Entertaining Angels Unawares:
When Tolkien returned to Oxford in 1925, an element was missing from his life. It had disappeared with the breaking of his fellowship of the TCBS at the Battle of the Somme, for not since those days had he enjoyed male friendship to the extent of emotional and intellectual commitment. He had continued to see something of the other surviving TCBS member, Christopher Wiseman, but Wiseman was now heavily involved with his duties as the headmaster of an independent Methodist school, Queens College in Taunton, which Tolkien’s grandfather had attended as one of its earliest pupils. When the two men met, they found little else in common. Then, on 11 May 1926, Tolkien attended a meeting of the English Faculty at Merton College. A new arrival stood out among the familiar faces, a heavily-built man of twenty-seven in baggy clothes who had been recently elected Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College. This was Clive Staples Lewis, known to family and friends as ‘Jack’. At first, the two men were wary of each other. Tolkien knew that Lewis, although a medievalist, was in the ‘Lit.’ camp and thus a potential adversary, while Lewis wrote in his diary that Tolkien was a smooth, pale, fluent little chap, adding No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.
A Life Between Faith and Mythology:
Clive Staples Lewis became the most famous defender of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world in the mid-twentieth century. Born in Belfast in 1898, he was the son of a solicitor and was brought up first as an Ulster Protestant, then as an Anglican, and educated at Malvern College. So he knew parts of the Worcestershire countryside that Ronald Tolkien grew up in and the very different landscape of Northern Ireland, shown above. During adolescence, he had professed agnosticism; instead, he had discovered that his greatest delight was to be found not in Christianity but in pagan mythologies. Like Tolkien, as a young man, C. S. Lewis had served in the trenches of World War One, and by the time he went to Oxford in 1917, he had become an atheist. Nevertheless, Lewis was determined that there were to be no flirtations with the idea of the supernatural.
Bands of Brothers, bonds of brotherhood:
This sense of male companionship, which developed in the School of English at Oxford in the 1920s, was partly the result of the First World War, in which so many friends had been killed that the survivors naturally felt the need to stay close together. In particular, we can find something of the ties of male comradeship between Tolkien and Lewis expressed in both men’s work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. Despite their initial diffidence towards each other, Lewis soon came to have a strong affection for his keen-eyed elder, who liked good conversation, laughter and beer. At the same time, Tolkien warmed to Lewis’ quick mind and generous spirit. By May 1927, Tolkien had enrolled Lewis into the literary fraternity of the ‘Coalbiters’ to join in the reading of the Icelandic sagas, and a long and complex friendship had begun.
The comradeship between Tolkien and Lewis between 1925 and 1931 was remarkable and, at the same time, almost inevitable, given their shared experiences at the front and in the trenches. It was not homosexual nor misogynistic, yet it tended to exclude women, particularly Edith. This made it the great mystery of Ronald Tolkien’s life and, latterly, during his relationship with Joy Davidman, that of ‘Jack’ Lewis. On the occasions when, as a bachelor, Lewis visited Northmoor Road, he was shy and ungainly in his approach to Edith. Consequently, she could not understand the delight that Ronald took in his company, so she became a little jealous. After their move from Leeds, it quickly became clear to Ronald that Edith was unhappy with Oxford and especially resentful of his men friends. Indeed, he perceived that his need for an exclusively male company was not entirely compatible with married life. But he also believed that, on the whole, a man had a right to male pleasures and should, if necessary, insist upon them. In answer to a letter from one of his sons contemplating marriage, he wrote:
There are many things that a man feels are legitimate even though they cause a fuss. Let him not lie about them to his wife or lover! Cut them out – or if worth a fight: just insist.
There was also, in this context, the issue of Edith’s continuing lukewarmness towards Catholicism. Before they were married, Ronald had persuaded her to leave the Church of England and become a Catholic, and she had resented this a little at that time. However, in the second decade of her marriage, her anti-Catholic feelings hardened, and by the time the family returned to Oxford in 1925, she had almost given up going to mass. She also began to resent Ronald for taking the children to church so frequently, especially to confession, which she had hated from the beginning. For Ronald, his religious beliefs stemmed mainly from his emotional attachment to his mother’s memory, so he could not discuss her feelings rationally and lucidly demonstrated in his theological debates with Jack Lewis. Occasionally, her smouldering resentment would burst into fury, but after one such outburst in 1940, she and Ronald reconciled, and she decided to return to the Anglican church. She did not return to church-going, either as an Anglican or a Catholic, but remained respectful of church affairs for the rest of her life, showing no further resentment.
