If you’re like me, finding a grocery list written by J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis would be a treat and make for enthralling reading. Therefore, I suppose it comes as little surprise that I enjoyed the recent book by Colin Duriez, Bedeviled: Lewis, Tolkien and the Shadow of Evil.
This book is a literary analysis that traces the theme of evil through the major works of both men, weaving through Middle Earth, Narnia and more. As an expert in the study of the Inklings, the informal club of scholars Tolkien and Lewis belonged to, Duriez demonstrates mastery of both the literature and the history of the two men.
The book is divided evenly into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the influence of the wars on the perception of evil. Although Tolkien resisted reading his works allegorically, there can be little down that his experience in World War I was influential in his work. The same is true for Lewis. The horrors of World War I, which both men experienced firsthand, including life in the trenches and being wounded, could not help but increase their understanding of suffering. This particularly since the so-called War to End All Wars was senseless in its cause and its manner.
Part Two deals with the intersection between good and evil. In particular, Duriez maps out ways that goodness overcomes sin and temptation, leads to change, and shines through with joy despite the pain of the present world. These themes are apparent in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle and literature of Middle Earth. They are also constantly brought to mind in most of Lewis’ works.
Considering just the two most famous fictional works of both men, The Lord of the Rings and the seven part Chronicles of Narnia, there is a progression from a fallen state toward heavenly redemption in both works. In fact, by including all of Tolkien’s Middle Earth works and taking the Narnia sequence in chronological order with The Magician’s Nephew at the beginning, the movement through the pattern of creation, fall, and redemption is quite obvious.
What Duriez makes clear in his analysis is that there is a true, biblical notion of good and evil behind the fictional webs created by two Oxford dons. In fact, both the Roman Catholic, Tolkien, and his Anglo-Catholic friend, Lewis, were rather Augustinian in their approach to evil. That is, evil was not a thing in and of itself, it was the deprivation of goodness. This is most clearly seen in Tolkien’s descriptions of orc as twisted elves, and not a new creation. Evil is inherently non-creative, it mocks by copying but it does not make.
This perception of evil, then, shapes the way the two men view the proper response to evil. Both men questioned the widespread bombing of civilians during World War II because the optimal response to evil is not to destroy it, but to reform it. And, as they both show in their literature, there is hope for redemption. Evil will one day be beaten back and the good will win.
One of the more helpful aspects of Duriez’s book is his work on The Great Divorce. Lewis’ account of the journey of some people from Hell to Heaven often leads to questions about Lewis’ view of the eternal state and the possibility for redemption after death. Duriez helps to resist that criticism as he points out that it was not Lewis’ intention to create a work of theology that represents the way things will be after death. Rather in The Great Divorce Lewis is delving into the human psyche to show how strong the tentacles of sin are wrapped around the self, keeping people from accepting redemption even when it can be seen in its fullness.
Duriez shows how both authors presented an accurate image of the world and pointed people toward faith and hope instead of despair. The work of Lewis and Tolkien continues to be popular largely because of the realism behind the fantasy, which culminates in the eschatological victory of good over evil. Their stories, and Lewis’ apologetic work, point toward something that is great, gracious and desirable.
This is an enjoyable piece of scholarship. Duriez’ love for the subject comes through in every page and his vibrant prose make reading this a real joy for those that are fans of the Inklings. For those that are literary minded, this would be a good way to be introduced to or deepen appreciation for two of the greatest English authors of the Twentieth Century. For those less interested in literary analysis, this is still an enjoyable read because so much of what Tolkien and Lewis wrote about still helps to explain the human condition in our contemporary times.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.
Editor's Note: This post has been modified to note the concerns of Aaron Earls (@wardrobedoor) about whether the chronological reading of the Chronicles of Narnia is, in fact, in accordance with Lewis' preference. His discussion of the concept can be found here: http://ow.ly/NSPh7
Trevin Wax (@TrevinWax) has previously addressed the order of reading as well: http://ow.ly/NSPh7