Lewis and Tolkien

JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met in 1926, when Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. As part of his reform of Oxford’s language syllabus, Tolkien founded a club among the Oxford dons to popularize Old Icelandic (or Old Norse) literature. Tolkien’s club was called Kolbitar, Icelandic for “coal biters,” a term for “men who lounge so close to the fire in winter that they bite the coal.”[1]

The focus of the group  was reading and translating the Norse myths and legends contained in the Edda. The group relied on Tolkien’s fluency in Old Icelandic. One group member fully shared Tolkien’s passion for myth, legend, and “Northernness.” His name was Clive Staples (C.S., or Jack) Lewis.[2]

After being wounded by a shell in the Great War, Lewis returned to his undergraduate studies at Oxford, specializing in English literature and philosophy. The school had “a prevailing tone of skepticism which Lewis gladly adopted.“[3] He prided himself on being coldly rational and formidable in debate. In Lewis’ eyes Tolkien was “a pale, fluent little chap.“ He wrote in his diary: “No harm in him (Tolkien), only needs a smack or two.“[4]

Later Lewis said his friendship with Tolkien “marked the breakdown of two old prejudices…I had been warned never to trust a Papist, and never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.“[5] Like Tolkien, Lewis was passionate about myth and legend. Unlike Tolkien, Lewis, the son of an Ulster Protestant, rejected Christianity altogether.

“I believe in no religion,“ he told a friend. ”There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention.“ Lewis wrote poems “picturing God as a brutish force whose hatred has scarred men’s lives.“[6]

Conversion of C.S. Lewis

 Tolkien and Lewis’ relationship started from their common interest in mythology. Tolkien shared his expertise in languages with Lewis, who became Tolkien’s willing student in translating the Norse myths Lewis had loved as a youngster. Tolkien rekindled a passion for Northern mythology Lewis had dismissed upon coming to Oxford. The next development was Lewis slowly edging back to the Christianity of his boyhood.

Tolkien had a part to play in this development as well. It was not a happy time for C.S. Lewis. He described himself as   "kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” At long last, in 1929, Lewis described his conversion:

C.S. Lewis

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

His conversion to theism was only a rest stop. In 1931 Lewis had his famous conversation with Tolkien and Lewis’ friend, Hugo Dyson. During a long walk around the grounds of Oxford, Lewis told Tolkien that although myths are powerful, they are ultimately “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

“No,” said Tolkien. “They are not lies.” At this moment Lewis remembered “a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”

Tolkien continued by saying that even though myths contained error, there were also shards of truth. He believed mankind’s urge to “make myths,” and the imaginative faculties to do so, came from God. The story teller, or “sub-creator“, is “actually fulfilling God‘s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light. Pagan myths are therefore never just lies, Tolkien concluded: “There is always something of the truth in them.”[7]

After Lewis conceded myths could have truth in them, Tolkien told Lewis that Christianity was a true myth, a myth that really happened. Tolkien shared with Lewis his belief

“that pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythologies‘ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth…Tolkien maintained that Christianity was exactly the same except for the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history…The old myth had become a fact while still retaining the character of a myth.”[8]

No one had ever talked to Jack Lewis like this before. Shortly afterwards he wrote a friend, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ - in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”[9]

Middle Earth

 This was the high water mark in the relationship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien was Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Tolkien had hoped Lewis would convert to Catholicism and was disappointed when Lewis joined the Anglican Church instead.

Nevertheless, Tolkien would write:

“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, a poet, and a philosopher - and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.”[10]

The Inklings

Another benefit Tolkien received was Lewis’ fervent encouragement of  Tolkien’s writing. Both men had joined a group called the Inklings: literary men like Lewis’ brother Warnie, Charles Williams, and Hugo Dyson. Tolkien said the name Inklings was a pun, “describing people with vague or half formed ideas who also work in ink.” Occasionally the gentlemen met at a local pub called The Eagle and Child, which they renamed “Bird and Baby.” There they drank and argued about literature.

