One of the delights of English history is the realisation that so many literary greats knew each other. Granted, this is largely due to a cloistered and classist set of elite universities, but it’s still wonderful to imagine one’s heroes enjoying a drink in a smoky pub.
Today we’re going to talk about Tolkien and Lewis, who spent a great many evenings doing just that.
I started this research expecting to write about a professional relationship and a petty falling-out. The actual story is rather sweeter than that. Tolkien and Lewis had a deep friendship, and each respected the talent of the other. Each, also, had a huge influence on the other’s career. Reading Tolkien’s letters gave me a glimpse of the hurt he felt as their friendship faltered – although tragically few from Tolkien to Lewis were preserved.
But let’s not start at the end. First, we must set the scene.
J R R Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3 January 1892, in South Africa. His father died when the boy was three, turning a family visit to England into a permanent move.
Tolkien was exceptionally fond of his mother, Mabel, who taught him at home. She encouraged his inclination towards reading and fostered his love of botany. In 1900, Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism, which cut her off from all family support. Tolkien admired her bravery and, when she died of diabetes aged just 34, he thought of her as a martyr.
Before her death, Mabel made a decision that would grant Tolkien the protection and education he needed to become a literary great – she appointed Father Francis Xavier Morgan as the guardian of her two sons. Although it meant the boys had to live a strict, religious life at Birmingham Oratory, the guardianship was the difference between poverty and obscurity and a safe, educated remainder of their youth. Tolkien won and retained a scholarship to a first-rate day school l: King Edward’s.
While at the school, he and three friends – Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith, and Christopher Wiseman – formed a semi-secret society called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. This referred to their illicit tea-drinking in the school library and in the nearby Barrow’s Stores. The group remained in close contact after they left the school, and it was following a 1914 reconvening that Tolkien started devoting more time and energy to poetry.
Tolkien secured himself a place at Exeter College, Oxford. He graduated from the university 1915, with a first-class degree in English Language and Literature.
In 1916, he married his childhood sweetheart – well, sort of. The pair had met at the boarding house Tolkien moved to when he was 16 and Edith, the object of his affections, was 19. According to Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography1
Edith and Ronald took to frequenting Birmingham teashops, especially one which had a balcony overlooking the pavement. There they would sit and throw sugarlumps into the hats of passers-by, moving to the next table when the sugar bowl was empty. … With two people of their personalities and in their position, romance was bound to flourish. Both were orphans in need of affection, and they found that they could give it to each other. During the summer of 1909, they decided that they were in love.
Which is almost unbearably sweet, isn’t it?
Sadly for the twitterpated twosome, Father Morgan – Tolkien’s guardian at the time – thoroughly disapproved of Tolkien’s relationship with an older woman (and a protestant to boot!). He forbade Tolkien from meeting her until his 21st birthday. He obeyed. On the eve of that birthday, he wrote to Edith, who broke off her engagement to another man, accepted Tolkien’s proposal, and married him in March of 1916.
It will not have escaped your mind that these years were marred by war. Indeed, Tolkien’s lack of enthusiasm for joining up was much derided by his relatives, although the young man had joined the army in 1915 and legitimately delayed his deployment to allow him to finish his degree.
But in June 1916, just a couple of months after his wedding, Tolkien received a telegram summoning him to Folkestone, and onwards to France.
Clive Staples Lewis was born on 29 November 1898, in Belfast.
When he was four, his dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car. From then on, Lewis insisted that people call him Jacksie – later shortened to Jack.
He demonstrated a fine imagination from a young age, inventing a world of anthropomorphic animals with his brother.
Lewis’s mother died when he was only nine, and his father was distant and erratic in his care. The boy was sent to boarding school first in England, then back in Ireland, then again to England – this time to Worcestershire.
Here he became an atheist and developed his love of ancient Scandinavian literature. His interest in Norse mythology expanded into the Greek pantheon. He received a scholarship to Oxford University and entered University College in the summer term of 1917.
Unlike Tolkien, Lewis took a proactive approach to military service. He joined the university’s Officers’ Training Course, transferred to Keble College.