Although to some extent, they lived separate lives at Northmoor Road, it would be wrong to picture Edith as being totally excluded from his work. During these years, she did not share his writing as fully as she had done at Great Haywood when he began working on The Book of Lost Tales. Yet she invariably shared in the family’s interest when he was working on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Although not published until 1937, letters from Ronald himself and Christopher, his son, confirm that The Hobbit was begun in 1930 or 1931 in manuscript form, though not completed in typescript until 1936. It was read to the three brothers (and probably listened to by Edith) in the family’s “Winter Reads” after tea-times in 1930-31, and there was a completed typescript of all but the final chapters in time for it to be sent to C. S. Lewis in 1932. Edith was also the first person to whom he showed two of his later stories, Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major, and he was always warmed and encouraged by her approval. Ronald and Edith also shared many friends, including former students and colleagues such as Simonne d’Ardenne, Elaine Griffiths, Stella Mills and Mary Salu. These were family friends, as much a part of Edith’s life as Ronald’s, providing a binding force between them.
Those who knew the couple over the years never doubted that there was a deep mutual affection between them. But the essential source of their happiness was their shared love of family. They were proud of Michael when he won the George Medal for his action as an anti-aircraft gunner defending aerodromes in the Battle of Britain and equally proud when John was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church shortly after the war. Tolkien was immensely kind and understanding as a father, never shy of kissing them in public even when grown men, and never reserved in his display of warmth and love.
The particular friendship that developed between Tolkien and Lewis was not simply the result of shared wartime experiences and losses, however, but owed much to their shared sense of ‘Northernness’, not just relating their own’ north of Oxford’ origins but also to their mutual captivating with everything Anglo-Saxon and Norse. Since early adolescence, Lewis had been fascinated by Norse mythology. When he found in Tolkien another who delighted in the mysteries of the Edda and the complexities of the Völsunga saga, it was clear they had much in common academically. They began to meet regularly in Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen, talking of this legendarium or discussing the politics of the English School. They also commented on each other’s poetry. Tolkien lent Lewis the typescript of his long poem, The Gest of Beren and Lúthien, and after reading it, Lewis wrote to him,
I can quite honestly say that it is ages since we had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it – I should have enjoyed it just as well if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author.Quoted by Carpenter (see below), p. 194.
He also sent Tolkien detailed criticisms of the poem, which he jestingly couched in the form of a mock textual, complete with the names of fictional scholars, who suggested that weak lines in the poem were simply the result of scribal inaccuracies in the manuscript, and could not be the work of the original poet. Tolkien was amused but accepted only a few of Lewis’s suggested emendations. But, on the other hand, he did rewrite almost every passage that Lewis had criticised so extensively that the revised version was scarcely the same poem. Lewis soon found this to be characteristic of his new friend, commenting that:
He has only two reactions to criticism. Either he begins the whole work again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.Carpenter, p 195.
By the end of 1929, Lewis was supporting Tolkien’s plans for the English School, and the two of them discussed strategies. Lewis wrote conspiratorially to Tolkien, forgive me if I remind you that there are orcs behind every tree. Together they fought a skilful campaign, and it was partly due to Lewis’s support on the Faculty Board that Tolkien managed to get his reformed syllabus accepted in 1931. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote that his friendship with Tolkien…
… marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world, I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly), never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.
Soon after the second prejudice had been overcome, their friendship moved on to confront the first.
