The Way of Friendship
"You modify one another's thought; out of this perpetual dog-fight a community of mind and a deep affection emerge." That is what C. S. Lewis said about his enduring friendship with Owen Barfield, who greatly influenced his bedrock views on imagination and myth.
C. S. Lewis's writings often concern friendship and even more often are shaped by his friendships. Characteristically, his writings, from the Chronicles of Narnia to his scholarly The Discarded Image (on the medieval picture of the world), seek to rehabilitate values and virtues once known and lived out in what he called the Old West. He saw this as a civilization and consciousness increasingly lost to us since an unprecedented fracture that occurred, he speculated, early in the 19th century. Loss of these old virtues and values, he famously argued in his essay, The Abolition of Man, put the very future of our humanity in jeopardy. One of the central values he sought to rehabilitate, both in his fiction and in his nonfiction, was that of friendship. In his life, his friendships played a dramatic role, shaping and coloring his years.
Lewis took a classical and Judeo-Christian view of friendship, seeing it as "the school of virtue." Properly lived out, friendship could open one's eyes to previously unseen aspects of reality. In our modern times—in the new, post-Christian West and its sphere of influence—friendship can function in a restorative way, bringing us back into contact with lost reality. The friend who follows the proper character of friendship, with its inner laws, can be very like the traveler in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a book deeply important to Lewis. The pilgrim has to face dangers and tribulations, finding that "shortcuts" are anything but. Bunyan writes, "Some also have wished that the nearest way to their father's house were here, that they might be troubled no more with either hills or mountains to go over, but the way is the way, and there is an end."
A shared vision
Lewis's belief in the restorative and perception-changing nature of friendship is revealed particularly well in comments he made about two friends, Hamilton Jenkin and his Ulster friend Arthur Greeves.
In Surprised by Joy he reports, "The first lifelong friend I made at Oxford was A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, since known for his books on Cornwall. He continued (what Arthur had begun) my education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature. Arthur had his preference for the Homely. But Jenkin seemed able to enjoy everything; even ugliness. I learned from him that we should attempt a total surrender to whatever atmosphere was offering itself at the moment; in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge." Jenkin exhibited "a serious, yet gleeful, determination to rub one's nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was."
In Lewis's science fiction novel That Hideous Strength (1945), two characters become friends through a shared vision of the "quiddity" or thereness of things. Like Lewis and Jenkin, the fictional Arthur and Camilla Denniston like weather of all descriptions. Jane, a central character in the story, is surprised to discover this when she is invited on a picnic with them on a foggy autumn day. Arthur explains: "That's why Camilla and I got married. … We both like Weather. It's a useful taste if one lives in England."
Rather like the texts of literature, a friend provides another vantage point from which to view the world. For Lewis, his different friends opened up reality in varying ways. Owen Barfield, for instance, was very different from Arthur Greeves, who had revealed to Lewis he was not alone in the world. Though Barfield shared with Lewis a view of what was important, and asked strikingly similar questions, the conclusions he came to usually differed radically from those of Lewis. Throughout the 1920s, the two had waged what Lewis called a "Great War," a long dispute over the kind of knowledge that imagination can give. As Lewis put it, it was as if Barfield spoke his language but mispronounced it.
Lewis's friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien, like that with Barfield, was based upon irreducible differences as well as likenesses. [See Issue 78: J. R. R. Tolkien.] Initially, the two were drawn together by a love of myth, fairytale, and saga, a bond that deepened when Lewis became a Christian. There were emerging differences of temperament, churchmanship, and storytelling style, however, which strained yet enriched the friendship.
Guests at a common feast
Furthermore, in Lewis's group of friends, the process of opening up reality was richly interactive, a constantly moving play of light. He memorably expresses this in his chapter on friendship in The Four Loves. In the following excerpt, "Ronald" is Tolkien and "Charles" is Charles Williams. Both of them, along with Barfield, were members of the Inklings, a group of literary friends surrounding Lewis in Oxford.
"In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out," Lewis wrote. "By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him 'to myself' now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth … each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others."
Ultimately, for Lewis, a group of Christian friends is participating in a feast in which God "has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests."
Colin Duriez lives in the English Lake District and is the author of a number of books on Lewis, including Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Paulist Press, 2003).
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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