He didn’t particularly enjoy Keble but formed close friendships with his roommate Paddy Moore (and Paddy’s mother, Janie), and four other young men on the course: Thomas, Denis, Martin, and Alexander.
Lewis was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He arrived at the front line on 29 November 1917 – his 19th birthday.
I broke off both biographies here because this is where the youth of each man ended.
World War I disillusioned a generation. It is impossible to overstate the impact it had on the psyche of the young men involved in the conflict. This type of hopeless, endless, industrialised warfare was unimaginable for soldiers who’d grown up with romanticised tales of derring-do.
Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme from July to October 1916. He survived, possibly due to his catching trench fever in October and being shipped off to recuperate. But 300,000 men did not return from the battle. Among the staggering list of lost lives were Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Smith, his close schoolfriends and fellow members of T.C.B.S.
Lewis saw combat during the German spring offensive. In April 1918, his battalion came under bombardment at Riez du Vinage. A shell killed his sergeant and wounded Lewis – an injury that would eventually see him sent back to England. Lewis’s roommate Paddy had been killed the previous month.
In French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux),2, we see the Battle of Arras through Lewis’s eyes:
The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.
His fiction would harbour echoes of the same sentiment. Lewis was not a pacifist, but he didn’t sanitise warfare in his books (although obviously he softened the nightmarish tone for children’s books). He approached the topic with a tone of hard practicality. War was necessary at times, but certainly not dulce et decorum.
While Tolkien recovered in a Birmingham hospital, he laid some of the foundations of Middle Earth. The story of Gondolin, written in an exercise book, depicted a beautiful civilisation torn asunder by war.3
When Tolkien wrote of dead faces in the marshes, we see the landscape of Northern France in the aftermath of the Somme: 4
“They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.”
― Frodo Baggins
When Merry crawled “like a dazed beast” on the fields of Pelennor, when Sam and Frodo trudge, shell-shocked and resolute towards Mount Doom… surely there are the soldiers on the Western Front.
On top of the human cost, trench warfare devastated the European countryside, ripping into the natural world that Tolkien and Lewis prized.
And so we find the War also in the acrid, industrial fumes of Mordor – the grim despoiling of Middle Earth.
But we can also find Tolkien’s experience of war in his inspiring passages. The class-spanning friendships reflect the relationships that Tolkien formed with batmen and officers alike – all men brought together to find comradery in unimaginable horror. And the march of the ents surely scratched a decades-long itch to see nature reclaim its territory.
Both Tolkien and Lewis wrote heroes that started their journeys ill-equipped and often with reluctance. Their protagonists, and heroic supporting characters, summoned bravery in spite of natural timidity – these were not the self-assured heroes of a classical age.
I suppose I’d better start talking about what I said this piece concerned.
Tolkien and Lewis both returned to Oxford after the War, and eventually both would find themselves as part of the university’s English faculty. They met in 1926, an occasion marked in Lewis’s diary. He described Tolkien as a “smooth, pale, fluent little chap”. He went on to note that there was “no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
Still, the pair soon latched onto a shared love of language – of verse, storytelling, and mythology. They became close friends, in spite of a Shakespearean separation of houses: Tolkien specialised in Language, while Lewis loved Literature.
Now, Oxford university’s English faculty comprised exactly the sort of people you think it did. Tweedy, pipe-smoking dons full of mumble and sneer. They would, for example, turn their ire on Tolkien when he dared find success in trivial matters such as public acclaim; and they spent a lot of time engaged in inter-departmental sniping.
The rivalry between Language and Literature was keenly felt but, to us outsiders, rather amusing.
Radio 4’s excellent Tolkien: The Lost Recordings interviewed Professor Tom Shippey – a Tolkien expert and former faculty member who noted that Tolkien was hated by the entire literary establishment, but that he did not care, because he had never been a professor of English Literature – “a poor, shabby bunch in my opinion” – he was a professor of English Language.
Shippey wrote J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, and recalled an English Literature professor shouting down the phone at an interviewer: “Author of the Century? Has the fellow never heard of Proust?”
“Yes, the fellow has heard of Proust, actually,” Shippey said. “Shall we conduct the rest of this interview in French? I bet mine’s better than yours, you monoglot clown.”
