As Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee walk the treacherous path to Mount Doom in their quest to destroy the One Ring in The Two Towers, Sam wonders, “I wonder if people will ever say, ‘let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring’ and they’ll say, ‘yes, it’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy. The most famous of Hobbits and that’s saying a lot.’” Frodo responds, “Ha, you’ve left out one of the chief characters: ‘Samwise the Brave.’ I want to hear more about Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without Sam.”
The enduring friendship between Frodo and Sam is the heart of the Lord of the Rings novels. It is only through their profound love for and steadfast support of one another that they are able to complete their quest, and it is this friendship that inspired the love of Middle-Earth in millions of readers worldwide. Witnessing their successes and failures, tears and laughter, and the struggles they undertook together, it is difficult to believe that Frodo and Sam’s strong friendship was born only from the imagination of author J.R.R. Tolkien, and indeed this does not seem to be the case. One of the most significant relationships of Tolkien’s life was his friendship with C.S. Lewis, author of the popular Chronicles of Narnia novels. Although filled with ups and downs, despairs and triumphs, and camaraderie and bitterness, the friendship between these two literary giants shaped the lives of each other, the races of Middle-Earth, the people of Narnia, and millions of people in our world as well.
Introducing the Fellowship
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. When he was 19, he traveled from Birmingham, England to attend Exeter College in Oxford. He received a B.A. in 1920 and continued his tenure at Oxford as a tutor and a staff member, after which he finally received a professorship in 1925. Tolkien spent nearly his entire adult life in Oxford until his retirement in 1959, when he moved to Hampshire with his family. As Tolkien greedily consumed as much literary content as possible as a student and wetted his ears in early academic life, another man named Clive Staples Lewis, known affectionally as “Jack” by his friends, also traveled from Ireland to Oxford University to study mythology and literature. He graduated from Oxford in 1920 and afterward worked as a philosophy tutor at University College. In 1925, he was elected as a Fellow at Magdalen College, and he remained in that position until 1954. It was in the early years of C.S. Lewis’ and J.R.R. Tolkien’s professorships that both men would meet, a fabled meeting that would change their lives forever.
A Burgeoning Friendship
On occasion, faculty at Merton College would host academic gatherings known as “English Tea,” where professors would discuss and pleasantly argue about the appropriate curriculum for their students. Tolkien and Lewis first met at one such faculty meeting in 1926. By most accounts, this first meeting did not go very well; Lewis later wrote of Tolkien in his diary, “No harm in him… only needs a smack or so.” Although they spent subsequent meetings arguing over what coursework to assign their students (Tolkien favored Old and Middle English literature while Lewis preferred post-Geoffrey Chaucer writings), Lewis chose to join Tolkien’s study group Kolbítar (Icelandic for “coal-biters”), where they discussed Old Norse languages and mythology. Fate and fantasy became the common themes of their discussions, and soon Tolkien and Lewis became fast friends who could spend hours discussing mythology and religion. While they were united by a common interest in literature, a distrust of politics and the news, and a reluctance to conform to modern “fads” (neither owned or had any desire to own a car), they also commiserated over their mutually harrowing experiences during World War I and the pain of losing family members. In their discussions of these experiences, they jointly retreated into their fertile imaginations and used them to explore the world around them.
Besides their similar interests, both men also shaped each other’s lives in profound ways. Although now known as a devout Christian who modeled many of his literary characters after Christian figures, Lewis arrived at Oxford as a steadfast atheist who found it simply impossible to believe in organized religion. In what is now known as a legendary after-dinner walk that Tolkien and Lewis took on September 19, 1931, both men discussed the meaning of faith and belief in their lives. Lewis, who had trouble accepting Christian symbols, claimed that “Myths are lies.” Tolkien responded that, “Myths are not lies.” Instead, he argued that the true function of myths is for humanity to glimpse true light and beauty in the world, just like the Scandinavian, Norse, and Icelandic myths that they loved so much. According to Tolkien, the only difference between those stories was that the Christian myths were true. Profoundly moved by these conversations, Lewis wrote, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.” A few weeks later, he wrote, “I have passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ… a long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a lot to do with it.” Lewis’ new-found faith became a pervasive theme in many of his books, such as the Chronicles of Narnia series. For example, Lewis describes Aslan as a Jesus-like character who guides the Pevensie children, sacrifices his life for them, and is subsequently resurrected. In these ways, Tolkien’s influence on Lewis’ fundamental beliefs shaped much of the latter’s storytelling.
