The following guest post was written by a student of mine at Signum/Mythgard. I hope you have been enjoying these guest posts recently. Next week I plan to transition back to the book summaries. Meanwhile, let me know if YOU want to write something for this blog. Today’s post is about CW’s two close friends and writing partners, Lewis and Tolkien.
Jennifer Raimundo entered the world on a blustery day in Canada, where she learned to love strawberries, sunflowers, cozy winters, and hot cocoa. At an early age she and her family migrated to the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island that taught her the beauty of sea breezes and the glories of a sunrise. A few years later, she found herself living in the United States and establishing a joy in all things letters as a means to put the colourful pieces of her life together. To further this desire, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in History and Literature, and is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Language and Literature from Signum University. Jennifer lives in Virginia, where she continues to forge her love of literature and life into a sub-creation that would glorify her Maker. She is currently finishing an essay on laughter in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which will appear in a collection of essays to be published by Walking Tree Publishers in the summer of 2015.
Worlds Subtle and Strong
by Jennifer Raimundo
C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe began with a picture and Tolkien’s The Hobbit began with a word. This is ironic, for when we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, what we gain is a collection of words and dialogue so deeply felt it can change lives, whereas upon closing the pages of The Hobbit what remains are a series of visuals and sensations so powerfully imagined that we will never be the same. Both authors express secondary worlds, but Lewis describes while Tolkien depicts. One works through pointed words and the other through weighty pictures. These alternative methods create a difference between the relationship of each secondary world to our primary one:Middle-Earth is a subtle Myth and Narnia is a blatant one. Both worlds captivate, both worlds change, but each do so in unique ways.
For one, Lewis and Tolkien initiate readers into their respective sub-created worlds from completely opposite angles. Lewis begins his tale with both readers and characters safely in war-torn England of the 1940s. There are no distant lands, no mythical creatures, and certainly no strange magic. There are simply four Pevensie children, a housekeeper and three maids, and an eccentric professor. It is our world Lewis describes, going drearily about its own business. But once we are settled in to what sounds like will be a warm, kind story, Lewis whisks his protagonist Lucy through a familiar wardrobe into a fantastical wood and into the arms of a faun. What was so familiar, the War and the wardrobe, suddenly fades away to be conquered by a frosty forest, fauns, dwarves, and basically anything our imaginations ever held. We are allowed the process of feeling the jerk and the pull into Myth, and are welcomed into the wonder of seeing a whole new world for the first time, of viewing the fantastic through the familiar eyes of a believing child. But Lewis characteristically makes sure we his readers are not left wondering what happened to us. He leaves nothing to chance, instead introducing us and Lucy to Mr. Tumnus, a faun who lures Lucy to his cave and, importantly for our purposes here, tells her all about Narnia. Dialogue, along with sense-experience, drives home the fact that we and Lucy are working on a plane not our own. Of course everything feels new and marvellous. We are in another world! And it is a world which can in no way be conflated with ours, but in every way must be embraced as equally real, and equally fantastic. We have been transported to Myth itself.
Not so with the sub-creation of Tolkien’s classic. Here Myth has been brought to us. From the first page of The Hobbit, we are placed quite firmly yet ever so gently into a fantastic though not wholly foreign world. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’(Tolkien 11). ‘Hobbit’ strikes us with strangeness, but holes in the ground do not. Hobbits and The Shire are indeed new, but they dwell in our earth, and seem to belong here just as much as does the ground beneath their feet. How do we know this? Tolkien’s masterful depiction of the people, the landscape, the customs of Middle-Earth, makes us feel it. Here are no talkative fauns to tell us where we are. Instead, Tolkien shows us what fills hobbit pantries and what decorates hobbit gardens, only for us to find they are filled with flowers and colours and foods that we from the Primary world deeply enjoy. Tolkien turns the seemingly mundane elements of life into common ground between us and the fantastic. A few pages later a wizard appears at Bilbo’s door, a door which by now feels as though it belongs to us as much as it does to Bilbo. The wizard arrives in upsetting fashion. His long grey mantle and tall blue pointed hat feel all out of place in that sunny garden, both to Bilbo and to us. Now, it seems, the fantastic has truly struck. Nevertheless, Gandalf laughs merrily and smokes his pipe with as much relish as any kindly gentleman would, so that, despite his magical shroud, he still smacks of a grandfather. Tolkien’s pictures of the familiar draw us to unconsciously accept the fantastic, leaving us hard pressed to recount whether the meeting of the two worlds was shocking or if it happened at all. The Hobbit, from its beginning,shows us that the fantastic belongs in the familiar.
