A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Curious Friendship

In the fall of 1931, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson took a nighttime stroll along Addison’s Walk on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford. Many Lewis scholars identify this walk as the point at which Lewis fully embraced the Christian faith. Lewis spent the next three decades writing essays, short stories, and books centring on Christianity.
I visited Oxford in 2015 with my daughter, and I desperately wanted to walk where these men walked and to understand more of who they were and how they lived. We arrived in Oxford on a rainy night in August. We were tired and hungry, and I was feeling worse and worse as we got down from the bus and began searching for Magdalen College. We walked through the rain, pulling our suitcases along High Street, trying to find the porter’s door where we were to pick up our keys for our rooms. I was an unhappy traveller that night.
Four days later, we made our way into the grounds at the college and headed for Addison’s Walk. We followed the graveled path circling the deer park, and I told my daughter what I remembered reading about that night in 1931.
If you know something about these men, you will know Lewis and Tolkien were friends and colleagues at Oxford, and together they founded a group called the Inklings, a sometimes loosely connected group of men working and living in that unforgettable university town. Much has been written about the Inklings, particularly in the last decade, and more than its fair share focuses specifically on the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien. Two of the best books I’ve encountered are The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, and The company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, by Diana Pavlac Glyer. Each of these books has its own take on the place of Lewis and Tolkien in the larger group, and both highlight the integral and reciprocal nature of the friendship between the two men.
There’s no question Lewis and Tolkien were friends. They met regularly for years, while the Inklings gathered on Thursday evenings in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College. Lewis, most notably, provided Tolkien with endless amounts of badgering encouragement as the latter revised and edited Lord of the Rings—or, as the Inklings knew it, The New Hobbit. However, when I recently heard a new Lewis and Tolkien documentary was in production for 2018, I began to wonder whether the story of this friendship isn’t beginning to acquire almost mythic proportions.
Eastgate Creative is behind the documentary, which is based on Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. It describes the profound influence these men had on one another and their work. You can see the trailer here.
Before you jump on board the Lewis and Tolkien friendship train, bear in mind some noteworthy details about Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings. The late-night walk and conversation instrumental in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity occurs in 1931. Lewis never mentions this conversation in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, published in 1955. If this isn’t odd enough, Lewis mentions Tolkien only twice in this account of his early life at Oxford; he identifies Tolkien as a colleague and friend, but doesn’t credit Tolkien specifically with helping him make the shift to a Christian faith.
Lewis certainly offered Tolkien years’ worth of advice on the writing of LotR, but Tolkien, in his turn, detested the Narnia Chronicles. Moreover, the regular meetings of the Inklings ended in the fall of 1949, before LotR or any of the Narnia books were even published.
What does any of this say about the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien? The men were undoubtedly friends for decades. They had an influence on one another’s lives as writers and scholars. But the friendship had limits, not to mention its highs and lows—seeming to fizzle long before Lewis’ marriage to Joy Davidman in 1956.
My point—I’m looking forward to the documentary, but I’m going to watch with guarded interest. Friendships can be a messy business, and I doubt it was any different for Lewis and Tolkien—and there’s much to suggest the friendship had some rough patches. I would encourage you to read something about the Inklings and find out for yourself. And by all means, enjoy the new documentary when it comes out. Just remember, there’s going to be more to the story—more to suggest how human, after all, these men actually were.

