Sunday, November 15, 2009

What Did Lewis Think about 'And Back Again'?

So, thanks to Johan, I learned a day or two ago about an interesting thread on one of the Tolkien forums.* This followed a discussion about Lewis's dislike for the opening chapter of THE LORD OF THE RINGS,** which in turn seems to have been sparked by my own blog post on the topic back in September.*** Both threads have a number of thoughtful comments (e.g., comparing comments Lewis made in letters to those he made in published review), making them well worth reading. Since my opinion was solicited ("In the light of these comments . . . it would be interesting to see what position John Rateliff takes"), and since I'm not a member of that forum, I thought I'd weigh in here (Johan having promised to make a link over there for me).

Basically, the discussion started by citing Lewis's letter to Arthur Greeves in February 1933 about the newly written story Tolkien had just given him to read. I quote the full passage (from THEY STAND TOGETHER page 449) at the bottom of page xv of MR. BAGGINS, but the relevant line comes after Lewis has described the "delightful" time he has had reading it and the "uncanny" feeling that it's just the book Lewis & Greeves would have loved to have read or written when they were growing up: "Whether it is really good (I think it is until the end) is of course another question: still more, whether it will succeed with modern children"

It's that "I think it is until the end" that's in question. What about the ending did Lewis dislike -- or at least feel was not up to what had come before?

The answer, plain and simple, is that we just don't know.

Was it the shift from light-hearted adventure-story to a more serious 'heroic' tone?
--Unlikely, given that Lewis specifically praised this Wind in the Willows to Burnt Njal shift in ESSAYS PRESENTED TO CHARLES WILLIAMS ('On Stories', page 104).

Was it Bilbo's return from great deeds in distant lands to resume a normal, mundane life?
--Unlikely, given the parallel of Ransom's adventure in OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET ending with a pint in an English pub.

Was it simply that Lewis disliked the depictions of the Shire-hobbits en masse, whether at the Bag End auction or the Long-Expected Party? -- that is, that he disliked the ending of THE HOBBIT for the same reason that he disliked the beginning of THE LORD OF THE RINGS
--This seems to be the simplest explanation, but it's merely a guess on my part; I don't think there's any proof to back it up.

I can even see Lewis's being put off by the 129 pages of typescript being followed by forty-five pages of manuscript draft: perhaps the difficulty of reading Tolkien's hand (though C.S.L. shd have been an old hand at this by that time) got in the way of his immersion in the text and interfered with Secondary Belief.

Still, the one explanation I would reject is that Lewis criticized the ending because the story he read didn't have one. I find it hard to read 'good . . . until the end' as Lewis's attempt to say 'good, but it lacks an ending' (Lewis was, after all, famous for the clarity of his prose). Wayne & Christina, in their contribution to the thread, offer an interesting thought experiment that the 1933 text broke off at the end of the typescript, which was then followed by "some form of summary conclusion now lost". That might be the case, but I'm hesitant to suggest a hypothetic text as a way out of our difficulties unless we can produce some evidence such a text once existed, especially when a literal reading of the evidence avoids the need for one.****

In the end, the theory that THE HOBBIT broke off unfinished isn't supported by any contemporary evidence. Interestingly enough, but a little too late to include in the book, I turned up evidence that Carpenter himself originally thought the book had been completed in the early thirties. In his Biographical Note to the 1976 catalogue for the Ashmolean exhibit of Tolkien's art, DRAWINGS BY TOLKIEN, Carpenter wrote

"his family, now numbering four children, had been instrumental in bringing his mythological imagination somewhat to earth and encouraging it to deal with more homely topics. For them he wrote and illustrated The Father Christmas Letters; and to them he told the story of The Hobbit, completed early in the nineteen-thirties, but not put into print until a happy chance had brought it to the notice of a London publisher some years later" [emphasis mine]

--I'm not sure what, a year later, convinced Carpenter that he'd been wrong and caused him to come up with his theory that there'd been a gap of several years between the death of Smaug and the writing of the final chapters; I wish I'd discovered this passage earlier and written to ask him about it.

So, while I think there's great ambiguity in the story of when Tolkien started THE HOBBIT -- in that the evidence is contradictory and anyone putting it all together has to reject some as mistaken in order to get a coherent picture, I don't think this is the case with the ending of the story, where I'd argue all the evidence we have does fit together and does argue for the lack of such a gap. Obviously, not everyone agrees, and I think Wayne & Christina's post does the best job I've seen of summing up the opposite case.*****

--John R.

****I do suggest at various points in HoH that there might have been another version of Thror's Map that has not survived, since descriptions of the map in the text don't exactly match up to any of the actual surviving maps, but it's possible the 'missing' map never existed.

*****as for the 'hybrid typescript/manuscript', we know of several other examples among Tolkien's texts -- e.g., SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR.


David Bratman said...

I agree that we don't know. But one possibility not considered relates to one you dismissed. Surely, as you note, Lewis did not think it inappropriate for Bilbo to return to a normal, mundane life. But he might still have disliked the way that Tolkien handled that part of the story.

Again, this is just a possibility. But it is consistent with Lewis thinking the story not good at the end.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David

Certainly: my listing was of several possibilities, by no means exhaustive. Since Lewis never said exactly what he didn't like about the end, we can only give more or less informed guesses covering more or less likely reasons.

Some conundrums can yield to informed guesses, such as why Tolkien thought Barfield's memoir the most insightful in LIGHT ON C. S. LEWIS. Others, despite our best efforts, can never pass over from plausible into certain.

--John R.

David Bratman said...

Come to that, we don't even know what in particular Tolkien thought was so insightful about Barfield's memoir. But since the essay is largely about a change in Lewis's character in the 1930s that left Barfield bewildered, perhaps Tolkien (even though he had not known Lewis nearly as long) felt it too, and this might explain the fading of the closeness of their friendship.

It's certainly both more subtle and more plausible than the crude claims of "Tolkien was jealous of Lewis's literary success" that get tossed around by superficial critics.