The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life

Carpenter Tolkien LettersThis actually happened three times, though we don’t have most of the letters that J.R.R. Tolkien sent to his friend C.S. Lewis over the years.

The first letters that changed Lewis’ life were more than letters. Throughout the 1920s Lewis had moved from atheism to a belief in God, relying mostly on philosophical constructs to move, piece by piece, into the Enemy’s camp (from Lewis’ perspective as reluctant convert). Lewis hesitated to convert to Christianity, however. Among the reasons for this hesitation were his concern about the “Christ myth.” While he loved myths, he thought they had little representative value–they don’t tell us much about real life. And he felt the Christ myth was derivative, or even distasteful. Why not turn to Osiris, Dionysus, or Balder and get better poetry thrown in?

Tolkien responded in a few ways. To the first objection, that myths have no value, Tolkien wrote a poem, “From Philomythus to Misomythus“–from MythLover to MythHater, what we now call the Mythopoeia poem. The first lines show a bit of how Tolkien won Lewis to the idea that myths were not just “lies … breathed through silver,” but contained deeper truth than bare fact could tell us:

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical               
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

Collected Letters vol 1The second objection was overcome in a slower process: with long talks and long walks, with beer and pipes and late nights whispering as we did as children.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in c old prose ‘what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened (letter to Arthur Greeves, Oct 18th, 1931; Collected Letters, 976-977).

This one-two punch not only brought C.S. Lewis into the Christian faith that he would engender for the rest of his life, it gave Lewis back the idea of “myth” that slid away during his university years. The deepest truths of myth informed all of Lewis’ ideas about literature and philosophy, and was the foundation of his best fiction.

The second life changing moment involved a conversation now kept in the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and a humorous note by Tolkien to a publisher.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienIt is not often that we have the conversation of intimates left to us in history, which probably means that we don’t know know much about history. In one instance, though, Tolkien shared a moment in the mid-1930s, a conversation that Lewis and he had:

L. [Lewis] said to me one day: ‘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 that he should try ‘space-travel’, and I should try ‘time-travel’. His result is well known. My effort, after a few promising chapters, ran dry: it was too long a way round to what I really wanted to make, a new version of the Atlantis legend. The final scene survives as The Downfall of Númenor. This attracted Lewis greatly (as heard read), and reference to it occurs in several places in his works: e.g. ‘The Last of the Wine’, in his poems (Poems, 1964, p. 40). We neither of us expected much success as amateurs, and actually Lewis had some difficulty in getting Out of the Silent Planet published. And after all that has happened since, the most lasting pleasure and reward for both of us has been that we provided one another with stories to hear or read that we really liked – in large parts. Naturally neither of us liked all that we found in the other’s fiction (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 378).

It is now a famous story. It captures the “double dare” of two good friends, as well as their characteristic writing styles. Lewis was quick to the pen, even if it took the audience a while to get it to their bookshelves. Tolkien was slow, cautious, and self-deprecating, and wrote for an audience that still hangs on every word.

out of the silent planet by c.s. lewisWhile Lewis could write quickly, this was still 1938. In the popular world, Lewis had had two books of poetry that sold poorly, and an obscure spiritual autobiography that barely counts as fiction. Although his academic work was well received, there was no audience for Out of the Silent Planet, a H.G. Wells-like interplanetary romance. Lewis struggled to find a publisher.

Solid and hesitant both, J.R.R. Tolkien decided to use his modest voice as the successful author of The Hobbit to try to help Lewis to popular print. He wrote to Stanley Unwin, the publisher who had discovered Tolkien’s potential. First, he confirms the double dare story:

We originally meant each to write an excursionary ‘Thriller’: a Space-journey and a Time-journey (mine) each discovering Myth. But the Space-journey has been finished, and the Time-journey remains owing to my slowness and uncertainty only a fragment, as you know (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 29).

