Saturday, July 4, 2009


Other writers might have invented a single rule for moving characters into Narnia and out of it. Lewis invented new tricks whenever he felt like it: a wardrobe, a painting, the call of a horn, magic rings. This casual attitude toward the rules of Narnia is one reason Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t love the Chronicles.

Tolkien might have laughed by the time he read The Magician’s Nephew. The magical green rings and gold rings that transport Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer to Narnia and back are a sly tribute to Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. That tribute isn’t the only one. Lewis and Tolkien had a friendship and an informal working relationship that was very important to both men, personally and professionally. It altered their careers. It changed Lewis’s life.

Lewis and Tolkien were brought together by a love of adventure. Armchair adventure, that is. They met in Oxford, where Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English). Both, they discovered, adored Norse myths—Old Icelandic sagas about gods and heroes. Tolkien asked Lewis to be part of a group he was forming that would read these sagas in the original Old Icelandic.

Both men were clubby. Lewis loved rowdy conversations about literature fueled with beer. Tolkien had been forming groups to talk about literature since he was a schoolboy. Both agreed: no girls allowed.

Tolkien’s club was called the Kolbitars (“Coalbiters”), an Old Icelandic term for taleswappers who sat so close to the fire they could bite the coals. Once a week the friends would gather by a fireplace in their slippers, beer at the ready, and read aloud. For Lewis, reading “the mere names of god and giant” in Icelandic was enough to give him a thrill.

Another club, which has since become famous in literary circles, grew out of this friendship in the mid-1930s. It was called the Inklings, which Tolkien said was a pun referring to “people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” One evening each week (and often another morning, too) they met at a pub to drink, talk, and read to each other whatever they were writing.

Even within the club, Lewis and Tolkien had special influence on each other’s work. They didn’t always see eye to eye, but that didn’t matter to either of them. Lewis once observed, “The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer.” (The Four Loves, 66)


Lewis was a great encourager of Tolkien, who was obsessed with creating a whole set of myths about ancient Britain, despite the lack of interest from his publishers. Then, having encouraged Tolkien, Lewis drew on Tolkien’s creations just as he drew on classical myths and Icelandic sagas. Long before The Lord of the Rings was published, Lewis published books that alluded to it. As far as Lewis was concerned, Tolkien’s myths were as real as the others. He might have held that opinion even if he wasn’t Tolkien’s friend; but of course he knew all about Tolkien’s painstaking scholarship. Naturally, given their many discussions during the course of Tolkien’s work, Lewis’s allusions get right to the heart of Tolkien’s world.


From childhood, Tolkien was haunted by a dream of a huge, dangerous wave. He came to believe it was an ancestral memory, and that it was connected to the myth of the lost island Atlantis, where a great civilization is said to have been wiped out in an instant. His efforts to understand the dream led him to write myths about Atlantis, which in his version was called Númenor.

One of its first appearances followed a challenge from Lewis during an Inklings meeting. Somehow a discussion led Lewis to say, “One of us should write a tale of time travel and the other should do space travel.” (The Inklings drank a lot during their meetings.) They flipped a coin and Tolkien drew the time travel. Woven into his story “The Lost Road,” was the tale of noble men on an island called Númenor. An evil wizard Sauron—the great enemy of The Lord of the Rings—corrupts the men, which prompts the God of Middle-earth to sink Númenor under a great wave.

Lewis heard about Númenor when Tolkien read the story to his fellow Inklings. He liked Tolkien’s version of the Atlantean myth so much that when he turned his space-travel story into a novel he included references to “Numinor” and “the last vestiges of Atlantean magic.” (The spelling is different because Lewis had only heard the story read aloud.) In the book’s introduction, he gave readers a teaser about Tolkien’s work. “Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that exists only in the MSS. [manuscripts] of my friend, Professor J.R.R.Tolkien.” (THS, 7)


Tolkien hated the way humankind treats nature. His anger is apparent throughout The Lord of the Rings. He got his revenge by bringing a forest to life and turning it into an army that comes to the rescue of the heroes.

