"Christian History Corner: J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship"
Our world would be poorer without two other worlds: Narnia and Middle-earth. Yet if two young professors had not met at an otherwise ordinary Oxford faculty meeting in 1926, those wondrous lands would still be unknown to us.
British author Colin Duriez, who wrote the article "Tollers and Jack" in issue #78 of Christian History, explains why this is so in his forthcoming book Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Hidden Spring). Duriez tells the story of how these two brilliant authors met, discovered their common love for mythical tales, and pledged to bring such stories into the mainstream of public reading taste.
Tolkien and Lewis shared the belief that through myth and legend—for centuries the mode many cultures had used to communicate their deepest truths—a taste of the Christian gospel's "True Myth" could be smuggled past the barriers and biases of secularized readers.
Christian History managing editor Chris Armstrong reached Colin this week at his home in Leicester, England.
You have said that if it hadn't been for the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis, the world would likely never have seen The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings. What was it about "fairy stories" that led these two men to want to rehabilitate them for a modern audience—adults as well as children?
They had both personal and professional reasons for this interest. Personally, they had both read and enjoyed such stories as they were growing up, in collections by the brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, and others. Lewis had also heard Celtic myths—his nurse had told him some of the folk tales of Ireland.
Professionally, they studied and taught the literatures of medieval romance and, in Tolkien's case, the background of Norse myth. And they realized that it was only quite recently that such stories had become marginalized as "children's stories." Through much of history these were tales told and enjoyed by grown-ups. Even strong warriors enjoyed them, rejoicing in their triumphant moments, weeping at tragic turns of events. These stories told them important things about life—about who they were and what the world was like, and about the realm of the divine.
It dawned on both men that there was a need to create a readership again for these books—especially an adult readership. Lewis's space trilogy came out of this same impulse to write the sort of stories that he and Tolkien liked to read. He felt he could say things in science fiction that he couldn't say in other ways. And Tolkien had been expressing this sense already for years when the two men met—ever since World War One he had been writing hundreds of pages of a cycle of myth and legend from the early ages of Middle-earth. This, it would later turn out, would provide the "pre-history" for The Lord of the Rings, some of which was published after his death in The Silmarillion.
Early in their relationship, in 1936, after Tolkien had written the children's story The Hobbit, the two men had a momentous conversation about their desire to bring such stories to a wider audience. They actually decided to divide the territory—Lewis would take "space travel," Tolkien "time travel." Tolkien never got around to finishing his time-travel story, concentrating instead on his more "adult" trilogy, in which he placed hobbits in the context of his Silmarillion stories. But Lewis did write his space books: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.