A Friendship and a Great War

C. S. Lewis met J. R. R. Tolkien on May 11, 1926, during an English faculty meeting at Merton College. Lewis was a tutor in the English faculty at Magdalen College at the time. He had already discovered a love of northern myths through his boyhood friendship with Arthur Greeves, but he had yet to publish a book of fantasy. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton College. He was a father and husband, but it would be over ten years before he published The Hobbit, and decades before the first volume of Lord of the Rings would appear.
It was a Tuesday. Here’s what Lewis writes in his diary about that first meeting:
“I had a talk with him [Tolkien] afterwards. He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap—can’t read Spenser because of the forms—thinks the language is the real thing in the school—thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty…. No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
This friendship would become important in both men’s lives, both creatively and academically, but it also would become the basis for the Inklings, a group of Oxford intellectuals, who met regularly for almost two decades.
An experience Lewis and Tolkien also had in common was the Great War. They didn’t know one another at the time, but the war had a profound effect on both men and their writing. You can read more about their experience of the war in Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. A documentary is also in production, and you can see the trailer here.
I have taken great joy in reading about Lewis and Tolkien and their friendship over the years. Loconte’s book is only one of many. And I do wonder sometimes—what would it have been like to join Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends, as they gathered on a Tuesday morning at The Eagle and Child to discuss books and writing. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got a word in edgeways, but it would have been something to just listen

In the company of Hobbits

I first encountered J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was eleven. It was the fall of 1974. I was in the hospital, and two women from the schoolboard brought me an open-reel tape recorder, which was the size of a small toaster-oven. It was barely six weeks since I had lost my sight in a car accident that summer.
I hadn’t been much of a reader before I lost my sight, but I became one afterwards. And reading The Hobbit was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Perhaps my brain was simply starved for stimulus in that hospital room, but I found myself fully entering bilbo’s world. I could see the Misty Mountains marching across the horizon, and I was haunted by the figure of Gollum, lurking beneath those mountains, down there in the dark, hissing and muttering as he worried over his Precious. A year later, I got hold of Lord of the Rings, and the world of Middle-Earth opened up for me in new and astonishing ways.
I’ve read the books now more times than I can remember. I’ve watched and rewatched the films—both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve visited Middle-Earth—at least Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth—and I’ve knocked on a hobbit door. I’ve stood beneath a tree in Rivendell, and I’ve even met a hobbit.

When I now teach The Hobbit in my children’s literature classes, I’m able to talk endlessly about Tolkien, about the writing of the books, and about Tolkien’s life in Oxford and his friendship with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings. We talk about Bilbo as a burglar and all the creatures he encounters on his adventure—the trolls, the elves, Gollum, Beorn, the Wood Elves, the Lake men, and Smaug. We look at the structure of the book, and we explore the dragon sickness and what it means for the characters.
Visiting Oxford with my daughter in 2015 and seeing where Tolkien and Lewis lived and worked was for me a kind of literary hero worship in which I don’t often indulge. My daughter and I found Tolkien’s house on Northmore Road; we then parked and visited the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother Warnie and Mrs. Moore. We took a walk in the small park attached to the Kilns, and as we circled the pond, I thought a little longingly and a little sadly about these writers who have shaped my life so fully. They are landmarks on the map of my reading life; they have helped form my friendships, and they’ve influenced both my writing and my reading. And each time I return to The Hobbit, part of me is swept back once again to when I first read the book and felt the wonder and poignancy of discovering that country for the first time.

Remembering Oxford

I’m about to begin Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust. Like The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage begins in Pullman’s imaginary Oxford. Every fall, I seem to revisit Oxford, if not in the flesh, then through my favourite books and authors.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both worked and lived in Oxford for most of their adult lives. My first visit to Oxford had my daughter and me arriving late on a rainy August evening, wandering up and down the High street and looking for the Porter’s lodge to Magdalen College. You can read about that trip here and here. Enjoy!

Photo taken on a trip to Oxford, August, 2015.

Dust to Dust

Some of my reading this summer has included Philip Pullman. I’m rereading His Dark Materials trilogy so I can finally read The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, which came out in 2017. I didn’t want to just jump back into Pullman’s world without reminding myself of the earlier series.
Apparently, Pullman’s next novel in the new series, The Secret Commonwealth, featuring the return of Lyra Belacqua, comes out this October. And in other Pullman news, His Dark Materials is soon to be a show on HBO.
Reading The Golden compass and revisiting Lyra’s Oxford got me thinking about my own first trip to Oxford. I say first because I’m planning to go back. You can read about that visit here and here.
Pullman is a fine writer, and he is also a fine reader. Years ago, Pullman visited Edmonton and gave a reading at Ft. Edmonton Park, as part of the TALES Storytelling Festival. I remember he read from The Subtle Knife—a compelling reading that left me feeling a little breathless. In spite of that experience, His Dark Materials has never been a favourite for me, but who knows—maybe this reread will inspire me anew.

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.

Eighty Years of The Hobbit

Harry Potter may have turned twenty this last June, but The Hobbit turned eighty. September 22nd marked the eightieth anniversary of the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. 2017 also marks one hundred years of Middle-Earth—both reasons to celebrate the author who forever changed the face of literary fantasy.
Tolkien was a philologist and medieval scholar who taught at Oxford from 1925-1959. As a young man, newly married to Edith Bratt, and on his way to establishing a family and academic career, Tolkien began writing his myths of Middle-Earth. He fought in the Great War as one of the Lancashire Fusiliers, lost most of his closest friends, and returned to England an altered man.
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, Professor Tolkien sat marking student papers:
“It all began when I was reading exam papers to earn a bit of extra money. That was agony. One of the tragedies of the underpaid professor is that he has to do menial jobs. He is expected to maintain a certain position and to send his children to good schools. Well, one day I came to a blank page in an exam book and I scribbled on it. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
This is one of those literary moments that has become part of the myth around Tolkien and Middle-Earth. See Tolkien’s 1968 interview in the Telegraph here.
The Hobbit began as a children’s tale—a fairy story to amuse his children. Tolkien had already established Middle-Earth, beginning the tale of Beren and Luthien as early as 1917. But Bilbo and his adventures with Thorin and Company didn’t have a place in that world at first. Not until Tolkien’s publisher, Allen and Unwin, began requesting a Hobbit sequel did Tolkien try continuing the story of hobbits. Another eighteen years would pass before The Lord of the Rings gave the world a closer peek inside Tolkien’s mythology. And by the way, the word hobbit entered the language because of Tolkien.
I first read The Hobbit at the age of eleven. I had recently lost my sight in a car accident, but by some curious chance, this book came my way. I was in the hospital, and it filled a void in my life I didn’t know I had. And the book continues to be part of my life to this day. I teach it every year to my children’s literature students, and my inaugural blog post from 2014 was about this book.
You may not be a Tolkien fan. You may have read and hated both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Even if you never intend to read these books, acknowledge to yourself the achievement they represent—the scribblings of an Oxford professor who loved languages and altered the way people read and wrote fantasy.
It’s impossible to do justice to Tolkien and his achievement in a single blog post, but here’s a point on which to close for now. C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s friend and colleague at Oxford, had this to say about The Hobbit in his 1937 review that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement:
“For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”