Comment

The myths that sustained the work of Tolkien and Lewis

A search for England: Tolkien's grave (Getty)

As a new essay collection shows, the two authors drew heavily on the Anglo-Saxon and medieval worlds respectively

Inklings of Truth: Essays to Mark the Anniversaries of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, introduced and edited by Paul Shrimpton, has now been published by Grandpont House (£8). It comprises four papers from a series of talks hosted by Grandpont House, Oxford in 2013 to mark the 40 and 50 years since Lewis and Tolkien died, in 1963 and 1973 respectively. These papers should be read by anyone who looks back with affection, reverence and some nostalgia for the fine flourishing of the Christian imagination in these two writers in the mid-20th century.

Michael Ward has written an intriguing and highly plausible explanation for the seeming mixture of genres employed by Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia. As he argues, on the surface the seven books might seem “confused and inconsistent” in the literary traditions used by Lewis, but at their heart they are “coherent and purposeful”. He believes this is because Lewis, who had a huge interest in cosmology (he regarded the planets as having significant value as “spiritual symbols”), used the seven medieval planets as the key influences on the particular stories: Jove/Jupiter for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Mars for Prince Caspian; the Sun for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; the Moon for The Silver Chair; Mercury for The Horse and His Boy; Venus for The Magician’s Nephew; and Saturn (the darkest of the planets) for The Last Battle.

Knowing this “code” won’t alter generations of children’s enjoyment of the books, but it will add to the (adult) pleasure of finding a consistent imaginative thread running through them.

The late Stratford Caldecott, whose early death in 2014 was a great loss to Catholic culture in this country and elsewhere, and who has acknowledged elsewhere the debt he owed to Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, for helping in his conversion to Catholicism, writes on “Tolkien’s Search for England” – an imaginative place that can only be known “through the myths and folklore that tell us what it feels like to belong to this landscape and this tradition.”

According to Caldecott, Tolkien’s idea of England and its lost Anglo-Saxon culture (destroyed at the Norman Conquest) was a “Christian and even a Catholic one.” He saw “Englishness” as not about having an empire “but about the civilisation of the hearth, the fireside, the kitchen table, the conversation down the pub” and extolled the ordinary virtues of “loyalty, courage, integrity and humility”.

Apart possibly from the last one, people in the last century outside our country, especially following the war, would have singled out these virtues as being peculiarly English and admirable. It might be that they formed an inchoate underlying reason for why millions of Leavers voted as they did in the referendum – even though Tolkien’s idea might now appear a brave but doomed romantic ideal.

In the other two essays, Simon Stacey analyses the deliberate “tone” that Tolkien adopted as being the most appropriate for his trilogy, a mixture of simplicity, beauty and restraint, while Walter Hooper provides his own warm reminiscences of knowing CS Lewis in the last year of his life when by chance he became Lewis’s secretary. He has since dedicated his life to Lewis’s literary legacy. Reading his memories of Lewis’s secret acts of charity, his humility (he never thought his works would survive him), his rock-like Christian faith and his delight in “rational opposition” makes me wish I had also known him.