“C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism,” a Paper by Justin Keena

There is doubtless a significant amount of interest in the friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis–both in the more formal setting of the Inklings and in their own literary and personal paths. I’ve written here and here about how each provided a transformational moment for the other in their writing. In this paper, published in print here for the first time, Justin Keena creates a substantial, researched argument about their friendship and its philosophical context.

Justin Keena received his Master of Studies in Ancient philosophy from Oxford University in 2012. He has since taught Classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where the following lecture was originally read, and rhetoric and writing at the Catholic University of America, where he also earned an MA in English. He currently resides with his family in New Hampshire, working as a web developer. One of his web projects is the newly launched “Clivi Hamiltonis Opera Obscura: A Bibliography of Obscure and Newly Published Texts by C.S. Lewis,” which you can find here. This bibliography is an exhaustive collection of all published works by C.S. Lewis, however fragmentary, that are, for the most part, not available in the many well-known and accessible volumes of his writings edited by Walter Hooper and some others.C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism

By Justin Keena


I. Friendship: Early Years to Maturity
II. True Myth: Disambiguation and Principle of Fantasy
III. The Nature and Metaphysics of Non-Historically True Myth
IV. The Platonism of Non-Historically True Myth


I have three goals in this paper. First, I want to describe for you the development and nature of the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, often in their own words, showing you how they came together, their common ideas, their opinions of each other, their opinions of each other’s books, and the way they interacted as authors, critics, and collaborators. I will place most of my focus on the initial rise of their friendship and its full flowering in 1931-40. Second, I want to describe, catalogue, and understand the appearances of a common idea at the core of their friendship that was foundational for their fantasy writings. This is the notion of true myth. As I hope to convince you, it is one of the defining ideas of their friendship—for it was not only a major factor in their relationship, but also a foundational principle in their respective approaches to fantasy writing, at least in one of its senses. Third, I want to show how true myth (in another one of its senses) is based upon Platonic metaphysics. Thus, in the first part of this paper, I will begin with the nature of Lewis and Tolkien’s personal relationship, in the course of which the notion of true myth will occur several times; then, after I have given you as much about their friendship as time allows, I will focus in the second part on the notion of true myth itself by distinguishing its two major senses and demonstrating the importance that the first has in their fantasy writings. In the third part, I will define and illustrate the nature of the second sense of true myth; and finally, in the fourth part I will draw some basic connections between the second sense of true myth and the Platonic metaphysics.

I. Friendship: Early Years to Maturity

The first indication we have of any meeting between Tolkien and Lewis comes from an entry in Lewis’ diary in May 1926, which describes a meeting of the English faculty at the University of Oxford. Both had been undergraduates at Oxford in similar courses of study, though, given the six-year difference between them (Tolkien having been born in 1892 and Lewis in 1898), at different times.[1] They were, however, in Oxford simultaneously during the period when Tolkien had come back from the War to work at the Oxford English Dictionary, and Lewis had also returned from the War to continue his undergraduate studies at University College, but before either had joined the English faculty. Thus, from January 1919[2] (when Lewis returned to Oxford) until October 1920 (when Tolkien left Oxford for his first teaching position at the University of Leeds)[3]—that is, nearly two years—they were both in Oxford, though it appears they never met. It was only years later when both had managed to secure jobs in the English faculty[4] that their paths finally crossed. Listen to Lewis’ first impression of Tolkien at the faculty meeting of May 11, 1926:

Tolkien managed to get the discussion round to the proposed English Prelim. I had a talk with him afterwards. He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap—can’t read Spenser because of the forms—thinks the language is the real thing in the school—thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty—we ought to vote ourselves out of existence if we were honest—still the sound-changes and the gobbets are great fun for the dons. No harm in him: only needs a smack or so. His pet abomination is the idea of “liberal” studies. Technical hobbies are more in his line.[5]

