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.

As he wrote The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was not simply forging a story that has won millions of readers. He was also creating a worldwide adult readership for symbolic stories and establishing the imaginative climate that has allowed the making of the recent blockbuster movies.

Fantasy and "faery tale" at the time of Tokien and Lewis's first meeting, were still considered merely children's literature. Tolkien effectively enlisted Lewis in the task of rehabilitating these kinds of stories, once enjoyed by warriors in the mead halls, and tough enough to be a vehicle for exploring modern questions of global warfare, human evil on an unprecedented scale—and the domination of the machine.

This was the subject of Lewis's inaugural lecture when he moved to Cambridge in 1954 to take up the newly created Chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature.

Lewis had clashed with the ethos of the English School at Cambridge many times, over such topics as the modern trend of psychologizing literary works. When the invitation to the Chair came, Lewis turned it down not once, but twice (partly through concern over leaving his alcoholic brother, Warren).

As persuasive as ever, Tolkien—one of the eight electors responsible for choosing the Chair—argued Lewis into accepting. And in his colorful inaugural lecture, Lewis expounded a theme he shared with Tolkien—that the dehumanizing modern "the Age of the Machine" marked a momentous breaking point in Western civilization and the loss of precious "Old Wester" values.

Tolkien's affinity with Lewis on this theme helped insulate their friendship from the differences that contributed to its cooling in later years—especially after Lewis's relationship with the divorcee, Joy Davidman.

Divided in Outlook

Their differences were, first of all, theological. Lewis was an Anglican, but in an old Puritan tradition of the two Johns, Milton and Bunyan. Tolkien was a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, opposed to divorce and remarriage. He also strongly disapproved of Lewis as a popular communicator of the Christian faith—he felt that that task should be the concern of theologians.

Second, there were differences of temperament. Tolkien was a perfectionist, meticulously working and re-working his writing. Lewis, in contrast, seemed to dash off his books—The Pilgrim's Regress in a fortnight, the seven Chronicles of Narnia in as many years.

Third, the two friends differed artistically. Tolkien was the master of the allusive story. He had a natural theology of the imagination, in which the insights incarnate in the tale would be a vehicle of God's grace to the reader. Lewis was the apologist and evangelist. He built into his stories allegorical signposts that Tolkien artistically disliked. Yet Lewis's last completed fiction—Till We Have Faces—in its pagan, pre-Christian setting, has a remarkable affinity with Tolkien's art. Ironically, it was composed during the period when their friendship had cooled, under the influence of Joy Davidman (an accomplished novelist).

As we read Tolkien—and Lewis—we may wish to thank the Author of that providential meeting in the Spring of 1926. The world is immeasurably the richer for it.

Colin Duriez is author of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (2003), Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (2001), The Inklings Handbook (with David Porter, 2001), and The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia (2000). He is a writer and editor inhabiting a house full of books in Leicester, England.