Despite all they shared in common, Tolkien and Lewis had distinct differences when it came to the creative process, even in the way they depicted spiritual realities in their stories. Yet the one thing they both agreed on was that fantasy lent itself to the expression of spiritual truth.
So how did Lewis approach the spiritual element in his writing? With the exception of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis described his approach as “supposal” rather than allegory. In fact, the description of the Narnia books as allegories troubled him to the point that he repeatedly denied it, stating “if Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours.’ This is not allegory at all.”
Yet his denial of allegory wasn’t a denial of the vital role spiritual themes played in his story. Without Aslan, he acknowledges, the Narnia series would never have come into being. The seed for the series began with a series of mental pictures, yet Lewis confessed “I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.”
Much like Tolkien, Lewis did not set out to create allegories, rather he integrated spiritual realities into his stories where they naturally fit. Never do these elements feel forced or out of place, as they do at times in other Christian novels. Rather they give shape and life to the tales which they inhabit. Consider this excerpt from a taped conversation between Lewis and two other writers for further insight on his approach:
LEWIS: The starting point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labours in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then of course the story about an averted fall developed. This is because, as you know, having got your people to this exciting country, something must happen.
AMIS: That frequently taxes people very much.
ALDISS: But I am surprised that you put it this way round. I would have thought that you constructed Perelandra for the didactic purpose.
LEWIS: Yes, everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong.
AMIS: If I may say a word on Professor Lewis’s side, there was a didactic purpose of course; a lot of very interesting profound things were said, but–correct me if I’m wrong, I’d have thought a simple sense of wonder, extraordinary things going on, were the motive forces behind the creation.
LEWIS: Quite, but something has got to happen. The story of this averted fall came in very conveniently. Of course, it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas on other grounds. But that isn’t what I started from. I’ve never started from a message or a moral, have you?
AMIS: No, never. You get interested in the situation.
LEWIS: The story itself should force its moral upon you. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.
The moral, the spiritual element, came as required…as demanded by the story. Elsewhere Lewis speaks of the bubbling up of creativity and the imaginative process which led to the Christian element “push[ing] itself in of its own accord.” He wrote fantasy because he felt it best expressed what he wanted to say–it “[stole] past watchful dragons” so that truth could appear in its full potency. The spiritual element cropped up in his stories because it mattered to him, and it gave his books lasting impact.
In general, Lewis applied more leniency in the creative process as compared to Tolkien and his rigorous theories of sub-creation, therefore their stories strike different tones, with Lewis depicting more distinct, overt Christian elements. Yet they both agreed the spiritual component was a natural, even essential part of fantasy.
Given the enduring power of their stories, it’s worth considering the approaches they took, when discussing the role of faith in fantasy today, which I’ll explore more in my next post.
What do you think of the approaches taken by Lewis and Tolkien when depicting spiritual elements? As a writer, do you find yourself leaning more toward the subtle (Tolkien) or the overt (Lewis)? As a reader, which do you prefer?