'Lies breathed through silver.'
Though it will probably be common knowledge to you reading this, it came as a strange shock to me when, during my early teens, I discovered that C.S. Lewis, author of one of my favourite books The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was close friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, which I had recently read and fallen in love with. Both shared a lifelong love of ‘Northern-ness’, ancient mythology and many other things. I explored this fascinating connection further, wondering what it was about their books that I found so enthralling and whether or not their friendship had anything to do with it.
And it had. As you can read about in more detail in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, Lewis and Tolkien were once on a late-night walk together, discussing profound religious concepts with their friend Hugo Dyson. Lewis, though brought up a Christian as a child, had rejected that faith and questioned the nature of the universe deeply. Slowly, he had come round to the idea that there must be a God, but he was not yet ready to take up Christ again. As they wandered through an Oxford college in the middle of the night, he told Tolkien that myths were lies, though, he admitted, ‘lies breathed through silver.’ Tolkien said, simply, ‘No. They are not lies.’ The wind stirred some leaves as he said it, and his words had a significant effect upon Lewis. Tolkien wrote a poetic response to Lewis’ assertion and started a long dialogue with him that resulted in Lewis’ eventual conversion back to Christianity.
Tolkien’s central idea was this: we live in a myth. Tolkien considered Christianity to be the true myth, the story that humanity is living inside. For Tolkien, the word ‘myth’ was not a derogatory term -as a Catholic, he believed that the world was created by a loving God and was tangibly blessed: myth was something with incredible symbolic and multi-layered power. The Christian Gospel had been the prevailing myth of the West for over a thousand years, affecting the way that men and women viewed the world around them. At the very heart of the ‘myth’ of Christianity is the assertion that it actually occurred, and Tolkien identified the Incarnation and the Resurrection as the key turning points in the whole human story.
Tolkien argued that mankind is by his nature a ‘little maker’, and furthermore that the inspirations he receives to make are not just random impulses of a material, chemical brain but come from God. Inspiration isn’t meaningless, but a prompting to fulfill our nature as subcreators. In The Silmarillion, the God figure, Ilúvatar, creates the angelic Ainur and then gives them each a theme to play, which weave in and out of one another, eventually giving rise to a new vision which Ilúvatar then gives a being all its own. This becomes the world as we experience it. This pattern of lesser beings creating something which is then imbued with higher power extends throughout Tolkien’s works: we see it in Feanor’s creation of the Silmarils using the light of the Two Trees; we see it in the Elves creation of realms of their own using the Rings of Power.
Part of Tolkien’s Christian hope was that his own humble subcreations were not just the ramblings of his own mind but were instead mysterious worlds that might one day have more than just a subordinate reality. This belief gave momentum to what he said to Lewis. Lewis, accepting Christ as his personal saviour, went on to write extensively about his newfound faith, to broadcast about it, and to act as an apologist for it. Through Lewis’s works, millions of people have become familiar with Christian concepts, and many of them have become Christians themselves.
All stemming from a late walk in the grounds of an Oxford college one night…