Tuesday 23 April 2013

Words versus pictures - Tolkien versus Lewis


JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis were both dreamers, who used dream material in their stories - but the way in which they did this was very different, just as the atmosphere and feel of their books is very different.

Tolkien was a philologist through-and-through, whose writings came from his reflections on words and their history and derivations (see TA Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth).

In other words, Tolkien's stories were generated by the narratives of the words and the relationship between words in different languages - his stories often originated in inferences about how a word came to means what it did in a particular time and place.

Some of these words and languages apparently came to Tolkien during sleep- at least, if we believe that the experiences of Tolkien's alter-egos Ramer and Lowdham of The Notion Club Papers were based on Tolkien's own personal experiences.


That is to say, Tolkien's writing was an elaboration of mini-narratives - and the basic unit of his stories was, if not words and their history, little sequences of events



By contrast, Lewis seems to have worked from single, snapshot-like pictures, which he often saw in nightmares and dreams, and remembered (even though he often wished he did not have to remember them)


Other examples I recall having been attributed to Lewis's dreams are the Faun and lamp post in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Floating Islands in Perelandra and (I think) the 'stinging man' in the unfinished Dark Tower.

Lewis then consciously 'manufactured' stories to link between the pictures.


I think his may explain why Tolkien was the better and purer storyteller of the two.

Tolkien's stories were dynamic narratives in their essence and origin, while the story element of Lewis serves to link the primary entities which were either static pictures, or else arguments and philosophical ideas.

So, Lewis's novels tend to break up into collages of set pieces and mini-essays (particularly apparent in That Hideous Strength)

...while Tolkien's are true and multi-stranded narratives - as would be expected frm a philologist.



Troels said...

That is quite an interesting idea!

Do you think that the current body of evidence (primary sources to the life and work of the two authors) is sufficient to allow digging further into this issue?

At the present length it is, obviously, dealing with the broad lines — what I'd call the zeroeth order effects — while ignoring exceptions and other things influencing the writing (the higher order effects to stay in that language).

I do think, however, that it might be worth taking a deeper look into the topic, and get the nuances as well — if there is enough evidence about both authors' working methods to work with.

In any case thank you for another thought-provoking suggestion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - Thanks.

I would say that the Tolkien side of the comparison has already been done, definitively, by Tom Shippey; it is the Lewis side that needs work - and then drawing-out the comparison.

There is sufficient primary material on Lewis and his compositional methods - but it needs someone with something of the flair and knowledge of Shippey to really elucidate how Lewis worked - and such people are few and far between!

But Michael Ward's recent Planet Narnia book was an example of what is possible - he showed that Lewis used a medieval-planetary structure to underpin the Narnia series - which is a very allegorical (and un-Tolkienian) strategy.

But specifically Lewis's use of pictures as a frame to construct his stories... I think there are sufficient examples of this scattered through the collected letters and numerous memoirs of CSL (I'm just too lazy to compile them!)