Tolkien continues in this letter and another–bundled and sent together–to encourage its publication. Tolkien notes first that the protagonist, Dr. Ransom, is only coincidentally a philologist (like Tolkien), and that Out of the Silent Planet had passed the test of being read to the Inklings. In the second note, solicited by Unwin, Tolkien is more careful in his apology since it had received a poor review from one of Unwin’s readers, who called it “bunk.” Tolkien’s humour shines through in response:

I was disturbed by your reader’s report. I am afraid that at the first blush I feel inclined to retort that anyone capable of using the word ‘bunk’ will inevitably find matter of this sort – bunk (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 33).

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 1960sMore than wry humour, Tolkien tells the story of the Silent Planet‘s worth:

I read the story in the original MS. and was so enthralled that I could do nothing else until I had finished it. My first criticism was simply that it was too short. I still think that criticism holds, for both practical and artistic reasons. Other criticisms, concerning narrative style (Lewis is always apt to have rather creaking stiff-jointed passages), inconsistent details in the plot, and philology, have since been corrected to my satisfaction. The author holds to items of linguistic invention that do not appeal to me (Malacandra, Maleldil — eldila, in any case, I suspect to be due to the influence of the Eldar in the Silmarillion – and Pfifltriggi); but this is a matter of taste. After all your reader found my invented names, made with cherished care, eye-splitting. But the linguistic inventions and the philology on the whole are more than good enough. All the pan about language and poetry – the glimpses of its Malacandrian nature and form — is very well done, and extremely interesting, far superior to what one usually gets from travellers in untravelled regions. The language difficulty is usually slid over or fudged. Here it not only has verisimilitude, but also underlying thought (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 32-3).

Tolkien, of course, would be concerned with philology! After all, he spent decades working on the languages for Middle Earth with “cherished care.” While Tolkien did not really get Narnia (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 32-3) or some of Lewis’ philosophical fiction, he thought Out of the Silent Planet had real value:

I should have said that the story had for the more intelligent reader a great number of philosophical and mythical implications that enormously enhanced without detracting from the surface ‘adventure’. I found the blend of vera historia with mythos irresistible (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 33).

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 50sAny literary praise from Tolkien is high praise. The letter contains some criticism as well, a balanced assessment that is able to check Tolkien’s love for Lewis and his desire for Lewis’ success. Although Unwin’s firm did not publish Out of the Silent Planet, Stanley Unwin invited its submission to The Bodley Head. Unwin was the chair of the board of The Bodley Head, and they took the risk (Jack 235). Thus began C.S. Lewis’ world-class career as a popular storyteller.

The third life-changing moment I will only share in brief. Because of his public voice as a Christian intellectual and because of the popular literature that we love, Lewis never got tenure at Oxford–he never was elected to a chair. For years, Tolkien was quietly working to try to help Lewis move forward to a position as professor, which would give him more time to publish (e.g. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 108).

Eventually, Tolkien took another path. Despite the fact that their relationship had cooled, when a Chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature opened at Cambridge, Tolkien worked hard to lead Lewis to the promotion, negotiating for Lewis to be considered even when he withdrew his name for the chair (Lewis had recommended another candidate). Finally, Tolkien arranged it so that Lewis could live at his home in Oxford out of term and on weekends, being near his family and gardens.

J R R Tolkien - Smoking Pipe OutdoorsIt was enough. At Tolkien’s urging Lewis took the chair and Lewis began an era–1954-1963–that was rich for him. Lewis wrote perhaps his best work, Till We Have Faces, as well as his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. He met, married, taught, wrote, and felt the fading of his own life–first with the death of Joy, his wife, and second in his own failing health.

In one of those letters, Tolkien wrote that he and Lewis were “amateurs in a world of great writers” (378). I’m not sure that we are really in a world of great writers, but it was Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship with each other that brought them to the level of “great” in fantasy and popular literature. Truly, these letters and late night talks changed C.S. Lewis’ life, and changed the lives of so many readers after him.


Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume I: Family Letters 1905-1931. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Sayer, George. Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996.

