The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends

movie desolation of smaug poster tolkienI have just read The Hobbit again and am about to finish The Fellowship of the Ring, reading aloud to my son. Again and again I am struck by how very good these books are. Not only are they wonderful stories of high adventure, but they are also richly literate in the elegant use of words, the varied textures of a complex world, and the intricate task of inculcating the story with foundational ideas. From fairy tale to epic, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology has absolutely transformed the way I write. I’m certain I am not alone in this conversion.

What strikes me most about Tolkien is that we came very close to never getting the pleasure of reading any of his great work. Tolkien was notoriously slow in writing these books we loves so much. He began The Hobbit in the late 20s, and it didn’t get to print until 1937. The Lord of the Rings was begun earnestly in the late 30s, but did not come to completion for more than fifteen years, finally coming to print in 1954-55. And even then it had to be pried out of his hands. As one of the world’s most famous books was going to print, the author was still deeply unsatisfied with it.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienTolkien’s perfectionism is legendary now because he was finally able to finish The Hobbit and get it to print. And he did this because of the encouragement of his friend, C.S. Lewis.

This month on A Pilgrim in Narnia we are considering C.S. Lewis’ legacy. Among Lewis’ most important contributions include, I think, his influence in Tolkien’s life just at the stage when he needed someone to give him real critical feedback on his work.

Once Lewis was able to find his literary voice–sometime in the mid 1930s–he didn’t slow down until the late 1950s, producing hundreds of books and essays. Tolkien disliked the lack of care that Lewis showed in completing his books, but Carpenter Tolkien biographythe fact was that Lewis was able to get his ideas and stories to print. A literary pact between Tolkien and Lewis, “Tollers” and “Jack,” confirms how different their approach was. Here Humphrey Carpenter records Tolkien’s recollection of a conversation they had, with Lewis speaking first:

“‘Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.” We agreed’ (said Tolkien) ‘that he should try “space-travel”, and I should try “time-travel”.’ (Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien, 190).

C.S. Lewis’ space travel story, Out of the Silent Planet, appeared quickly in 1938. If Tolkien ever finished his time travel piece, he never published it.

carpenter tolkien biography seriesIn 1932, Tolkien had completed much of The Hobbit. He was stalled, though, after the death of Smaug. It was then that he allowed Lewis to read it, and to his great surprise, Lewis loved it. Lewis continued to encourage Tolkien until The Hobbit‘s successful publication, and wrote a favorable review of it for the Times Literary Supplement. And, when the “new Hobbit” was finally coming from Tolkien’s pen, Lewis continued to give his support. After the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote to his publisher that,

“only by his [C.S. Lewis’] support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour” (Humphrey, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 184).

And, after Lewis’ death in 1963, Tolkien wrote a moving note to the Tolkien Society of America:

Lewis was a very impressionable man, and this was abetted by his great generosity and capacity for friendship. The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion…. (Humphrey, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 362).

the Narnian by Alan JacobsAgain and again C.S. Lewis is mentioned in Tolkien’s letters as being Tolkien’s main critic and a real fan of the hobbit tales. At one point Tolkien says that his children and “Mr. Lewis” are the original audience of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings–quite a claim. It is for this reason that at least two Lewis biographers call him Tolkien’s “literary midwife” (Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, xv; Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis, x, 130, 197-200).

Tolkien’s habit of putting off writing and of self-criticism continues through his life. Lewis’ habit of encouraging him to finish also continues. Here is a note from J.R.R. Tolkien to his son Christopher on Mar 30, 1944.

I saw the two Lewis bros. yesterday, & lunched with C.S.L.: quite an outing for me. The indefatigable man read me part of a new story! But he is putting the screw on me to finish mine. I needed some pressure, & shall probably respond; but the ‘vac.’ is already half over & the exam.wood only just cleared (Humphrey, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 68).

Carpenter Tolkien LettersNote that Tolkien ends the letter with excuses not to write. But he does write, and over the next couple of months his letters to Christopher (at war) are filled with progress reports on The Lord of the Rings–each chapter approved of by his good friend Lewis, now more than 20 years into a career of trying to get Middle Earth to print.

Tolkien claims that this is an unpayable debt, but Tolkien’s influence upon Lewis is no less important. On Feb 18, 1938, Tolkien wrote a letter of support for Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. Much of what Lewis wrote, including The Problem of Pain and much of Narnia, was read and critiqued by Tolkien. And, most of all, Tolkien was the spiritual midwife to the two greatest conversions in C.S. Lewis’ life: his acceptance of the value of myth, which then led to his conversion to Christianity.

Writing is a lonely enterprise. It is pen and paper. It is ink and blank space. Even today when writers need to create a public profile to advance their readership, the best parts of those social network connections are the ones that are “sheer encouragement.” We all need to write for specific audiences–and sometimes there is only one person who will listen. But as we move from “private hobbies” to careers in pen and paper, in story and form, we need the “interestBilbo Baggins 2012 Hobbit and unceasing eagerness” of someone who knows the real merits of our work.

And that, I think, is the profound legacy of C.S. Lewis as writer. Lewis turned ink and blank space into a circle of friendship, and helped bring hobbits to the world.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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32 Responses to The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends

  1. jubilare says:

    The friendship of these two men was certainly a blessing not only to them, but for the rest of us as well. It’s a little scary to think how little we might have known either of them if they had never become friends.

    I don’t need a literary midwife as much as someone to threaten to burn my toes off when I avoid writing. 😛


  2. robstroud says:

    “…he is putting the screw on me to finish mine. I needed some pressure.”

    Precisely the reason I benefit so much from being part of a Christian Writing Critique group that meets regularly.


  3. Joan DeCandia says:

    Thanks for your very current and alive blog. CSL has been teasing me for years. My writing currently is a small essay on the subject of the person who is offended, being the offender. I have been searching for content to bolster and render my idea as being interesting and more substantial, if possible. Others in a writing group, which I want to very much be a part of are driving me to write. I am grateful and must produce something worthy of their interest in me.


    • Very cool that you are in a local group. I still haven’t succeeded in this, but I have good digital critics.
      I don’t know the whole reality of your project, but I think you are right to separate the Offender and the Offend-ed. As an Offender, my life must change. But, I do not believe we are called to be Offend-ed on our own behalf. I don’t know that it is one of our rights.
      Not that people don’t offend against us, of course.
      I would love your thought on that.


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  9. Hanna says:

    Thanks! I love reading things about the Inklings. That’s exactly what I need: a friend who makes it so that I have no choice but to write.

    Liked by 1 person

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  17. L.A. Smith says:

    Wonderful post, thank you. I don’t have a local writing friend/encourager, either. The story of Lewis and Tolkein is a great encouragement to find one! The internet certainly has been a great way to get connected with some like-minded souls, though, and I’m grateful for that.

    Liked by 1 person

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