It was several years after I had first read The Lord of the Rings that I realised that its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a close friend of one of my other favourite authors, C. S. Lewis. It was quite a revelatory moment: it prompted an investigation into the underlying forces and themes of literature which continues to this day. But that close friendship wasn’t always manifested in society between the two men.
They first met almost a hundred years ago at a meeting of the English faculty at Oxford. Lewis’s diary reports an off-the-cuff assessment of the man who would have such an influence on the rest of his life: ‘No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.’ As you can read about in more detail earlier in this blog, Lewis had rejected his childhood Christian faith and questioned the nature of the universe deeply in his youth, but, though he had gradually come round to the idea that there must be a God, he was not yet ready to take up Christ again. Tolkien began a long dialogue with him that resulted in Lewis’ eventually becoming a Christian again.
Thirty-two years later, the Roman Catholic Tolkien visited the Anglican Lewis on his deathbed, bringing his son, who was a Catholic priest, along with him. Lewis and Tolkien, though, spent the time discussing the Morte d’Arthur rather than Lewis becoming a Catholic. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote a response to a letter which reveals some of what had happened to draw the friendship apart:
I am sorry that I have not answered your letters sooner; but Jack Lewis’s death on the 22nd has preoccupied me. It is also involving me in some correspondence, as many people still regard me as one of his intimates. Alas! that ceased to be so some ten years ago. We were separated first by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams, and then by his marriage. Of which he never even told me; I learned of it long after the event. But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains.
Tolkien was not reticent in his genuine praise of Lewis as a man:
He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries only scraped the surface, in places with injustice. How little truth there may be in literary appraisals one may learn from them – since they were written while he was still alive.
It had been an assumption among those who were ignorant of the facts that Lewis’s famous Ransom trilogy had been a product of the influence of Charles Williams over him, but Tolkien sets the record straight in the same letter:
Lewis only met Williams in 1939, and W. died early in 1945. The ‘space-travel’ trilogy ascribed to the influence of Williams was basically foreign to Williams’ kind of imagination. It was planned years before, when we decided to divide: he was to do space-travel and I time-travel.
What happened to Tolkien’s time travel story? He goes on to explain:
My book was never finished, but some of it (the Númenórean-Atlantis theme) got into my trilogy eventually…
It’s interesting to speculate what might have been. Had Charles Williams not appeared on the scene, perhaps Tolkien and Lewis would have grown even closer and their influence upon each other more marked. Tolkien may have ended up writing the time travel story, for example. But then we may have been deprived of the magical and tragic tale of Numenor and Lewis may never have written the excellent That Hideous Strength.