My three favourite twentieth century English authors are Orwell, Tolkien and C.S.Lewis. It isn’t a perfectly equal trinity though. I think Orwell and Tolkien are writers of huge genius who will be read for centuries to come. Lewis I like a lot and enjoy reading, but he isn’t really in the same category. He can certainly write well and has lots of interesting ideas, but I think he is very much of his time and will get steadily less relevant as the world changes. He also got a lot of his ideas from the other two. This doesn’t diminish how much fun you get from reading him. But originality always commands more respect than derivation, no matter how skilfully done.
It is interesting to consider that all three men were pretty close to each other in age and to some extent background, and so had fairly similar lives and influences. The major events of their lives were the two wars. They would all have followed the rise of the Nazis in Germany and were all influenced by it. But they all developed their ideas and outlooks beforehand, and so responded in the light of their prior positions.
For Orwell, whatever else he had in the way of problems and issues, had no difficulty in working out his position towards the Nazis. Orwell was a socialist, a moderniser and a believer in progress. The Nazis were clearly opposed to everything he believed in. He was very acute in working out the psychology of it all. He bemoans they way some people seem to have a need to belong which is transferred to enjoying marching around carrying flags and the like. He spotted the link between nationalism and totalitarianism, pointing out that it was significant that Hitler was Austrian. He was close to being a German but wasn’t actually one himself, and so could work out what made Germans tick in a way an insider would be blinded to by familiarity. He suggested than any English dictator would probably be an Ulsterman for the same reason.
He was also well aware of the link between organised religion and the Nazis. He had seen the support given to the fascists in the Spanish Civil War by the Catholic Church. He was an atheist himself and was quite happy to regard the established church and less mainstream irrational belief systems as being much the same to all intents and purposes. Basically the Nazis were his perfect enemies. They were conservative, backward looking and wrapped up all their illiberal prejudices in a medieval mumbo jumbo.
Although they didn’t give Orwell any ideological problems, living near and working in London through the war they did give him some practical issues in the form of dropping bombs on him. The solution to this was pretty straight forward, like most people at the time Orwell did what he could to help his country’s war effort. Being a writer he used his skills in producing propaganda. More widely he used his literary gifts to promote the causes he believed in. Even before his two hugely influential novels he was well known both for his skill putting words together and for his left wing political sympathies. Once the war was over and the Nazis were no longer an immediate threat he turned his attention to the problems with his own beliefs. Everyone on the left has to come to terms with the fact that if you want to create a fairer, more equal and more tolerant society, it doesn’t come for free. You have to restrict people’s economic and social freedoms to some extent which can work against their individual liberty. How do you make sure you don’t go too far? These were the issues to which Orwell turned his mind, and important and serious stuff it is.
But while he was getting on with fighting totalitarian fascism and keeping socialism from becoming totalitarian, he didn’t totally neglect straight forward conservatives. He was well aware of C.S.Lewis and there are two mentions of him print that make this clear. (There may be more but I have only found these two.) First off is a scathing dismissal of a radio programme by C.S.Lewis. Orwell derides the false chuminess of the tone, and warns that religious viewpoints often sound a lot more comforting than they work out in practice. He also reviews That Hideous Strength, one of C.S.Lewis’ science fiction trilogy. This he effortlessly damns by faint praise. He acknowledges it is well written but draws attention to the supernatural elements in the plot, saying that these let down what otherwise might have been a decent novel.
I feel sorry for anyone who took Orwell’s review at face value and spent good money in a time of great austerity to buy the book on the grounds that it was basically okay apart from a bit of magic here and there. The magic is the whole point of the book and if you don’t like it you are going to be very disappointed. Lewis must have read the review – being noticed by Orwell was a compliment in itself. But he wouldn’t have been fooled by the apparently positive tone. He would have realised straight away that Orwell was dismissing his fundamental world view as redundant and out of date.
At the time, the political situation that enabled Orwell to be both a radical calling for change and a leading figure in the establishment had the effect of isolating Lewis, a natural conservative if ever one was born. And I think the Nazis were a big part of the problem. Considering how big an impact they had on the times in which he lived, it is surprising how little Lewis talks about them. But I don’t think he ignored them. I suspect he agonised over them. And the root of the problem was, as it often is, religion. Orwell is well aware of the Nazis general religious approach, but is more interested in other things about them. Lets face it, there is a lot to talk about when it comes to Nazis.
