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J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: Inevitable greatness?

Both men, while very talented, made choices to be determined, even relentless, seekers of truth and beauty, wherever this search led, and however depicted or expressed.

Left: J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1920s, on leaving Leeds University; right: C.S. Lewis in 1951. (Images: Wiki Commons)

Today, when we think of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, we are likely to imagine inspired storytellers, talented scholars, committed Christians—iconic men remote from the rest of us. With such gifts, many are likely to conclude there was a certain inevitability to what they accomplished.

Most examinations of these men are either granular biographies that explore their lives in detail, or treatments focused on their masterworks—the Lord of The Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and the like.

But was their greatness inevitable?

The formative experience of World War I trenches brutally interrupted both men’s lives, studies, and careers. Many of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ contemporaries who survived this war abandoned their faith, became cynical about life, succumbed to philosophical materialism, or were wrecked by despair and its fruits—the British “lost generation”.

Instead, Tolkien and Lewis made choices—with everything that accompanies such demanding existential choices—to be determined, even relentless, seekers of truth and beauty, wherever this search led, and however depicted or expressed. As time passed, this included the courage to sometimes appear superficial or frivolous in the academic world, as when championing serious Christianity or storytelling, thus opening themselves up to ridicule by many in academia and the arts.

The happy conjunction of these men with other committed truth seekers can’t be underestimated. Among them are Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams, men who supported, buoyed, criticized, challenged, advanced each other’s ideas and work organically rather than in the manner circumscribed by academic or scholarly rules. Far from mere acolytes, Tolkien’s and Lewis’ Inkling companions were accomplished thinkers, artists, and scholars in their own right, to the extent that the other Inklings had a profound effect on Tolkien’s and Lewis’ work, and vice versa.

Indeed, the duo possessed natural gifts and cultivated virtue. But many talented and brilliant men and women then and now choose to pursue wealth, power, pleasure, and honor as ends in themselves. Along with Tolkien’s and Lewis’ gifts and virtues, they had weaknesses and blind spots, as we all do, but they were introspective and virtuous enough to persevere in the pursuit of truth and beauty in spite of their imperfections.

Pursuing truth and beauty also entailed depicting where the rejection of truth and beauty leads, as in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and his White Witch, and Tolkien’s Sauron, Saruman, and Gollum, always leavened by the possibility of a redemption that requires choosing to turn from destructive paths, as Tolkien’s Boromir and Lewis’ Edmund do.

The broad spectrum of Lewis’ work is widely recognized. While Tolkien is chiefly known for The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, he was also a skilled philologist (the study of languages) and anyone who’s seriously studied The Silmarillion, sometimes hard sledding, will recognize the strong philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of this panoptic view of his mythical world, uncanny in nailing human pride and lust, and their consequences.

What we too often gloss over when considering Tolkien and Lewis is their indefatigability during decades of labor, often without expectation of worldly success or acclaim. This involved conscious choices, hard work, and rowing against academic and cultural currents all the while. You could say that Lewis’ Aslan and Tolkien’s Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf were born of this relentless commitment to seeking truth and beauty.

There was nothing inevitable about the J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis we know. Only determination to stay true to what they believed and the choices they made produced the beautiful and true works so many treasure .

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About Thomas M. Doran 85 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.


  1. Dear Thomas,

    Will hundreds of millions of acolytes (among whom I used to be numbered) that are besotted with the thrilling and triumphant stories of Lewis & Tolkien, you’re bound to be successful in writing yet another panegyric. Their identification of the reality of evil is salutary but falsely makes evil easy to identify. The truth is that evil is just as wicked as they portray but infinitely more subtle and concealed.

    Surely, scholarship needs to be balanced, and we err by not mentioning Lewis’ & Tolkien’s social context, that of British imperialism and triumphal militarism. How many young people have been inspired by these stories to conceive that might is right. Even worse, that Aslan-Gandalf-Jesus approves of and participates in deeds of daring do, that so often are actually commercial and national abuses of others, even of the excluded little ones and despised ethnic groups that the real Jesus Christ loves and cherishes . . . Jesus preached ‘power-under’; not ‘power-over’.

    Sadly, since the time of Lewis & Tolkien, magic, witchcraft, occult freemasonry, spell-casting, and satanism have expanded exponentially in many countries. Can an essayist see a connection from the romantic use of magical powers in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, for example, to their popularization in Harry Potter stories and so many of the ilk; up to their rampant expansion among today’s generation?

    Catholics, as all Christians, are subject to a total ban on using magic or its like (even if we think it is for a good purpose). See Leviticus 17, for example.

    “Do not practice divination of sorcery.” “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I Am the LORD your God.”

    30 or 40 years ago one would have applauded your essay, Thomas, but in the light of the terrible damage being done in the Church and to society by spiritism, one has to be far more discerning today.

    The weapons of we who follow King Jesus Christ are our Holy Spirit-given faith, that enables us to be obedient to the commandments of God; plus our Christ-like self-giving love of even our worst enemy. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 6:7 and 10:4.

    All the best from marty; and ever in the grace and mercy of The Lamb.

    • I beg to differ on the evidence. Tolkien’s and Lewis’ myths (rather than the denuded film versions) are less popular and more culturally challenging today than they were several generations ago. What other authors have done in this genre since Tolkien and Lewis is each author’s own doing. So, panegyrics fall largely on uninterested ears today. Is there no place for pre-evangelizing art or must all art be explicitly religious and explicitly orthodox? You could put Danté in the same category as his depictions weren’t perfectly orthodox either.

      • Many thanks for replying, dear Thomas.

        Valuable points. However, is the choice only binary. Either: 1) Pagan concepts of the battle between good and evil, involving iniquitous recruitment of occult powers; or: 2) explicitly religious orthodox art? If that were indeed the only choice then, sure, good people would have to go for option (2).

        But, there is another, fertile option: 3) art that faithfully reflects the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ and His Apostles, clad in an inexhaustibly rich diversity of culturally recognisable apparel (as indeed it is in God’s eternal realm).

        Art that is true to Christ will never promote and exalt ‘redemptive’ violence as ‘The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe’ books do; and, as ‘The Ring Trilogy’ takes to a new level entirely! (I know these books only too well: they were my children’s and my most loved reading in the 1960’s and 70’s!)

        Obviously: when animals, people, & occult beings are described as busily engaged in killing & maiming; and in being killed & maimed, all for a grande cause, it’s easy for us to get deeply emotionally involved. Skilled authors don’t have to try hard to move us to identify with the good beings and to fear & loathe the bad ones; and, to hope-&-hope things come good in the end! Phew! They did . . .

        But, only by dint of maiming & slaughtering thousands . . . and pretending there’s no horrific ‘collateral’ mayhem. Romanticised violent conflicts are surely not a good model to sow into the subconscious of our growing children . . ? The use of magical powers adds an even worse subversion of Catholic teaching . . .

        Cognitive dissonance arises for Christ’s followers as we read or view mass destruction of the baddies, yet realise they’ve been de-personalised and condemned as a group. There is no hint that each of them – however bad – should be evangelised and could become decent at last. No hint of Christ’s ‘power-under’ methodology: that turning-the-other-cheek attracts the intervention of the all-powerful King of kings . . . who has instructed us to WITNESS not to try to win at any cost.

        The (non-fictional) truth is that there’s no totally evil human & that there’s no one who can’t be saved, if they repent & are willing to learn the way of Love. Should we laud art that flat contradicts Jesus’ command that whatever happens we must love our enemies & do good to them . . .

        It is one thing to make a living from art that fictionalises the circumstances of what are actually truthful realities. It is another thing altogether to make a fortune out of ‘exciting’ fiction that is built on contradictions of the eternal truths of Jesus Christ’s firm instructions.

        Where do artists take inspiration from: the limitless belligerence of World Wars 1 & 2, etc.? Or from those who refuse to hurt others, righteously depending on God to justify their cause? That includes Franciscans, Caritas, Pax Christi, Ahmadi Moslems, Jewish pacifists, Amish, Quakers, Moravians, Mennonites, some Buddhists, Baha’i, and very many others.

        Are you saying, Thomas (probably correctly): “The truths of pacifist life stories are considered just not exciting enough to fictionalise and make into successful art?”

        How much responsibility can be attributed to artist & authors (& even musicians) for the insane violence increasing all around our world. As the satirist, Tom Lehrer quipped: “Life is like a sewer; what you get out of it is what you put into it!” We keep pouring Christ-denying, lying, ‘redemptive’ violence into the world and guess what’s boomeranging out all over the world . . .

        You have introduced an important topic, Thomas, and my comments hardly touch the extent and seriousness of it. Hoping others, more informed than me, will join our interesting discussion.

        Take care; keep well. Always in the merciful love of The Lamb; blessings from marty

  2. Well, Martin, you certainly have generated a real problem concerning the nature of the Christian religion, and how we must respond to the Gospel.

    The life of Alfred the Great, I argued not too long ago in a Tolkien publication, appears to be the basis for the Tolkien character Aragorn. (Except that Aragorn wasn’t an avid hunter; he was an excellent tracker, though.) Alfred watched his father and brothers die from various violent conflicts with the Danish Vikings. He had met the Pope when he was young. He taught himself Latin and promoted education and surely inaugurated the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. And he fought like a wild boar. He hid amongst the marshes and attacked his brutal enemy with surprise. He then rallied his forces for open attack. He created an effective military defense system, and saved his nation from obliteration.

    Joan of Arc witnessed the misery that England had brought upon France, and she, too, preserved her nation. She never actually killed anyone herself, yet fearlessly led her army into numerous battles, and conquered the most powerful English general of that time with brilliant strategy and the help of God — at age 19. She foretold things that happened later, with remarkable accuracy. And a corrupt bishop undid her in the most sordid manner.

    If the Christian doesn’t ask, “Where is God?” then they are not minimizing violence. (Jeremiah’s complaint concerning the priests of his time.) Gandalf showed forth signs, and the power of God, yet the people that he was attempting to influence either believed in “chance” and “luck,” or magic. Even worse, the enemy represented the cultures of our planet whose proclivities led them down the path of cannibalism!

    “‘It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.'” Mt. 18.8

    “‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?'” Mt. 23.33

    “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and full of violence. . . . So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.'” Gn. 6.11,13

    Prof. Tolkien’s father died when he was two. He lost his mother when he was twelve. His guardian was a priest. He witnessed the horror of the battlefield. “Reuel,” meaning “friend of God,” was ubiquitous as an element in the full names of the Tolkien family.

  3. The action scenes (fighting) shown in the films in Theoden’s Golden Hall, (with Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli); and at the Gate of Minas Tirith v.s. the Witch King of Angmar — did NOT occur in the novel. Gandalf handled those scenes by himself, and — while confronting the Witch King, on Shadowfax. (Everyone else had fled the Gate out of fear of death.)

  4. Dear David, many thanks for your two detailed responses. In them, you appear to be a powerful advocate for redemptive violence.

    Could you explain how you are so sure that King Alfred saved his nation from obliteration; and so sure that Joan of Arc preserved her nation from destruction? Would Britain and France have been no more without these violent leaders? Surely, we Catholics believe that if anything is saved or preserved, it is the work of God, not of man or of woman.

    Please recall how baby Jesus was preserved from the sword by Joseph’s obedience to God’s instructions; and, by the Magi being inspired by God so as not to lead Herod to our infant Savior. The adult Jesus “walked through” those intent on throwing Him off a cliff; and those set on stoning Him. Both Peter, and Paul & Silas, escaped prison cells by God’s intervention, not by leading an armed revolt. On the contrary, Paul saved the life of his gaoler and then he and Silas baptised the whole family into Christ.

    We are dealing with two opposed kingdoms. The kingdom of the world, under the prince of this world, Satan. This is a power-over, self-asserting realm where winning, at any cost, whatever it takes, is the only priority.

    In marked contrast, the Kingdom of God, led by The Lamb of God, The Prince of Peace, is ‘power-under’, that is, all its citizens are obedient to God’s commands and His instruction to love our enemies. Note how our beloved Jesus, at the height of His rejection, abuse, and intense suffering, prayed for the forgiveness of His lying persecutors; and, in deadly agony, He was still saving souls! Then, Jesus’ resurrection was the greatest victory in universal history – He destroyed the power of sin, of death and totally subjugated Satan. Our faith is in ‘power-under’.

    Yes, Christ wields a sword – that is His tongue speaking God’s Word. His shield is unshakeable faith in the faithful reliability of God’s Word. Yes, Christ has armor: the helmet of Salvation, His breastplate of Righteousness, His belt of Truth, His boots are the Eagerness to Win Souls for God’s Realm of Peace.

    2 Corinthians 6:3-10 makes plain the strategy to be used by followers of Christ: wielding weapons of righteousness in both hands, under all circumstances. 2 Corinthians 10:1-5 emphasises how we do not fight with the weapons of the world. Obviously, as with worldly soldiers, we too need to train ourselves to use these wonder-working weapons of God’s peace. That is what is supposed to happen at Holy Mass, by a life spent dwelling on the instructions of the New Testament, by daily living a Holy Spirit-filled life of peace and faith in the rule of King Jesus Christ, and by our eagerness to rescue souls every day.

    We can’t do it without a personal conversion to Jesus and consequent infilling by The Holy Spirit of God. If we don’t patiently walk the path set before us by the Apostles of Christ, then it will be easy for us to be persuaded that the world’s way is the only feasible way. Instead of healing and cherishing and saving souls, we may end up maiming, hating, and slaughtering them (inevitably, for a ‘good’ cause, of course!).

    Take care. Stay well. Always in the love of Jesus Christ; blessings from marty

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