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Tolkien, Lewis, and the Christian Imagination: An Interview with Joseph Pearce

August 24, 2016


If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, you probably know the name Joseph Pearce. He’s one of the leading experts on the Inklings and has written many books on them, alongside his books on the literary figures who influenced them. He’s written about C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, the Christian themes in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and a whole field guide to the Catholic literary landscape.

Next month, Joseph is hosting a one day Tolkien/Lewis conference at Aquinas College in Nashville, where he teaches. If you live anywhere near Nashville, you should definitely come. I’ll be there, Joseph will be there, and so will several other top Tolkien/Lewis scholars such as Michael Ward, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Kevin O’Brien, and Devin Brown. Find more information here:

Today, I sit down with Joseph to discuss Tolkien, Lewis, and next month’s exciting conference. Enjoy!

BRANDON VOGT: You’ve written several books on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, including biographies and analyses of their great fantasy stories. What is it about these two writers that has captured so many Christians? Why are they equally beloved among Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox?

JOSEPH PEARCE: I think that the works of Tolkien and Lewis have captured so many Christians for the same reason that they have captivated millions of non-Christians. The fact is that The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are among the bestselling books of all time.

Their secret is, I believe, to be found in the beauty of the storytelling, the depth of the imagination that informs it, and the way that the beauty is infused with the goodness and truth of a solidly Christian worldview.

Non-Christian readers might not notice or acknowledge the Christian infusion, though they imbibe it subconsciously nonetheless, whereas Christian readers are of course very at home in the theologically rich worlds of Middle-earth and Narnia, worlds which harmonize profoundly with the Christian cosmos.

BRANDON: It’s fair to say that Lewis’ Christianity is more explicit in the Chronicles of Narnia than Tolkien’s was in his Lord of the Rings. But in both cases, the writers created (or sub-created, to use Tolkien’s terms) worlds that were deeply imbued with a Christian imagination. What does this mean? What makes these stories “Christian” even though they may not explicitly reference God, the Church, the liturgy, sacraments, etc.?

JOSEPH: You are right to differentiate between the more explicit Christianity in Lewis’ Narnia and the far more subtle Christian dimension in The Lord of the Rings. Aslan is quite clearly a thinly-veiled figure of Christ, at all times in all the stories, whereas several characters in The Lord of the Rings exhibit Christ-like traits and tropes without ever being Christ-figures per se.

Frodo reminds us of Christ in his role as the Ring-bearer, paralleling Christ the Cross-bearer. Aragorn reminds us of Christ in his Kingship and the way that it manifests itself in his power of healing and the power he wields over the dead. Gandalf reminds us of Christ in his death, resurrection, and transfiguration. And even lembas, which means life-bread or bread of life in elvish, reminds us of Christ sacramentally in its applicability as a signifier of the Eucharist.

And yet, unlike Aslan, none of these characters are Christ figures at all times but only at certain times or in certain aspects of their characterization or role within the story. Whereas Lewis’ approach was more formally allegorical, or at least tended in that direction, Tolkien’s was modeled on the more subtle figurative approach used by, for example, the Beowulf poet.

BRANDON: Bishop Robert Barron once suggested that J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the most effective evangelists of the twentieth century since he ably smuggled the Gospel into an unsuspecting culture. What do you think about that? Would you consider Tolkien and Lewis evangelists? Why are stories potent ways to evangelize?

JOSEPH: I would agree with Bishop Barron. Tolkien and Lewis are evangelists in the sense that they are bearers of good news through the telling of good stories. We know that stories are potent ways to evangelize because they have been sanctioned and sanctified by Christ Himself who taught many of his most important lessons in the form of parables. On a deeper lever, Christ also told us the most powerful story in the unfolding of his birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension.

The Greatest Story ever told is Christ’s own life story. This was what Tolkien and Lewis called the True Myth, the myth that really happened. Other myths or stories, such as the ones told by Tolkien and Lewis themselves, are echoes of that True Story.

This was best summed up, perhaps, by Father History in Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress who explains that the ancient pagan myths were pictures sent by God to those who had forgotten how to read. We also live in an age and culture which has forgotten how to read and which refuses to read the Gospel. This being so, we can say that God has sent our own godless generation pictures in the forms of the grace-filled works of Tolkien and Lewis.

BRANDON: It’s not uncommon to hear writers today christened “the modern C.S. Lewis” or “the next Tolkien.” The two Inklings were undoubtedly uniquely gifted, but who are their successors? Who are the writers evangelizing the imagination today?

JOSEPH: Tolkien and Lewis were so wonderfully gifted that it’s difficult to imagine anyone filling their shoes. That being said, I do believe that we are seeing a new Christian cultural revival.

As the editor of the St. Austin Review, a journal of Catholic culture, I am very aware of the many Christian novelists, short story writers, poets, artists, architects and musicians working in today’s culture. These have increased dramatically in terms of quality and quantity in the fifteen years since the St. Austin Review was launched. One thinks especially of novelists, such as Tim Powers, Michael D. O’Brien, Lucy Beckett, Arthur Powers and Dena Hunt, to name but a few.

It was a desire to help nurture and nourish this new literary revival that inspired me and my colleagues at the Center for Faith & Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville to establish the Aquinas Award for Fiction, the second recipient of which is the aforementioned Michael D. O’Brien for his novel, Elijah in Jerusalem.

BRANDON: You teach now at Aquinas College in Nashville, and you’ve helped to arrange an exciting one-day conference on that campus on Saturday, September 17, 2016. It’s called the 2nd Annual Tolkien & Lewis Celebration and it looks amazing. I signed up right when I heard about it, so I’ll definitely be there. You’ll be there, too. You’re speaking alongside Michael Ward, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Kevin O’Brien, Devin Brown, and lots of other Tolkien and Lewis experts. Tell us more about that conference. Why should people attend?

JOSEPH: When I became Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College, I wanted to have an annual Shakespeare Celebration on the nearest weekend to the Bard’s birthday (April 23) and an annual Tolkien and Lewis Celebration on the nearest weekend to Hobbit Day (September 22). Last year’s Tolkien and Lewis Celebration was hugely successful, with around 250 people in attendance.

This year’s Celebration will include presentations by some of the finest scholars in the world, as well as a dramatic re-enactment by the Theatre of the Word of the famous “night talk” between Tolkien and Lewis in September 1931 which led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.

We will also be opening a “Tolkien, Lewis and Friends Exhibit” at the College on the day of the Celebration, featuring rare and unique artifacts associated with Lewis, Tolkien and other members of the Inklings. In short, our Celebration is much more than a mere conference. It is very much a joy-filled and rambunctious celebration of these two great writers and the priceless legacy that they have bestowed upon us.

There’s only one place for any lover of Lewis and Tolkien to be on Saturday, September 17 and that is at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. More details can be found here:


Image taken from the website for Aquinas College Nashville