It was, in fact, Tolkien’s “technical hobbies” that first drew Lewis more closely into Tolkien’s circle. By the next year (1927), Lewis had been invited to a small literary club for dons founded by Tolkien known as the Kolbítar, or Coalbiters—I’ll let Lewis explain the meaning of the name shortly. Its purpose was to read the Icelandic mythological sagas in the original Old Norse. To readers of Lewis’ spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, it comes as no surprise that Lewis would be very attracted to such a club: at one time in his adolescence, Norse mythology was the most important element in his life,[6] as a constant and reliable source of what Lewis called Joy, or Sehnsucht, or romantic longing: the kind of ecstatic and inconsolable longing that is a desire, yet is itself more desirable than other satisfactions. It was this passion for Norse mythology, and the stabs of Joy it occasioned, that had formed the initial basis of his friendship with his first and best boyhood friend (other than his brother Warnie), Arthur Greeves,[7] to whom he wrote on June 26, 1927, to communicate his excitement about the Kolbítar:

I am realising a number of very old dreams in the way of books—reading Sir Gawain in the original…and, above all, learning Old Icelandic. We have a little Icelandic Club in Oxford called the ‘Kolbítar’: which means (literally) ‘coal-biters’, i.e. an Icelandic word for old cronies who sit round the fire so close that they look as if they were biting the coals. We have so far read the Younger Edda and the Volsung Saga: next term we shall read the Laxdale Saga. You will be able to imagine what a delight this is to me, and how, even in turning over the pages of my Icelandic Dictionary, the mere name of god or giant catching my eye will sometimes throw me back fifteen years into a wild dream of northern skies and Valkyrie music: only they are now even more beautiful seen thro’ a haze of memory—you know that awfully poignant effect there is about impression recovered from ones past.[8]

It would seem that, just as Norse mythology initially drew Lewis and Greeves closer together, so it, together with the study of Old Norse as a language, initially drew Lewis and Tolkien closer together—though not, of course, with the same degree of passion and intensity that sparked Lewis and Greeves’ friendship.

I pause here in the narrative to note the significance of the Icelandic Club. It was a small group of intellectuals, all men, interested in reading literature aloud to one another, followed by discussions that went on late into the night.[9] But it not only presaged something in Lewis and Tolkien’s near future; it already had precedents in both of their lives. By 1929 Lewis, in addition to cultivating a small circle of close male friends who enjoyed intellectual debate and literary discussion, had previously started a regular series of “Beer and Beowulf” evenings for undergraduates, the purpose of which was to read Beowulf aloud, discuss it, drink beer, and learn some of the mnemonic devices he had invented for reading Old English.[10] Likewise, Tolkien had previously helped to form a Viking Club for students and faculty when he taught at the University of Leeds, at which they would “drink large quantities of beer, read sagas, and sing comic songs.”[11] Again, when Tolkien was still in grammar school at King Edward’s in Birmingham, he and a few of his friends formed a club called the T.C.B.S., which was again a small society of male friends interested in intellectual discussion, literature, poetry, and drinking—though at that age they were drinking tea instead of beer and cider (the name stands for “Tea Club and Barovian Society”).[12] They remained in close contact even after leaving King Edward’s.[13] Even at 81 years old, we see Tolkien in the Letters keeping in touch with an old T.C.B.S. colleague, signing himself “Your most devoted friend. Yrs. JRRT. TCBS.”[14] For both Tolkien and Lewis, then, we can observe the tendency for strong friendships to develop based on mutual interest in literature and intellectual debate (and drinking). What Humphrey Carpenter in his biography of Tolkien calls “the ‘clubbable’ urge”[15] was strong in both of them. Thus, the significance of the Kolbítar, the Old Icelandic Club at Oxford, was not simply that it first drew Tolkien and Lewis closer together, though it did certainly do that. Its true significance is twofold: first, that it brought together two men in a setting that was, in accordance with the strength of the “clubbable” spirit in their personalities, most apt to cement and deepen their fledgling relationship; and second, that it acted as a precursor for another, more famous Oxford literary society focused on reading, criticizing, and discussing poetry and literature over a pint—the Inklings.