Seeking Joy Within:
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis defines ‘Joy’ by first recording three experiences from his early childhood. While standing by a flowering currant bush on a summer day, there arose in him the memory of a yet earlier morning in which his brother had brought into the nursery a toy garden. This memory within a memory caused a sensation of desire to break over him. Before he could know what he desired, the desire itself was gone, and he was left with a longing for the longing that had just ceased. His second ‘glimpse of Joy’ came through Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. This little book troubled him with the ‘Idea of Autumn,’ and he was plunged once more into the experience of intense desire. The third came to him while reading Longfellow’s poem Tegner’s Drapa. When he read,
I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead …
… his mind was uplifted into huge regions of the northern sky. At the very moment he was stabbed by desire, he left himself falling out of that desire and wishing he were back in it. Lewis tells us that Joy, the quality common to these three experiences, is an unsatisfied longing that is more desirable than any other satisfaction. When he went to boarding school in Malvern, Worcestershire, his eyes fell on one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods, and his sense of joyful longing returned. In an instant, he was plunged back into the past of Balder and sunward sailing cranes and felt the old inconsolable urge. The memory of his own past Joy and the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ flowed together, he said, …
… into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which … had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say “It is”.
The young Lewis made many mistakes in his pursuit of Joy. As the old thrill became less frequent, he attempted most desperately to ‘have it again’. He turned from one medium of Joy to another, hoping always to find permanent satisfaction. He shifted to erotic pleasure, only to find that Joy is not a substitute for sex. Sex is very often a substitute for Joy. Lewis’ lost his virginity’ while at Malvern. Still, the ‘potent, ubiquitous and unabashed’ eroticism of William Morris’s romances chiefly persuaded him that sex might be the substance of Joy.
When, after the Great War, he became an atheist, all the images he associated with Joy were, he concluded, sheer fantasies. He had at last seen through them, and the important thing was to get ahead with the ‘good life’ without Christian’ mythology’. But by the mid-twenties, he had receded a little from this standpoint, and after taking a First Class in the English School (and earlier a double first in Classics) and while making a precarious living as a tutor, he arrived at what he called his New Look, the belief that the Christian’ myth’ conveys as much truth as most men can comprehend. By 1926 he had moved further back to the Christian’ fold’, coming to a conclusion that, in effect, his search for the source of what he called ‘Joy’ was a search for God. Soon it became apparent to him that he must accept or reject God. It was at this juncture that he met and became friends with Tolkien.
It is therefore surprising how, one by one, all of Lewis’s reservations about the Christian faith were swept away, as described in Surprised by Joy. But in Tolkien, Lewis found a person of wit and intellectual verve who was nevertheless a devout Christian. During the early years of their friendship, there were many hours when Tolkien would lounge around in one of Lewis’s armchairs in the centre of one of the big sitting rooms at Magdalen while Lewis, smoking his pipe, would pace up and down, suddenly swinging around and exclaiming “Distinguo. Tollers! Distinguo!” while Tolkien, also wreathed in pipe smoke, made too sweeping an assertion. But Lewis, in the matter of belief, was beginning to admit that Tolkien was right. So finally, after long searching and much reluctance, he was brought to his knees in the summer of 1929 and forced to acknowledge God was God. As Walter Hooper, his correspondent and secretary from 1954 to 1963, remarked, He who is the Joy of all men’s desiring came upon him and compelled him by divine mercy to surrender a long-besieged fortress. His surrender, however, was to become a Theist. He was not yet a Christian.
Finding Joy Within:
The second stage of his conversion came two years later. Usually, his discussions with Tolkien took place on Monday mornings, when they could talk for an hour or two and then conclude with beer at the ‘Eastgate’, a nearby pub. But on Saturday 19 September they met in the evening. Lewis had invited Tolkien to dine at Magdalen, and he had another guest, Hugo Dyson, whom Tolkien had first met during his time at Exeter College in 1919. Now Lecturer in English Literature at Reading University, Dyson paid regular visits to Oxford. He was a Christian and a man of great wit. After dinner, the three men went for a walk, discussing the purpose of mythology. Lewis could not yet understand the function of Christ in Christianity, especially the meaning of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. He declared that he had to understand the purpose of these events and how, as he later expressed it in a letter to a friend,
… how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now – except in so far as his example could help us.
