Last updated on January 7, 2023
J.R.R. Tolkien vs C.S. Lewis
Who is a better storyteller, C.S. Lewis or J.J.R. Tolkien?
Probably it depends on who you ask, but it fascinates me that the two were good friends and rose to fame and notoriety even in their own lives. I don’t believe we would have had a C.S. Lewis if we had not had a J.R.R. Tolkien, and vice versa.
What is the probability that two of the greatest Christian fantasy writers of all time would live within a few miles of each other and sit in a local British pub night after night critiquing each other’s stories? (Unless their critiquing made it so; writer critique groups should be a part of every serious writer’s life). And critical they were. Stories of their divergent writing philosophies abound, but they helped each other to create masterpieces that have been enjoyed by millions and turned into magnificent Hollywood movie productions.
As a broadcast captioner, I caption a lot of sports, and occasionally I am called upon to caption boxing. Boxing is quite unique in that to have an undisputed winner, one of the boxers must deliver a knockout punch to his opponent. Sometimes the fighter is not able to deliver that fatal blow. When that happens, the judges are called upon to rate or assign values to various aspects of the fight since both are left standing. No one ever seems happy when that happens, particularly the loser, because the criteria for scoring are based on the perceptions of the judges, and we all perceive the world through different lenses depending on our life experiences.
In the same way, my analysis is biased, based on values drawn from a lifetime. I can’t deliver a knock-out punch to one or the other and declare unequivocally that only one deserves the award as the best storyteller in each category that I suggest. One observation I can make: I admire both more having read major compilations from each.
As you immerse yourself in superior writing, you become keener in appreciating the value of “goodness” and what is possible; the bane and mundane become boring and trite. You know the average is just ordinary, and having tasted something marvelous, your craving will remain unquenched until you find the next great story. It’s like finding a piece of heaven here on earth. Once you “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” why would you settle for anything less?
In addition, not only are the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien extraordinary, but the Christian worldview reassures me that good will prevail. Without a Christian worldview, there is no good story.
To help me evaluate and compare their writings, I thought I would apply a set of standards often used when you submit a piece for one of those contests to declare your book the best in a certain category. I thought about the theme, motif, setting, dialogue, symbols, and all those “critical” concepts we rely on when judging.
I even went to Spark Notes and looked up The Lord of the Rings to see what they had to say. Having won several Academy Awards, I knew there would be a plethora of ideas to get me in my thinking mode.
Plus, sitting here at Starbucks with my vanilla latte does wonders. I found, though, that while I didn’t disagree with the details found in Spark Notes, what I analyzed about “storytelling” from these books had nothing to do with what they highlighted. So I returned to my blank screen to write my thoughts and how I felt about each author’s masterpieces.
Specifically, the books I read from J.R.R. Tolkien were The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. I had not read these books before. I had previously read The Hobbit, so when I began reading, I had that background. I had also seen all three movies, though by the time I watched the third one in the trilogy, I was pretty much lost in Gondor somewhere and missed the battle. I think I fell asleep.
The book I read from the Narnia Series was The Horse and His Boy. I had not read this story before, though I am fairly familiar with most of the other Narnia books and have also seen the movies The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Dawn Trader. At some level, prior knowledge of works by both authors influence my assessment here.
Light versus Darkness:
I found The Lord of the Ring Series to be very dark; for example, the emphasis on evil stems from the one ring that needed to be destroyed before it was too late. Sometimes the things we loathe are the things that most fascinate us, however. I started questioning, what in my life is the ring? What evil taunts me, consumes me, distracts me, overwhelms me? And the more power I give it over me, the more of myself I lose to it. So while the idea of the ring is captivating and thought-provoking, it is also dark and foreboding.
I found the Narnia Series to be more anticipatory of goodness despite the darkness. The snow is melting in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan is back, and the direct and indirect references and Aslan’s personal appearances in The Horse and His Boy were uplifting and encouraging.