One of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s most enduring legacies was joining the Inklings, a literary group in Oxford. According to a letter written by Tolkien, “At each meeting, members should read aloud unpublished compositions. These were supposed to be open to immediate criticisms.” On most days, after discharging their academic responsibilities, Lewis and Tolkien would gather at the Eagle and the Child pub with their fellow Inklings members to present their early documents of Narnia and Middle-Earth to discuss the philosophy of these worlds. While this club already existed before they joined it, it became a more serious and earnest exploration of literature under Tolkien and Lewis, the former of whom credited the latter for his later success because of his, “passion for hearing things read aloud.” Even today, the Eagle and the Child pub remains a fond monument to the birthplace of some of the most influential works of literature ever established.
In many ways, Lewis was essential to the creation of the novels of Middle-Earth. Bogged down by his detail-oriented mind, Tolkien spent hours, days, weeks, and years constructing languages, studying etymology, and establishing the minute details of Middle-Earth so that they remained consistent and unquestionable. Frequently distressed and distrustful of his own abilities, Tolkien relied not only on Lewis’ unwavering support but also his gentle pushes to complete the books. In fact, Tolkien modeled Treebeard’s voice after Lewis’ booming oratorical voice. Both men took their support of each other very seriously. There is one noted incident in 1939 when Lewis braved London during a war-time blackout to travel to Tolkien’s house and discuss the newly published The Hobbit. Tolkien had encountered writer’s block and was convinced that he could not write further, but Lewis encouraged him to continue. It was at this meeting that Tolkien read to him what is now the last two chapters from The Two Towers, and he later wrote in a letter how Lewis, “approved with unusual fervor, and was actually affected to tears by the last chapter.”
Despite their easy friendship, both did not reach similar levels of fame in the early stages of their careers. Tolkien was more well-known in his field as a scholar rather than a writer. His essay on “Beowulf” became standard course material for anyone pursuing an English degree, and his translation “Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight” is widely regarded as the definitive translation of that poem. However, when he published The Hobbit in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings series in 1954 and 1955, his peers mocked his pursuit of fantasy and dragons instead of “serious education.” There are reports of his colleagues mocking him by derisively asking, “How is your hobbit?” On the other hand, Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters, which he dedicated to Tolkien, was very well received. In sharp contrast to Tolkien, Lewis was also a prolific writer, publishing five out of the seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia series in a span of 3 years (1948-1951). He graced the cover of Time magazine in 1947, and by the time The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, Lewis’ fame had eclipsed Tolkien’s. This difference in reception as well as the obviously separate interests and philosophies of their works generated some friction between them. Tolkien wrote in a letter that Lewis’ work was, “outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his.” For his turn, Lewis complained that Tolkien was a perfectionist, writing that, “His standard of self-criticism was high and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision, in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one.” Still, both men unreservedly supported each other’s careers. Tolkien recommended Lewis’ book Out of the Silent Planet for publication when it was stalled, and Lewis printed glowing reviews of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Despite Tolkien’s and Lewis’ obvious affection for one another, challenges would soon reveal themselves in their friendship from which both men would never fully recover.
A Friendship Unraveled
Various instances of strife plagued the later years of the men’s friendship. Although the Inklings meetings were held so that both men could share their writing with one another, Lewis chose not to present parts of his Chronicles of Narnia series, most likely because Tolkien openly criticized many of his literary choices. For example, Tolkien believed that Father Christmas had no place in Lewis’ books and even voiced suspicions that Lewis had used some of his ideas in his works without his permission. Writer Charles Williams joined the Inklings in 1939, and soon he supplanted Tolkien as Lewis’ best friend. Tolkien was also openly critical of many of Lewis’ choices in life. For example, he condemned Lewis’ choice to marry Joy Davidman because she was American and because she was a divorcee. In a letter he wrote to his son in 1963, Tolkien confided that, “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.” The years that passed never witnessed the return of these old friends to the bond they once had. Despite this, when Lewis fell gravely ill in 1963, Tolkien visited his friend and stayed with him until he passed away on November 22, 1963. Although his death was eclipsed by news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy of the United States on the same day, Tolkien maintained that Lewis was one of the truest friends he had ever known. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “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: [Lewis’ death] feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”
If you travel to Oxford today and follow its narrow streets, you will eventually come face to face with the Eagle and the Child, the pub where Narnia and Middle-Earth came into reality. Even today, this pub represents an important pilgrimage spot for many ardent fans of these worlds, although it is now permanently closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, people still travel from all over the world to visit this monument and wistfully wonder what it might have been like to watch these men spill their imaginations into existence. Another landmark for Tolkien and Lewis enthusiasts is The Lamb & Flag Pub in Oxford, another meeting spot for both men. Although this pub also closed due to the pandemic, a local community group calling themselves the Inklings was able to resurrect it. Through their enduring legacies and the world they left in their stead, Lewis and Tolkien shaped the world of modern fantasy as we know it, and their contributions to literature will doubtlessly inspire countless generations to come.
“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”
~ Samwise Gamgee, “The Two Towers”