Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Anderson responds on Tolkien vs. Lewis

Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy responds to my comments concerning the relative literary merits of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, a discussion which has again flared up due to the new Prince Caspian movie that has just been released.

Anderson takes issue with my characterization of Lewis's Narnia stories as allegories, a position he shares with Lewis himself. "I would strenuously disagree," says Anderson, "with his characterization of the book as an allegory–it is much more significant than that." If you are taking the term 'allegory' in its most literal sense, I suppose Anderson (and Lewis) is right. If you restrict the application of the term to the kind of almost literal allegory you find, for example, in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, then the term obviously cannot be applied to the Narnia books. But I am certainly not using the term in this restricted sense, and I don't think most people who deal with such things do. I also don't know why an allegory would be any less an allegory for being more significant, since it is of the very nature of allegory to signify.

The Narnia books meet every definition of allegory I know. The books may have elements in them that go beyond allegory, but that doesn't affect their general nature as allegory. I agree with the assessment of Doris Myers, who Anderson quotes, that "It is more than allegory; it has all the mysterious resonance of a myth." But to say that the books are more than allegory cannot justify that they are less than allegory--or not allegory at all. If an allegory has mythic elements in it (as Lewis's books certainly do), that is not a reason for concluding that it is not an allegory. Anderson himself says, "there are clearly allegorical elements to the book." Maybe Anderson and I could settle on the term "allegorical myth," as does John Warwick Montgomery.

Anderson also argues that I did not address his point in my response to his comments on Chesterton:
I am afraid Cothran missed my point, which was less about Chesterton’s fiction and more about his Catholicism. I agree with Cothran’s assessment of Chesterton’s writings, many of which I have read and almost all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I raised him only as a counterexample to Longenecker’s argument that Lewis’s didactism stems from his Protestantism. Cothran’s reply does not, as best I can tell, refute the point.
Well, let's roll back the tape here. Anderson was responding to Longenecker's argument that Lewis's imaginary vision was uniquely protestant because of its didacticism. Anderson's response argued that if didacticism was a sign of protestantism, then Chesterton's fiction would have to be accounted protestant because of its didacticism. But Chesterton was Catholic, therefore, the idea that didacticism was a peculiarly protestant trait is mistaken. I was disputing his use of Chesterton here because I don't think Chesterton's fiction is didactic to any significant degree. That is what I was arguing, and it seems to me that it does go to the point Anderson was trying to make.

But I was on my way to another point (about what Chesterton generally shared with Tolkien), and so I think maybe I didn't respond to Anderson's main point as pointedly as I should have. Oh well...

I do think, however, that Longenecker's argument about Lewis's fiction being more didactic than Tolkien's stands, and its assumption that this character of his fiction is peculiarly protestant is a legitimate one. Catholic writers, because of their familiarity with liturgy, simply write in a more incarnational way. I'll can do not better than cite Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy--and Tolkien. One of the few protestant writers I know who do well what these writers do is Wendell Berry. The incarnational literary vision is best explained by William Lynch in his Christ and Apollo.

Anderson also disagrees with my remarks about the greater difficulty identifying with characters native to Narnia than with characters native to Middle Earth:
In short, while Cothran finds the attraction in the difference, I look to the sameness: there is, in fact, a little bit of Caspian, of Tumnus, of Reepicheep in us. Who doesn’t wish to join Reepicheep on his quest to the edge of the world? Who has not longed to go with him, like Caspian, but been held back by duties and obligations?
Well, we may want to "join" Reepacheep, and "go with him," but it is hard to see Reepicheep in us--he is, after all a mouse. Caspian is probably one of the few characters with which we can identify (it helps that he is human). I won't press this point about character identification too hard, other than to say that when you use animal characters you do make such identification harder, and, as I have said elsewhere, I don't think Lewis did nearly as good a job with animal characters as other writers such as Kenneth Grahame or Rudyard Kipling. Kipling, in fact, is a perfect example of a great writer of myth, and the Jungle Book stories one of the great modern mythic writings.

But I need to say that I feel a little uncomfortable being on the anti-Lewis side of arguments such as this one, since I have spent so much time being pro-Lewis elsewhere, particularly when it comes to his nonfiction writing (although, as I have pointed out, I enjoy his fiction too). So I should perhaps cast my spear into the ground here and say that I heartily agree with this statement by Anderson:
Lewis’s is a great thinker precisely because he stands at a crucial moment in history, synthesizing and distilling the greatest thinkers of the Western tradition.

And by the way, Anderson has a great blog which I always enjoy. You ought to visit it.

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