Lewis vs Tolkien: What Can Creators Learn?

Lewis and Tolkien were both geniuses, but these two friends could not have approached their craft more differently  •  3:00 min read

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] love the podcast “Revisionist History” by Malcolm Gladwell. In Episode 7, Gladwell describes the creative processes of two artists: Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. If you’re anything like me, those artists’ names don’t mean much, but Gladwell’s observations had me spellbound.

Strokes of inspiration seemed to always hit Picasso. As soon as he finished one painting, Picasso was off to the next project. Cézanne could not have been more different. Never satisfied with his paintings, Cézanne used the power of time and iteration.

I’m no art aficionado, but according to the “art experts”, Picasso and Cézanne are both geniuses. And it got me thinking.


I finished reading a massive study on the Inklings with an equally verbose title: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. The Inklings was a writing club that met at Oxford between the 1930’s to 1940’s.

Modern fantasy owes a huge debt to this eclectic group of professors, writers, and dreamers. From the Inklings came two of the most influential works of fantasy: The Chronicles of Narnia by Lewis and Lord of the Rings by Tolkien.

Then I realized it: Lewis is Picasso and Tolkien is Cézanne.

C. S. Lewis is Picasso

Like Picasso, Lewis seemed to never lack inspiration. He was a prolific writer, writing no more than a few drafts before moving on to the next project. His most influential work, of course, is The Chronicles of Narnia. What most people don’t realize is that C.S. Lewis wrote Narnia near the end of his life. Seven years after the publication of the last book, he died. The entire seven-book series took him only five years to write.

J.R.R. Tolkien is Cézanne

Lewis’ friend was more like Cézanne. Tolkien could never match the Lewis machine, but he matched — and some would argue exceeded — Lewis’ genius. Creating Middle Earth and the fantasy languages took up Tolkien’s entire adult life from his 20’s to his death at 81. After taking over 15 years to write The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien continued to tweak and grow his work. All of Tolkien’s textual changes were not even incorporated into the text until 1987 — 32 years after the trilogy’s publication.

Lewis wrote Narnia within a brief period of time in a stroke of inspiration. Tolkien labored on Lord of the Rings for a lifetime, the iterative process never complete. Lewis is Picasso; Tolkien is Cézanne. And they all created masterpieces.


As a creator, maybe you connect more with Picasso and Lewis’ sudden inspiration and rapid creation. Or, maybe you’re more like Cézanne and Tolkien: always tinkering until it’s perfect. But for most of us, it’s usually a mix: some inspiration, some iteration, and lots of sweat and tears.

Not my best friend: his imagination is like a faucet that someone forgot to turn off. In contrast, I will tweak and fiddle, praying inspiration will flash from the skies. Soon. Like any time now.

For example, I’m working on a book. After five years of refining, my current draft has no connection to the original concept from 2012. It might as well be a brand new book. But inspiration, a less than once in a blue moon event, recently flashed across my skies. I had the rare Picasso and Lewis moment.

I was eating lunch, spouting off bizarre stuff (as usual) to make my sister laugh. The older we get, the harder it is to make her laugh  — she knows me too well. I still don’t know where the idea came from, but I asked if she knew anything about “cloud herders”.

“What are you talking about?” my sister says.

“You know, someone who flies in a scavenged-metal plane herding clouds.”

“Seriously? Herding clouds.”

“Yeah, because he needs the rain to keep his fragile farm in the oasis growing.”

After lunch, I went straight to my desk, filled up four pages in my notebook. One story has taken over five years — and it’s still not done. For another story, I figured out the world, characters, and climax in a matter of days. Why? Inspiration is funny like that.

I try not to ask inspiration too many questions.

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