Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton Review Disney’s Snow White

I realize this title sounds like a punchline to some sort of weird Christian literary joke, but it’s true. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis went to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs together when it first came out.

Neither man was terribly impressed—and that’s stating it mildly.

Tolkien was outraged at the portrayal of the dwarfs (because they were there for laughs and not, you know, a complex race with their own lore, language, and history). Of Disney’s works in general, he said, “Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them is to me disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”

Lewis’s thoughts were just as straightforward: “Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving. . . . What might not have come of it if this man had been educated–or even brought up in a decent society?”

(Confession: I did, in fact, roll my eyes at the thick condescension in the last line.)

“Ugly” and “nauseating” – Inkling endorsements for the film, considered a groundbreaking masterpiece in its day.

So, there you have Lewis and Tolkien’s official movie review. As I read the article describing these reactions, I thought, “That’s interesting. But I think I know which of their friends probably did like Snow White.” So I looked it up on the Internet, and tada! Evidence.

Allow me to introduce you to G.K. Chesterton (because apparently if you wanted to be a British Christian writer in the 1930s or thereabouts, you needed to have a mildly embarrassing first and middle name, which you then changed to initials).

Ah, Chesterton, large of girth and large of heart, the defender of the common man who had the courage to poke fun at almost anything, particularly himself. I love this guy. I’ve read and enjoyed books by all three men. That said, there is almost a 96% chance that I would not have been friends with Lewis or Tolkien, but Chesterton and I would have gotten along famously.

He also died two years before Snow White released, so there’s no way to know what his opinion of it and Walt Disney might be. Or is there?

Enter Chesterton’s essay “A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls.” (Don’t you love the title?—it’s like clickbait before there was clickbait.) It exemplifies a trait I love in Chesterton and want to see more of in myself: humility.

Basically, with dry British humor, he makes the point that academics sitting in ivory towers and sniffing at the drivel stories of the unwashed mobs miss the point. The essential worldview of Robin Hood tales and cowboy dime novels—and most comic books and Hollywood blockbusters—is deeply human, necessary, and good. “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.” And that, Chesterton says, is what keeps civilization from crumbling.

When it comes to Lewis and Tolkien’s general snobbery about Snow White, and especially their disdain for Disney as a person, I defer to Chesterton: “In this matter, as in all such matters, we lose our bearings entirely by speaking of the ‘lower classes’ when we mean humanity minus ourselves.”

The reviews I quoted above were private reactions to friends. I get it. Nothing serious. Tolkien wasn’t telling us to inform others that their art makes us nauseous. Lewis wasn’t suggesting we go about treating others like they’re “poor boobs” who could have made so much of themselves if they’d only been properly educated.

And yet, when I read Chesterton’s line, I didn’t think first of Lewis’s review. I thought of myself.

Have you ever looked at someone’s bookshelf or DVD collection and felt better about yourself because you’d never read/watch that? Ever had a moment of superiority because you understand a term or concept that others don’t? Ever silently scoffed at simple answers, simple praise song lyrics, and even simple faith?

Me too.

This is one area where I think Christians, especially those who love thinking deeply and have strong opinions, need to be very, very careful. Because, to borrow Chesterton’s words, I lose my bearings when I speak arrogantly about others and mean humanity minus myself.

Do you feel the weight of that? When I elevate myself above those around me, when I interrupt people who are clearly wrong to bestow my great thoughts upon them, when I divide everyone into “us” and “them”—I lose focus on what matters.

There is nothing at all wrong with loving great art and literature, with critiquing movies or enjoying high-quality coffee. There’s not even anything wrong with wanting worship songs to have depth, disliking most Christian movies, and explaining that a verse someone posted on Facebook is taken dramatically out of context.

Just be careful of your heart. As Chesterton warned, you may be in danger of becoming petty in your quest against pettiness.

Sometimes I need the reminder that I am not always right. There may actually be redemptive value in that frivolous pop band or that straightforward approach to a hard issue or that pot of generic coffee. And this is important—even if there isn’t, there is infinitely great value in the person who defends it.

The bottom line? Don’t elevate yourself and your rightness at another’s expense, because that is treating as worthless what God has called worthy. Really, in light of eternity, it doesn’t matter what you think about Disney movies or other trivial or secondary issues. What matters is following Christ’s example of humility in loving others.

4 comments

  1. Wow, this is such a good, well-written, thought-provoking post. And I find what Lewis said about “if only he had been educated” very disappointing… come on Lewis, really? Haha. But I do the exact same thing sometimes when I judge people for their taste in entertainment or if they prefer simple things to higher-quality things… it’s convicting. Anyway, great post!

    1. Thanks, Maddie! Lewis and his friends were academics at heart…and Oxford academics at that. Also, I can’t help but wonder if they felt that Disney’s simple myths were going to be wildly popular…and if they worried that there’s might not be. I’m glad all three got the audiences they deserved, different as they are.

  2. I stumbled upon your blog and dove in just for entertainment, certainly not expecting an arrow to the heart on the first entry! Spot on. Well said. And…ouch.

  3. I’m with you there, Anne. I felt the same way when I stumbled on the original post about Lewis and Tolkien and Snow White. Kind of hammered home a theme I’ve been seeing lately. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

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