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Friday, November 11, 2005

C. S. Lewis (and Tolkien) and biology

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I appreciate the writing of C. S. Lewis, and have been deeply influenced by it, I hope. As evidence, I cite my article on the bioethics of C. S. Lewis, which was published in hard copy, and has been posted, by the American Scientific Affiliation, which I appreciate. (They did so without mentioning my affiliation with SWU, because I was on sabbatical at Bryan College when I presented this to the annual meeting of the ASA. I am grateful to both institutions.) Unfortunately, there was an error in scanning the document. "o, n bod % *" should be "own body." As more evidence, I posted, earlier this year, a series on temptations in the Narnia books (see here for last post). I subscribe to, and read, Arevanye's C. S. Lewis blog.

Here's another thing to make clear: If you think reading any criticism of the details in Lewis' books would spoil your future reading of his works, don't read this post any further.

A third clarification: Please remember that this blog is subtitled "musings . . ." That's what this post is.

I found Lewis in the children's section of the University of Wisconsin library, around 1960. Perhaps I should have been studying for my courses, or working on my research, but I'm glad I found the Narnia books. I have read them many times. I look forward with mixed feelings to the forthcoming film based on the series.

Lewis has been criticized, I believe by Tolkien, for one, for not being careful with details. (If anyone out there can put a reference for this in a comment, I'd appreciate it! Thanks in advance.)

Here are some of the details that don't ring true to me.

1) No females. I know, there are females on Mars, in Out of the Silent Planet, and female characters have strong roles to play in Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and the Narnia books. Till We Have Faces is narrated by the main character, a female. But there are strange gaps. There don't seem to be any female dwarves, or marshwiggles, or earthmen, in the Narnia books.

2) Populations too small. Aslan could, of course, maintain them, no matter how small. But, in Prince Caspian, there seem to be just a handful, or even less, of hags, bears, badgers, werewolves, and others. There are a number of real species of organisms on current real endangered lists, with more than a handful of members. Inbreeding, accidents, and the like take their toll. Species can't be expected to survive with numbers as small as Lewis implied.

3) Food and supplies. Authors often neglect this. I probably would, too. Most fiction works are not about agriculture or commerce. But, for example, how does the giant house, Harfang, heat itself? Lewis describes profligacy in heating it, from wood fuel, but Harfang is in the middle of a "desolate, rocky plain" (The Silver Chair, New York: Macmillan, 1953, p. 78) which is apparently treeless, and Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum spent all morning and part of the afternoon getting to it from where they first saw it, with no suggestion that they went through a forest. There is mention of hunting parties, but none of wood-seeking parties.

Where did Tumnus shop? There is no mention of any market, or even building, in the first part of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, save the castle of the witch.

How did Narnia survive the long winter caused by the witch? Such a winter would have cut off almost all agriculture, grazing, etc.

4) Paths under the ocean. The sea-people in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are described as riding something like sea-horses, which swim. Presumably they do, too. Lucy sees paths at the bottom of the ocean, used by the sea-people. Why would they need paths, or how would they even make them?

Some parallels between Tolkien and Lewis's subcreations:

1) Both of them had some female characters, but both of them seemed to have whole populations with no females. (I'm not including the Ents.) Though Tolkien wrote that it was difficult or impossible for non-dwarves to differentiate the sexes, he mentions only one female dwarf, Dís, Thorin's sister, in the trilogy, The Hobbit, or The Silmarillion, and she was a very minor character. (Besides my memory, see the entry on her in The Encyclopedia of Arda.) I don't recall any evidence of female orcs at all.

2) Both of them created flat worlds.

3) Both of them had an interest in stars. In The Last Battle, Jill Pole is described as being very familiar with the stars as guides. Frodo and Sam saw a star while in Mordor, and this encouraged them. Stars are characters in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Elrond's father became a star, or at least a beacon in the sky, in Tolkien's world.

4) Both of them created worlds that, in many ways, were medieval. Horses, armor, swords and spears and bows and arrows, castles, or at least castle-like buildings, all abound.

5) I really wonder how Mordor, a desert waste, but with vast hordes of various kinds of beings in it, was provisioned.

Crumbolst has posted some insightful commentary on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which sort of considers the same ideas as I am here.

I previously posted on my own article, but thought, as the time for the opening of the movie based on the first book in the Narnia series approaches, that it made sense to do so again. This post is not a duplicate of the former one.

Thanks for reading!

* * * * *

Added Jan 22, 2008: A subsequent post, responding to a comment on this one, may be found here.


Catez said...

Trackback from Allthings2all:
Friends of Thirth

Excerpt: I decided to take up exercise this weekend so I bought a weekend newspaper. It has about 6 sections plus 2 liftout magazines so it is heavy lifting, especially from the car and going up the stairs...

Catez said...

I've mentioned this at BlogWatch too Martin. Great post. I am looking forward to the movie myself...

Jeremy Pierce said...

Tolkien's world is not flat. It's this world in the distant past.

Female orcs wouldn't have been involved in anything any of the characters witnessed. Presumably they weren't in the armies, which is the only time we see orcs.

Dwarves in Tolkien are addressed in the appendix on the races. They had a lower female birth rate, for one, and they had beards so that no one could tell the difference but dwarves. Many famous dwarves in the lists could have been women for all we know.

Mordor wasn't a stand-alone nation. Sauron had enslaved everything east of the Iron Hills and everything south of Mordor. That included the hordes of Easterlings and Southrons who fought in the wars, but it also included those who weren't fighting and were growing food and constructing weapons.

I don't have anywhere near as much motivation or knowledge to defend Narnia, but isn't it a magic land? Can't magic be the means of providing for some of those things?

Martin LaBar said...

I have decided to respond to the last comment with a new post, which, God willing, will appear on November 21st. Thanks to all who read this, especially the commenters.

Julana said...

You can always try your hand at it and see if you can do a better job. :-)

Julana said...

Oh, sorry-- I'm kidding you. I'm so happy to see an "older" person reading these books. (I'm nearly one myself. :-) My parents, even though they are readers, never did. Your children are fortunate.
It's actually been so long since I've read them, that I envy you your more detailed memory of the books.

I'm half sorry to see the films coming out, because I think films are so reductive of imagination. But, of course, I have to see them. :-) I've read the Christianity Today online interviews of Doug Gresham, Lewis's stepson, and it sounds like he has done as good of a job as he could, of holding the reins.

Julana said...

PS. I'm sure the films will send me back to reading the books, just as The Lord of the Rings movies did.

hi said...

not to put you down, but these books are about christianity in a childs book, they weren't meant to be thouroughly inspected, they were for the story.

Martin LaBar said...

That's true, hi, except that I don't think, say, The Silmarillion would be considered a child's book. The Narnia books, yes.

Thanks for your comment.

Manuel Royal said...

I've sometimes wondered if Tolkien knew how eyes work. There are several references (definitely in The Hobbit, and I think in TLOTR) to eyes shining by their own light, making them visible in a totally dark cave. He states that fish species living underground for many generations evolve bigger and bigger eyes; actually their eyes become vestigial.

Martin LaBar said...

I hadn't thought of that, Manuel Royal, but I believe you are correct.