It was to the Inklings that Tolkien hesitantly began to read a  work ofimaginative Christian mythology he wrote called The Silmarillion. Lewis was captivated and became Tolkien’s biggest fan. His heartfelt encouragement and constructive criticism caused Tolkien to believe there may be a larger audience for his fiction. In 1937 The Hobbit was published. The first edition sold out in three months.

The Eagle and the Child

Tolkien tried to interest his publisher in The Silmarillion. Write more about hobbits, they replied. With C.S. Lewis’ constant encouragement, Tolkien began melding hobbits and the landscape of Middle Earth with the epic tapestry of The Silmarillion. The result was Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien wrote late at night in his small study with its erratic stove, scrawling with a dip-pen on the backs of old examination papers. He would read the finished chapters at Inklings meetings. Lewis was the most enthusiastic and the most critical. It annoyed Lewis that Tolkien seemed heedless to his criticisms. “No one ever influenced Tolkien,” he complained, “you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.”[11]

In fact Tolkien was affected by Lewis‘ often harsh critiques - they injured him, and he responded by ignoring Lewis. Tolkien was a perfectionist, and he subjected his writing to as stiff an examination as he did his conscience before going to Confession. His writer’s block was not aided by the onset of the Second World War, the bombing of England by Nazi Germany, and the enlisting of two of Tolkien’s sons in the war.

C.S. Lewis’ biographer declared:

“The greatest single goad to Tolkien’s pen was Lewis. Month after month Lewis nagged Tolkien for more…It could be said with almost complete certainty that we should never have had The Lord of the Rings had not C.S.L. been so anxious to read to the end…”[12]


 “I needed some pressure,“ Tolkien admitted. He finished the book, originally titled The War Of The Ring, several years after the end of the second World War. Then came another massive revision, as he tried to end - or say good-bye - to the story. Finally it was over.

The desk in his study was too cluttered, so Tolkien balanced his typewriter on his attic bed and typed out a copy of the complete epic - with two fingers, as he had never learned to type with ten. The Lord of the Rings was finished in 1949. Of it Tolkien said, simply, “It is written in my life-blood, be it thick or thin; and I can no other.“[13]


 Lewis did more than just encourage Tolkien to persevere with The Lord of the Rings. He became a Christian radio apologist and an author during the Second World War. Recalling the combat required to move Lewis out of his atheistic foxhole must have given Tolkien and Lewis an appreciation of the irony in Lewis’ sudden popularity as a Christian apologist.

During the war Lewis wrote perhaps his best book, The Screwtape Letters, which he dedicated to Tolkien. Next was a science fiction trilogy Lewis wrote wherein the main character, Ransom, was modeled after Tolkien, even having the same profession, philology.[14] This may have been in response to Tolkien modeling Treebeard’s manner of speaking (“Hoom, Hom”) after Lewis.

After the war Lewis’ fame as a Christian radio personality and author grew, at least among English speaking Protestants. On the air and in print he reduced Christianity to the lowest common denominator in order to avoid squabbles between denominations. Lewis also ignored doctrinal differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. This led Tolkien to dub Lewis “Everyman’s theologian." It was not a compliment.

"Read me a story"

 In 1949 Lewis read to Tolkien and the other Inklings a book he called The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe.  Tolkien’s reaction was immediate. He disliked the story intensely. Lewis‘ biographer recorded Tolkien‘s reaction:

“I hear you’ve been reading Jack’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?”[15]

The seven slim books comprising C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia would be published in a mere seven years. Tolkien had taken over a dozen years to write The Lord of the Rings, and now it languished at one publisher after another.[16] He was almost sixty and feared his labor of love would never see the light of day. It may have galled him when Lewis not only borrowed some of Tolkien’s ideas, but dashed off (what Tolkien considered) a sloppy, truncated imitation of Lord Of The Rings that sold very well.