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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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33 Responses to The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life

  1. Hi from another fellow Canadian! I just wanted to say how much I’ve been enjoying your blog and your insightful posts on probably my most favourite author (Lewis). I’ve put your blog on my blog roll. Cheers!
    ~ Cleo ~

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    • I just checked out your blog–fascinating! We are on the same sorts of reading paths. What area of Canada?
      Thanks for the nice note. Is there a way to follow your blog?

      Like

      • I’m waaaaayyy over the other side, near Vancouver. I’ve always wanted to visit P.E.I. ~~ it looks lovely but not that easy to get to.

        I’ve kept my C.S. Lewis Project going and would also like to read Charles Williams works, Owen Barfield and then read some Lewis favourites, like William Morris, George MacDonald and even H.G. Wells. It’s slow going though. I kind of stalled with the Space Trilogy (my second reading —- and not so easy to get my thoughts together to review) so I’m slowly reading through Of Other Worlds now.

        If you go down to the bottom of my blog, there is a “get it live” area for e-mail addresses, or there is a Bloglovin’ button on the right side, if you go on Bloglovin’; I find they’re an easy way to keep track of everyone’s blogs.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I went to Regent, on the UBC campus. I LOVE Vancouver. Wonderful city. I couldn’t have the freedom that our family has here, to live and work and be house owners and yard owners and to restrain work time for family and art. But I hope to go back to Vancouver one day.
          Yes, I love the reading projects. We are reading the same people, but some different books. I am in 1947 of a chronological Lewis project. I have to start “Oxford History of the English Language.” As it took 17 years to write, I’m not sure when to read it! But I have 7 of Lewis’ years–about 1 year of my time.
          To reinvigorate and reread some of the books, I have used audio version, or switched to ePub, or a large margin edition for notes.
          I signed up for your blog, and look forward to it! I haven’t gotten into Bloglovin’–I think of McLovin’ in that film–but I probably should.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            One of the best things in Andrew Wilson’s Lewis bio is his remark about the delicious readability of Lewis’s OHEL contribution: relax, nibble away, enjoy!

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I also think it would be no bad idea to publish the Introduction to his OHEL as a separate little book: what a useful, thought-provoking (and, indeed, variously ‘provocative’) overview it is!

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          • Regent is great. We have a Regent prof who occasionally will give the sermon at our church, and two other profs we see in the summer who have a get away on an island and will run some of the courses from there. You should see their house …… ever room has bookshelves and I think they have the biggest collection of classics from all periods, that I’ve ever seen.

            How did you buy the “Oxford History of the English Language”? Does Lewis’ contribution only consist of the two volumes I’ve seen: English Literature in the 16th Century & Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century? I need to pick these up still but when I see them, they’re rather expensive.

            A few years ago I took a C.S. Lewis course at Trinity Western University ……. absolutely the best course I’ve ever taken. It made me a die-hard Lewis fan forever. 🙂

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Cleopatra,

          Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century is just a new title for a later reissue of English Literature in the 16th Century. At one point there was an Oxford paperback edition which economized by leaving out the enormous bibliography, but photo-reproduced the text and index from the hardback edition. Trying to get a copy of that might be your best bet, but how best to go about that, I don’t know. (If you are handy at looking for second-hand books online, you are way ahead of me.)

          Jolly to see someone embarked on Trollope and Elizabeth Goudge as well as Lewis! I got through most of the Barsetshire books and the Palliser books very enjoyably by having them read to me by the volunteers (some very good indeed) of LibriVox.org.

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          • Thanks for the information, David. I found a used copy of English Literature in the 16th Century so I ordered it and I’ll see what I find when it arrives.

            I love Trollope and can’t believe it took me so long to discover his wonderful writing and characterization. I’m halfway through the Barsetshire series and will start the Pallisers as soon as I finish. I still have lots to discover. I haven’t read much Goudge yet but I’m picking up her books as I find them used in bookstores. I’ll be reading The Dean’s Watch in April.

            Like

            • I still haven’t find my way to Trollope! I know it will be fun, but I’m at a point where focus is key. The time will come!
              I got the OHEL used somewhere as well. It was costly. But, yes, the introduction is quite good.

              Like

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this – it is splendid!

    I particularly liked the plum of “It is not often that we have the conversation of intimates left to us in history, which probably means that we don’t know know much about history”, but each of the three parts and the whole are admirable in surveying and all the while provoking further thought.

    Like

    • Thanks David. I thought I responded to a few things on here, but they are gone. This was a nice note!
      I also thought that was a well written line (stepping back from it). But imagine the consequence!

      Like

  3. sseeley80 says:

    Reblogged this on The Walk and commented:
    I’m always a big Tolkien and Lewis fan. I’m actually reading Mere Christianity right now

    Like

  4. L.A. Smith says:

    Very interesting! Thanks, I love all things Tolkien and Lewis too! Fellow Canuck here too, I’m in the wild west of Alberta. Currently on my blog I’m doing a series on A Year of Reading Lewis – reading and reviewing one Lewis book a month. Started with the Space Trilogy – enjoying them just as much (if not more) in these later years of my life as I did when I first read them as a teen.

    Like

    • I’ve signed up for your blog–good project. I’m reading Lewis chronologically, and I’m in 1947 right now. The Space Trilogy is my specialty for research.
      I lived in Lethbridge for 5 years or so. Alberta is a surprising place.

      Like

  5. Sandra Hall says:

    Can you explain your comment “Lewis never got tenure at Oxford”? It is my understanding that, although Lewis never held one of the few chairs at Oxford, and therefore in the British academic system of that time was not a entitled to call himself a Professor, as a Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, he was a teaching member of staff with full tenure of employment for almost 30 years. But perhaps I am misunderstanding the use of the term ‘tenure’ in this context.

    Like

    • You are right, Sandra, that Lewis was in little danger of losing his position. This was my shortcut so that I didn’t have to explain the Oxbridge chair system.
      The tenure system in North America is a quick comparison. It gives 1) academic freedom; 2) advancement opportunities; 3) a pathway to Professorship. Lewis was threatened under #1, and passed over for promotion because of his Christian work. #2 was thus out for him, and there was no longer hope of an election to Professor. As Professor, his work could move to publication and research.
      One exception is that Lewis got a sabbatical in 1951-52, so that part is more like what a tenured Professor-track teacher would get on my side of the pond.

      Like

      • Sandra Hall says:

        Thank you for that succinct explanation of the tenure system in North America and comparison to Lewis’s own situation. All very interesting and illuminating.

        Liked by 1 person

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  9. Emanuele says:

    Thanks for the post. Two very minor points : (1)I think that in the letter you quote (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 32-3) “eye-splitting” is not referred to the care Tolkien was putting into his choices of words; it is an early reader of the Silmarillion who defines as eye-splitting the names invented by Tolkien. (2) at some point you write : “While Lewis could write quickly, this was still *1978*”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I also saw a normal typo (as 1978/1938 was).
      And I fixed the eye-splitting thing. Your contextual reading is right, obviously. I appreciate the gentle nudge–on Tolkien, sometime the “nudges” by fans land like great hammers.

      Like

  10. jubilare says:

    “which probably means that we don’t know know much about history” Oh, so true!

    “The author holds to items of linguistic invention that do not appeal to me” Oh, I laughed at this! So very Tolkien.

    They really were “amateurs,” you know.
    In the true and non-degraded sense of the word. 😉 Lovers, those who are passionate about their pursuit, those who engage in an activity out of love for it… and it’s that love, I think, that shines through their work. There are many skilled writers who have left their mark on the world. There are far fewer who were both skilled and filled with the amateur light.

    Like

    • amateur (n.) 1784, “one who has a taste for (something),” from French amateur “lover of,” from Latin amatorem (nominative amator) “lover,” agent noun from amatus, past participle of amare “to love”
      -Good choice of word. I had forgotten that etymology and you helped me recover it. Thanks.
      Whatever professionalness I maintain, I hope to keep this kind of amateur status!

      Like

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