The real fellowship of the ring

How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' all-night argument about God paved the way for both "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia."

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The real fellowship of the ring

On a warm September night in 1931, three men went for an after-dinner walk on the grounds of Magdalen College, part of Oxford University. They took a stroll on Addison’s Walk, a beautiful tree-shaded path along the River Cherwell, and got into an argument that lasted into the wee hours of the morning — and left a lasting mark on world literature.

At the time, only one of the men had any kind of reputation: Henry Victor Dyson, a bon vivant scholar who had shared tables and bandied words with the likes of T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell. His two companions were little-known Oxford academics with a shared taste for Icelandic sagas, Anglo-Saxon verse and the austere cultural mystique of “the North.” Few people remember Dyson now, while millions celebrate the names of his companions: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet the works that made their reputations — “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” for Tolkien, “The Chronicles of Narnia” for Lewis — were profoundly shaped by that night-long argument and the bond it cemented. It’s possible that Tolkien’s Middle-earth would have remained entirely a private obsession, and quite likely that Lewis would never have found the gateway to Narnia.

“Lovers seek for privacy,” Lewis wrote in “The Four Loves” (1960). “Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not.” Lewis and Tolkien quickly found this cozy solitude after they met in 1926, during a gathering of the English faculty at Merton College. Both men had fought in World War I, and come back scarred by its industrial savagery. They had seen the worst the 20th century had to offer — up to that point, anyway — and took paradoxical comfort in studying blood-soaked Viking Age stories of ambiguous heroes and gods battling monsters and the outer darkness, tales short on the milk of human kindness but long on sardonic humor. (“Broad spears are becoming fashionable nowadays,” a character remarks in “Grettir’s Saga,” just after being pierced with one.)

In the pitiless Old Norse universe, gods and their human allies face inevitable defeat, but there is no thought of surrender or negotiation with the monsters besieging them. The brave and the cowardly all come to the same end — what then must we do? “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination,” Tolkien explained in his famous 1936 lecture on “Beowulf,” “that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the center, gave them victory but no honor, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.” In the struggle against evil, there is no shame in defeat — only in not fighting.

The solution seems to have made a bigger impact on Tolkien’s writing than on Lewis’. There is an unmistakable Icelandic chill in the air when Aragorn, faced with a catastrophic loss in “The Lord of the Rings,” asks what hope is left, then answers his own question: “We must do without hope. At least we may yet be avenged.”

Lewis approached “the North” from the literary side, while Tolkien was a philologist immersed in the sound and history of languages. He could be spiky and opinionated: After their initial meeting, Lewis called him “a smooth, pale fluent little chap — no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” But by the next year, Tolkien had invited him to join a group known as the Coalbiters, who were devoted to reading the Icelandic sagas in the original Old Norse. (The name was a play on “kolbitars,” an old Icelandic term for tale-swappers who sat so close to the communal fire that they were almost literally biting the coals.)

Every Thursday evening the friends would gather by the fireplace, slippers on their feet and drinks at their elbows, to hear “The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki” or “The Saga of the Volsungs” or whatever epic was under study. The Coalbiters faded in the early 1930s, to be replaced by the Inklings, an informal group that lasted over the next three decades, with Tolkien and Lewis as its key members. (Much more about them can be found in such books as Humphrey Carpenter’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography” and Colin Duriez’s new “Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Story of a Friendship.”)

At the time of their meeting, both men were uneasy about their literary prospects. Tolkien’s curriculum vitae consisted of a 1925 translation of the important Middle English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” along with a 1929 essay on “Ancrene Wisse,” a 13th century manuscript offering advice for “anchoresses,” or female monks, and “Hali Meidhad,” a medieval tract praising virginity. His mind was awash in anxiety over half-completed and languishing projects; “Leaf by Niggle,” his 1939 tale of a painter who can never find time to complete an ambitious work, is accepted by Tolkien scholars as a byproduct of these worries.

Lewis, for his part, had published two books of the type automatically described as “slim volumes of verse” — no further explanation necessary. He had yet to find his voice as a writer, let alone anything worthwhile to say with it. “From the age of 16 onwards,” he wrote in a letter to his boyhood friend Arthur Greeves, “I had one single ambition, in which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on which I really and deliberately staked my whole contentment; and I recognise myself as having unmistakeably failed in it.”