To return to our story: after their initial meeting in 1926, Lewis and Tolkien began to see each other on a regular basis at the fortnightly Kolbítar meetings during term time from 1927 until it dissolved in the early 1930s, having completed its purpose by reading all the major sagas in Old Norse. But during the latter half of this period (and possibly earlier), namely from about 1929 to 1931, Lewis started to see Tolkien more and more frequently outside the Icelandic Society setting. Lewis writes in a letter dated October 17, 1929 to Greeves:

I have too many irons in the fire—the Michaelmas Club, the Linguistic Society, the Icelandic Society, and this and that. One week I was up till 2.30 on Monday (talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing of the gods & giants & Asgard for three hours, then departing in the wind & rain—who cd. turn him out, for the fire was bright and the talk good?)…[16]

Both men shared a passion, as we have already noted, for reading and discussing Norse mythology; and, judging by their first conversation in 1926, they also shared a mutual interest in literature and philology more generally. But it was not long before they widened the scope of their friendship to include another common interest of fundamental importance to both of them: poetry.

Again I must pause the narrative to justify my claim that poetry was fundamentally important to Tolkien and Lewis. I rest my claim on the fact that, in their early post-undergraduate years, both considered themselves to be, primarily, poets. Lewis had even cherished hopes of making a career out of his poetry. In fact, the only two books he published before his conversion to Christianity were volumes of poetry: the cycle of poems entitled Spirits in Bondage in 1919, when he was 20 years old and recently demobilized from World War I, and the narrative poem Dymer in 1926, the year in which he met Tolkien. However, neither were commercially successful, and he subsequently turned his energies to an academic career and, eventually, to writing prose and literary criticism. He never gave up writing poetry entirely; but he never published another volume of it in his own lifetime. But Tolkien, too, identified himself as a poet. For him, this realization came after a meeting with the T.C.B.S. in late 1914. In Carpenter’s words, “He decided that he was a poet.”[17] In 1916 he even attempted to publish a volume of poetry to be entitled The Trumpets of Faërie, though it was not accepted.[18] By that time he had been writing poetry for some six years, beginning when he was eighteen. At one point during his early poetic career he wrote a poem of particular significance for our purposes. Inspired by lines from an Old English poem by Cynewulf in which the obscure word “Earendel” appears,[19] his imagination set to work to invent a history for this name. At the time he suspected, as he wrote years later (August 1967) in his Letters, that the Anglo-Saxon uses of that word seem plainly to indicate that it was a star presaging the dawn (at any rate in English tradition): that is what we now call Venus: the morning-star as it may be seen shining brilliantly in the dawn, before the actual rising of the Sun. That is at any rate how I took it. Before 1914 I wrote a ‘poem’ upon Earendel who launched his ship like a bright spark from the havens of the Sun. I adopted him into my mythology…[20]

Those who know The Silmarillion and the importance of Eärendil to the close of its arc can appreciate the creativity that Tolkien put into inventing the history behind this single, obscure Anglo-Saxon name. Eärendil, with a Silmaril “bound upon his brow,”[21] flies beyond the walls of the world in his ship, thus becoming the morning star—and, in the process, explaining why, centuries later, an Anglo-Saxon poet would address him as such. It is important to notice not only that Tolkien was inspired to invent a myth based on a name, which is how all his stories were begun,[22] but that he wanted to explain a certain historical fact that remained obscure to scholarship. By inventing a story that accounted for why Cynewulf would call the morning star Earendel, he was supplementing the gaps in our scholarly knowledge of Anglo-Saxon. Thus, Tolkien’s myth was in some sense inspired by, and intended to seamlessly merge with, history. I will return to the significance of this modus operandi later. For now, it is sufficient to realize that Tolkien was writing poetry, and by the time he met Lewis, had written a great quantity of it. By 1926 his narrative poem about Túrin had reached 2,000 lines, and his poem about Beren and Lúthien 4,000 lines.[23]

Tolkien’s friendship with C.S. Lewis began a new stage when, sometime towards the end of 1929, he showed Lewis the first three quarters of the latter poem (that is, about 3,000 lines), called The Geste of Beren and Lúthien.[24] Lewis—who, as we have seen, had once pursued a career as a poet—was, as any reading of his diaries and early letters will show, very fond of trading poems with his friends for discussion and criticism. But, it should be noted, he did so most often only with certain friends. Naturally, these were usually his closer friends, with whom he had built up a rapport of intellectual discussion and literary debate. They were men whose opinions he respected, and therefore whose criticisms he would value. And certainly, the same could be said of Tolkien: he would not freely hand out quantities of his cherished poetry and information on his invented languages and mythology to any chance acquaintance. When seven years later in November 1937 he decided to show his “private and beloved nonsense” to his publisher, including the Quenta Silmarillion and the Geste of Beren and Lúthien, it was with trepidation and fear that something so dear to him would be rejected.[25] However, this exposure of his mythology was due more to professional necessity and the hope of publication than any literary affinity he felt for his reader(s) at Allen & Unwin. But with the materials that he showed to C.S. Lewis in 1929, there was of course no financial motive in question. Thus he was recognizing, by that act, a common literary affinity between them, inaugurating a new stage in their friendship.

When we realize just how rarely Tolkien decided to show other people his private inventions, the full significance of his showing the Geste to Lewis in 1929 comes to light. Before that time, so far as I know, outside of showing The Trumpets of Faërie to Franz Sidgewick in 1916 in hopes of publishing it as a book, he had only offered any large amount of his poetry purely for criticism twice: first, fifteen years previously to a fellow member of the T.C.B.S. in 1915;[26] and second, three years previously to a former teacher of his at King Edward’s School in 1926.[27] As we have already observed, Tolkien had established strong literary and intellectual ties with the members of the T.C.B.S., and we can be sure that he, at the very least, respected the opinion of his former English teacher—these were the sort of colleagues with whom he would be willing to share his writings. The story is similar after 1929. Several years later, just a few months before he would show The Geste of Beren and Lúthien to his publisher in November 1937, we find Tolkien writing in the Letters that, outside of his family and a former research student who helped The Hobbit to reach publication, C.S. Lewis was still the only person who knew his private mythology.[28] As late as 1965, two years after Lewis’ death, the number of those who had read or heard the mythology besides C.S. Lewis and Tolkien’s own son Christopher had only increased by one or two persons.[29] Thus, by giving Lewis 3,000 lines of poetry on Beren and Lúthien at the end of 1929 and admitting Lewis to the private world of his imagination, Tolkien was recognizing Lewis as a kindred spirit and a much closer friend.

Likewise, Lewis began to recognize his affinity for Tolkien in a letter to Greeves on January 30, 1930, having recently read The Geste of Beren and Lúthien. He was

…at the Icelandic Society (the Kolbítar)…when I had to leave Tolkien, Bryson, Dawkins just as we were getting comfortable. …Bryson you know: Tolkien is the man I spoke of when we were last together—the author of the voluminous unpublished metrical romances and of the maps, companions to them, showing the mountains of Dread and Nargothrond the city of the Orcs. In fact he is, in one part of him, what we were.[30]

“He is, in one part of him, what we were.” With this phrase, Lewis was beginning to recognize the elements in Tolkien that had formed the basis of Lewis’ deep and lasting friendship with Greeves—though he did not yet see Tolkien as one of his intimates.

But what did Lewis have to say about Tolkien’s “voluminous unpublished metrical romances”? His comments, written in December of 1929, are worth dwelling on:

I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves in the reaf.[31] I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it. I should have enjoyed it just as much as if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader…[32]

Of particular interest in this passage, other than Lewis’ evident enjoyment of Tolkien’s work, is his identification of two particularly outstanding elements in the poem: first, the sense of verisimilitude, the feeling that one has stumbled into a fully realized secondary world, and second, its mythical value. It would seem that both Lewis and Tolkien were attracted by the combination of mythical significance with a sense of reality, of history, of fact. But whereas in Tolkien’s poem on Eärendil his myth was intended to merge with history by supposedly explaining a philological fact, in this case it is the myth itself that is being given a sense of reality, of historicity.

Lewis did not, however, simply congratulate Tolkien on his work; he also criticized it, both positively and negatively. Within a few months, sometime at the beginning of 1930, Lewis sent Tolkien fourteen pages of criticism, humorously disguised as a scholarly commentary. Pretending that the Geste was an actual historical document, Lewis invented variant readings in supposedly real manuscripts and made references to literary redactors (to gently offer suggestions for improvement) and a bevy of past Geste scholars (sometimes, to offer praise). At one point, to suggest moving a certain set of lines to another, more appropriate place, Lewis wrote that

“it is just such a transposition as a late Broseliandic literary redactor would make under the influence of the classical epic.”[33]

Or again, wishing to commend the poem, we read that, “

Of Canto 2 as a whole Peabody writes: ‘If this is not good romantic narrative, I confess myself ignorant of the meaning of the words.’”[34]

We even get references to the scholarly work archived “In Gestestudien Vol. XIII, pp.9-930”[35] or the importance of the Poiema Historiale, an invented ‘contemporary’ poem in which Lewis introduces some of his own poetry as a supposedly historical parallel to the Geste.[36] It is significant that Tolkien accepted, or at least marked for revision, almost all of Lewis’ suggested critiques—significant because, as we shall see later on, Tolkien would almost never change his writings based on the criticism of others.

Primary documentary evidence of Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship from the time when Lewis criticized Beren and Lúthien in early 1930 until it reached its next, and perhaps most famous, turning point in late 1931 is very sparse; but we may presume that they continued to meet both in the Kolbítar and privately. Indeed, we must suppose such meetings, and perhaps more, given that, by the end of 1931, their relationship had developed to the point that Lewis was able to fully recognize his closeness to Tolkien. He wrote on September 22, 1931 to Greeves:

I couldn’t write to you last Sunday because I had a week end guest—a man called Dyson who teaches English at Reading University. I meet him I suppose about four or five times a year and am beginning to regard him as one of my friends of the 2nd class—i.e. not in the same rank as yourself or Barfield, but on a level with Tolkien or Macfarlane.[37]

Tolkien has now become a friend “of the 2nd class” to Lewis. In early 1930, he had only been, “in one part of him, what we were,” someone similar to Lewis and Greeves in a certain respect, but not a particularly close friend. But now, in September 1931, he has been fully drawn into the circle of Lewis’ intimates as a friend “of the 2nd class.” When we contrast this with Lewis’ initial impression of Tolkien back in 1926—“a smooth, pale, fluent little chap” who “only needs a smack or so”—the extent of the development of their friendship over those five years becomes apparent.

We have now come to the famous turning point to which I alluded. The events of September 19 (and 20), 1931 are well known: for they were the impetus that helped Lewis overcome his last intellectual obstacles to Christianity. In the same letter to Greeves on September 22, Lewis wrote: “…I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”[38] As Lewis would later put it even more frankly in 1941 to Dom Bede Griffiths: “Dyson and Tolkien were the immediate human causes of my own conversion.”[39] Lewis recounts that the three of them (Dyson, Tolkien, and Lewis himself) had gathered together at the grounds of Magdalen College:

We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth…We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship—then finally drifted back to poetry and books.[40]

Tolkien stayed till 3 am, and Dyson continued to talk with Lewis till 4. What was it, more precisely, that made such an impact on Lewis, causing him to convert to Christianity?

What Lewis found so compelling was at least one aspect of the idea of the true myth: namely, the notion that a story can be both factual or historical or otherwise real and maintain its imaginative value as a story. This idea he was now able to apply to Christianity. “[T]he story of Christ is simply a true myth,” both factual (as true) and “suggestive of meanings beyond [one’s] grasp”[41] (as a myth). As Tolkien would later say in “On Fairy-Stories” with regard to the Incarnation and Resurrection:

“Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and history”—one might say, myth and historical truth—“have met and fused.”[42]

Lewis fully absorbed Tolkien and Dyson’s proposal that Christianity unified myth and truth, and, I might add, went on to develop these ideas further than Tolkien ever did. In 1944 he published an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” in which his lucid grasp of this idea is evident:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. …To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.[43]

I have said that Lewis took Tolkien’s fusion of myth and truth farther than Tolkien did. ButLewis’ innovations, such as his explanation of how myths give rise to allegories by concretizing abstractions but without being tied to full particularity (in “Myth Became Fact”); or why, if the Christian story is a myth, it is not as beautiful in the telling as certain pagan myths (footnote 1 in “Miracles of the Old Creation” in Miracles); or what, more precisely, qualifies a story or event as being of mythical value (chapter five in An Experiment in Criticism), I will have to leave aside.

We should appreciate the complete about-face that Tolkien and Dyson convinced Lewis to make. At some point, likely on the night of September 19, 1931, Lewis had claimed that myths, though beautiful and demanding, as he would later put it in An Experiment in Criticism, “the lasting allegiance of the imagination,”[44] were untrue and hence, in some sense, less valuable or serious than the realities of the actual world. In his own words, mythmaking was “Breathing a lie through Silver.”[45] Myth and truth were totally divorced. Indeed, at one time in his life—namely, when he had been an atheist and a materialist—Lewis’ whole mind had been divided precisely along that fault line:

Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.[46]

Though he had ceased to be an atheist and a materialist by the time his friendship with Tolkien began to develop, these two halves of his mind were not fully reconciled until September 1931. But then, finally, his imaginative life, “a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth,” could be deeply connected to what he “believed to be real” by means of Tolkien and Dyson’s idea of true myth.[47] We may thank them for integrating Lewis’ great intellectual and philosophical powers with his imaginative life and thus, indirectly, for all the writings which were the fruit of that integration. For what would C.S. Lewis have become, if his intellectual life had never been fully reconciled with his imagination? If his philosophical search for truth, and especially religious truth, had remained separate from his artistic and creative gifts? If his intellectual grasp of Christianity had not been unified with his mythopoeic vision? Where would The Pilgrim’s Regress, the space trilogy, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, the Narnia chronicles, or Till We Have Faces be without that integration?

In the wake of his long talk with Lewis on September 19, 1931, Tolkien wrote in his diary:

Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual—a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher—and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.[48]

This, Lewis’ conversion, is the next great turning point in their relationship. Hitherto their friendship had mostly focused on their common interests in philology and languages, the debate over the English syllabus, literature, Norse mythology, and poetry, though no doubt they talked about other things which the documentary evidence does not record. But now it included Christianity, and all the common intellectual furniture that can be assumed between members of the same faith. The horizons of their friendship, and hence of potential topics for discussion, opened even more widely. On November 22 of the same year, Lewis wrote to his brother Warnie:

It has become a regular custom that Tolkien should drop in on me of a Monday morning and drink a glass. This is one of the pleasantest spots in the week. Sometimes we talk English school politics: sometimes we criticise one another’s poems: other days we drift into theology or ‘the state of the nation’: rarely we fly no higher than bawdy and ‘puns’.[49]

Lewis is here emphasizing the vast range of their conversation (and the delight he takes in all of it). But notice also the setting in which their conversation takes place: “It has become a regular custom that Tolkien should drop in on me of a Monday morning and drink a glass.” Although it would not begin to materialize more solidly until two years later,[50] it is likely enough that the Inklings developed out of these regular meetings with Tolkien.[51] For all the pieces of the puzzle were now in place: (1) a group of intellectuals who were (2) also Christians, and who were (3) intensely interested in writing, criticizing, and discussing poetry (and prose), combined with (4) a penchant for debating and discussing nearly everything from literature to theology to politics to linguistic jokes, all taking place (5) at regular, weekly meetings over (6) drinks. Keep in mind that till about this time Lewis and Tolkien had also been continuing to see each other fortnightly during term time for the final meetings of the Icelandic Society, which, as I have suggested, was also a precursor to the Inklings. But whereas the Kolbítar acted as a precursor to the Inklings only in certain respects (a group of intellectuals, literary discussions, regular meetings) and with a limited focus on Norse mythology and philology, these Monday meetings were in fact the embryonic stages of the Inklings. They included elements essential to the Inklings which the Kolbítar had not: notably, Christianity; a focus not simply on reading literature, but reading the participants’ own compositions; a widened scope of topics for discussion (i.e., not just literature, but also politics, theology, puns, and nearly everything else); and of course, drinking. The Kolbítar died when it ran out of Norse sagas to read; but Lewis’ regular meetings with Tolkien continued, with certain interruptions, for decades—and the Inklings, to the last week of Lewis’ life in 1963.

