Today is J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday. Born on January 3, 1892, he would be 127 today if he had been a longliver or immortal. To celebrate the occasion I decided to reblog my most popular Tolkien post. Tolkien’s work has made many of our lives so much richer, but he was also a friend in everyday life. And as a friend to C.S. Lewis he made life-changing interventions that opened up his career as a popular SF&F writer. This is a part of that story.
The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life
This 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 grown 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 a reluctant convert). Lewis hesitated to convert to Christianity, however. Among the reasons for this hesitation was 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.
The 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. Lewis tells us the story in his conversion letters to his best friend:
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, but it also gave Lewis back the idea of “myth” that had slid away from him 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.
It is not often that we have the conversation of intimates left to us in history, which probably means that we don’t 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.
While Lewis could write quickly, this was still 1937. 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).
More 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).
Any 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.
It 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.