When he got his first look at Tolkien’s fiction — an early run at the love story of Beren and Luthien, a cornerstone of Middle-earth’s invented mythology and and a tale with tremendous personal associations for Tolkien — Lewis recognized a man who could spend long years grinding away at a single story, but who also had his own voice and used many of the pagan source materials Lewis loved. To his lasting credit, Lewis reacted to this discovery not with envy or jealousy, but with spontaneous and generous delight.

On that fateful night in 1931, Lewis was in the midst of a fretful return to religious faith. Raised as an Irish Protestant, he had become an agnostic as a teenager. Though he came back to accepting the idea of a divine presence in 1929, he continued to resist Christianity. It remained for Dyson, a High Anglican, and Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, to push him over the threshold — though it literally took them all night. As they marched back and forth along Addison’s Walk, Tolkien argued for the literal and mythological truth of the Resurrection of Christ.

By all accounts, the key moment came when Lewis declared that myths are lies, albeit “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien replied, “No, they are not,” and demanded to know why Lewis could accept Icelandic sagas as vehicles of truth while demanding that the Gospels meet some higher standard. Hours past midnight, Tolkien finally went home to bed, leaving Dyson to carry on the campaign. Tolkien’s argument — that the Resurrection was the truest of all stories, with God as its poet — may not sound particularly convincing to nonbelievers (nor indeed to some Christians), but to a man committed to the idea of myth as the only way to express higher truths, it was irresistible. 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.”

The effect on Lewis was explosive. Beginning in 1933 with “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” Lewis produced a torrent of books, essays, novels and radio talks, all works of Christian apologetics or stories with obvious spiritual preoccupations. Even as he churned out these works, Lewis prodded Tolkien to pull together and complete his stories of Middle-earth — the private universe that had preoccupied him for most of his life. Thanks to that ceaseless, friendly prodding, Tolkien published “The Hobbit” to great acclaim in 1937. The prodding continued during the long, fitful gestation of its outsized sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” which finally saw the light of print in the mid-1950s. “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood but sheer encouragement,” Tolkien recalled. “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”

But the debt did not end there. Lewis quickly built a reputation as an explainer of Christianity, but he would hardly be remembered today if his fame rested solely on books like “The Problem of Pain” (1940), with their bullying style and legalistic method of argument. The man who had returned to faith through myth and poetry seemed to think he could lawyer his readers through the gates of heaven. This point was not lost on Lewis’ critics, particularly those within the faith. “The problem of pain is bad enough,” one clergyman groused, “without Mr. Lewis making it worse.”

Lewis is at his most charming and approachable in his stories, and his journey into fiction — like his return to faith — was in large part guided by Tolkien. In 1937, on the eve of publication for “The Hobbit,” the friends found themselves deploring the state of contemporary writing. “Tollers,” Lewis said, “there is too little of that we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”

Tolkien’s response, a time-travel story called “The Lost Road,” was never finished. But Lewis completed his story, an H.G. Wells-style science fiction adventure called “Out of the Silent Planet.” It was published the next year, thanks to the support of Tolkien, who was enjoying commercial success with “The Hobbit” and had a bit of clout with publishers.

“Out of the Silent Planet” was widely praised, but it was Lewis’ second foray into fiction that made him a household name. “The Screwtape Letters,” in which a senior demon advises his infernal student on how to achieve a human’s downfall, was published in 1942 (with a dedication to Tolkien) and has apparently never been out of print since. This is all to the good, since “Screwtape” contains some of Lewis’ most waspishly elegant writing. (Some years ago there was an audiobook version, narrated by John Cleese, that needs to be reissued immediately.) Less persuasive, but still successful, were the second and third volumes of the Space Trilogy: “Perelandra” (1943) and “That Hideous Strength” (1945). Tolkien approved of all but “That Hideous Strength,” about which he wrote, “A bit tripish, I’m afraid.” But he actively detested what was to come next.

If many of Lewis’ books remain in print, it is largely as a byproduct of the continued success of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the seven-volume cycle that began in 1950 with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and continued at more or less yearly intervals until “The Last Battle” appeared in 1956. Though the Christian themes are out in the open, the sheer charm of the books seems to disarm all readers — all except Tolkien, who saw them as heavy-handed and inconsistent.

