Meeting that gave world two masterpieces of imagination
by William Lyons
Scotsman.com – March 9, 2004
They were two of the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the 20th century, selling more than 160 million copies worldwide and touching innumerable people with their epic tales of heroism, hope and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
J.R.R. TolkienBut imagine a world in which The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia didn’t exist; where children had never encountered the Snow Queen of Narnia or read the adventures of Gandalf, Frodo and Sam; where Peter Jackson was just another jobbing director looking for his big break and the film industry was significantly poorer.
Colin Duriez, author of several books on JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, says that if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting at Oxford University, the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth might never have been created.
Mr Duriez, speaking at Inside Tolkien’s Mind, a one-day symposium on Tolkien’s work held yesterday at the University of St Andrews, said: “So close was their collaboration that without Tolkien there would have been no Lewis, and without Lewis no Tolkien.
“Lewis owed an enormous debt to Tolkien, who had, in a long night conversation in 1931, converted him to Christianity, which inspired him to write the Chronicles of Narnia.
“Tolkien, in return, also owed a gigantic debt to his friend and confessed that, without Lewis’s encouragement, he would never have completed writing The Lord of the Rings, a task which took him more than ten years.”
Tolkien and Lewis first met at Oxford University’s Merton College in 1926 and became central figures in the informal Oxford literary circle. The two men soon realised they had much in common.
“The similarities between Tolkien and Lewis were striking,” Mr Duriez added.
“Both survived the First World War, both academics came from a background steeped in literature and mythology, both were motherless at an early age and both had an experience of a childhood dominated by imagination.”
Two classic worlds were born from this post-First World War environment: the Narnia stories describe a conflict in a frozen fantasy land between the forces of darkness, led by the White Witch, and forces of good, led by the lion Aslan.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy also pits good against evil, with the diminutive hobbit, Frodo Baggins, being guided through Middle Earth by the good wizard, Gandalf, and a fellowship of travellers. His task is to destroy the all-powerful ring that the dark lord Sauron, with his supporting cast of evil-doers, covets.
Mr Duriez also said that both authors explored religious themes in their work and sought to rehabilitate “Old Western” values, drawing on the imaginative richness of the Bible.
“The Chronicles of Narnia have as their background an older world that is not dominated by machines and modern weapons. It is a time that stretches right through from the rise of Christianity to the Christianising of the West. Tolkien also wished to open a door pointing to a reality beyond `walls of the world’.”
Yesterday’s event marked the 65th anniversary of Tolkien’s delivery of the Andrew Lang Lecture, On Fairy-Stories, at St Andrews University. The address, on 8 March 1939, stressed the importance of the fantastic imagination. Tolkien’s epic work was still some years from publication, although The Hobbit had been written in 1937 and the world of The Lord of the Rings was already taking clear shape in his mind.
Tolkien’s message was that humans cannot do without fantasy and that a world driven relentlessly by the demands of science or politics would be joyless and without hope.
Professor David Lyle Jeffrey, Provost of Baylor University in Texas, said these underlying Christian themes are partly responsible for the phenomenal success of the film trilogy.
He explained: “There is a tremendous yearning for something more, a need to create another grand narrative or a alternative romance other than the Christian narrative. Tolkien’s trilogy provides that, but he would have been very disturbed to see his work fulfil that role as he was a committed Catholic.”
Kirstin Johnson, a theology student, said in her lecture at yesterday’s symposium: “In the modern world, we are lacking something. People are turning to Tolkien and the myths and admitting there is something missing that they are not getting elsewhere.”
The success of the film version of the final part of the Tolkien trilogy, The Return of the King, picking up 11 Oscars last week, has cemented the success of Jackson’s epic translation of Tolkien to the big screen.
But Loren Wilkinson, of Regent College, Vancouver, said that, against the background of the film’s success, there are some shortcomings.
“A great genius of Tolkien’s narrative is that he marries the hero story, which is represented in the warrior and his quest, and the home story, which represents roots and daily love. With the exception of a few frames at the beginning and the end of the film, the movie fails to reproduce this.”
Whether Narnia can repeat the success of The Lord of the Rings remains to be seen, as Disney Studios has struck a deal to co-produce a movie of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of the Chronicles of Narnia.
Advertisements taken out by the company in US newspapers over the last few weeks suggest that they are thinking in similarly epic proportions to Jackson.
“There are a thousand stories in the land of Narnia. The first is about to be told,” the adverts read.
The budget for the first film is pencilled in at $100 million and, like the Tolkien films, shooting is to take place in New Zealand.