In honor of the holiday season, David Cappella and I turn to literature to examine the timeless themes and motifs of friends and literary legends: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. First, human choice and second, social context.
Making Hopeful Choices: Tolkien and Lewis’ Perspective on Freedom and Hope
Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien present fascinating and imaginative fantasy realms which compel us because of their sharp connection to the world we live in. In reading these two authors, I am struck by the themes of freedom and hope. I conceive of freedom being linked to the idea that action ramifies; our decisions have significant and real consequences for our own and others futures—for better or worse. In The Lord of the Rings, most of the major characters are influenced by their actions toward each other: Frodo and Bilbo spare Gollum and Gollum ends up being instrumental to destroying the ring, Sam remains loyal to Frodo despite being betrayed by him, Gandalf entrusts Frodo with the ring and the task of destroying it.
American pragmatist philosophers such as C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey also imply human agency consistent with this freedom. Peirce attributes our conception of an object to its conceivable effects and practical bearings to action. James is interested in the practical use of language embedded in experience to change existing realities. Dewey’s writing expounds on the potentialities of a participatory democratic polity. Implicit in these three writers is the idea that humans can make influential decisions with lasting consequences, even if such ramifications are not immediately evident. What Lewis and Tolkien add is how this agency is used. The good characters in their novels act in accordance with certain virtues: humility, courage, love, loyalty. Whereas the bad characters act out of selfishness or in terms of mere power and efficiency. For example Saruman is obsessed with power and harnessing material and economic resources in efficient ways. It is therefore important to consider the moral implications of both the means and ends with respect to actionable goals.
Hope is another central theme in Lewis and Tolkien. Hope is an audacious optimism that precludes individuals from giving up, despite the odds. Note the connection to freedom: individuals can make influential actions even in seemingly hopeless contexts. The plot of The Lord of the Rings supports this insofar as it appears that the villains, Saruman and Sauron are considerably more powerful than the protagonists, yet the latter are still compelled to persevere and eventually succeed. In Lewis’ space trilogy book Perelandra, the protagonist Ransom is faced with the task of countering the Un-man’s temptations of another world’s (rough) equivalent of the Biblical Eve. The quote below expresses Ransom’s struggle between Freedom and Hope, his own agency and the hopeless enormity of the situation.
“…He writhed and ground his teeth, but could not help seeing. Thus, and not otherwise, the world was made. Either something or nothing must depend on individual choices. And if something, who could set bounds to it? A stone may determine the course of a river. He was that stone at this horrible moment which had become the centre of the whole universe. The eldila of all worlds, the sinless organisms of everlasting light, were silent in Deep Heaven to see what Elwin Ransom of Cambridge would do.
Then came blessed relief. He suddenly realised that he did not know what he could do. He almost laughed with joy. All this horror had been premature. No definite task was before him. All that was being demanded of him was a general and preliminary resolution to oppose the Enemy in any mode which circumstances might show to be desirable: in fact—and he flew back to the comforting words as a child flies back to its mother’s arms–”to do his best”–or rather, to go on doing his best, for he had really been doing it all along” (Perelandra, pp. 141-143)
Ransom thus resolves his struggle with the enormity of his choices by accepting that, though it is true that they are critical, he can only do what he knows best to do and have hope. Ransom, recognizing his freedom, also realized that he could only do what he had been doing all along and hope it would prove right. In other words, he didn’t let the enormity of what he could do paralyze him into inaction. There is a balance between the concepts of freedom and hope: our actions are meaningful, but we do not know how meaningful, therefore we should strive to do our best based on our knowledge and ethics.
The Antimoderns: Lewis and Tolkien in History
The generation of European men which fought in The Great War of 1914-1918 has been called The Lost Generation for its stunningly high casualty rates. With the war dead came the exogenous shocks to developed societies which grew since the Industrial Revolution more or less under successions of constitutional monarchy. A new social and political order was born after 1918, and from the scorched fields of northern France came the artistic and literary movement of Modernism.
The creative growth of artists such as Marc Chagall, the philosophy of Sartre, the literature of Faulkner and Joyce and the commodification of culture in mass media underscore the fragmentation of the interwar period. Yet two intellectual giants and survivors of the Great War would not bow to the Modernist wave which broke apart the long trajectory of representing objective truth in art and literature.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford academics and companions in the Inklings club, converted the height of their genius and influence into a powerful endorsement of an orthodox worldview. Their works are inseparable from the philosophical debate of the early-to-middle-20th century. Both thinkers rejected Modernistic views of moral authority, truth and materialism.
A Western world which toppled or hamstrung its last monarchs rejected monarchical morality: that a single Authority evaluates behavior. Lewis and Tolkien embraced this rejected morality. In Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, the deity Oyarsa creates an empathic, compassionate bond with the creatures of Mars, much to the confusion of the colonialist and scientific prophet Dr. Weston. Tolkien created Middle Earth as the protectorate of the Valar, who appoint custodians such as Gandalf to be unfailing moral resources for kings and generals against their eternal enemies.
Lewis and Tolkien draw truth from the good and beautiful, while Modernism drew it from deductive inquiry. Lewis wove Arthurian legend into his writings on Britain, and rescued Narnia from the White Witch and the Telmarines for the general merriment and peaceable society of mythological creatures. Tolkien’s Middle Earth included its own rich mythology from the Norse cosmology of Yggdrasil. His characters range from timeless heroes such as Durin or Elendil, to betrayers such as The Witch King of Angmar or Sauron himself.
For Lewis and Tolkien, one must be spiritually independent from the material world. Yet social and economic progress too often became a national creed or personal conviction in the 20th century. Lewis countered with his powerful image of The Silver Chair and the comparison of technocracy to the Tower of Babel in That Hideous Strength. Tolkien similarly showed the human struggle with material gain through the struggle with the Ring of Power.
Both thinkers, like their intellectual forebear G.K. Chesterton, refused to turn tragic world events into a concomitant pattern of belief. Lewis captures this point in Is Theology Poetry?
You remember the old puzzle as to whether the owl came from the egg or the egg from the owl. The modern acquiescence in universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the owls emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak.