I’ve just finished re-reading the seven-book Narnia series by C. S. Lewis*and I’m also an admirer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien. Around the time the Lord of the Rings movies came out, there were heated arguments at parties everywhere**about whether the Narnia series or the Lord of the Rings series is better.
I was going to begin a seven-week series of Narnia reviews today, but I’m JUST about to get my greasy mitts on “Goliath” by Scott Westerfeld, so I’ll review that in seven days’ time and then start on Narnia.
In the meantime, here’s a pre-review review:
CS Lewis and Professor Tolkien were close friends, part of a writing group called Inklings. Many members of the group were killed fighting in World War 2. Who knows what other books might have been written if the whole group had lived.
Leaving aside The Hobbit and all the other works by each author, there are some notable similarities and differences.
Both men were Christian, which is clear from reading their books if you’re into symbols (much, much clearer in Narnia’s Aslan character than in Middle Earth – in which the clearest parallel is the nature of Gandalf’s death). Both Lewis and Tolkien distrusted industry, and featured images of fighting trees (yay) and evil loggers (boo). Both wrote tales of high adventure, personal honour, and selfless sacrifice. Both featured heroes who were flawed but who could not be mistaken as anything but great heroes.
I believe that if the Narnia books were sent to a publisher by an unknown author today, they would be published.
I believe that if the Lord of the Rings books were sent to a publisher by an unknown author today, they would not be published. *gasp*
CS Lewis was writing in the 50s, so naturally women were not allowed to fight in the front lines (they could shoot arrows from the sidelines, but none ever wielded a sword), and baddies tended to be dark-skinned (or, in the case of the Black Dwarves, black-haired). However he has excellent heroic warlike female characters, and gracious and noble dark-skinned characters (Aravis is both).
Tolkien is infamous for having almost no female characters whatsoever, but he does mention (either in passing or in the Silmarilion) some truly awesome females – who fought in battles as well as any man. They did tend to be defined by the men they loved, which is a shame.
The true reason I think Lewis would be published today and that Tolkien would not is that first of all, Tolkien’s fantasy is for adults. Adult fantasy is simply harder to sell than children’s fantasy (and if we’re honest, it’s partly because adult fantasy fiction is just. . . long). But the main reason is that Lewis actually stuctured his Narnia books like modern books – starting with action/danger/conflict within the first few pages and never spending huge swathes of time on decription, rambling tangents, or – cosmic bunny save us – poetry. Lewis also has a brilliant eye for the tiny detail that makes a scene come alive.
Tolkien was predominantly a linguist – not a storyteller. I for one am grateful he was writing back when the market was quite different, and his books didn’t get rejected with the note “Needs editing”. As a modern reader (and I do read), I prefer the Lord of the Rings movies. I’m sorry, but it’s true. On the other hand, I understand that no writer in the past, present or future could create a world as rich and complex and fantastic as Tolkien did. I’m even a little glad that he didn’t get edited (as we all know, Tom Bombadil is largely irrelevent to the main plot, and would certainly be cut along with many other wonderful scenes, characters, and descriptions).
If I’m going to read a book, I pick Narnia every single time. I was pleasantly surprised this last week by how well written they are. No other classic books translate so well to the smart, focused modern reader.
And now I shall duck and cover as the argument continues.
In other news, one of my own books has been at a certain large Australian publisher for three years now. I have just discovered that the particular individual who I knew very well was holding things up has stopped working there. Which means there’s a small chance I’ll get a response in the next month or two, and a very good chance I’ll have a response in 6-12 months (ie the normal response time).
If I’d sent the book in via the slushpile, I’d have had an answer over two years ago. Kids, contacts in the biz aren’t always a good thing.
*Fun fact: The “C.S.” stands for “Clive Staples”. Abbreviation is sometimes a VERY good idea.
**This tells you exactly the kinds of friends I cultivate.