C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien varied greatly in their conceptions of the secondary worlds they fashioned. Lewis focused on the creative power of God to call into existence an entire world out of nothing. Tolkien chose to celebrate more the sub-creative powers God gave to His offspring, who collaborate with Him to help bring into being something that had not been before. God is behind the creation of both Narnia and Arda, and neither can have reality outside of Him, but how they come about is very different.
Narnia is born through a single Voice, that of the Lion. A chorus of other voices is heard in the beginning, but it soon fades away and does not take part in the creation of the world after the Voice sings them into being. Narnia is Aslan’s masterpiece alone. It comes into existence bit by bit a moment after each part of His song calls it forth. It is completely separate from our world and comes to be long after our world was made, which allows Digory, Polly and the others to witness Narnia’s founding.
And as [the Lion] walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. . . . The light wind could now be heard. . . . The higher slopes grew dark with heather. Patches of rougher and more bristling green appeared in the valley. . . . ‘Trees!’ . . .
. . . All this time, the Lion’s song, and his stately prowl was going on. . . . Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she could see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. . . . She felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) ‘out of the Lion’s head’. When you listened to his song, you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them (The Magician’s Nephew 112-113, 115-116)
The founding of Arda, by contrast, takes place in the unfathomable depths of time, but before anything else, Ilúvatar makes the first sentient beings, the Ainur. It is through a joint effort between Him and His offspring that Arda comes. The Ainur use, or in Melkor’s case, misuse, the creative powers given to them after Ilúvatar ignites a spark of the Flame Imperishable in each of them. They expand upon the theme He already presented to them and add their embellishments to it. Their participation comes at first in the form of music and has no substance outside of this. They do not yet know their song has any purpose beyond the simple joy of singing, and do not realize that they are actually in the process of sub-creating. It gladdens Ilúvatar in the beginning to hear this celebration of creativity, but He grows stern at Melkor’s abuse of it. Ilúvatar gave each of the Ainur a separate part of the Music that He wanted to hear from them, but Melkor seeks for more than is his share and tries to overwhelm the efforts of everyone else with his own chaotic discord. Other of the Ainur either falter in their song or begin to cleave more to this rebel spirit than to their Creator. Ilúvatar then begins a second and third theme that Melkor also tries to disrupt.
After the third theme ends, Ilúvatar shows His offspring a vision of their music in physical form. It appears that they see its story unfold before them, but it is only as one would watch a movie. It does not exist yet outside the mind and heart and cannot be entered into bodily. Ilúvatar knows this last is what the Ainur long for, and so He gives the Song independent reality. He even allows Melkor’s cacophonous noise, as beauty is brought forth from it that the wicked spirit did not intend, but Ilúvatar did.
Unlike Narnia though that came to be a moment after the Lion sang each part into being, the Ainur who elect to enter Arda are astonished to find the beauty they had sung and seen is in actuality still unformed. It is as though they had seen a finished book but then found only blank pages, which they had to fill in with what they had already beheld as complete. Melkor’s malicious efforts to defeat their labor over long ages slows them down but never conquers them. The perfection of creation will come only after the end of time during the singing of a fourth theme by Ainur, Elves and Men, in which each thing thought of will have flawless and instantaneous reality, as only then will everyone be in perfect union with God.
The more obvious focus of Lewis on the exclusive power of God to truly create and make real is on the surface a more orthodox view of creation than Tolkien, who places the emphasis on the role of the sub-creator, though he, too, notes that God alone is Creator. Lewis also concentrates on a more complete creation, as the Lion’s song also brings forth the animals that populate Narnia, where the Ainur only focused on the preparation of the earth itself to welcome the Children they had seen. Lewis places the Creator in the forefront, while Tolkien is more subtle about God’s role and presents creation from the point of view of the creature’s part in it. It is through Ilúvatar’s encouragement and direction to sing that the Ainur help fashion our world. Rather than simply singing it Himself into existence without the participation of others, He is content to sit back and listen and “be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song” (Silmarillion 3). This conviction that God wants us to participate even now in the making and bettering of our world is something Tolkien deeply believed in and why he centered his creation tale on collaboration and cooperation with God and what the spark of the Secret Fire given to all artists can accomplish for the “multiple enrichment of creation” (“On Fairy-Stories” 73) .
Lewis, C. S. The Magician’s Nephew. New York: HarperCollins, 1955.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 3-84.
—. The Silmarillion, 2nd ed. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Illus. Ted Nasmith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
This is one of the papers I wrote for my Master’s Degree at Signum University.