The Role of the Narrator in Tolkien and Lewis
The voice of the narrator is similar in both The Hobbit and the Narnia books and used wonderfully well to draw readers into the tale. They talk directly and indirectly to their audience, offer advice, use words that speak of sounds, show the moral struggles their heroes endure and praise them for conquering fear and temptation, as well as introducing the role of providential guidance. There is much that is the same, but there is also an important difference.
The Hobbit does not get far before the narrator speaks directly to the readers, and this continues throughout the tale. “I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. . . . There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along. . . . Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying. . . (11-12). “Yes, I am afraid trolls do behave like that” (37). “I imagine you know the answer, of course, or can guess it as easy as winking, since you are sitting comfortably at home and have not the danger of being eaten to disturb your thinking” (71).
Narnia’s narrator talks right to his audience as well. About the time of Digory and Polly, he states, “But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won’t tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain” (Magician’s Nephew 3). After Lucy comes to the room holding the magic book, the narrator speaks up in defense of the girl’s attempt to close the door. “Some people may disagree with Lucy about this, but I think she was quite right. She said . . . it was unpleasant to have to stand . . . with an open doorway right behind your back. I should have felt just the same” (Voyage 150).
The narrators also offer advice to their young readers. “You ought not to be rude to an eagle, when you are only the size of a hobbit, and are up in his eyrie at night!” (Hobbit 97). “This of course is the way to talk to dragons, if you don’t want to reveal your proper name (which is wise), and don’t want to infuriate them by a flat refusal (which is also very wise)” (190-191). “[Lucy] had, of course, left the door open, for she knew that it is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe” (Lion 8-9).
Both narrators use sounds to make descriptive actions more vivid and real. “[Lucy] began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and through the wood toward the other light” (Lion 9). “The general meaning of the song was only too plain; for now the goblins took out whips and whipped them with a swish, smack!, and set them running as fast as they could in front of them” (Hobbit 59). Bilbo hears “drops drip-drip-dripping” (67) as he comes to the underground lake where Gollum lives.
The most important thing the narrators do is to impart moral lessons in a way that benefits even adult readers of the tales. They show us what happens within the heart and soul of Bilbo and Digory, as hobbit and boy fight their spiritual battles. “[Bilbo] must get away . . . . He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. . . . pity . . . welled up in Bilbo’s heart” (79). Digory successfully struggles against the temptation the Witch presents to flee back to his world and give the magic apple to his mother to heal her rather than bring it to Aslan as he promised to do.
Both narrators praise their heroes for overcoming fear and temptation. After Bilbo hears Smaug snoring, he freezes. “Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait” (184). Digory wins against the seductive allure of eating the magic apple after he sees a bird watching him. “But I think Digory would not have taken an apple for himself in any case. Things like Do Not Steal were, I think, hammered into boys’ heads a good deal harder in those days than they are now” (Nephew 173-174).
The most vital thing the narrators do is to show the role of divine providence in the lives of the heroes. Gandalf refers to Bilbo as the “chosen and selected burglar” (Hobbit 27). He speaks of the unseen Chooser in “The Quest of Erebor.” “‘I dare say he was ‘chosen’ and I was only chosen to choose him; but I picked out Bilbo’” (Unfinished Tales 331). Grace aids Bilbo throughout his adventure, from finding Sting and the Ring, to the ‘luck’ that aids him in his battle with the spiders, the barrel ride down to Lake-town, and many other times. Lucy also experiences Aslan’s aid, as she faces the temptation to speak the spell that would make her beautiful. “But when she looked back at the opening words of the spell . . . where she felt quite sure there had been no picture before, she found the great face of. . . Aslan . . . staring into hers. . . . She became horribly afraid and turned over the page at once” (Voyage 154-155).
A difference between the two narrators is that Lewis hides some of the trauma from his young readers, while Tolkien does not. As the Witch kills Aslan, the narrator states Lucy and Susan cover their eyes and do not watch the actual moment. The Hobbit’s narrator, on the other hand, clearly states that Gollum is a cannibal and wishes to eat Bilbo and speaks in explicit terms of the methods Bilbo thought of when tempted to kill the creature. He also speaks later of the suffering that takes place after Smaug destroys Lake-town.
These are only some of the examples to show how essential the narrators are to the tales. By speaking conversationally to the children, they treat them as important people in their own right and draw them into the stories. Both use small people as their heroes to make them more accessible to children and to show them what they are capable of themselves. The narrators also teach children, and adults, important moral lessons that perhaps would not be received or accepted in another form. Both narrators are so much a part of the tales that the stories would be quite different, less friendly, and less able to pull young readers directly in the sub-created worlds.
Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Scholastic, 1995.
—. The Magician’s Nephew. New York: Scholastic, 1995.
—. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Scholastic, 1995.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.
—. Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
This is one of the papers I wrote for my Master’s Degree at Signum University.
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