Some of Tolkien’s attitude may have been grounded in chagrin. The Narnia books marched out of Lewis’ brain and into bookstores with assembly-line efficiency; “The Lord of the Rings,” meanwhile, wallowed for over a decade in dithering and endless rewrites. Lewis was unswervingly supportive of Tolkien during the long gestation, but the other Inklings could be brutal: Dyson, for one, was known to snarl, “Oh fuck, not another elf!” as Tolkien read another section of the epic in his usual rapid-fire mumble.

Tolkien’s chief objections, however, were those of a craftsman. He considered “The Lord of the Rings” a Christian work, but its religious themes were carefully buried in the story. (Even die-hard Lewis fans may be tempted to groan when, in the first Narnia book, Aslan sacrifices himself to redeem the human children.) Tolkien presented Middle-earth as a sort of prehistoric Europe, employing elements from the Icelandic sagas, “Beowulf” and the Finnish “Kalevala” as though they were half-understood memories of the events described in “The Lord of the Rings.” But Tolkien’s systematic approach used folklore from northern Europe. The Narnia book, in which the Germanic figure of Santa Claus rubbed elbows with Greco-Roman divinities, struck him as simply lazy and undisciplined.

This drove something of a wedge into Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship, and they were not nearly as close in their later years. But when “The Lord of the Rings” was finally ready for publication in three hefty volumes, Lewis understood that it was a major work. He put any sense of personal injury aside and placed his considerable reputation on the line to sing its praises. The mutual support that began with that argument on Addison’s Walk was still going strong (at least on one side of the equation).

It was only natural that literary gamesmanship would crop up in each man’s work. Lewis made the first move by using Tolkien as the model for John Ransom, the philologist hero of the Space Trilogy. Tolkien steadfastly denied any connection with Ransom beyond choice of profession and “some of my opinions and ideas Lewisified.” In this he has backup from Lewis biographer A.N. Wilson, who calls the hero “fairly unlike” Tolkien. Readers may want to take these denials with a few grains of salt.

In “Out of the Silent Planet,” Ransom finds himself confronted by terrifying monsters on the red planet Malacandra (aka Mars), but immediately lays plans for a grammar as soon as he discovers the creatures use language. “If you are not yourself a philologist,” Lewis explains, “I’m afraid you must take on trust the prodigious emotional consequences of this realization on Ransom’s mind … The love of knowledge is a kind of madness.” In “That Hideous Strength,” the final book of the Space Trilogy, Lewis gives Ransom a speech that might have been lifted whole from one of Tolkien’s letters:

“However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.”

Tolkien repaid the favor in “The Lord of the Rings” by giving some of Lewis’ mannerisms to Treebeard, the ligneous leader of the tree-like Ents — chiefly his booming voice and constant throat-clearing. And it’s not too far a stretch to find a faint dig at Lewis’ nonstop literary productivity when Tolkien has Treebeard describe Entish as “a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”

Shortly after Lewis died, in November 1963, Tolkien wrote to his daughter: “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man my age — like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” By then, both men had definitively answered any self-doubts about their ability to succeed as writers. Tolkien, in fact, was about to become an international celebrity as the paperback edition of “The Lord of the Rings” caught on with college students. When he died in 1973, the Oxford don was a campus favorite alongside Hermann Hesse and Carlos Castaneda. It hardly needs to be pointed out that his epic has only grown in popularity over the decades, withstanding the sneers of critics, the songwriting of Led Zeppelin, the kitsch-sodden calendar art of the Brothers Hildebrandt, the rise of legions of subpar imitators, and animated films from Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass that can still astonish viewers with their sheer awfulness.

The long-overdue arrival of a proper film adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings,” courtesy of Peter Jackson, gives this story a fitting coda. A film version of the first of the Narnia books, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” will soon go into production in New Zealand. The enterprise was finally able to go forward because of the huge success of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” and will use some of the same production and design people, including the Weta special-effects shop that helped bring Middle-earth to earth.

The repercussions of that 1931 conversation along the River Cherwell are still being felt. Even now, it seems, Tolkien and Lewis are helping each other out.

Steven Hart is a freelance writer in New Jersey at work on a novel.

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