War of the Fantasy Worlds
Reviewed by David Bratman
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 113/114.]
In 1980, Martha C. Sammons published a short book titled A Guide Through C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books). In the then absence of any more in-depth surveys of the topic, it provided a useful brief handbook to the mythological references in the trilogy. (Sammons later incorporated it and a similar but less unparalleled survey of the Chronicles of Narnia into a larger book, A Far-Off Country: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s Fantasy Fiction [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000].)
In War of the Fantasy Worlds, Sammons has a similar aim: to provide in one place, clearly and straightforwardly, and in direct comparison and contrast, Lewis’s and Tolkien’s views on the nature and purpose of fantasy literature, drawing on their essays, letters, and creative works. Successive chapters are devoted to different aspects of this subject: the authors’ creative processes; their views on the audience for, the message of, and the value of fantasy literature; literary theories that influenced them; and their techniques of portraying secondary worlds and the contrast of good and evil in their fiction. Sammons is not always clear about the differences among her chapters; for instance, chapter two, which is largely drawn from the sections of Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” about the audience for fairy tales, is introduced as covering “the value and purpose of fairy tales and fantasy” (21), while chapter seven, largely drawn from the sections of the same essay on recovery, escape, and consolation, is introduced as covering “the value of fantasy and myth” (165). Organization is also sometimes awkward: views on science fiction are in chapter two, next to fairy tales, while the nuts and bolts of secondary world creation, closely allied to science fiction, go in chapter five, and the use of those secondary worlds to depict good and evil goes back in chapter three, while the Christian element of the work, which the depiction of good and evil expresses, is in chapter six, next to allegory.
Despite its organizational difficulties, the book can serve a purpose for a reader as deeply familiar with Lewis’s and Tolkien’s own theoretical writings and fiction as Sammons obviously is. She has clearly read and absorbed all these works; virtually every sentence summarizes a point made by Lewis or Tolkien and is footnoted. Occasional reference to the secondary literature shows that Sammons has read widely here and has a good discrimination on which critics to cite. She may be correct that there is no other single book that covers both authors’ views on all aspects of this subject in such detail.
For such a specialized and knowledgeable reader, then, this volume can be a useful reference to browse through to remind yourself of the more vivid and detailed language of Lewis and Tolkien that you already know well, and for which you just need a brief aide-mémoire to refresh yourself. This book adds nothing to original scholarship, but it could serve as that aide-mémoire.
The problem comes if anybody else tries to read or use it. Sammons knows and understands her sources, unquestionably, and she makes few raw factual errors. What she is incapable of doing is writing about her subject in a way that will make sense to anyone who doesn’t already know what she is writing about. Her literary style resembles the condensed, cryptic form of class lecture notes, intended to be read only by the person who wrote them up, and is incomprehensible to anybody else except another student who remembers the same lectures.
Sammons has a talent for summaries and rephrases of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s ideas that, read as she writes them, merely confuse. In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien compares the enchantment of fairy-stories to the enchantment of a cricket game for a true enthusiast; Sammons, puzzlingly, writes, “Entering the secondary world is like playing a cricket game,” as if Tolkien had meant that the game were like a fairy-tale, and follows this with cryptic summary of Tolkien’s explication (120). Sammons is particularly skilled at penning opaque descriptions of the authors’ fiction. Sometimes, particularly in the opening chapter, this leads her into factual errors. (Notably a reference to “the twelve-volume The Silmarillion” , apparently confusing it with The History of Middle-earth.)
A long section on The Silmarillion (45-52), while showing an understanding of Tolkien’s complex sub-creation, is absolutely packed with ambiguities which would leave any reader not equally familiar with it totally at sea. Sammons throws around Elvish ethnic terms with complete disregard for how they fit together, ending with the implication that the Quendi are one small subgroup of Elves (48). She discusses the Númenóreans before telling us who they are (49). Elsewhere, she describes Tolkien’s writing process in The Lord of the Rings without mentioning that it’s The Lord of the Rings that she is discussing (121). She informs us that in Lewis’s Space Trilogy, “Each planet was given an Oyarsa, an angelic spirit, to rule” (52), which sounds like the planet is ruling the Oyarsa and not the other way around, assuming that “rule” is an adequate verb for Oyarsa’s role at all. Possibly the single most unpackable sentence in the entire book is, “Most of Niggle’s paintings are too large and ambitious because he is better at painting leaves than entire trees” (84). This is actually technically accurate. But, as expressed here, it makes no sense whatever.
Though part of Sammons’s purpose is to compare Lewis and Tolkien, opportunities to do this are scanted. There is little straight comparison, and it is superficial. The same writing flaws keep cropping up, as well. Sammons states that “both writers have been described as having divided selves” (3), but does not add that, while Lewis lived a compartmentalized life, Tom Shippey and others have noted that there are few examples of men with scholarly and creative personae so closely interwoven as Tolkien. A note that “In contrast to Tolkien, [Lewis’s Space Trilogy] has more biblical echoes, but, like Tolkien, echoes the Book of Genesis” (52), is almost as walleyed as the sentence about “Leaf by Niggle,” clumsily implying as it does that the Bible and the Book of Genesis are two separate works. There are ways the intended subtle point could be made without falling over itself, but Sammons cannot find them.
Comparing the authors’ writing style—the only useful such comparison in the book, but still without depth—Sammons criticizes Tolkien’s intrusive narrator in The Hobbit for “destroying the sense that this is a separate secondary world” (133), and then turns around and praises Lewis’s intrusive narrator in the Chronicles of Narnia because this “narrative technique helps guides reader responses and reminds them this is a story” (136). How the same technique towards the same end is a flaw in the one author and praiseworthy in the other is not explained.
Much of the description is flat and superficial. There are a few inane little flowcharts depicting the creative process, and one completely baffling flowchart (67). The discussion of sub-creation (chapter 5) focuses on small details with little consideration of the higher or deeper artistic purpose of creating these, and offers no correlation with the artistic theories that are the book’s ostensible theme. The whole chapter feels like an awkward insert. A section on Tolkien’s use of light as a metaphor (97-102) reads particularly flatly in comparison with Verlyn Flieger’s profound discussion in Splintered Light, a book Sammons cites. Her summary of Lewis’s three ways of writing for children (30-31) adds nothing to Lewis’s own clear, succinct essay. Sammons’s professed aim of considering a large swath of intellectual territory in one volume is worth little when its component sections are so much better handled elsewhere.
This volume is not without value. But its value is extremely limited, as a convenient reference source for advanced students only.