Posted by WCPLtn
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
I’m definitely a fantasy genre lover. I always have been, going all the way back to when my dad first read The Hobbit to me when I was little. While I have broadened my reading horizons considerably, I still love to pick up a fantasy novel and slide into a world of warriors and dragons. As such, I have a special soft spot for the patron saints of fantasy literature; Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett, Jordan, Le Guin, White, and Rowling. These men and women carry on a tradition of storytelling that goes back to a time of oral history and fireside stories of fantastic heroes and the even more outlandish creatures that either aid them or seek to destroy them. It was very surprising to me, many years ago, to learn that two of these men, Lewis and Tolkien, not only knew one another, but were friends.
Clive Staples Lewis, known to his family as Jack, was born in northern Ireland. His nickname actually belonged to the family dog, Jacksie, which was killed when Lewis was four. He lost his mother to cancer at age nine, and was sent to boarding school after boarding school by his father. He abandoned the Christianity of his youth and escaped into stories of fantasy. He started with anthropomorphic animals like Peter Rabbit, and then developed a fascination with Scandinavian mythology and stories followed by the same for Greece and Ireland. When he first went to Oxford, he joined the officer cadet corps and quickly found himself a second lieutenant in the Somme. In early 1918 he was wounded by a British shell that fell well short of its target, and he spent the rest of the war in England.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had a similar childhood. His parents had moved to South Africa not long before his birth, but this quintessentially British author returned to England at age three on what was supposed to have been an extended family visit. It proved permanent when his father died in South Africa before he could join the family. Ronald, as his family referred to him, grew up in a series of homes in and around Birmingham. After his mother’s conversion to Catholicism and then death, he was raised by Father Francis Xavier Morton. After getting married and finishing his education, Tolkien found himself a second lieutenant and posted to France. By 1916 he had contracted Trench Fever, and split most of his time between infirmaries and light duty.
So we end up with two men, in the same department of a university, who experienced some of the worst the Great War had to offer, both of whom lost a parent while very young. So when these two men found themselves in Tolkien’s Coalbiters Club for people who enjoyed reading the Old Icelandic sagas, it was natural for them to gravitate towards each other, which led Tolkien to spend time with Lewis’s group, The Inklings. Opinions on how the dynamic between the two men worked varies between scholars. You find Lewis dominating The Inklings in some and Tolkien listening quietly and issuing sharp criticism in others. However, the one common theme is the interplay. These men helped each other grow as writers and world crafters. Their works went on to profoundly influence one another, to the point where Tolkien’s Numenor and a Saruman cognate ended up in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
This is not to say the two men never disagreed. Tolkien’s first proposal to Oxford was rejected and one of the votes that turned it away was Lewis’s. According to Humphrey Carter in his book, The Inklings, Lewis’s thoughts on Tolkien were, “No Harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” Lewis also felt that Tolkien was too mired in the ancient and neglected the renaissance authors and later writers. Tolkien had his own problems with Lewis, as well. Tolkien was an inveterate opponent of allegory and felt Lewis’ Narnia books were vastly too allegorical and that they were contrived and inconsistent. It was at this time that their friendship began to cool.
Without this meeting of two eventual literary giants, we would not have those same literary giants. It was Lewis who suggested that Tolkien turn his children’s story about diminutive people fighting a dragon into what we now know as The Hobbit. Conversely, Tolkien was among the people who convinced Lewis to return to the fold of Christianity. How lucky the world is that the happy accident of their meeting came to pass and we have some of the greatest works of modern English Literature.
Sources and Suggested Reading:
- R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship
- Tolkien’s ‘No’ to Narnia
- The Inklings by Humphrey Carter (823.9CAR)
- The Chronicles of Narnia: Beyond the Wardrobe by E. J. Kirk (823.912 KIR)
- R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons (823.912 PAR)
- Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth (828.91209 GAR)
- Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown