C.S. Lewis was the first Tolkien nerd. He was certainly not the last. Middle Earth geeks roam the land, tucking into coffee shop corners with beat up Ballantine editions of The Silmarillion or greeting one another in Quenya at insurance seminars. I’ve had conversations about obscure Tolkien interviews while waiting to use a 20% off coupon at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I’ve watched academics leave their long bows and magic swords at the door for paper presentations on Tolkien speculative geography. Once one Ringer spots another, the wheels of fate are set in motion.
In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for C.S. Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Every true LoTRian would have envied Lewis and his friends as, over several years, Tolkien read early drafts of his books out loud in college rooms and crowded pubs. While not all the Inklings were converted Tolkienites, Lewis immediately saw its potential. From his first read of The Hobbit, he committed himself to boosting Tolkien’s work for the world.
Upon its release, Lewis provided a glowing review of The Hobbit for The Times, and also published one in The Times Literary Supplement, the UK’s “it spot” for discussing literature. His closing paragraph resounds still:
For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. “Alice” is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; “The Hobbit,” on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but “The Hobbit” may well prove a classic.
No one was more anxious to see the “new Hobbit”–what would become the Lord of the Rings–come to print than C.S. Lewis. In his 1945 That Hideous Strength, he links his fictional world to Tolkien’s, promising in the preface that the Lord of the Rings was nigh:
Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tolkienists will immediately see Lewis’ mistake in the spelling of Númenor. Tolkien later addressed this in a letter: “The spelling Numinor is due to his hearing it and not seeing it” (Letters of Tolkien 224). But the gaff–both in the spelling, but also in over-estimating Tolkien’s ability to let his work go to print with even the slightest detail out of place–does not mean that Lewis was disengaged. He wrapped his Ransom Cycle up into the story of Númenor, and he worked with Tolkien on various drafts of LOTR. He critiqued the work, and Tolkien often worked to integrate Lewis’ suggestions (see Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep).
When Tolkien finally let his manuscripts go to the publisher, Lewis began working to promote the books. He wrote “The Gods Return to Earth,” a review of The Fellowship of the Ring for Time and Tide. A year later he followed up with a review of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, also in Time and Tide, called “The Dethronement of Power.” Lewis reveled in the fact that “now that all six [books] are before us the very high architectural quality of the romance is revealed” (Image and Imagination 105). At this point, Lewis is not only an Oxford Don, but a Cambridge Professor and the author of the complete Chronicles of Narnia. His voice had some resonance even then.
Lewis also wrote a “blurb” for the cover of The Fellowship of the Ring. The publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, had taken a great risk in publishing LOTR. Though a new generation of Tolkienesque fantasy abounds, it is at the time an unprecedented work of art, a project in world-building never before attempted at this scope. Unwin may have passed it over if not for the encouragement of his son, who as a child had predicted The Hobbit would be a hit. We all know how quickly LOTR became a bestseller, but the publisher could not have imagined even a hundredth of the readership it has received. So he turned to the Narnian, C.S. Lewis, for support.
Lewis was enthusiastic:
I would willingly do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves. Wd. the enclosed be any use? If not, tell me, and I will try again. I can’t tell you how much we think of your House for publishing it (Dec 4th 1953 letter).
Though he cautioned Tolkien against using the blurb–“I am certainly a much, and perhaps an increasingly, hated man whose name might do you more harm than good” (Dec 7th 1953 letter)–Lewis took the time to write it. Here is what Lewis sent to Unwin:
It would be almost safe to say that no book like this has ever been written. If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness. No imaginary world has been projected which is at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws; none so seemingly objective, so disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology; none so relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory. And what fine shading there is in the variations of style to meet the almost endless diversity of scenes and characters–comic, homely, epic, monstrous, or diabolic!
The part I have bolded is a profound statement by a fantasy writer who clearly is thinking about how we build fictional universes. It is intriguing that Lewis who wrote (or chose to write) such a leaky world like Narnia, saw the value and potential of an integrated world like Eä. There are gaps. As was pointed out in a recent blog, “potatoes” would have been hard to find in Tolkien’s timeline of Middle Earth history. But, overall, Tolkien’s strength is his ability to integrate conceptual depth with narrative breadth and a refined literary art.
The Ariosto reference will connect with very few today, but overall it is an impressive statement. As it turns out, Tolkien and Unwin did use the blurb on the dust jacket flap. It is difficult to know if it was helpful to some readers. Soon, readership took on a life of its own. I do not know if this blurb is on the cover of any of the other early LOTR editions. It was soon unnecessary, as positive reviews from leading papers throughout the world were there to recommend this comic, homely, epic, monstrous, diabolic masterpiece. But it demonstrates C.S. Lewis’ consistent support of Tolkien, and his keen eye in being able to spot the things that Tolkien nerds have loved ever since.