Lewis and Tolkien, 'Narnia' and 'Lord of the Rings'

The Chronicles of Narnia, based on the hugely popular children's book by C.S. Lewis, won this weekend's box office battle, bringing in over $67 million. Madeleine Brand speaks with Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College and author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, about the relationship between the Narnia author and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Both men were devout Christians, and their books share many Christian themes and allegories.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And joining me now my colleague Madeleine Brand.

Madeleine, I mentioned earlier, talking to Edward, that the number-one box office movie this weekend is "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." And you've seen it?

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

I've not seen it, Alex. I'm probably one of the few with children who haven't seen it. But this is the film that's based on the first book in C.S. Lewis' fantasy series, "The Chronicles of Narnia."

CHADWICK: Well, that's it. You had a conversation with a biographer of C.S. Lewis.

BRAND: Exactly. And apparently, Lewis was friends with another imaginative writer who's had a little posthumous success, just a little of his own, in Hollywood. Lewis and "Lord of the Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien were both professors at Oxford in England in the late 1920s.

CHADWICK: And this is kind of a John Lennon-Paul McCartney sort of thing, inspiring each other to great works?

BRAND: That's right. A lot of the talk about this movie is its Christian influence; a lot of people are talking about that. Well, Lewis used to be an atheist and Lewis' biographer Alan Jacobs told me that Tolkien, who was a Roman Catholic, was the one who actually converted Lewis to Christianity. And as we now know, Christian stories heavily influenced the "Narnia" books.

Professor ALAN JACOBS (Wheaton College): For Tolkien, he was very insistent that there was a reason why we respond to certain stories as powerfully as we do, and it's because those stories address something that is very deep inside of us. And particularly the kind of story that Lewis responded to is the story that suggests that there is something beyond this world, that there is something that on this side of heaven we long for without knowing what it is. But in fact, what we're longing for is heaven. This is what Tolkien tried to draw out of Lewis. He wasn't so much teaching him something as he was trying to get Lewis to understand something about himself.

BRAND: Now I understand Lewis was a great fan of Tolkien's work, especially "The Lord of the Rings," but that admiration was not necessarily reciprocal, that Tolkien did not particularly respect or even like "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Prof. JACOBS: Lewis had a great deal to do with Tolkien being a published writer at all. He insisted to Tolkien that the story that he had written for his children--that Tolkien had written for his children, called "The Hobbit," was a story that other people might be interested in, and it turned out that was right. And then he encouraged Tolkien to keep working on "The Lord of the Rings" even though it took Tolkien 15 years to write it. And he almost gave up any number of times.

But when the "Narnia" books--when Lewis started reading aloud the draft of the first "Narnia" book, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," to the little group of people called the Inklings that included Tolkien, Tolkien was horrified. He thought it was a terrible book, and what he especially disliked about it was the way that it ransacked all sorts of different mythologies. You know, here are fauns and centaurs over here, and then there are elements of the Christian story over here and then--Whoa!--here comes Father Christmas. And that was just maddening to Tolkien because he loved for imaginative worlds to be completely consistent and coherent and not to bleed into other imaginative worlds. And so it just set his teeth on edge.

BRAND: While both of them were Christian, their books encompass a lot more than just Christian ideology. The encompass all sorts of mysticism and medieval history and, as you say, even Santa Claus pops up in the "Narnia" chronicles. So I'm wondering if you can address that, that their interests were much greater, that they were writing about a lot more than just the particular tenets of Christianity.

Prof. JACOBS: Tolkien said that "The Lord of the Rings" was a deeply Christian and Catholic work, but I think if you didn't know that he was a Catholic, you would never infer that from reading "The Lord of the Rings" because it does really seem to owe much more to Norse mythology. He loved Old English, he loved "Beowulf," he loved the Norse myths. I think even more than he was fascinated by the myths, he was fascinated by languages. He said at times that he really just wrote "The Lord of the Rings" so that he would have a story in which people could speak these languages that he had invented.

Lewis was actually very much influenced by certain writers of the Renaissance, like Sir Philip Sidney, or writers who were Christians but who were fascinated by pagan mythology and especially Greek mythology and who brought that into their stories and sort of melded together in some way Christian ideas and pagan mythology.

BRAND: I suppose neither man could have hardly imagined that their works would have become so immensely popular and become, you know, major motion pictures.

Prof. JACOBS: They were convinced that they were two oddball weirdos who cared about stories that nobody else cared about, who were interested in periods of literary history that no one else was interested in. They were very convinced of their own isolation from the mainstream of intellectual culture, but through that mutual encouragement, they produced these works that ended up changing the mainstream of intellectual culture, which I am sure they would not have believed possible.

BRAND: Alan Jacobs is a literature professor at Wheaton College. He's also the author of the new book "The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis."

And, Alan Jacobs, thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. JACOBS: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

CHADWICK: And thanks to my colleague Madeleine Brand for that interview.

I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY continues. Stay with us.

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