Aslan is the recurring motif in the Narnia books while the ring serves that purpose in the Lord of the Rings. Because I preferred Aslan’s goodness over the ring’s evil influence, C.S. Lewis wins out in this comparison.
Story-telling — which content did I enjoy more?
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a very classical style. I cannot imagine the talent required to spend 50 pages getting from point A to point B without immense repetition, which did not happen. His imagery was breathtaking as I felt transported to the world of hobbits, elves, and dwarves in Middle Earth, where epic battles had been fought for thousands of years around the tiny world of the shire which seemed unaffected by it all.
I was disappointed in the end that the shire had not escaped the evil. I like to think that there are some things that evil cannot penetrate, and for me, the shire represented that paradise, that special place that will always be there despite whatever else bad in the world happens. It reminds me of a comment that Jesus made in Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” referencing the fact that His home was in heaven and not on Earth.
In the midst of the journey, though, I got impatient. I wanted to get to the fires of Mordor and destroy the ring that I was helping Frodo to carry. I became frustrated, reading through pages and pages about prominent kings and characters from the past that added little to the story. But I trudged through it because I wanted to get rid of that darn ring. And, of course, the ring was destroyed quite a ways before the actual end of the story. I wasn’t sure I cared enough about the characters after the destruction of the ring to keep reading. I figured everything would end happily ever after anyway. I was relieved when I did finally get to the last page.
In contrast with C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, and all of the Narnia books, I didn’t feel bogged down in a never-ending journey that was almost doomed to end in failure. In fact, I was sad when I finished The Horse and His Boy. As has been true with all of the Narnia books, I wanted more. I wanted to see Aslan again. I wanted to linger in Narnia. I didn’t want the story to end. I have yet to read The Final Battle, and I tarry to do so because once I have read it, there won’t be any more Narnia books to enjoy.
So on content, C.S. Lewis won out again.
Story-telling — which style did I enjoy more?
C.S. Lewis incorporates one ingredient into his writing that J.R.R. Tolkien lacks: Humor. I relished those lighthearted, silly thoughts and playful moments; i.e., the horse who didn’t want to give up his habit of scratching his back by lying on the ground with his legs up in the air.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s style represents a battle of epic proportions with serious consequences. If the main characters fail, Middle Earth is doomed.
In The Horse and His Boy, while there is a battle between good and evil, with Aslan’s help, you know that good will prevail. The story ebbs and flows with suspense, unpredictability, and action. The light nature of C.S. Lewis’ storytelling is refreshing. While probably artistically inferior to J.R.R. Tolkien, I preferred it. I just wanted a good story, not a literary masterpiece. Perhaps less sometimes is more.
The Take Away — who wins out?
While I will probably read the Narnia books again (some I have already read twice), I will probably never re-read any of the Lord of the Rings books. However, that being said, I believe the takeaway from J.R.R. Tolkien is greater. The overarching feel of the story, its grandeur, the meaning of the ring and how it applies to my life, the insignificant hobbits playing such an important role in destroying the ring (although in the end, Frodo failed), the mental images of a decaying world (reminding me of ours), the wise, slow-talking Ents (I need to slow down), Stridor who was a woman’s man (will I ever meet someone like that), and Gandalf, the fearless wizard, and many others, these images will grow over time and become a part of me. Some parts of the story were understated. I will see or experience something that will trigger a reflection back to those scenes which have etched themselves in my memory forever.
Some of my favorite movies and books I have read or watched only once. Perhaps they stir within me feelings that I haven’t fully explored, thoughts that I don’t have answers to or motifs that still await redemption and therefore are painful to relive, much like reading about Christ’s crucifixion in the Bible. It hurts too much. I can think of many such examples, e.g., the movie A Beautiful Mind and the book The Exodus.
So to sum up the results, who is the better story-teller, C.S. Lewis topped J.R.R. Tolkien in light versus darkness motif, story-telling content, and style, but J.R.R. Tolkien came in first with takeaway — long-term impressions that will grow with the passage of time and increase in measure and fullness of meaning.
By Lorilyn Roberts