JRR Tolkein (1891-1973) and CS Lewis (1898-1963) were colleagues and friends before and during their careers as writers. Both men wrote fantasy – the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, respectively – and were both serious Christians. They differed, however, in the role their faith played in their works, one of many points of friction which shaped the ups and downs of a twenty-year friendship.
Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Lost’ generation born in the late 1800s. Both fought at the Battle of the Somme and studied at Oxford. Lewis, though raised a Northern Irish protestant, was an atheist, while Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic.
On meeting Tolkein in 1926, Lewis described him as a ‘a smooth, pale, fluent little chap,’ adding ‘no harm in him: only needs a smack or two’. Nonetheless, they shared a fondness for Norse mythology, loose tweed trousers and beer. By 1927 they were close friends. Tolkien modelled the character Treebeard’s speech patterns off Lewis. For years, Lewis was the only person Tolkien shared his works, and he offered steady encouragement.
Tolkien helped convert Lewis to Christianity. They enjoyed rigorous intellectual discussions, and religion was a common subject. After a talk lasting until 3 am in 1931 with Tolkien and professor Hugo Dyson, Lewis converted; though, to Tolkein’s dismay, not to Catholicism but the Church of England.
In the 30s and 40s, Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Inklings’, a writing group who met weekly at the Eagle and Child pub. Lewis, at the time, wrote mainly science fiction and Christian works. Once Tolkien was sharing the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), their friendship had begun to cool.
Tolkien ignored most of Lewis’s suggestions – that he remove LOTR’s frequent songs and poems, for example. Furthermore, by the time Tolkien finally published it in 1954, Lewis had already written a popular fantasy series of his own.
Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter:
‘Undoubtedly he felt that Lewis had in some ways drawn on Tolkien’s ideas and stories in the books; and just as he resented Lewis’s progress from convert to popular theologian he was perhaps irritated by the fact that the friend and critic who had listened to the tales of Middle-earth had as it were got up from his armchair, gone to the desk, picked up a pen, and ‘had a go’ himself. Moreover, the sheer number of Lewis’s books for children and the almost indecent haste which they were produced undoubtedly annoyed him.’
Tolkien never liked the Chronicles of Narnia. To him, they cherry-picked aspects of different mythologies and folk traditions without building a ground-up coherence. Narnia’s worldbuilding was too shallow. While both LOTR and Narnia were deeply Christian works, Tolkien disliked the latter’s use of allegory which he felt was too on the nose.
While the two had drifted apart by the time Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, CS Lewis did write a glowing review describing it as ‘like lightning from a clear sky’.
When CS Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla:
‘So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age-like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots’.
Sources: Humphrey Carpenter – JRR Tolkien: A Biography (1976)