Why another brilliant English Christian writer might have parted ways with Tolkien and Lewis on Disney’s Snow White — if he’d lived two years longer
A recent post at Atlas Obscura has drawn attention to the fact that C.S. Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien both saw, and both disliked, Walt Disney’s masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
To anyone familiar with Tolkien and Lewis’s sensibilities, that’s hardly surprising. Indeed, it would be impossible to imagine Tolkien — a brilliant worldbuilder and a famously purist curmudgeon who disliked Lewis’s own Narnia stories, a sentiment contrasting greatly with Lewis’ enormous esteem for Tolkien’s Middle-earth — being anything but appalled by Disney’s silly dwarfs, with their slapstick humor, nursery-moniker names, and singsong musical numbers.
Nor is it particularly surprising that Lewis similarly derided Disney’s dwarves as “vulgar” — though he appreciated other aspects of the film. In fact, he expressed surprise that “anything human” could be at the same time so bad and so good.
In the words of a Tolkien scholar quoted in the Atlas Obscura post, “I think it grated on them that he was commercializing something that they considered almost sacrosanct.” (Aside: That post starts with the incredibly ignorant claim, propounded with astonishingly misplaced confidence, that “It’s no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were legendary frenemies.”)
Thinking about this recently, though, it occurred to me that a contemporary and peer of Lewis and Tolkien’s, though not of their circle, would likely have had a very different view, had he lived a few years longer: G.K. Chesterton (who died in 1936, two years before Snow White was released).
Unlike Tolkien and Lewis — Oxbridge dons and literary elites — Chesterton was a populist who attended but did not graduate from public university (University College London), and whose work was entirely popular in nature.
Chesterton was a great defender of popular and even “vulgar” culture — the very change leveled by Lewis and Tolkien against Snow White. Take the following utterly typically Chestertonian sentiment, from All Things Considered:
I believe firmly in the value of all vulgar notions, especially of vulgar jokes. When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea.
For a more sustained Chestertonian defense of vulgar culture, consider “A Defense of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’”. Early in that essay he writes:
In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.
To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again.
The interesting thing is that Lewis understood and appreciated this point. In fact, in this regard Lewis was somewhere between Tolkien and Chesterton. He was an elite academic, producing acclaimed and valuable works of literary scholarship like The Allegory of Love, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ and The Discarded Image. Yet he could also defend the patently unliterary pulp writings of Rider Haggard. (Lewis mentions in a letter that he was once “persuaded into going to King Kong because it sounded the sort of Rider Haggardish thing that has always exercised a spell over me.” What he thought of it I don’t know.)
Which leads me to a daring supposition: Had Chesterton lived a little longer, and if (by some unlikely circumstance) Lewis had happened to see Snow White with Chesterton rather than with Tolkien, and they had talked about it afterward, I think it’s not impossible that Lewis might have formed a more positive assessment of Disney’s vision.
Sheer speculation, of course. In any case, Tolkien’s dislike of Lewis’s Narnia stories doesn’t oblige us to choose between Narnia and Middle-earth, nor are we obliged to choose between Tolkien and Lewis on the one hand and Disney on the other.