Disagreeing with Matilda on Lewis and Tolkien

Eliza: Oh, hello there, Clarisse! Fancy seeing you here! I was recently re-reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and there was this specific part that made me think quite a bit. It’s that bit where Matilda is talking to Miss Honey about some of the Children’s books she read:

“I think Mr C. S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.” 

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

Eliza: Now I remember not having much opinion on this before, but now, after re-reading Narnia, and now reading The Hobbit for the first time, I realize that I can’t quite agree with her on this. 

Clarisse: Yes, I remember reading that for the first time and it bothered me very much (a lot more than a passing comment deserves). It was probably because, at the time, one of the main reasons I enjoyed both Lewis and Tolkien was the humor.

Eliza: Yeah! Now of course, if people share Matilda’s opinion, that’s okay. But the truth is there are a bunch of funny bits that I think Matilda might have not noticed, or maybe forgotten about, or just not found funny. For example, the opening of Voyage of The Dawn Treader has the famous, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”, which is, in my opinion, one of the funniest openings out there.

Clarisse: Eustace as a character most definitely passes as “funny” to me. Speaking of funny characters, everything about Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew was hilarious as it was infuriating. 

Eliza: Yeah! And even little silly scenes like Lucy accidentally getting picked up by the giant when he meant to get the handkerchief are worthy of a little smile. 

Clarisse: Very true! While there is some humor in Narnia that is more subtle (like Uncle Andrew for the majority of The Magician’s Nephew — at least before he gets mistaken for a tree) , I think Narnia has its fair share of obviously comedic scenes. That scene with the giant that you mentioned sounds like something that could happen in a cartoon!

Eliza: I know right, haha! And we mustn’t forget Puddlegum, who’s always hilariously negative but in a somewhat positive way. There’s a lot of hilarious moments that range from clever to downright silly—in a good way! Oh yeah, and here’s another one I just remembered: when Caspian was saying why he didn’t want to marry that girl when the story was being told in Voyage (“Squints, and has freckles”)? Come on! 😂

Clarisse: That was a low blow, Caspian. But yes. And honestly, Matilda, who can forget Edmund eating dirt because he thought it looked like chocolate :///

Eliza: Hahaha! Right?? There are so, so many more that I can’t even remember them at this point, and anyway it would very likely take a long time to list them all! 

Clarisse: True. The only reason I can think of someone saying Narnia having “no funny bits” is if they didn’t like Lewis’s sense of humor, which can come off as too silly and cartoonish. (I feel like it only helps refute Matilda’s comment, though.)

Eliza: But what about Tolkien’s works? I haven’t even finished The Hobbit yet, and I still haven’t read The Lord of The Rings, but I think people tend to forget that his works have at least a decent amount of funny bits worth mentioning as well.

Clarisse: Tolkien is a more mixed bag than Lewis, I think. When we mention Tolkien, most people tend to immediately jump to The Lord of the Rings, ignoring all the other short fantasy stories he’s written! 

Eliza: That’s trueee.

Clarisse: Ignoring the somewhat wide range of works Tolkien has written, however, most people (including Matilda, I’m assuming) read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And saying that there aren’t any funny scenes, at least when it comes to The Hobbit, is a little strange.

Eliza: That is very true! And maybe it’s the fact that she hasn’t exactly entertained anyone at her home yet, but for sure I found it very funny when the dwarves were bursting in on Bilbo at tea-time! Even Gandalf’s response to a simple, “Good morning!” had me giggling!   

Clarisse: Oh, definitely. LotR may be a grand, epic, world-shattering tale, but The Hobbit was always a much smaller story meant for children to enjoy. Thus, Tolkien being very witty and informal as a narrator and the dwarves (plus one hobbit) being a little clumsier and sillier than you’d expect. I find the character of Bilbo to be very funny and ridiculous (and that’s just part of his charm)! 

Eliza: That’s true! I totally agree. And Bilbo just being so relatable in so many ways just adds to it somehow. It’s really enjoyable for me! Bilbo is definitely not what you’d expect from the protagonist of an adventure story, yet there he is, bumping along on dwarves’ backs! It’s honestly so endearing.

Clarisse: I totally get that feeling! There are so many things in The Hobbit that are out-of-this-world, cartoonishly ridiculous, it’s easy to see the comedic tone Tolkien was going for. Aside from the tone, though, like you mentioned, the story is actually funny. My favorite scene from The Hobbit is probably when Gandalf is introducing the dwarves to Beorn, because I didn’t expect to be grinning the whole time. Thorin’s “because we were starving” answer to the Elvenking is a contender as well. And of course, the closest thing to a running gag in Middle-earth has got to be the Sackville-Bagginses being so desperate for Bag End (and the spoons).

