Lecture 2: Tolkien and Lewis
Without a doubt, Lewis was Tolkien’s closest friend over the course of his lifetime. When they met, neither were strangers to the world of close emotional and intellectual friendships, but at the same time, they were particularly suited to one another. Because of this, we can learn a great deal about each from the other one.
The college of English at Oxford was divided into two factions – the Language and the Literature factions. Lewis was in the Lit group, and Tolkien, as the professor of Anglo-Saxon was Lang. The situation was ameliorated somewhat by the fact that Lewis was a medievalist, but still, there it was. Lewis wrote in his diary: “No harm in him, only needs a smack or so.”
The friendship began in earnest in 1927 when Tolkien recruited Lewis into the Coalbiters, a group he established so that folks could learn Icelandic.
Lewis, though brilliant, was still a generalist. Tolkien, though a lover of the forest, was a close enough scholar to see the trees. Lewis was not a perfectionist, and Tolkien was. As Lewis put it in a comment on how Tolkien reacted to criticism of his writing – “Either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or he takes no notice at all” (Tolkien, p. 161).
These differences are notable in their production. Lewis could simply crank it out. Tolkien’s production was painstakingly slow – The Lord of the Rings being produced over many years. As you will notice in the Letters, Tolkien agonized over making sure that the phases of the moon were not contradictory in the chronologies Lewis was sit down, lick his pencil, and Io! Triumphum!
Love of Myth:
This shared love was at the foundation of their friendship. It was also the basis of Lewis’ conversion. Before he was converted, Lewis thought that myths were “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien and Hugo Dyson had a lengthy talk with Lewis which they showed him that “myth” need not be equated with “false.”
Lewis had become a theist by 1929, but was not yet a Christian. As a result of this talk, Lewis came to see that the story of Christ was true myth. As words are invented to speak to real objects, so myths are invented to address the realities beyond. As some words are more felicitous than others, so are some myths. The Christian myth is no myth at all – in the popular understanding of the word myth.
Tolkien wrote in his diary – “Friendship with Lewis compensates for much . . . a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, a poet, a philosopher – and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord” (p. 165).
Anglican & Roman:
The reason they drifted (relatively) apart was most probably a combination of Tolkien’s curmudgeonness and Lewis’ deepening Protestantism. The former may have had something to do with jealousy over Lewis’ friendship with Charles Williams, which began in the late thirties. But do not take this as the result of a row or falling out, or any dislike of Williams personally by Tolkien. The two of them were friends as well.
The latter reason was no doubt complex as well. The context of it was how Lewis had become a very famous apologist for the Christian faith. Not only so, but he did this as a Protestant.
Lewis had been brought up an Ulster Protestant – his nurse had once warned him against stepping in a puddle full of “wee, nastie popes.” As Lewis grew and matured in his Christian life, he grew increasingly committed to the Protestant faith. What had been his default position became a matter of deep conviction. Tolkien said, “He would become again a Northern Ireland Protestant” (Tolkien, p. 168).
Near the end of Lewis’ life, with the publication of his magnum opus — English Literature in the Sixteenth Century – Tolkien was irritated by the fact that Lewis called Catholics papists, that he praised Calvin and Tyndale, etc. And he did – “the dazzling figure of Calvin” (Eng. Lit. p. 40).
“Under those conditions formulae might possibly have been found which did justice to the Protestant – I had almost said the Pauline – assertions without compromising . . .” (p. 37).
“From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang” (p. 33).
“By the time I had really explained my objection to certain doctrines which differentiate you from us (and also in my opinion from the Apostolic and even the Medieval Church), you would like me less” (Letters of C.S. Lewis, p. 406)
Throughout the letters of Tolkien, we see references to his readings of his stuff to Lewis and other friends. (Their dependence was, of course, mutual.) This was usually done under the auspices of the Inklings. “I hope to see C.S.L. and Charles W. tomorrow morning and read my next chapter” (Letters, p. 72).
The Inklings had no formal membership, and was mostly a gathering of literary male friends around Lewis, who were all Christians.