As the night wore on, Tolkien and Dyson showed him that he was making a totally unnecessary demand. When he encountered the idea of sacrifice in the mythology of pagan religion, he admired it and was moved by it; indeed, the idea of the dying and reviving deity had always touched his imagination since he had read, as an adolescent, the story of the Norse god Balder in Longfellow’s poem (quoted above). But from the Gospels (they said), he required something more, a clear meaning beyond the myth. Could he not transfer his comparatively unquestioning appreciation of sacrifice from the myth to the true story? The following is an account of the continuing conversation based on Tolkien’s poem, Mythopoeia (‘the making of myths’ or Mysomythos), the manuscript of which his friend marked…
… For C. S. L.
“But”, said Lewis, “myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.”
“No”, said Tolkien, “they are not”.
And, indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out a different line of argument.
You call a tree a tree, he said, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say that it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.
We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only the myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards one true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology, Tolkien had laid bare the centre of his philosophy as a writer, the creed at the heart of The Silmarillion. Lewis listened as Dyson affirmed in his own way what Tolkien had said. Then Lewis asked,
You mean, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, … I begin to understand.
Finally, they were driven inside by the wind, and they talked on in Lewis’ rooms till three a.m., when Tolkien went home. After seeing him out into the High Street, Lewis and Dyson talked as they walked up and down the cloister of New Buildings at Magdalen College until the sky became light. A week later, Lewis rode to Whipsnade Zoo in his brother’s motorcycle sidecar. He later wrote that when they left Oxford, he did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God; when they reached the zoo, he did. After that, the old ‘bittersweet stabs of Joy’ continued as before. But now he knew to what, or rather to whom they pointed. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves:
‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. … My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.’
Meanwhile, Tolkien had been invigilating in the Examination Schools while composing the long poem Mythopoeia, which recorded all that he had said to Lewis, including that quoted above. He also wrote in his diary:
‘Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.’
So, after a long intellectual battle, Jack Lewis became a Christian in the summer of 1931. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, traces the story of his conversion in his own words. But one of his reasons for writing the book was that he felt it to be a shared experience, easily misunderstood, difficult to bring to the forefront of consciousness, and of immense importance. The Pilgrim’s Regress, which is partly autobiographical, echoes this theme in the story of the pilgrim’s quest for a far-off island, the vision of which has stung him with ‘sweet desire’.
When Lewis realised that the word Romanticism in the subtitle was misunderstood, he wrote a preface to the third edition (1943) explaining the meaning he gave the word. For him, it meant ‘Joy’, the same Joy or longing that we can feel for our own far-off country: the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, as he wrote in the Weights of Glory, published posthumously in 1965. A longing which, although painful, is felt somehow to be a delight. A hunger more satisfying than fullness; poverty better than any wealth. A desire is itself the object of desire, so much so that the new desire becomes an instance of the original one. We feel we know what the object of our desire is, but in the final achievement of that desire, we know that the real object of our desire is somewhere else entirely …
Anyone who wants to know what Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other’s lives and careers should also read Lewis’s essay on ‘Friendship’ in his book The Four Loves, published in 1963, shortly before his death. It gives an account of how two companions became friends when they discovered a shared insight, how their friendship is not jealous but seeks out the company of others, how such friendships are necessary between men and how the greatest pleasure of all is for a group of friends to come to an inn at after a hard day’s walking. Lewis wrote:
Those are the golden sessions, when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when all when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim to the responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give.C. S. Lewis (1963), The Four Loves: Fontana, p. 68
From the early thirties, the two men depended less exclusively on each other’s company and more on that of other professors, masters and fellows. In The Four Loves, Lewis states that two, far from being the necessary number for friendship, is not even the best, and he suggests that every new member added to a group brings out some particular attribute in the others. Tolkien had experienced this in the TCBS (Tea Club): the knot of friends, which now began to come together, was the ultimate expression of the principle based on the ‘clubbable’ urge that Tolkien had felt since these adolescent days. This group was known as ‘The Inklings’. It began to form about the time (in the early thirties) when the ‘Coalbiters’ ceased to meet, having fulfilled their aim of reading all the principal Icelandic sagas and the Elder Edda. ‘The Inklings’ was originally the name of a literary society founded in 1931 by a University College undergraduate. Lewis and Tolkien attended the meetings where unpublished compositions were read and criticised. After its founder Tangye Lean left Oxford, its name was transferred half jestingly to the circle of friends who gathered around Lewis regularly.