Eliza: Hahaha! Oh please, Matilda, please don’t tell me that isn’t at least a little funny to you? Or at the very least, all the random bursts into song, or the little appearance of the elves?

Clarisse: Even if she didn’t find it funny, it would be hard to argue that The Hobbit isn’t attempting to be funny, because it definitely is. 

Eliza: Definitely. And we all know about how irritated Gandalf was with Pippin for a lot of Fellowship. Fool of a Took! 

Clarisse: Yeah! Like I mentioned, Tolkien is a bit of a mixed bag, at least considering LotR, when it comes to whether or not he has “many funny bits” in his book. Tolkien’s writing has gained a reputation for being serious and long-winded, but I wouldn’t say there are no funny bits at all. Much of the humor in LotR is tongue-in-cheek and ironic. (Especially whenever characters quip or joke.)

Eliza: Yes, agreed! So now I really can’t help but wonder; Matilda was, very early on, described as an unusually bright and sensitive girl. So I would have expected that she’d at least know that there were funny bits, even if they weren’t her kind of humor. But saying that there are no funny bits, or hardly any? That’s a very bold statement. 

Clarisse: True! I always thought that the subtle, ironic kind of humor was something she’d appreciate or at least pick up on.

Eliza: Yeah, I agree. I do understand that maybe some kids, especially nowadays at least, might have a bit of a harder time picking it up, especially if some of the jokes Lewis or Tolkien make are leaning more on British humor and the ones reading it aren’t British. But Matilda is definitely sensitive enough to pick it up, for one, and she is British.

Clarisse: Although it is worth noting that Matilda isn’t exactly a modern kid who would be out of touch with Tolkien and Lewis’ type of humor (the book was published in 1988 – around 20 years after LotR), yes, she is British! But, in any case, I believe that the little exchange between Matilda and Miss Honey is just Road Dahl expressing his opinions on Tolkien and Lewis 😉 Maybe he really does think that their books aren’t funny enough for children to enjoy. But, obviously, we disagree with him haha.

Eliza: Exactly what I thought! After all, Dahl’s own books are sillier, wackier, and ridiculous-er. Almost unashamedly so.

Clarisse: I get the sense that he was trying to say that the kind of books he thinks children would enjoy (or that he himself as a child would have enjoyed) would be much lighter and humorous than Narnia and The Hobbit/LotR.

Eliza: Yeah! And I see what he means. Especially today. Like a lot of things, humor has changed, in a way. And I guess it doesn’t help that, at least here in the Philippines, American humor is more dominant than British (which I think is a shame. Of course, not that I don’t enjoy American humor or think it shouldn’t be,). At the same time, it’s “older” humor, and while it’s still applicable today, I don’t think many people would first say “Narnia/The Hobbit is really funny!” Especially with internet humor today. Because, at least from a personal observation, it’s really in the story, if that makes sense. It’s more within the experience. I myself sometimes still forget how funny Narnia is, even when I know that I laughed or smiled while reading it.

There’s also the fact that LotR is most definitely not aiming to be a “funny” kind of adventure. Children can enjoy it, of course (who am I to say what is and what isn’t objectively entertaining) but it’s just not that kind of story. When all is said and done, Lewis and Tolkien are European history and linguistics buffs, and that passion is evident in their stories, even the ones meant for children. While Narnia and The Hobbit are fairytales, they are both rooted in history and literature from the Middle Ages (and before that), intentionally hearkening back to something that doesn’t feel “modern”. Dahl’s books have a similar whimsical and magical atmosphere, but with less of the historical influences, so his stories feel more wacky and modern — which is probably what he prefers. 

Eliza: Exactly! And while Lewis and Tolkien didn’t shy away from comedy in their works, you can tell that a lot of focus was on the fantasy, and adventure of it.

Clarisse: Good point. After all, Narnia and Middle-earth are obviously supposed to be fantasy. But as you mentioned, humor is subjective, and I’ve always found their books entertaining.

Eliza: Yes!! And again, in the end, it’s all down to opinion and personal taste. 

Clarisse: (As is evident by the existence of this post. Clearly this bothered us enough that we wanted to write about it :P)

Eliza: (Haha, clearly!) And we don’t ever have to agree with Matilda, Miss Honey, Roald Dahl, and anyone else who shares their thoughts. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, and everyone’s bound to disagree sometime. And that’s fine.

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