C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: A Far-Reaching Friendship

written by Melody Green, Adjunct Instructor at Urbana Seminary

On Nov 22, 2012, it was announced in England that next year the author C. S. Lewis will be memorialized in Westminster Abbey, where kings and queens of England are crowned, married, and buried.  In “Poet’s Corner,” a small area of the thousand-year-old-building, various poets, authors and playwrights who are recognized as having had a significant impact on British culture have been either buried or memorialized. Names here include Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll.  The work for which C. S. Lewis is being recognized includes a series of radio programs during the bombing of England in the 1940’s that were later published under the title Mere Christianity, and his series of children’s books, the Chronicles of Narnia.   In fact, while Lewis did publish a few titles before his conversion to Christianity, all of his work that is considered influential was created after that conversion.

While Lewis’s impact will be memorialized in this way 50 years after his death, Lewis’s conversion to the faith that shaped his work was heavily influenced by another British author, J. R. R. Tolkien.  While Lewis had been raised in a Christian home, he spent much of his early life as an atheist. As an adult working at Oxford University, he met the devoutly Christian Tolkien, and while their belief systems were radically different, their professional interests were strikingly similar. The two men struck up a friendship that involved the reading, writing and editing of each other’s work, which, in its turn, involved the constant exchange and challenging of ideas.  This, in time, developed into weekly meetings at which they and other friends would read out loud the manuscripts of books and articles they were working on, and discuss their work. Today, this group who came to call themselves The Inklings would be called a “Peer review group;” at the time, they called themselves friends.

On one particular evening, Lewis, Tolkien and a third member of the group, Hugo Dyson, found themselves engaged in a serious discussion that became a vital step in his conversion to Christianity. Thanks to Lewis’s diaries and letters, we know today the nature of this discussion. On Sept 19, 1931, the conversation about texts that Lewis and Tolkien were working on turned into a discussion of myth in general. Lewis argued that every mythological system has a dying god story, that the story of Jesus was just another dying god story in another mythological system (and a much more repulsive version of the story), and all such stories were pretty, but ultimately had no value. They were, he argued, “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien countered this by pointing out, first, that from previous conversations, he knew that Lewis loved these stories whenever he encountered them, except in Christianity. Lewis’s own prejudices and background shut down his ability to be interested in this particular expression of this story. But more importantly, Tolkien argued that these other dying god stories were not proof that Christianity is not true: in fact, he argued the reverse.  According to Tolkien, every mythological system has a dying god because the death and resurrection of Christ is the truth to which all other stories point. It is indeed, he argued, myth—but it is the true myth, the reality behind every other myth that each one of them strives toward and points to.  The plethora of dying god stories does not negate the story of Christ; instead, there is no other story that mythological systems could ultimately tell because  the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ is the story that the Creator of the world, the author of our existence, created himself. Humans around the globe and throughout the centuries have told stories that reflect this reality because we all are image-bearers: we create the stories we do because we reflect the glory of our own creator.  This discussion with Tolkien became a vital turning point in Lewis’s journey toward faith, and toward becoming one of the most influential Christians of the twentieth century.

On Dec 1, Urbana Theological Seminary will be hosting a conference in Bloomington, IL that will explore various aspects of the life, ideas, and writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, the friend who so directly influenced Lewis’s own journey to Christianity.   Join us!