Despite the huge numbers of television documentaries, books, and now websites and podcasts about the Second World War, it is surprising how little coverage the religious attitudes of the Nazi’s gets. In fact, it gets so little coverage that it is often grossly misrepresented. There is the Hitler was an atheist myth for example. This one goes roughly Hitler was a bad man, therefore he wasn’t a Christian. And so as he wasn’t a Christian and was a bad man, this shows that non-Christians are bad men. That atheists are specifically criticised by Hitler in Mein Kampf ought to be enough to sink this one, but I suspect it probably won’t. But detail is usually the enemy of a good debating point. This didn’t stop the Pope insinuating that rational belief systems predisposed people to totalitarian forms of government in a speech he gave in his recent visit to Britain. I dare say if challenged he would have said that he was thinking of the Soviet Union. But in Britain the first totalitarian system you think of is the Nazis. They were the ones that dropped all those bombs on us.
The pope’s point was unpleasant, but he wears a silly hat so we know not take him seriously. But he raises an interesting point. For Orwell it didn’t matter too much what the details of the Nazis’ beliefs were. They were clearly wrong ones. Likewise, he took no trouble to investigate what exactly Lewis was going on about in That Hideous Strength. It wasn’t true and it ruined the suspense of the plot. What more needs to be said? This is a reasonable position if you dismiss supernatural beliefs. Most rational people reject religion along with homeopathy, astrology, flying saucers and so on. But to completely twist the pope’s actual message into the precise opposite of what he was saying, are there particular irrational beliefs that lend themselves to totalitarianism?
Nobody exists that accepts all non-rational beliefs. You just wouldn’t have a head big enough to hold them all. Christians in particular are generally very snooty about mixing their particular beliefs with ones from other traditions. You have to take the whole package and give it largely exclusive adherence. You can’t really be a Christian and also believe in other stuff. You might get away with reading your horoscope, or wishing someone luck. But you can’t back up your prayers with a sacrifice to the Earth Mother to be on the safe side. This is a tough regime. Most people in history have been a lot more eclectic in their approach. Look at Japan for example. It is quite standard for people to accept both Shintoism and Buddhism. The process of blending religious systems even has a name. It is called syncretism. It seems a bit odd if you are imbued in the Christian tradition, but syncretism does have a long history. The most blatant example was the god Serapis in ancient Alexandria. He was a blend of Jupiter and Osiris, and was created by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The idea was to come up with a deity that suited both Greeks and Egyptians in his new kingdom. Everyone knew that he had done this, but that didn’t stop it becoming a very popular cult.
So to go back to the religion of the Nazis, they were syncretists. The idea was to meld ancient Paganism, Medieval Christianity, Hinduism and modern Catholicism. This sounds crazy, and indeed on one level it is indeed crazy. But it had a certain logic. For a start, the pagan elements linked the Nazis to the historic German gods. This gave them a patina of nationalism, and also tied in with Hitler’s love of Wagner. They also had some ideas about the Aryan race having descended from refugees from Atlantis. This was where the interest in Hinduism originated, and where they got the swastika symbol from. The story was that the Atlanteans (or whatever they would be called) had escaped to the Himalayas. Himmler sent an expedition to Tibet to investigate this. Probably mystified by the whole process, Tibetan villagers were induced to have their skulls measured to see how Aryan they were. Southern France was searched for the Holy Grail.
It would be easy to laugh at this kind of thing, but remember this is the Nazis we are talking about. They meant business. They took this kind of thing seriously. They even used astrology and dousing to deploy their submarines once the war started. But they also wanted to keep the Church onside as well. This wasn’t a pushover, but they did manage to get formal support from the Catholic organisation and many of the protestant denominations as well. It wouldnt’ be fair to say they had wholehearted support from all Christians. There certainly were individuals who showed great personal courage in resisting the Nazis. There were also individuals who went out of their way to help the Nazis. In fact the famous exit of the leading Nazis to South America after the war was facilitated by high ranking Catholic officials. But the Nazis got enough co-operation from enough churches to portray themselves as Christians.
In fact Hitler clearly had ideas for Christianity. He was from the Catholic tradition himself, but he went out of his way to speak positively of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and announced plans to unite all the protestant churches of Germany. Churches and cathedrals were used for Nazi ceremonies. Of course we can’t know what the long term plan was. It might have been to steadily remove the Christian element and replace it with more pagan ones. But if so, Hitler was offering a lot of hostages to fortune in his frequent claims to be a Christian himself. I think it is way more likely that he planned a national Christian church into which pagan and occult elements were inserted to give it a distinctly national character.
The Nazi obsession with paganism is most clearly visible in their use of runes. The most famous one is now so familiar you hardly notice it. The SS used a pair of the Sig runes in their symbol and you see them in every war film. This symbolised victory. (Or something like that – the Nazis were not too scholarly about this kind of thing.) But runes turned up quite often in Nazi imagery.