The Inklings have now entered literary history, and a good deal has been written about them. They were simply several friends, all male and all from different Christian backgrounds, who were interested in literature. There was no formal membership. Some regularly attended at specific periods, while others were only occasional visitors. Lewis was the invariable nucleus, without whom any gathering would have been inconceivable. Besides him and Tolkien, who were almost invariably present, other regular attendees in the years before and during the Second World War were Major Warren Lewis (C. S. Lewis’s brother, ‘Warnie’), R. E. Havard (an Oxford doctor who attended both the Lewis and Tolkien households), Lewis’s long-standing friend Owen Bayfield, and Hugo Dyson.
It was a very casual grouping, but there were certain invariable elements. It would meet on a weekday morning, usually in a pub, generally on Tuesdays in the ‘Eagle and Child’ (nicknamed ‘The Bird and Baby’), and on Thursday night in Lewis’s big Magdalen sitting room, congregating some time after nine o’clock. Tea would be made, pipes lit, and Lewis would ask for readings. Someone would produce a manuscript and begin to read it out loud – a poem or story or a chapter. Then there would be appreciation or criticism. There might be more readings, but soon there would be discussions of all kinds, sometimes heated debate, and the proceedings would terminate at a late hour. By the late thirties, the Inklings were an essential part of the lives of both Lewis and Tolkien, and among the latter’s contributions were readings from the still unpublished manuscript of The Hobbit. When war broke out in 1939, another man was recruited to the group of friends, Charles Williams, who worked for the Oxford University Press in London and was transferred to Oxford with the rest of the staff. Williams was in his fifties, and his writings were well-known and respected, albeit by a small circle of readers. Lewis had known and admired his work for some time, but Tolkien had only met him once or twice and soon developed a ‘complex’ about him.
Clearly, there was a little jealousy towards Williams on Tolkien’s part, for Lewis’s enthusiasm seemed to shift from himself to Williams. He wrote, uncharacteristically, that Lewis was a very impressionable man. So Williams’s arrival in Oxford marked the third phase in Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis, one marking a faint cooling on Tolkien’s part, which, as yet, Lewis probably hardly noticed.
Something else made Tolkien cooler towards Lewis, something even more subtle yet more significant: Lewis’s growing reputation as a Christian apologist. As Tolkien had played such an essential role in Lewis’s conversion, he had always regretted that his friend had not become a Catholic but had begun to attend his local Anglican church, resuming the religious practices of his childhood and early adolescence. Tolkien maintained a deep resentment towards the Church of England, which he sometimes extended to its buildings, declaring that his appreciation of their beauty was marred by his sadness that they had been, as he considered, perverted from their rightful role in what he considered to be ‘the one, true faith.’ When Lewis published his prose allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Tolkien thought the title ironical. He commented,
‘Lewis would regress. He would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up again, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant.’
In his Broadcast Talks for the BBC in 1942-44, published in 1952 in his book Mere Christianity, Lewis set out his attitude toward Catholicism and a variety of Christian traditions and doctrines. In it, he answers what he called unwarranted conclusions drawn from the fact that he never says more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin Birth of Christ. But to say more, he said, would take him at once into highly controversial regions which need delicate treatment. When Lewis was writing, the Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject were tough to dissent from in a manner which would not brand the dissenter as a heretic. On the other hand, Protestant views on the subject called forth feelings that go down to Monotheism’s very roots. To radical Protestants, it seemed that the distinction between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperilled. Polytheism, he said, would have risen again. If any topic could be relied upon to wreck a book about ‘mere’ Christianity for those who do not yet believe that the virgin’s son is God, he wrote, surely this was it.
Having served, like Tolkien, as a young man in the awful trenches of World War One and then in 1940 as an ARP Warden when the bombing of Britain began, the talks on which his book was based were given to men in the RAF who knew that, on average, after just thirteen bombing missions, most of them would be dead or missing. Tolkien, whose son was training in South Africa to fly such missions, was nevertheless far more ambivalent in his attitude towards aerial warfare in particular and Britain’s war aims in general, especially its alliance with the Soviet Union. For Lewis, it was the situation of these young men ‘on the front line’ of the conflict which prompted him to speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil, work that resulted in his being invited by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on the Christian faith.
At the same time, he admitted in the preface that the danger he faced was that of putting forward as common Christianity anything peculiar to the Church of England. He guarded against this by sending the original script of the section of his book dealing with What Christians Believe to four clergymen – Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic – asking for their criticism. The Roman Catholic thought he had gone too far about the comparative unimportance of theories of the Atonement. Otherwise, he wrote, all five of them agreed. Besides, in dealing with morals, he noted that:
Ever since I served as an infantryman in the First World War, I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. … I am not a woman nor even a married man, nor am I a priest. I do not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so.
This stance, of course, marked another significant difference between Lewis and Tolkien, especially over the issue of divorce, which the two ‘fell out over’ when Lewis decided to marry Joy Davidman, an American divorcée in the late 1950s, first to secure her status as a British resident, and subsequently in a Christian ceremony in hospital, where she was terminally ill, performed by an Anglican priest.
The New Hobbit:
Despite their growing literary and religious differences, Tolkien remarked that it had been from Lewis, in about 1929, that he got the idea that his ‘stuff’ could amount to more than a hobby of writing stories for his children. There was, however, a good stretch of time between Lewis’s conversion on the way to Whipsnade and his writing of his Christian books for children, The Tales of Narnia. During this time, Tolkien had written and published The Hobbit, primarily by 1931 but not published until September 1937. Tolkien was a little nervous about Oxford’s reaction to how the story could be seen as the major fruits of research. But he need not have worried: initially, Oxford paid almost no attention. A few days after publication, however, the book received an accolade in the columns of The Times:
All who love that kind of children’s book which can be read and re-read by adults should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation. To the trained eye some characters will seem almost mythopoeic.
The eye in question was that of C. S. Lewis, a regular reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, who had managed to get this notice of his friend’s book into the parent newspaper. He also reviewed the text in glowing terms in the Supplement itself. There was an equally enthusiastic reaction from many other critics. However, some took delight in pointing out the ineptness of the publisher’s ‘blurb’ that compared the book to Alice in Wonderland simply because Lewis Carroll had also been an Oxford don. There were a few dissenting voices, but by Christmas had sold out. When the American edition was issued a few months later, it received approbation from most critics. It was awarded the New York Herald Tribune prize for the best juvenile book of the season. Stanley Unwin, the publisher, realised that he had a children’s best-seller on his list and wrote to Tolkien:
‘A large public will be clamouring next year to hear more from you about Hobbits!’
Tolkien duly set to work on the second book, based on much of the material he had already written in his legendarium. At about the time that he decided to call the book, The Lord of the Rings, Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement with Hitler. Tolkien, like many others at the time, was suspicious not so much of German intentions as of those of Soviet Russia; he wrote that he had a loathing of any side that includes Russia and added:
‘One fancies that Russia is probably ultimately far more responsible for the current crisis and choice of moment than Hitler.’
However, this does not mean that the placing of Mordor (the seat of evil in the book) in the East is an allegorical reference to contemporary world politics, as some have suggested, for as Tolkien himself affirmed, it was a simple narrative and geographical necessity. In his previous book, he had already mapped out a large part of the Western part of Middle-earth (as shown in the maps above). Elsewhere he made a careful distinction between allegory and applicability:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
C. S. Lewis wrote about The Lord of the Rings,
These things were not devised to reflect any particular situation in the real world. It was the other way round, real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern he had freely invented.Quoted in Carpenter, p. 253.
Tolkien hoped to continue the work on The Lord of the Rings in the early months of 1939. Still, there were endless distractions, among them his commitment to deliver the Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews at the beginning of March. For his subject, he had chosen the topic initially promised to the undergraduate society at Worcester College a year previously: fairy stories. It was appropriate to the occasion, being a subject that had much concerned Lang himself, and it was also much in Tolkien’s mind while he was writing his new story. The Hobbit was clearly written for children and The Silmarillion for adults, but he was aware that The Lord of the Rings was less easy to categorise. In October 1938, he had written to Stanley Unwin that the story, seemingly taking on a life of its own, was getting out of control in forgetting “children” and becoming more terrifying than ‘The Hobbit.’ He added that it may prove quite unsuitable. But he felt strongly that fairy stories are not necessarily only for children, and he decided to devote much of his lecture to the proof of this belief. In doing so, he would touch on the crucial point in the poem Mythopoeia that he had written for C. S. Lewis years before, which he also decided he would quote in the lecture:
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls Him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, though he is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build,
Gods and their houses of dark and light,
and sowed the seeds of dragons – ’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.
Man, the ‘sub-creator,’ was, in one sense, a new way of expressing the author’s motivation in the reader of what is often called the willing suspension of disbelief, and Tolkien made it the central point of the lecture. He wrote that what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’, creating a secondary world into which your mind can enter. Inside it, what the ‘sub-creator’ relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. The reader, therefore, believes it as long as they are ‘inside’. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken: the magic, or the art, has failed. They are then out in the primary world again, looking at the secondary world from the outside. At the end of the lecture, he asserted that there is no higher function for mankind than the ‘sub-creation’ of a secondary world such as he was already making in The Lord of the Rings. He hoped that, in one sense, the story and its entire related mythology would be found to be ‘true’. He went so far as to say it was a Christian venture to write such a story as he was now engaged in writing. He argued that:
The Christian may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.
The lecture was delivered at St Andrew’s in March 1939, and then Tolkien returned with renewed enthusiasm to The Lord of the Rings. Now, ‘the Ring’ was as important to him as ‘the Silmarils.’ In fact, it was now clear to him that the ‘new’ story was not so much a sequel to The Hobbit, at the instigation of his publisher, as a sequel to The Silmarillion. Every aspect of his early work was now playing a part in the new story: the mythology, which provided both a historical setting and a sense of depth, and the elvish languages he had developed so painstakingly and thoroughly over more than twenty-five years. Yet, Tolkien referred to the story in modest terms as ‘the new Hobbit’ to his friends.
Lewis’s conversion in 1931 had begun a new stage in their friendship. Gifted with an extraordinary intellect, it also triggered off a rich variety of individual creativity in Lewis. By the mid-1940s, he was receiving a great deal of publicity in connection with his Christian writings, The Problem of Pain and his international best-seller, The Screwtape Letters (1942), which won him the reputation of being able to ‘make righteousness readable’. But although he dedicated it to Tolkien, his friend thought the publicity now surrounding Jack was ‘too much for his or any of our tastes.’ As he observed his friend’s increasing fame in this respect, Tolkien perhaps felt as if a pupil had speedily overtaken his master to achieve almost unjustified fame. Not altogether flatteringly, he once referred to Lewis as ‘Everyman’s Theologian’. Lewis wrote many other works of theology and fantasy with theological dimensions but remained primarily a Professor of English Literature, first at Magdalen College, Oxford, until 1954, and then at Cambridge.
Over the years, he also wrote many works of literary criticism, the best known being The Allegory of Love. Lewis achieved further fame as a preacher, debater, and a brilliantly effective ‘apostle to the sceptics’. Believing, as he said, that all that is not eternal is eternally out of date, he was utterly orthodox and therefore admired by Christians from all branches of the church. A jovial and ‘saintly’ man, he was a prolific author and could have amassed a fortune, but following his conversion, he gave away most of his earnings to charities. Any negative thoughts in Tolkien’s mind in the early nineteen-forties were well below the surface. He still had an almost unbounded affection for Lewis and perhaps still cherished the occasional hope that his friend might one day become a Catholic. And the ‘Inklings’ continued to provide much delight and encouragement to him. He wrote a parody of the opening lines of Beowulf in praise of the ‘brotherhood’:
Hwoet! We Inclinga! On aerdagum searopancolra snyttru gehierdon. Lo! We have heard in old days of the wisdom of the cunning-minded Inklings; how those wise ones sat together in their deliberations, skilfully reciting learning and song-craft, earnestly meditating. That was true joy!
(to be continued… )
Humphrey Carpenter (1977, 2016), J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Walter Hooper (1980), Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. London: Fount Paperbacks (Collins).
Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.
C. S. Lewis (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Harper Collins.
C. S. Lewis (1944, 1952), Mere Christianity. London: William Collins (HarperCollins).