As it turned out, both imaginary worlds become beloved around the world. Lewis helped Tolkien finish The Lord of the Rings, which in turn inspired Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. While Lewis was always of fan of Middle Earth, Tolkien never had time for Narnia – even after sales of The Lord of the Ring surpassed everyone’s wildest expectations.


 The Inklings informally disbanded around 1949. Tolkien and Lewis were growing apart. The wedge was religious and literary. Tolkien was a traditional Roman Catholic who felt Lewis had not come all the way to the truth. Their literature and literary tastes had diverged from each other. Their lives seemed to be going in different directions.

A cause and effect of the separation was the stringent criticism they subjected each other’s work to. After a particularly severe critique of Lewis‘efforts, Tolkien wrote a letter of apology. Likening himself to “a savage creature, a sore headed bear, a painful friend,” Tolkien praised Lewis for his goodness. But they could not recapture the magic of their relationship.

In 1954 Lewis left Oxford to accept a position as chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. In August of 1954 The Fellowship of the Ring was published. On April 23 1956 C.S. Lewis married Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer and convert to Christianity. He did not tell Tolkien or invite him, probably because Lewis knew Tolkien would disapprove of Lewis marrying a divorced woman. Tolkien only found out about the marriage much later, from a third party.

Mr. and Mrs. Lewis

Joy Davidman died in 1960 of bone cancer. Lewis grieved profoundly, to the point of questioning his religious convictions, but did not share his turmoil with Tolkien. On July 15 1963 C.S. Lewis had a heart attack and fell into a coma. He survived but was never the same. He died later that year on November 22. His death was overshadowed by the assassination of President John Kennedy on the same day.

Upon hearing of Lewis’ death, Tolkien told his daughter he felt “like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one,“ and that Lewis’ death “feels like an axe blow near the roots.“[17] He soldiered on until 1973. While visiting friends in the seaside town of Bournemouth, Tolkien was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer. An infection developed in his chest. He died with his children at his bedside on September 2, 1973, at the age of eighty one. His son Michael, a Roman Catholic priest, performed a requiem mass for his father.

So ended the lives of two great storytellers. They have left us remarkable tales that continue to be told and retold. For many golden years John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Clive Staples Lewis brought out the best in each other, gave each other remarkable companionship, exchanged profound ideas about life death, God, and the universe, and gave us an example of creative friendship that is inspiring indeed. We are all much the better for it.

[1] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams And Their Friends, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979, p. 27.

[2] In 1925 Lewis had been granted a Fellowship at Magdalen College as a Tutor in English Language and Literature.  

[3] Ibid., p. 13.

[4] Ibid, pp. 22-23.

[5] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, op. cit., p. 145.

[6] Carpenter, The Inklings, op. cit., p. 7.

[7] Carpenter, The Inklings, op. cit., pp. 43-44. The term “sub-creator” was Tolkiens. He used it to show the subordination of creature to Creator.

[8] Joseph Pearce, Tolkien, Man And Myth, A Literary Life, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1998, pp. 57-60.

[9] Carpenter, The Inklings, op. cit., p. 45.

[10] Pearce, op. cit., p. 60.

[11] Carpenter, Tolkien, op. cit., p. 201.

[12] See A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis, A Biography, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, (pp. 196-197).

[13] Carpenter, Tolkien, op. cit., pp. 203-4 for the quote and the anecdote about Tolkien’s typing.

[14] Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla also thought Ransom was modeled on Tolkien. “As a philologist,” Tolkien said, “I may have some part in him and recognize some of my opinions and ideas Lewisified in him (Ransom). (Carpenter, The Inklings, op. cit., p. 182.)”

[15] Griffin, op. cit., pp. 296-297.

[16] One of the problems with the initial publication of LOTR was the sheer size of the manuscript, some 600,000 pages, which Tolkien insisted should be published as one book. Other problems included a post-war paper shortage that drove up costs, and Tolkien’s alternating bouts of perfectionism and procrastination during the publication process.

[17] Carpenter, Letters, op. cit., p. 341.