A friend of mine recently commented that he sees too many references to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien in the blogging world. As someone who tries to stay connected to the conversations of the interwebs, I can confirm that there are indeed a plethora of perspectives penned on these great 20th century authors. Indeed, hardly a week goes by without seeing an article evaluating what Lewis would have thought about this, or the implications of Tolkien’s writings for that. Even here at Conciliar Post there have been a number of recent posts concerning these literary giants (see here, here, here, and here, for example). Clearly there is no lack of contemporary admiration for Lewis and Tolkien (and the rest of the Inklings). This friend’s comment, however, got me thinking: What is it about Lewis and Tolkien that cause us to revisit their works again and again?
To answer this, let us briefly explore the nature of writing. In its most basic form, writing is a form of storytelling. Not storytelling in the sense of spinning legendary yarns of dubious merit that you tell your kids before bed. Rather, through telling stories human beings convey meaning. Who we are, how we perceive the world, the people and experiences that have influenced us the most: we encounter these facets of our existence through narrative and story. Even the most bland and arcane academic prose tries to contribute to the story of our world, to add even one insight to our understanding of the universe. We all make sense of our world through the stories we see, tell, and experience.
And, as anyone who has been exposed to more than a handful of stories is well aware, human beings are pretty good at recycling the dramas and themes that we find most meaningful and entertaining. Look no further than Hollywood, where every blockbuster seems to be an adaptation from some other narrative. Whether adapted from a novel, comic book, fantasy series, or Shakespearean play, the stories we tell ourselves are recapitulations of other meaningful accounts and themes. For example, I love the Avengers as much as the next warm-blooded male, but there is something about the narrative of good versus evil that evidences an experience of the profound, something which points us beyond the action of the film to a recognition of that cosmic battle between the Good One and Evil. There is something about this story which transcends the necessities of an action film based on a comic book.
Now obviously there are new stories and plot twists which emerge, events which expand our horizons and force us to reorganizing our categories and ideas. Yet while there are “paradigm shifting” moments, even our seminal and especially wise moments will eventually be transformed into our working body of knowledge. And typically, the individual moments which are life changing for us are our experiences of a narrative, rather than the creation of a whole new story. As another example, while my reading of Saint Augustine’s Confessions was a powerful encounter, I am not the first to have felt the power of this narrative. Instead, I am but one in a long line of readers to have benefited from Augustine’s insight. In general terms, then, we are constantly surrounded and developed by stories, which are often retellings or adaptations of other stories. Our entire world is speaking through stories.
At this point we must return to Lewis and Tolkien, who in their own ways retell preexisting stories,† though this is not my point here. Rather, in Lewis and Tolkien we receive powerful, accessible, and relevant stories for our age. Through the Chronicles of Narnia we learn about the detriment of selfishness, the beauty of sacrifice, the majesty of true friendship, and the importance of standing firm in our beliefs until the end, among other important lessons. In the Cosmic Trilogy we encounter God’s love for His creation, the depravity of sinfulness, and hubris of humanity. Reading A Grief Observed or Lewis’s letters in A Severe Mercy may help us as we suffer the loss of a loved one. Similarly, there is much to learn from Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings we experience the ups and downs of pursuing righteousness in an evil and corrupt world; in The Hobbit we experience humanity’s desire for adventure and creativity. One cannot hope to do justice to the rich experiences Lewis and Tolkien provide in their literary canons in a brief article—the point here is that there are numerous lessons to be gleaned from these stories. As human beings who make sense of our world through stories, is it at all surprising that we return to these narratives again and again?
Now, I will be among the first to admit that sometimes the retelling of a tale has become boring or meaningless: watching a movie ten times during its first week of release, as my younger siblings often did, will ruin a story for you. And some lessons cannot reasonably be gained from certain stories, or at least are better learned from other sources. Not every application of Lewis and Tolkien is as valuable or appropriate. Yet, in the same manner that we can return to a great work of art, the beauty of creation, or an architectural masterpiece again and again and not grow tired of its majesty, so also we must return to important stories throughout our lives. Re-experiencing Lewis and Tolkien can help us go “further up and further in” to their meaning and beauty, help us make better sense of our world, and open our eyes to that which we have never seen before. Doesn’t that make them worth revisiting at least one more time?
† Lewis primarily uses the medieval Seven Heavens to shape his fictional works, and Tolkien generally employs the Biblical metanarrative, though both draw on a wide range and history of literature.