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.

6 thoughts on “A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Curious Friendship”

  1. I am sure that both Tolkien and Lewis would have stoutly denied that the other writer was a huge or crucial influence on the writing of their own masterwork. Like most writers, they both had an ego and a myth of artistic self-creation to protect.

    1. Thanks, Tom. I haven’t read through enough of Lewis and Tolkien’s letters to get a clear sense, but I think these men acknowledged one another’s influence to different people in different ways—and not always consistently. With respect to Tolkien, Lewis writes in a 1959 letter, “…you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.” Glyer uses this letter as a jumping-off place for her study of the Inklings and influence. What seems true is that neither writer took criticism very well. Tolkien avoided reading from “The New Hobbit” if Hugo Dyson was at a meeting, and Lewis reacted badly to Tolkien’s criticism that Narnia was a “hodgepodge.”

      1. Remember the theory that Treebeard in Lord of the Rings is a caricature of Lewis? I wonder if anyone has ever found a caricature of Tolkien in Lewis’ fantasy writing.

        1. Yes, in fact. Many scholars suggest that Ransom, the philologist of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, is an homage to Tolkien. The Postscript of Out of the Silent Planet is subtitled, “Being extracts from a letter written by the original of Dr Ransom to the author.”
          Here, the original of Dr. Ransom criticizes the author (Lewis) on a variety of points, particularly for skipping over some finer points of philology with respect to the Malacandrian (Martian) language:
          “Of course you are right; if we are to treat it as a story you must telescope the time I spent in the village during which ’nothing happened’. But I grudge it. Those quiet weeks, the mere living among the hrossa, are to me the main thing that happened. I know them, Lewis; that’s what you can’t get into a mere story.”
          Lewis and Tolkien agreed fairly early in their friendship to each write a book—of the sort each of them appreciates. Lewis was to write a book about space travel, while Tolkien’s was to be about time. Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet, followed by Paralandra and That Hideous Strength. Tolkien began a work involving time but never finished it. I believe he was working on “The cottage of Lost Play.”

    1. Yes, it will be interesting. The trailer suggests they have something particular in mind with respect to Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.

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