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.

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.

A Visit to Oxford, Part II


My daughter and I had six days in Oxford, three of which we used for day-trips—one to Stonehenge and two into London. Our final day in Oxford we dedicated to Lewis and Tolkien. On the Saturday, we got a bus on the High Street and headed to our car-park. The plan was to visit the places where Lewis and Tolkien had lived.
The Kilns is the house where Jack Lewis lived with Warnie, his brother, Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen. They purchased the house together in 1930, which is around the same time that Lewis was becoming a Christian—something that happened over the period of several years. The Kilns is outside of Oxford at Headington Quarry, but we found the house in only a few minutes.
Parking the car along a side street, we walked into what is now called Lewis Close—the short street leading up to the house and nature preserve. The house is unremarkable. It’s a quiet house on a quiet street. The place is maintained privately by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, so we weren’t able to get inside. I didn’t mind, particularly. This is the house where Lewis lived, and died, November 22, 1963.
We crossed the street and entered the park. The park has a pond—they call it a lake—and we walked about for a while. I was a little distressed at the amount of litter, and I got stung by nettles. A young family was also making their way through the park—a boy, apparently with the name of Jack, tagging along behind. Leaving the park, I feltsomehow let down, but I wasn’t sure why.
What exactly did you expect? I asked myself.
We stopped at the house once more, and I kept looking for the connection I wanted to feel. This was the place I had read so much about. This was the place where Lewis had lived for over thirty years.
Back at the car, we plugged Tolkien’s old address into the satnav and headed for Northmoor Road. And there, in not very long, was the house, number 22, one of two houses on this street where Tolkien lived with his family. The houses were tall and brick, and not the sort of place you would think the author of Lord of the Rings would live. But Tolkien, even more than Lewis, lived an ordinary life—married with four children, and working hard to raise a family.
After Northmoor Road, it was back to the car-park and Magdalen College. We wanted to look around the college grounds. We had to enter through the porter’s door again, but this time it seemed more normal—two lovely young women nodding and smiling, and handing us a leaflet on C. S. Lewis.
We found New Building right away, the building where Lewis lived on campus, and the place where the Inklings gathered in Lewis’ rooms on Thursday evenings. We wandered around inside another of the buildings, passing other visitors and students looking for their classrooms. A wedding was going on inside one of the courtyards, and the bells rang out from Magdalen Tower.
We saved Adison’s Walk for last. It’s a peaceful path encircling a deer park in the centre. Trees border the path, and a little river runs along one side. As I walked along, I thought of Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson walking here in September of 1931. It was late, after an Inklings meeting, and the three men walked and talked of myth.
In a letter to his life-long friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote of that night:
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: ….
I felt closer to Lewis and Tolkien on Addison’s Walk than I had anywhere else. Maybe it was the quiet, broken only by the sound of bells from the college—or maybe the relative solitude of this place gave me the chance to fully appreciate where I was. It wasn’t Narnia or Middle-Earth, but I was finally getting a glimpse into the lives of these men who lived very structured lives: teaching, reading, and researching; meeting with friends often to talk and drink and smoke, arguing about religion, philosophy, and pedagogy; and finally retreating into their imaginations to create and write into being the worlds that so many have come to love.
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. 975-76. Print.