Many bookstore chains classify The Lord of the Rings as Science Fiction. On the other hand, The Chronicles of Narnia are usually not so classified. Which seems strange since the Chronicles include transportation to a “different dimension,” so to speak, while The Lord of the Rings presents a supposed “history” without any such device. Tolkien seems to disdain the use of a “Time Machine” in his essay “Tree and Leaf,” saying
…the enchantment of distance, especially of distant time, is weakened only by the preposterous and incredible Time Machine itself.
(1988 Harper Collins Edition, p.13)
This is not to say, of course, that Tolkien did not value the use of “distant time.” His entire mythology is set to appear as “distant time.” What he disliked was any distraction that would lessen the verisimilitude of what he was creating. It was vital to create a “suspension of disbelief” or “secondary belief,” as Tolkien called it. Unbelievable machines distract from the appearance of reality. C S Lewis was criticized for the technical aspects of his spacecraft in the “Ransom Trilogy.” (Perelandra, etc.) However, Lewis argues that this technical problem is not too much of a distraction. Minor “technical difficulties” are usually easily overcome if the main story is “believable.” Take the “Star Trek” stories, for example. We all know that the chronology conflicts with what actually has happened as we have entered the 21st Century, but the “suspension of belief” still works well in many of the episodes/movies/books—in some of the stories much better than in others.
On the other hand, SciFi shows such as the 1960s television version of “Lost in Space” prove to be no more than just a diversion rather than offering a stimulus toward a “suspension of belief.” The fact that humankind was not even close to sending passengers to other star systems by the turn of the 21st Century is less of a distraction than the plot lines (or lack thereof). “Lost in Space” (or “Batman”, for that matter) held the attention of many a child in the 1960s, but such shows are mere nostalgic amusement for baby boomers today. There is too little plot and too many “preposterous and incredible” technical distractions. As C S Lewis put it:
I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.
(“On Three Way of Writing for Children” reprinted in the One-Volume Harper Collins The Chronicles of Narnia 2001, p. 771)
The Chronicles of Narnia have met the test of time—people who enjoyed them as children still do as adults—at least those who have not gotten so cynical or self-absorbed that they now think the stories foolish. Or have decided, like the bookstores, that the books belong only in the children’s section, and that as adults they have grown “beyond that.” But as Lewis points out (“Three Ways”, p.772), growth does not necessarily mean that you give up what you previously enjoyed. “Grown up” books can be added to one’s reading without giving up what was enjoyed in childhood.
To be concerned about being grown up … to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. … When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
Unlike The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings has been viewed as a more “adult” book, apparently “qualifying” it for the SciFi category. Which seems strange, given all the “juvenile” Science Fiction which has been written. But perhaps the designation is more of a “throw-back” to a time when “Fantasy” was not considered a category, especially for “grown up” books.
However people categorize the works of Tolkien and Lewis, what is the appeal of these “Other Worldly” stories? It is the appeal of most Fantasy and Science Fiction—the desire for something “other.” There is something in us that seeks beyond what we can see and touch and feel. Whether it is satisfied by a “historical narrative” (The Lord of the Rings), or through a mechanical (or magical) device (The Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy), or through a more “mystical” means (Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major) does not seem to matter. We are transported through the suspension of belief into another world, which, as Lewis reminds us later in his essay (“Three Ways”, p.774-75), helps us (or can help us) to appreciate the world we live in every day.