What to Do with Narnia

Reading C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books is a varied experience. As part of our discussion of Narnia, my students and I explore a Christian reading of the series. They work hard to decode the books in terms of Christian metaphor and allusion, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, especially. Many read Narnia specifically for its Christtian allegory; others read it for the fantasy and the adventure.
As it applies to Narnia, the term allegory is problematic. For one, it forces people to read the characters in a particular way. If we read Aslan as a Christ figure, then do we necessarily read the White Witch as Satan and Edmund as Judas? The answer to both is no. Writers use Christ figures all the time. People read Frodo as a Christ figure. What does that make Sam? My point is not to treat a book like a puzzle. A book worth reading doesn’t have pieces that fit neatly together to form a particular picture, Christian or otherwise.
Lewis has drawn various criticism over the years for his Narnia books. They have been called both racist and misogynistic. According to Philip Pullman in “The Dark Side of Narnia” (The Guardian 1998), “there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” Pullman offers some noteworthy criticisms of the series, but his vitriolic condemnation of the series is excessive, to say the least.
However, many will be surprised to learn that J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis’ longtime friend and colleague at Oxford, intensely disliked The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe upon a first reading. Tolkien was mistrustful of allegory in all its forms, which I’ve always found odd considering he was a medieval scholar.
In a conversation with Roger Lancelyn Green, Tolkien comments, “I hear you’ve been reading Jack’s [Lewis’s] children’s story. It really won’t do, you know! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun’. Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?” (qtd. in Green, Roger Lancelyn, and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Revised Ed., Harcourt, 1994, p. 241).
Lewis and Tolkien became friends in the 1920s, and they founded the Inklings, a group of Oxford writers and intellectuals who met regularly in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College to discuss books and writing. By 1950 when Lewis was writing Narnia, the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was deteriorating, and the Inklings no longer met in the same way. Tolkien’s dismissive attitude towards Narnia was, in part, a further sign of that disintegrating friendship.
These criticisms aside, it’s possible to read the Narnia books for more than just the Christian allegory. This last July, I attended the conference for the International research Society of children’s Literature (IRSCL) in Toronto. The conference took place on the Keel campus of York University. It was a pleasure to meet and talk to so many interested and interesting children’s literature people from around the world.
I presented a paper on Lewis and narrators, which was less a discussion of narrative than one of Lewis. I’ve tried for some time to understand how Lewis himself fits into the chronicles. Lewis loved placing himself in his own fiction. Maybe it was a kind of inside joke for Lewis and his Inklings cronies: Lewis puts himself in Out of the silent Planet, The Great Divorce, and his unfinished story the Dark Tower.
Lewis does something different with the Narnia books. Read the series carefully. You will notice the narrator of the books—which may or may not be some version of Lewis—commenting to young readers about character and action. Here are some examples:

“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been—if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you—you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again. At any rate that was how it felt to these two.” (LWW)

“That ride was perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to them in Narnia. Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the heavy noise of the hoofs and the jingle of the harness and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or grey or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn’t need to be guided and never grows tired. He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree-trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in a park nor even on the downs but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and out into acres of blue flowers.” (LWW)

“(By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead, is port, and the right is starboard.)” (Dawn Treader)

“And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them. It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.” (Dawn Treader)

The most intriguing of these narrative comments is the last, the interaction between Lucy and the narrator. It suggests the narrator has a relationship of sorts with the Pevensie children outside the text of the series. Alternatively, perhaps Lewis had conversations with the Pevensie children in his own head, which isn’t that weird, if you think about the relationship many writers have with their characters.
More important, I think, is who Lewis had in mind when writing the Narnia books. Was he thinking of kids in general? Not likely. He didn’t know many kids. But Lewis new his reader of the Narnia books was going to be a young reader, an imaginative reader who understood something about books and reading. The point of my paper at the IRSCL conference was that Lewis had himself in mind as a reader of the series.
Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, is interesting in many ways. It’s Lewis’ picture of his life in the context of his eventual conversion to Christianity. The first chapter of the book describes Lewis’ imaginative childhood at Little Lee (the family’s Belfast home), and the death of his mother to cancer in August of 1908. It’s a sad and poignant account, and it’s the one that all the biographers turn to when writing about Lewis’ early life.
I’m convinced that the child of Little Lee—his love for reading and his willingness to be transported by the books he read—is the reader Lewis had in mind for the Narnia series. Maybe this is a stretch, but consider this: Lewis wrote surprised by Joy while he was writing the Narnia books. He was writing a children’s series and rethinking his own childhood at the same time. Each informs the other in interesting ways, and if nothing else, it adds something to a reading of Narnia that’s more than a rehashing of the old arguments around allegory.

Thoughts on C. S. Lewis

:This year’s Verge conference at Trinity Western University is all about C. S. Lewis. Trinity Western is in Langley, BC, and it’s home to the Inklings Institute of Canada, co-directed by Monika Hilder and Stephen dunning. The keynote speaker for this year’s conference is Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia: the Seven heavens in the Imagination of c. s. Lewis.
Michael Ward is something of a rock star when it comes to Lewis scholarship. His book, Planet Narnia, has helped change the way many people read the Narnia books. Ward lines up the seven books of the series with the seven planets of medieval cosmology. It sounds a little daunting, especially if you don’t know much about the medieval understanding of the universe; however, Ward is amazingly lucid when it comes to his approach. The BBC has even made a film about Ward and his ideas, the Narnia code.
Michael Ward and The Narnia Code

I came to the Verge conference specifically to hear Michael Ward speak. His public lecture on Wednesday evening was packed with scholars and Lewis fans. Ward is a fine speaker: he brings you along for the ride, and he makes sure you never get lost. And he’s funny, too.
Commenting on his approach to the Narnia books, and the fact that no one has made such a connection before now, Ward said to the audience on Wednesday, “If you’re sceptical, you should be.”
Inviting the audience’s scepticism in this way was disarming, but Ward didn’t have to worry someone wasn’t on his side—the audience’s enthusiastic response made that clear. His approach just simply works. He further claims Lewis actually planned the Narnia books to line up with the planets in this way. Here, I have more trouble, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The medieval world view placed the Earth at the centre of the universe, with seven planets in the sky. The Moon and the sun were two of these seven planets, or bodies visible to medieval observers. Ward aligns each of the books in the Narnia series with one of these heavenly bodies. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, is the sun book. This is easier to understand at the outset, as King Caspian’s voyage is to the east, journeying into the sun and the end of the world.
If you take time to explore Ward’s book, you won’t be disappointed. It adds a level of complexity and richness to the Narnia chronicles that will keep people exploring them in new ways for years to come.