Which is, in my opinion, the most marvellous insult.
Despite this atmosphere, Tolkien and Lewis cultivated a friendship based on professional admiration and personal bonding. They shared traumatic experiences – the loss of parents at a young age, and the terror of war – and they both came of it with endless curiosity and a fierce desire to preserve the beautiful things in life.
They also shared interests. Tolkien founded an Old Norse reading group that Lewis joined, and both men were nascent authors.
L. said to me one day: ‘Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.’
From the early 1930s to the late 1940s, Lewis and Tolkien were part of an informal literary discussion group called The Inklings. It started with the two men, who enjoyed each other’s company so much they began meeting regularly. Lewis wrote in a letter:
It has also become the custom for Tolkien to drop in on me of a Monday morning for a glass. This is one of the pleasantest spots in the week. Sometimes we talk English school politics: sometimes we criticise one another’s poems: other days we drift into theology or the state of the nation; rarely we fly no higher than bawdy and puns.
Soon, other writers would join the pair. Monday mornings became Thursday nights. Members came from the faculty and the student body alike. Participants could read unpublished manuscripts and receive feedback and take part in lively debate. The group met in several pubs, most notably the Eagle and Child – often called the Bird and Baby, or just The Bird.
Both Tolkien and Lewis were much-admired teachers who captured the imaginations of their students, so to sit with them in the Eagle and Child, breathing in pipe smoke and animated conversation, would have been a fine opportunity for many a man (and it was only men, I’m afraid) of a literary bent.
The Inklings inhabited a private parlour of The Bird, and when Tolkien mentions meetings in his letters, the anecdotes often end with some variation on “and I did not start home till midnight”.
These gatherings seem to be a truly extraordinary example of a creative feedback loop. The energy sparked inspiration in great minds. The meetings were “a feast of reason and flow of soul”, recalled Tolkien. “What I owe them all is incalculable,” wrote Lewis.
Soon-to-be legendary works – The Screwtape Letters, The Lord of the Rings, All Hallows Eve – were read aloud, chapter by chapter, as they were written.
Lies breathed through silver
In a conversation that entered literary legend, Tolkien, Lewis, and fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson argued history, faith, and myth late into the night of 19 September 1931. At one point, Lewis called myths “lies breathed through silver”, which is a rather fabulous turn of phrase even if you happen to disagree with it. It was also a demonstration of how much Lewis had changed over the years. He had found huge joy in mythology as a child and younger man,
Whereas you or I might agree to disagree, or bring up the argument at the next meeting, Tolkien was moved to write a 148-line poem5, entitled Philomythus [myth lover] to Misomythus [myth hater]. It became known as Mythopoeia.
I will paste here the opening stanza, and one other, and urge listeners to read the rest at their own leisure – but preferably aloud, as I always feel that rhyming couplets are wasted in silence.
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
Later, the poem continues:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
The versified argument was part of a long process of conversion – Tolkien had been guiding Lewis towards Christianity over several years – and it seems to have done its job. Lewis had already returned to theism in 1929 (hesitantly, by his own admission: In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England) and he converted to Christianity the week after he received the poem.
As well as philosophy, the two continued their literary back-and-forth. They supported each other from the start of their careers as authors. Having been given a copy of The Hobbit’s manuscript, Lewis championed it far and wide.
The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib “originality.”
. . .
it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.
Lewis’s own work would reflect his return to Christianity. He became a renowned theological lecturer and writer, and his works of fiction glistened with religious allegory. He had a hard time finding a publisher for his first novel, Out of a Silent Planet, and Tolkien used his newfound influence to help him along.
In one letter to Stanley Unwin, who would eventually publish Out of a Silent Planet, Tolkien wrote,
“I read the story in the original MS. and was so enthralled that I could do nothing else until I had finished it.”
It was published in 1938 and followed by two sequels. Oxford University celebrated Lewis, although they would never reward him with tenure.
Tolkien received almost the opposite treatment. Although his scholarly work on Beowulf and his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had earned him wide academic acclaim, the public success of The Hobbit drew sneers from colleagues. But not from Jack Lewis.
Tolkien described Lewis as his “closest friend from about 1927 to 1940“. Lewis based the main character in Out of the Silent Planet on Tolkien. Tolkien based Treebeard on Lewis.
Despite this mutual admiration, Tolkien and Lewis had very different tastes in literature. As Tolkien wrote:
The most lasting pleasure and reward for both of us has been that we provided one another with stories to hear or read that we really liked – in large parts. Naturally neither of us liked all that we found in the other’s fiction.
There doesn’t appear to have been one dramatic event that cooled the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis. Tensions grew as Tolkien expressed his disapproval of Lewis’s rushed turnaround – the seven Narnia books were published in seven years – and of his Christian apologist works like Allegory of Love.
Tolkien’s writing pace was at stark contrast to Lewis’s. He took 17 years to finish The Lord of the Rings, losing himself in rewrites.
“His standard of self-criticism was high and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision,” Lewis wrote, “in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one.”
Although he criticised the endless revisions, C. S. Lewis’s feedback didn’t seem to speed matters up,
‘When he would say, “You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!” I would try. I’d sit down and write the section over and over.
To tell the truth he never really liked hobbits very much, least of all Merry and Pippin.”
This persistent criticism of each other’s work, even if coming from a place of love, must have taken its toll over the years.
One of the couple of surviving letters from Tolkien to Lewis, written in 1948, seems to refer to correspondence following Tolkien’s criticism of a piece Lewis read aloud at a meeting. I think it’s a good example both of how harsh they could be with one another and how deeply it hurt when they fell out.
I regret causing pain, even if and in so far as I had the right; and I am very sorry indeed still for having caused it quite excessively and unnecessarily. My verses and my letter were due to a sudden very acute realization (I shall not quickly forget it) of the pain that may enter into authorship, both in the making and in the ‘publication’, which is an essential pan of the full process. The vividness of the perception was due, of course, to the fact that you, for whom I have deep affection and sympathy, were the victim and I myself the culprit. But I felt myself tingling under the half-patronizing half-mocking lash, with the small things of my heart made the mere excuse for verbal butchery.
The pair drifted apart. It can’t have been easy – a friendship based on so many shared parts of oneself must hurt as it fades. In 1949, Lewis wrote to Tolkien, “I miss you very much.”
By the 1950s, their relationship was much cooler. As Tolkien said in a draft letter to his son Michael:
We were separated first by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams, and then by his marriage. Of which he never even told me; I learned of it long after the event.
Lewis had married Joy Davidman in 1956. Joy was divorced and American, two characteristics of which Tolkien disapproved.
Charles Williams was another member of the Inklings. He was a writer, critic and Anglican theologian who had growing influence over Lewis. Tolkien never approved of Lewis converting to Anglicanism instead of Catholicism. He felt that Williams drove a wedge between him and his friend.
But through the rest of their lives, the two authors retained mutual respect and deep fondness. This is the part I hadn’t expected going in – my mental image of bickering academics held no room for the underlying foundation of friendship. Silly, really, as it’s a topic I enjoy in both authors’ bodies of work.
When The Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, Lewis said it was “like lightning from a clear sky,” and wrote to a friend saying he hoped it would “inaugurate a new age”.
That year, Lewis left Oxford, but Tolkien still batted for his friend, negotiating for his position as chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.
Lewis died on 22 November 1963, at the age of 64. Tolkien would outlive the younger man by a decade.
In a letter to his daughter after the funeral, Tolkien wrote:
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.
Carpenter also wrote the Mr Majeika series of children’s books. I was very fond of them as a child.[↩]
in the podcast episode, I referred to Out of the Silent Planet as Lewis’s first book. In fact, that was Spirits in Bondage, a book of poetry published under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton when Lewis was just 20. It’s notable as one of the few peeks we get into his writings before he converted to Christianity.[↩]
It would later join many other tales in The Silmarillion, published posthumously.[↩]
Although I should note that, in 1960, Tolkien wrote in a letter that while the Dead Marshes and approaches to the Morannon “owe something” to the French landscape after the battle, they were more influenced by William Morris – works like The House of the Wolflings.[↩]