One of the interesting parts about The Narnian has been reading about Lewis’ friendships, and in particular his friendship with Tolkien. They made some funny statements about each other. For example, on hearing that the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph had done an article on Lewis which at one point referred to him as “ascetic Mr. Lewis,” Tolkien wrote to his son, “‘Ascetic Mr. Lewis’ -!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was ‘going short for Lent.'” Concering Tolkien’s reluctance to receive criticism and make changes to his writings, Lewis wrote: “no one ever influenced Tolkien. You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch…. He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else he takes no notice at all.”
Chiding aside, I am struck by how much Tolkien, and Lewis’ other friends, meant to him. One of the most fascinating parts of the book was Jacobs’ description on pp. 148ff. of the conversation between Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson on September 11, 1931, which lasted till 4:00 AM, and was critical to Lewis’ conversion. On the first of October he would write to Arthur Greeves, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
The turning point in the conversation was how Christianity relates to pagan myth, and Tolkien and Dyson helped Lewis understand that what is suggestively hinted at in pagan myth is truly and fully revealed in historic Christianity. Myths are beautiful and arouse human longing because they point to something real. Tolkien wrote Lewis a poem with the subtitle “Philomythus to Misomythus” (i.e., myth-lover to myth-hater), and it has some of the most beautiful statements about human dignity and the memory of Eden. One of my favorite parts of the poem is this:
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act.
(I think its interesting how much you can see this influence in Lewis’ later writings. One of my favorite things about Lewis’ writings is his emphasis on Joy and the longing for heaven as a clue to the meaning of human existence, and the role of myth in his thought is evident in Till We Have Faces.)
Despite later strains in their friendship, its obvious that Tolkien and Lewis deeply loved each other, and took great pleasure in the circle of friendship they had with the other Inklings. Tolkien wrote in his diary soon after Lewis’ conversion, “friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.” Lewis wrote of the Inklings, “we met theoretically to talk about literature, but in fact nearly always to talk about something better. What I owe to them all is incalculable. Dyson and Tolkien were the immediate human causes of my own conversion. Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”
What a beautiful portrait of the delights of friendship! I’ll close this post with one more quote from Lewis which I think really encapsulates the spirit of the Inkling friendships at their best:
In a perfect friendship this Appreciate love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together; each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walk have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?