There is a great power in them, and they seem able to wrap themselves in shadow: it is difficult to see them moving. But they do. They can move very quickly, if they are angry. You stand still looking at the weather, maybe, or listening to the rustling of the wind, and then suddenly you find that you are in the middle of a wood with great groping trees all around you.

In Prince Caspian, the sudden appearance of the forest is described the same way:

Have you ever stood at the edge of a great wood on a high ridge when a wild southwester broke over it in full fury on an autumn evening? Imagine that sound. And then imagine that the wood, instead of being fixed to one place, was rushing at you . . . their long arms waved like branches and their heads tossed and leaves fell round them in showers. (PC, ch. 14)

The appearance of the living forest has the same effect on the evil armies in both tales. In The Lord of the Rings:

The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.

In Prince Caspian:

Tough looking warriors turned white, gazed in terror . . . flung down their weapons, shrieking, “The Wood! The Wood! The end of the world!”

But soon neither their cries nor the sound of weapons could be heard any more, for both were drowned in the oceanlike roar of the Awakened Trees . . . (PC, ch. 14)


In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien added a twist to the Icelandic sagas he and Lewis shared. Tolkien’s version was to find its way into Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew and The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.”

There’s a famous story in the sagas about a magic ring that offers great wealth but is cursed to cause tragedy for any mortal who wears it. Tolkien’s first novel of Middle-earth, The Hobbit, made that ring a small part of the plot. Then, in the course of writing The Lord of the Rings, the importance of the ring grew, and its meaning changed. Tolkien added a Christian interpretation: the rings (there were several in Tolkien’s novel) were made through the trickery of Sauron, whose “lust and pride . . . knew no bounds” and who wants to take God’s role in Middle-earth. His arrogance affects all the wearers of the rings. They, too, deceive themselves into thinking they deserve glory and believing themselves strong enough to control the magic of the ring. Naturally, most of them are led to ruin.

The story of the rings in The Magician’s Nephew reveals a similar arrogance: a foolhardy pursuit of “knowledge” that Lewis, like Tolkien, believed was God’s alone. Lewis’s rings are made from Atlantean dust with “hidden wisdom.” Another sinful ring causes Eustace trouble in the Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (see page 125).


If all we did was look at their books, we could be cynical about the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis borrowed a lot from his friend. He sometimes wrote passages that were close to what he’d heard Tolkien read. What he took was at the core of Tolkien’s work. And he published books that drew on Tolkien’s works before Tolkien finished writing. But we’d be wrong to look at their friendship as competitive. Tolkien and Lewis didn’t. Tolkien believed he owed more of a professional debt to Lewis than Lewis owed him. Lewis was a great encourager of Tolkien. Borrowing from Tolkien’s myths was a way of letting Tolkien know he believed the myths were as valid as the classics. Tolkien understood the compliment. He needed that encouragement during the dozen years it took him to write The Lord of the Rings. “Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby,” Tolkien wrote. “But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion. . .”

The real debt Lewis owed Tolkien was personal. The myths he took from Middle-earth weren’t as important to him as another myth Tolkien gave him one night. On 19 September 1931, Tolkien, along with another friend, Hugo Dyson, brought Lewis back to Christianity. As they had dinner and went for a walk, they discussed mythology and religious faith. Although by 1929 Lewis had moved from an avowed atheism to accepting the idea of the divine, he continued to think of Christianity as just another myth. He didn’t see how Christ was more than a good example to people. The dynamic of death and salvation left him cold. Christianity, to him, was just another story like others before it. Tolkien disagreed. He argued that because man comes from God, there is always an essential truth in pagan myths. Because Lewis was moved by pagan myths of sacrifice to a feeling “profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp,” he should feel the same about the story of Christ. (CLI, 977) In fact, Tolkien argued, he should feel it more profoundly because the story of Christ is true. There’s no record of exactly what evidence Tolkien presented to back up the last part of that argument. As Lewis himself explained many years later, you have to believe in miracles to accept it. But people who want to believe in miracles have no trouble finding evidence for them, and long before the conversation took place Lewis wanted to believe. From conversation to “conversion,” as Lewis called it, didn’t take long. Two weeks later, Lewis told a friend he had once again fully embraced Christianity: “My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”

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