I have no memory of reading (or having read to me) C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (though I’ve been assured that my parents did read them to me at least once). On the other hand, I remember reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit many times. I read Tolkien for the joy of reading his stories. I love the world he created and I love the epic scope of the adventures. But for some reason Narnia has never appealed to me in the same way. Over the past months I’ve been reading the Chronicles with my children and have been experiencing them for the first time. I’ve enjoyed them and have enjoyed drawing comparisons and contrasts with The Lord of the Rings.
It may be unfair to compare the two series but really comparisons are inevitable. After all, the books were written by close friends and were written near the same time. The authors often compared notes and there are quite a few shared elements between them. After recently completing Prince Caspian, and in anticipation of the forthcoming film, I have been reading Devin Brown’s new book Inside Prince Caspian. I previously read Inside Narnia and found that it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Brown is a C.S. Lewis enthusiast (or scholar, perhaps) and uses these books to provide literary analysis of the Chronicles. He often refers to Tolkien and I found this short passage helpful as I’ve considered why I prefer Middle-earth to Narnia.
Tolkien more frequently not only gives the impression of depth but also provides actual depth. For example, if Tolkien had placed a Stone Table with letters in Middle-earth, he might very well have included a rendition of the letters themselves, a history of the language they were written in, and not only the names of the people who had originally carved them but also the names of their parents and grandparents. When we come to an open door on the backdrop of Tolkien’s stage, he will often open it for us. In contrast, as Doris Myers rightly asserts, the doors in Narnia typically “do not open unless the story requires that someone go through them.”
This observation about Lewis’s technique of suggesting more than is stated and not answering every question extends beyond historic details. Thus, as Myers points out, with Lewis there is no point in asking questions like, “Since there were no other humans, who ruled Narnia after the Pevensies returned to our world?” or “Since Caspian the First gained Narnia through conquest and unjustly destroyed Nature, under what law is Prince Caspian the rightful king?” Myers’s answer to closed doors like these is that Lewis’s stories are “sufficiently powerful” so that we do not question or perhaps even notice any lack of of more adequate explanations.
And I think this explains why I prefer Middle-earth. Middle-earth, as a world, and The Lord of the Rings as a story, are far more developed than Narnia and The Chronicles. I haven’t ever bothered to read Tolkien’s long, dense and boring histories of his world, evolutions of the language, and so on. But his attention to the smallest detail of his world is obvious through his stories. But with Lewis there are many unanswered questions and many doors that seem to lead nowhere. The world does not seem to have the internal consistency of Tolkien’s. The stories are good, but the world is not so immersive.
Yet I think the simplicity of Lewis’s world may be part of its appeal to some people, and to younger people in particular. Never are there long, dry explanations of fictitious history. Lewis tends to stay closer to the narrative without having to dedicate so much time to the back story. Also, Lewis provides interesting moral lessons and life lessons that are easier to find and more naturally read out of the story than what is found in Tolkien. These lessons are easily found and easily applicable, even to young readers.
But still I prefer Middle-earth. It has been good to read The Chronicles but even while I do so, I look forward to eventually reading through The Lord of the Rings with the family. It will be a long haul, but it is a challenge I am eager to take on.
Which of the worlds or the stories do you prefer (and why)?