, then we’re going to be disappointed, because Lewis never set out to create any such thing.

In short: Maybe we’ll be happier readers if we consider an author’s goals as one legitimate component of our reading experience.