Tolkien and Lewis, Action Heroes?
BY Steven D. Greydanus
| Posted 4/13/10 at 8:53 AM
Word that Eagle Eye co-writer Travis Adam Wright has been tapped to script a planned adaptation of James A. Owen’s fantasy series The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica has kicked off a flurry of coverage on Owen’s series, which casts the Inklings—J. R. R. Tokien, C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, as well as Owen Barfield and Hugo Dyson—as heroes of epic fantasy adventures weaving together Arthurian legend, Greek mythology and the writings of other British writers, not to mention the writers themselves … among other things. (Hat tip to the vigilant Peter Chattaway, who first reported on this project four years ago.)
In Owen’s series, H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appear side by side with King Arthur and Mordred, Peter Pan, Daedalus, Captain Nemo and Don Quixote in a story involving the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus, Pandora’s Box, fairy dust, Plato’s cave and a book called the Imaginarium Geographica, an atlas of all mythological locations. Owen has completed four volumes so far of a projected seven. Wright has been contracted to script the first two installments, Here, There Be Dragons and The Search for the Red Dragon.
What would the Inklings themselves have thought of such a project? One thing is certain: Tolkien would have hated it. This kind of imaginative pastiche throwing together all sorts of disparate mythologies would have given him hives. Tolkien objected to precisely this sort of mythological sloppiness in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, with their juxtaposition of Greco-Roman and Nordic mythology, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, Genesis and Revelation and the Gospels, Hans Christian Anderson, Arthurian legend, and even Father Time and Father Christmas all jostling hugger-mugger, without apology.
Tolkien felt strongly, on aesthetic grounds, that a lamp-post in fairy-land is an affront, and that nymphs and dryads do not belong in the same world, let alone the same story, as Father Christmas or sewing beavers. To this objection Lewis had an answer: He argued that all these diverse creatures do happily coexist—in our minds. Tolkien’s retort: “Not in mine, or at least not at the same time!”
Might Lewis have been more sympathetic to Owen’s project? It’s hard to guess, especially without having read The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica myself. Lewis could appreciate pulp adventure as well as classical mythology, and in principle a project like Owen’s might hold some appeal for Lewis the Rider Haggard fan, Lewis the classicist, or both. (For sheer aesthetic affinity, the author-character with the most sympathy for the hodgepodge character of Owen’s work might have been J. M. Barrie, whose Neverland of tiny fairies (just the sort Tolkien detested), Caribbean pirates, American Indians, mermaids, crocodiles, flying “lost” boys, flying pirate ships and detachable shadows was expressly described as “a map of a person’s mind.”)
Lewis’s own mythological synthesis, in addition to reflecting his love of the mythologies in question, was also an act of imaginative piety, of “taking every thought captive to obey Christ.” The scope of Lewis’s imaginative vision was clearest in The Last Battle, which revealed all worlds real and imagined as mountain spurs or roots jutting out from the mountains of Aslan’s country. Lewis believed that whatever was true or good in mythology or science fiction found its fulfillment in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Narnia embodied Lewis’s rejection of Emerson’s maxim that “When half-gods go, the gods arrive”—a rejection Lewis elsewhere expressed with a Chestertonian reversal: “When God arrives (and only then) the half-gods can remain” (The Four Loves).
If Owen’s pan-Western synthesis of Greek and Arthurian legend lacks any significant or overriding Christian dimension, that’s one thing. If it entails a sort of an un-Christianing or paganizing of Tolkien and Lewis, that’s something else. Plot points from the synopses at Wikipedia raise possible red flags: For instance, the materialist H. G. Wells is presented as a kind of mentor figure to Tolkien and Lewis, and Mordred is initially presented as a villain but is later revealed to be a victim of fate rather than a villain.
Perhaps most troublingly, a dragon named Samaranth, described as the first dragon and possibly the oldest living creature, is said to advise and aid the heroes. I’ve defended the legitimacy of friendly dragons in certain contexts—but not all dragons are created equal, and I suspect that both Tolkien and Lewis would consider Owen’s Samaranth, as described, to tread too close for comfort to the traditional Christian iconography of Lucifer—particularly in a story predicated on the conceit of giving the imaginary back story supposedly inspiring Tolkien and Lewis’s faith-inflected fantasies.
P.S. Peter’s earlier post also mentions a seven-year-old graphic novel called Heaven’s War that pits the Inklings against the British occultist Aleister Crowley. I’ve not read that one either, but from plot summaries it sounds as if the story may be more shaped by the Inklings’ Christian faith than it seems Owen’s stories are.
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