C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the power of a difficult friendship
by Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird
Have you ever had a difficult colleague who profoundly impacted your life? C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of the most famous and versatile English writers, had that kind of bond. The companionship between Lewis and the man he called “Tollers” inspired the chapter on friendship (philea) in Lewis’ book, The Four Loves.
For much of his life, Lewis, the son of a solicitor and of an Anglican clergyman’s daughter, was a convinced atheist. Lewis encountered Tolkien at a 1926 faculty meeting. In his diary, Lewis wrote about Tolkien as “a smooth, pale fluent little chap—no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” They had much in common, as both had been traumatized by the premature death of their mothers and by the horrors of trench warfare in World War I.
At age 10, Lewis saw his mother dying of cancer. “With my mother’s death”, said Lewis, “all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”
Tolkien experienced the double loss of both his father, at age 3, and his mother, at age 12.
His strong desire for friendship/fellowship, as with Frodo, Sam, Merry & Pippin, came from Tolkien’s loss of his three best friends in the trenches. Referring to trench warfare, Lewis commented: “Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still.” Lewis vividly remembered “the frights, the cold,… the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night until they seemed to grow to your feet…”
About four years into their friendship, Lewis and Tolkien formed an ‘Inklings’ group, meeting in the Rabbit Room of the Eagle and Child pub. Lewis’ brother, Warren, said that at the Inklings, “the fun would be riotous with Jack at the top of his form and enjoying every minute…an outpouring of wit, nonsense, whimsy, dialectical swordplay, and pungent judgement such as I have rarely heard equaled…”
Both Lewis and Tolkien loved the history of the English language, especially as expressed in the ancient tales like Beowulf. Lewis commented: “When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians– those queer people seemed to pop up on every side, who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile/steps. They were H.V.D. Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien. Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices…”
Lewis said to Tolkien that tales or myths are ‘lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver’. ‘No’, said Tolkien, ‘they are not lies’. Tolkien went on to explain to Lewis that in Jesus Christ, the ancient stories or myths of a dying and rising God entered history and became fact. Twelve days later, Lewis wrote to another friend Arthur Greeves: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
Lewis recalls going by motorcycle with his brother Warren to Whipsnade Zoo, about thirty miles east of Oxford. “When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did.”
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis commented: “In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God…perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
When Lewis turned to Christ, he was surprised to find the skies bluer and the grass greener. “Today,” Lewis wrote, “I got such a sudden intense feeling of delight that it sort of stopped me in my walk and spun me round. Indeed, the sweetness was so great, and seemed so to affect the whole body as well as the mind, that it gave me pause.”
In their Inklings group, they vigorously critiqued each other’s unpublished manuscripts like Narnia Tales and Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote in a letter, “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not influence, as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my stuff could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more, I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.” In October 1933, Tolkien wrote in his diary that friendship with Lewis “besides giving constant pleasure and comfort, has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of our Lord.”
When Tolkien first shared his Lord of the Rings manuscript at the Inklings group, Lewis said: “This book is a lightning from a clear sky. Not content to create his own story, he creates with an almost insolent prodigality the whole world in which it is to move; with its own theology, myths, geography, history, paleography, languages and order of beings.” Without the Inklings fellowship of Tolkien and Lewis, neither the Narnia Tales nor the Lord of the Rings might have ever seen the light of day. In a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin, Lewis wrote “I would willingly do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves.”
While Lewis loved Lord of the Rings, Tolkien disliked the Narnia Tales. He called Lewis’ writing creaking, stiff-jointed, and unoriginal. Tolkien, who took seventeen years rewriting Lord of The Rings, resented the ease at which Lewis kept producing new books. Tolkien, being very private, resented fellow Inklngs Charles Williams’ intrusion into their friendship. Lewis’ marriage to a divorced American, Joy Davidman, also strained their relationship. On October 27 1949, no one turned up for the final Inklings meeting.
Shortly before his death, Lewis wrote to his estranged friend Tolkien: “All my philosophy of history hangs upon a sentence of your own, ‘Deeds were done which were not wholly in vain,’” Four days after Lewis’ death on Nov. 22 1963, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla, “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age – like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one. This feels like an axe-blow near the roots. Very sad that we should have been so separated in the last years; but our time of close communion endured in memory for both of us.”
Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird are the Co-authors of the novel, Blue Sky.