C. S. Lewis, A Good Friday Post


“Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” These are the words, according to C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, that introduced him to the myths of the north. His love for what he called “that northern thing” persisted throughout his life, and formed the foundation for two of his life-long friendships—Arthur Greeves and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Many people know and love Lewis’ Narnia books; fewer know his Space trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Fewer, again, know his Christian apologetics or his essays, and you might get a blank look if you start talking about Lewis’ scholarship. Perhaps this is the difference between Narnia fans and Lewis fans. Look here for a full list of Lewis’ works.
If you are going to grapple with Lewis as a writer, then you have to deal with him as a Christian. For some, this can be an uncomfortable exercise. A place to begin is Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955).  This is Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, which he wrote as he was writing the Narnia books. I always find this an interesting coincidence—his interest in writing a series for children may have been the catalyst that took him back to his own childhood. It’s here, in Lewis’ account of being a boy, where you can read about his discovery of the myths of the north, beginning with the words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” These words resonated with Lewis, and they became the words he associated with joy, that fleeting sense he had growing up of the presence of the divine.
Lewis’ spiritual autobiography details his journey towards joy, and eventually his conversion to Christianity in 1931. However, if you want to read about the talk with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in September of that year, you have to find a copy of his letters. It’s a letter to Arthur Greeves dated October 18, 1931, in which Lewis details the evening with Tolkien and Dyson, and the experience on Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College. I’m including part of that letter below, but all of this to say that Lewis’ conversion to Christianity harkens back to his boyhood and the fascination with the figure of the dying god—a discussion that seems appropriate on a Good Friday morning.
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ’what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths… “
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. Print.

A Return to Narnia


Yes, that is a real photo; and yes, you expect to see a faun carrying an umbrella next to the lamp-post.
After reading Lev Grossman’s Magician series earlier this year, I dove back into Narnia. It’s easy to slip back into Lewis’ world—just start reading, and there I am, following the adventures of Peter, Susan, Lucy, Edmund, and the rest.
I always feel I can jump in anywhere with the Narnia books. It’s not like reading Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I can’t just jump in; I have to read the books in order—most of the time. But with Lewis, it’s simply a matter of picking my point of entry. This time I started with Prince Caspian, then I read The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and now I’m reading The Silver Chair.
If you ever wonder about the correct order in which to read the Narnia books, there isn’t one—not really, at least according to Lewis himself. However, people have varying opinions on the matter. Publishers would have you believe The Magicians Nephew is first in the series. It’s not. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first book in the series. You can read the books in the order you like, but Lion is first. It was first published; it’s the first introduction to the world of Narnia, and the first introduction to the children and Aslan. The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel—not the first book in the series.
Alister McGrath offers a compelling argument for the ordering of the Narnia books in his biography of Lewis, C. S. Lewis, A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. This is one of the best biographies on Lewis—if you want to find out more about the life of this Oxford don. You can watch a lecture by McGrath here:
While the Pevensie children are the central group of characters in the series, one of my favourites is Ewstace Scrubb. Here’s the opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“There was a boy called Ewstace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Poor Ewstace. He has much to learn in this book—mostly about not being an ass, but also about being with other people and forming relationships. I sometimes wonder if Lewis took his inspiration for Ewstace from Ebenezer Scrooge.
While much of the criticism written about the Narnia books examines Lewis as a Christian writer, this isn’t the only way to read these books. Take one small example—Lewis is often funny as a writer. He’s at his best with Ewstace Scrubb. Ewstace is mouthy, argumentative, irreverent, and self-serving—at least until he meets Aslan on Dragon Island. After Ewstace is undragoned by Aslan, he’s less funny. And speaking of Aslan—the Great Lion is dangerous, awe inspiring, terrible, full of joy, gentle, and kind. But he isn’t funny.
Make of that what you will. I love the books, and I’ll keep reading them. I still laugh out loud as I read certain passages, and I maintain that Lewis knew how to be funny, in spite of the weighty seriousness that often pervades the series, especially The Last Battle.
I think Lev Grossman must understand this about Lewis, too. While the Magician books are dark, disturbing, and painful, there are passages and scenes that are exquisitely funny. But that’s the thing about humour. It’s often the leavening agent that turns the crushingly tragic into the recognizably human.

