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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 ...

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