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Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 78 > Tollers & Jack

Tollers & Jack
Tolkien and Lewis made an odd couple, but the contributed profoundly to each other's work.
Colin Duriez | posted 4/01/2003 12:00AM

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No harm in him: only needs a smack or two."

So wrote C. S. Lewis ("Jack" to his friends) in his diary the night he first met J. R. R. Tolkien ("Tollers"). The comment hints at the undercurrent of tension that would run beneath the pair's stream of mutual admiration.

The two differed in temperament, approach to faith, and views of their art. But their deep affinities brought them together for nearly 40 years of friendship.

During those years, Tolkien and Lewis spurred each other to write some of the most beloved books of the twentieth century. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Mere Christianity and The Hobbit. Each owed much to their authors' mutual inspiration and critique.

Tolkien and Lewis first encountered each other at a meeting of Oxford University English School faculty, convened at Merton College on March 11, 1926. Lewis had been a tutor and lecturer in English for nearly an academic year. Tolkien, the older man, had for the same period held the Chair of Anglo-Saxon.

Tolkien was slight of build, compared with the thickset and taller Lewis. He was also, at least in Lewis's view, rather opinionated (hence the need for a "smack").

The reality of imagination

Some of Tolkien's strongest opinions arose out of his Roman Catholicism. At that time Lewis was still an atheist, committed to a materialist explanation of life, and of the origins of human language. Tolkien soon noticed, however, that there were some chinks in his new friend's armor.

Tolkien soon showed Lewis his beautiful poetic translation of Beowulf and shared drafts detailing his until-now private world of Middle-earth. For years he had been weaving a tapestry of saga, myth, and story, often rendered both in poetic and prose versions.

Lewis's response was more than Tolkien could have hoped. The young atheist was enraptured. He had always been captivated by ancient myths and stories of "romance"—that is, tales that contained glimpses of other worlds. But here was one by a modern-day author, as elaborate and compelling as any he had read.

Soon Tolkien began trying to convince his friend of the truth of Christian faith.

A long night's talk in September of 1931 capped a months-long conversation. On that night, the two friends strolled near Lewis's rooms in Magdalen College, accompanied by Hugo Dyson. Dyson was a young English lecturer at Reading University, and also a Christian. The conversation soon turned, as it often did with Tolkien, to myth.

Tolkien argued that the Gospels have a satisfying imaginative as well as intellectual appeal, demanding a response from the whole person. He accused Lewis of an imaginative failure in not accepting their reality. A few days later Lewis capitulated, and became a Christian believer.

After Lewis's conversion, he filled his fiction with enduring images of God, our humanity, and reality transfigured by the light of heaven. In compelling essays, he persuaded many of the truth of the Christian claims. And often he returned to those persistent arguments he had heard first from Tolkien, reconciling imagination and reason, and placing storytelling at the crux.

Tolkien, in return, also owed a great debt to his friend. He confessed that without Lewis's encouragement, he confessed, he would never have finished writing The Lord of the Rings. This was a huge, meticulous task that took over ten years. The Hobbit, too, had for many years remained a private story, enjoyed only by Tokien's children and Lewis. The latter's warm enthusiasm helped spur Tolkien towards publication.

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