A Letter to C. S. Lewis


Dear Professor Lewis:
I’m writing this letter fifty-two years after your death, November 22, 1963. You won’t get it, but I don’t care. I’m writing anyway.
I was actually born three days before you died, in a small town in southern Alberta. You won’t have heard of Claresholm, and I doubt you will have ever heard of Alberta, but I know you had an appreciation for Canada—you had a Canadian aunt on your mother’s side, Aunt Annie, wife to your maternal uncle.
I didn’t read any of your books until I was an adult. I read Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings over and over again as a young person, but I didn’t even know that you were friends with Professor Tolkien until after I read Narnia and some of your other books. I was getting interested in children’s literature while doing an undergraduate degree, and I read about the Narnia books in one of my anthologies. I didn’t know anything about Narnia at the time, but the anthology contained an excerpt from The Last Battle. Not long after, I was able to get the Narnia books and read them.
You may be interested to know that I had to get the series on cassette tape. I’m totally blind, and in those days I had to read everything on cassette. I read the Narnia books many times, and I have to admit, and please don’t take offense, I felt a little let down. You have to understand that I was young, and I had the idea that I could find another world like Professor Tolkien’s. Well, I’m much older now, and I still haven’t found anything to equal Professor Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth.
I’ve thought a great deal about the Narnia books, as well as many of your other books, and I’ve learned much from you over the years. For one, I’ve realized that you had different ideas about fantasy than your friend, Professor Tolkien. You had, for example, a greater sense of fun when it came to fantasy than he did—at least in most of the Narnia books, and maybe save for The Hobbit. I always thought Professor Tolkien must have taken great delight in writing that book. How could he not? Mr. Bilbo Baggins is such a delightful character. I thought you must have felt the same way about the Narnia books, although by the time you wrote The Last Battle, you seem to lose something of your sense of fun to an overwhelming seriousness. The end of the world is a serious thing, after all. But I could never manage to understand the joy the Pevensie children experience as they leave their old lives behind and enter the new Narnia. Perhaps I thought you were trying too hard to teach me something about Heaven.
I’ve always had many questions about the Narnia series, and I ask many of them every year in my children’s literature classes. I teach at a university here in Edmonton, and every year we talk about one of your books—usually The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here are some of the questions we ask:
Why is Father Christmas in the book? And why did you make him say, “Battles are ugly when Women fight?”
Why don’t Mr. and Mrs. Beaver share a bed? And how could Edmund have possibly eaten so much Turkish delight at a single sitting?
These questions might seem silly to you, but my students are intensely curious, and they genuinely wonder about these smaller details.
We ask larger questions as well—one of the main questions being, do we have to read the book as a Christian text? There are always a few students in the class who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a young person, and they were told that the book was a way to better understand Jesus.
Well, back to my purpose in writing to you. I wanted to thank you for writing the Narniabooks, not to mention your science fiction books and all of your books on Christianity. I’ve read most of them, an I’ve wrestled again and again with the things you say about God, about pain, and about literature. Reading many of these books simply raises more questions for me, but I won’t bore you with those.
I will say, however, that I absolutely loved Out of the Silent Planet. I know you loved the works of Mr. H. G. Wells, and so do I. Reading Out of the Silent Planet took me right back to reading those books as a boy, and I found great joy in reading about Dr. Elwin Ransom’s trip to Malacandra.
This, finally, brings me to my real purpose in writing. You are one of those giants who walks my own literary landscape. You stride around in that landscape, spinning stories about dwarves and talking lions and the strange people of Mars. Like Jack who encountered giants of his own, I’m afraid to get too close for fear of getting trampled. I even sometimes steal from you, taking bits from the worlds you weave and using them in my own stories.
It wasn’t until I read Surprised by Joy that I became less nervous about getting too close. I was able to get a different sense of you as a man and a writer by getting a glimpse of you as a boy. As I read your description of losing your mother, then being sent away to that terrible school in England, I felt I had more of a connection with you than I realized. I too suffered a loss at a young age. I lost my cousin in a car accident. I didn’t understand love very well at the time, but I knew I loved my cousin. I was in the same car accident, and it was there I lost my sight. It was after that—in the hospital, in fact—that I began listening to Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit on tape.
Having said all of this, I mostly want to say thank you. Thank you for your books. Thank you for your many words—those that have inspired me, and those that have challenged me. Thank you for sharing something of yourself. And most of all, thank you for giving me worlds where I can visit—places where I can get inside, walk around, and stretch my imaginative legs. These are places where I can wonder and ask questions, and most of all, return to when the world gets too big or too scary or too hard, and I need a familiar spot to rest and sort out my life and my thoughts.
Your faithful fan,
Bill Thompson