The Nazis were not the only people interested in this sort of stuff. Tolkien and Lewis were both medievalists who read Old English poems like Beowulf for fun. They had reacted with horrors to the mechanisation of suffering during the First World War. The general ugliness of the Britain they lived in thanks to the reliance on coal as an energy source and bricks as the main building material probably didn’t help. They retreated into the same past that the Nazis were ransacking.
Neither C.S.Lewis or Tolkien had the remotest sympathy with Nazism. They were decent compassionate human beings who would have had no truck the brutality of the Nazi regime. And leaving that aside, unlike the Nazis they actually did care about getting things right. So they had a much deeper and more rounded picture of what the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages were actually like. Tolkien even had the chance to make his position clear. A German publisher wanted to translate the Hobbit in 1938. But the publisher didn’t want to publish anything by a Jewish author and asked the question directly. Tolkien replied that he regretted not having any blood from that talented race but objected to the impertinent question and refused to go on with the deal. He lost out on royalties in favour of his honour. But it showed a very particular frame of mind. To attribute talent to an ethnic grouping is not particularly objectionable, but it is still a form of racism when you think about it.
It is also interesting that Nazi Germany was the first country to show an interest in the Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins is hardly a good example of the Aryan superman, so the appeal was not a direct one. But think of it in terms of a syncretic pagan-christian project and it begins to make perfect sense. Distinctly northern European dwarves with rune maps looking for a dragon’s treasure. Wagner comes to mind straight away. And it is such a moral story too.
The Hobbit, set in an imaginary world, is one thing. The Silmarillion is another altogether. Tolkien produces a whole set of gods controlled by one overarching God. It is a pre-Christian world so there is no Christ in it. But there are plenty of heroic warrior figures with germanic sounding names wandering around doing heroic warrior stuff. The Nazis would have loved it. There is plenty for Christians to love as well, since the morality all comes directly from the Christian tradition. But it would really appeal to a Neoplatonist. Tolkien seems to have lifted big chunks of Platonic thought to give his creation a sort of intellectual coherence. I have to say that if I didn’t know Tolkien was specifically a Christian I wouldn’t have worked it out even from my many re-readings of the Silmarillion. Once you know it, you can see it. But there is plenty of other stuff in there too. In other words, if Tolkien had set out to create a bit of work to help with a syncretic objective he really couldn’t have done much better.
Was Tolkien a closet syncretist, aiming to reconcile Paganism and Christianity? If he was, you could understand why he might have wanted to keep it to himself. With the Nazis trying to do the same thing while trashing Europe there was clearly a risk of things being misunderstood. Much better to withdraw into his own world. He seems to have been the kind of self reliant individual happy to do just this. And if you are going to withdraw into your own world, well he had quite a good one worked out to withdraw to.
C.S.Lewis was a much more outgoing character than his friend Tolkien, and also much keener on pushing his ideas. But he too seems to have had a real interest in things on the margins of Christianity and beyond. By contrast, he was remarkably uninterested in the doctrinal issues within Christianity. He joined the least ideological denomination going, the broadest of broad churches, the Church of England. All of his explicitly Christian writing that I have read is geared towards advising the lay Christian how to be a good Christian, or coming up with good reasons why non-Christians should sign up. I suppose that avoiding controversies within the faith is a sound tactic if you want to win over new converts. But he wrote loads and tackles all kinds of subjects, often coming up with very original ways of looking at them. That he never takes any interest in internal Christian debates in his writing suggests to me that he himself simply wasn’t interested in them. (Actually on reflection, I have just remembered what he wrote about Purgatory. Basically he said it was optional. It was more convincing in his words, but that was clearly not so much ignoring a doctrinal difficulty as positively arguing it away.)
When you look at his other interests things get even more intriguing. He was interested in philosophy and classical myths. He was also interested in the stars and astrology. And although he wouldn’t have claimed to actually believe in any of that stuff, I can’t help thinking that it must have at least influenced him. And again, deep down did he dream of a single uniting religion pulling in elements from both Christianity and classical sources? Again, given what the Nazis were up to if he did have that sort of notion you could understand why he wouldn’t want to shout it from the rooftop. He avoided the metaphorical rooftop but put his literal one to good use. That was where he kept his telescope that he used to watch the planets at night. As I say, he was really interested in this stuff.
At the very least, unifying people who believe in something against people who believe in nothing must have seemed like a good move to someone like Lewis in the war years and afterwards. Writing apologetics for Christianity didn’t seem to be achieving very much. Church attendance was declining. People like Orwell who didn’t just disbelieve in God, but could hardly even find the time to mention Him were making all the running. Being criticised is bad enough. Being ignored is intolerable.
The thing was, Orwell was just so good. He could write clearly and understood what he was writing about. And he got results. Animal Farm was published in 1945 and rapidly became a phenomenon translated into multiple languages. It got over the message to a huge number of people. At the time Lewis was getting nowhere. He published a book called Miracles in 1947 that argued from first principles that miracles were in fact possible by adapting David Hume’s notions of…. well who cares what the argument was. It isn’t a bad one actually, but nobody was reading it.
Lewis had attempted to sneak his ideas into a wider audience via his trilogy of science fiction novels. These had not been tremendously successful. The first two aren’t bad reads, though I wouldn’t want to read them again too often. The third one despite the good review from Orwell is virtually unreadable. I can’t actually remember how it ends, though whether that is because I have forgotten or gave up I don’t know. But in any case the least appealing thing about them is their overt religious message.
There can’t be much more depressing than writing a book to popularise Christianity which turns out to be unpopular. Meanwhile Orwell showed how to do it. In 1949 he released 1984, a genuinely popular science fiction novel with a serious purpose. The Devil it seemed, not only had the best tunes but the best plot lines, syntax. pacing and ability to reach a wide audience.
I think this woke up Lewis. He had been working on some stories for children since 1939, but it was now he chose to get them into shape for publication. They were the now highly familiar Narnia chronicles. There were a number of reasons he might have held back earlier. For a start, they featured talking animals very heavily. Fair enough for something for very young children, but not really an obvious way of carrying a serious message. But Orwell had done it in Animal Farm and it had not done his reputation any harm. There was also the problem that the stories were not exactly mainstream Christian stories. In fact they were shot through with syncretism. Bacchus turns up in one of them. There is also a thinly disguised Saturn sleeping in a cave in another, who turns up to destroy Narnia in the last of the series. The last book, the Last Battle, is the one that deviates most conspicuously from Biblical Christianity. Narnia is dispatched by one of the pagan gods in a huge battle, Christ in the form of Aslan carries out the judgement role assigned to him, but sinners don’t end up getting judged. Instead, they simply don’t understand what is going on and end up living in their own world unaware of the wonders about them. Its an appealing way of getting out of the need for a Hell. But it is also far closer to the idea of the soul forgetting its divinity as per Neoplatonic ideas than the damnation us unbelievers are normally allocated in Christian theology.
So was Lewis a syncretist? There are plenty of reasons to think not. For a start he was pretty clear about his Christian affiliation. He was pretty respectful of other beliefs. But that has become a characteristic of quite a lot of Christians. The intolerant zealotry of former centuries is a lot cooler now. And he certainly never let on that he was anything other than an orthodox believer.
But we can say that he was aware of the issue. Towards the end of the Last Battle, we get a full on example of the dangers of syncretism handed to us up front. The Narnians’ enemies the Calormenes come up with the notion that their god, Tash, is the same person as Aslan. They call him Tashlan. This initiative doesn’t work largely because Tash himself makes an appearance. So that would seem to settle the matter – Lewis was not just not a syncretist, he was positively opposed to it.
Or was he? The problem with the Tashlan notion was that both Tash and Aslan existed, and were not the same being. Elsewhere in the stories, the Voyage of the Dawntreader I think it is, Aslan tells Susan that she will have to get to know him by another name in her own world. Not quite syncretism, but sort of getting on that way. If the same being can have multiple formats in different places then couldn’t different religions be looking at the same thing from a different angle? And as critics have pointed out, Aslan does seem to be very different in different books. Lewis did write very quickly and often in a single draft, but even so I find it hard to believe that this is an error. To my mind it was quite deliberate and gives Aslan a lot more depth than he would have if he was more consistent.
But given the example of Nazis, maybe he just didn’t dare say out loud that he was a syncretist. The science fiction novels that nobody reads are full of some seriously weird stuff. Merlin even shows up in the last one. Once again like the Silmarillion, if you read them not knowing Lewis was a Christian there is a good chance you wouldn’t realise. Everything is in code.
But it is the Narnia books that are far and away the most interesting part of Lewis’ output. They are beautifully written and full of really interesting stories that force you to keep turning the pages. The Christian symbolism is hidden enough to not spoil the plots. And his cheerful ransacking of classical mythology and folklore along with his own vivid imagination gives you loads of new and surprising characters to meet in every book. It is a rich and varied experience, and one that goes well beyond the need to get over some biblical ideas in a palatable form. And when you get to the very end notice this. Once Narnia has passed away the characters themselves pass up to a new and better Narnia. But this is not their final destination, there is another even better one beyond once they have grown enough. If the death and rebirth of Aslan on the stone table in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a great illustration of the death and rebirth of Christ, the continual ascendancy of the characters to ever higher realms at the end of the Last Battle is a superb depiction of the Neoplatonic idea of the ascent of the soul.