And both authors employ guides which perfectly suit their story-telling methods and worlds. Tolkien uses a wizard to direct us and his protagonist through the fantasy of Middle-Earth. Notice again the vivid subtlety. We have been drawn to imagine Gandalf in full colour, yet he takes hold of Bilbo’s life by giving it a gentle nudge and dwelling in all shades of grey. Gandalf proceeds to propel Bilbo’s journey from the background, only at last appearing when he is absolutely needed. Moreover, on the rare occasions when Gandalf speaks he does so in what seems to be riddles, leaving us ultimately to wonder along with Bilbo just what his role in the grand story we completed was. Just as we know Gandalf’s storyline is real without quite knowing how it is real, so do we know deep inside of us that Middle-Earth is real, though we cannot quite articulate in what sense. Lewis, on the other hand, creates an altogether different guide. While Gandalf reassures us that fantasy dwells in the familiar because we see him living in the haze between the two, Professor Kirke asserts Narnia’s existence by explaining that it must logically be so. ‘I wonder what they do teach them at these schools,’is the exclamation punctuating his rhetorical argument for Narnia’s reality, as if all academic knowledge pointed to that fact of Narnia’s existence (Lewis 90). And just as the Professor is certain about Narnia because of simple logic, so must we take Narnia as a blatant, obvious fact. What do they teach in those schools, after all? Narnia simply is. Therefore, while they work from separate positions, both the wizard and the Professor serve as powerful bridges between the familiar and the fantastic.
Lewis’s words and Tolkien’s pictures both create effective secondary worlds, but their varying creative methods cause their worlds to work upon us differently. The mythic vision of Middle-Earth silently penetrates our earth, as a green and steady shoot overtakes bland concrete only to grow into a mighty oak. It is a visceral place, a world inside and behind and underneath us but stronger than our own, unnoticed but always there until quite naturally it overcomes everything else. There is no escape from its visually rich history and geography, a history and geography so deep our ancients grew out of it. What could be more subtle? But what could be more strong? And what but a wizard with a propensity to leave us in the dark could guide us through the deep but narrow gaps separating primary from secondary without our brains going mad at the wild familiarity of it all? Lewis, on the other hand, creates Narnia, a land so completely distinct from ours that it can be peopled with the characters dancing in our imaginations from school and play. It, like Tolkien’s world, has always existed, but it shall go on to exist regardless of what we do now that we know about it. And because Narnia is so blatantly other and parallel, the only reasonable response to its discovery is to simply accept it in all its vibrant and childlike glory. Of course Mrs. Beaver uses a sewing machine! She lives in Narnia, a world alive with the stock-characters of our imagination.And so, quite rightly, it takes a professor to explain its reality.
But whether it is the slow shock of wild things growing out of our dark mountains deep, or the magical overthrow of a blaring horn and bannered red lion charging at us and our world, in both Lewis and Tolkien’s sub-creations there is a mythic glory. And both the choking of this world’s concrete and the slaying of whatever it is they teach in our schools are each a real death. But it is a death making way for life. We have come out of both secondary worlds unscathed, but certainly not unchanged. We have been made new. And that is the point of Mythopoiea: bathing the truly familiar in the fantastic so that what is truly fantastic may become familiar. Bilbo returned home to his tobacco jar and the Pevensies stepped back through the wardrobe into childhood and plain clothes, but never again were they merely a hobbit under hill and siblings caught in an air-raid. Other lands and deeper magic, Myth, had sparked their souls. It can also spark ours.