Now, with the rise of the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship reaches its peak. This period covers much more time—about seven years, from 1933 till 1940, by which time Charles Williams had arrived in Oxford and the nature of Tolkien and Lewis’ relationship somewhat changed, though they remained close for some time. Tolkien would later write that “C.S.L. was my closest friend from about 1927 to 1940, and remained very dear to me.”[52] Lewis, too, came to acknowledge his closeness to Tolkien during this period more fully. Continuing to share his imaginative life with Lewis, Tolkien gave him a draft of The Hobbit. By late 1932 Lewis had read it,[53] and on February 4, 1933 he wrote to Greeves with enthusiasm:

Since term began I have had a delightful time reading a children’s story which Tolkien has just written. I have told of him before: the one man absolutely fitted, if fate had allowed, to be a third in our friendship in the old days, for he also grew up on W. Morris and George Macdonald. Reading his fairy tale has been uncanny—it is so exactly like what we wd. both have longed to write (or read) in 1916: so that one feels he is not making up but merely describing the same world into which all three of us have the entry.[54]

Again, notice the development: to Lewis, Tolkien at first “only needs a smack or so”; then, he is a kindred lover of Norse mythology; then, a friend “of the second class”; and now, “the one man absolutely fitted, if fate had allowed, to be a third in our friendship in the old days,” nearly, if not fully, a friend of the first class. Thus it was during this period that one of Lewis’ other “first class” friends, his brother Warnie, came to notice the large space Tolkien had come to occupy in Lewis’ life. In Warnie’s diary entry for Monday, December 4, 1933, we read: “J turned up about half past ten and we came out to lunch together. When we were about to start out, I found that he was engaged to go for a walk with Tolkien this afternoon. Confound Tolkien! I seem to see less and less of J every day.”[55] Likewise, on Tolkien’s side of the equation, the amount of time he was spending with Lewis did not go unnoticed. Humphrey Carpenter records in his biography of Tolkien that even his wife Edith had, about this time, become jealous of Lewis because her husband was so devoted to him![56]

Let us focus a bit more on Tolkien and Lewis’ literary output in the “golden age” of their friendship (1931-40), their opinions of each others’ works, their habits as authors, and how they reacted to criticism. Lewis enjoyed The Hobbit immensely, though he thought it dropped in quality at the end,[57] and wrote the anonymous review of it published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1937. He praised the way in which it created a world “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it,” deftly changed in tone from “the matter-of-fact” to “the saga-like” over the course of its plot and cautiously predicted it would be become a classic.[58] In his letters he can be seen recommending it to his correspondents.[59] Likewise, Tolkien was thoroughly drawn in by Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in his space trilogy, which he had read by the time he wrote to Stanley Unwin on March 4, 1938:

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 plot, and philology, have since been corrected to my satisfaction. …But 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.[60]

I note three points of interest. First, Tolkien’s wholehearted liking of the book. It is worth pointing out that Tolkien was not afraid to express his dislike of some of Lewis’ other works: for instance, he maintained that Charles Williams’ “Arthurian-Byzantine mythology…spoiled the trilogy of C.S.L. (a very impressionable, too impressionable, man) in the last part”[61]—namely, in That Hideous Strength. More famously, he regarded the Narnia stories as “outside the range of my sympathy” and, though less famously, Letters to Malcolm as “a distressing and in parts horrifying work”.[62] He was also upset, as a philologist, by what he called “the ponderous silliness”[63] of Lewis’ Studies in Words, though he declined to explain the precise sources of his disapproval. Second, Tolkien’s comments on Out of the Silent Planet are significant insofar as they reveal the fact that Lewis accepted many of Tolkien’s criticisms; as we will see later on, the reverse was not often true. Third and finally, we may note once again the importance of combining myth with vera historia. The mythical and philosophical value of Lewis’ story, it would seem, gained in potency by being presented as something historically true. Myth and (supposedly) historical truth were not at odds in Lewis’ story, but mutually supportive, which Tolkien appreciated—just as we would expect, given their conversation of September 19-20, 1931.[64]

Tolkien’s enthusiasm for Out of the Silent Planet helped it to reach the press in 1938.[65] But what is perhaps even more significant to their friendship is that Tolkien was involved in its genesis as well. Lewis’ story was originally intended to work side by side with a thematically related story of Tolkien’s. According to Tolkien’s letter to Stanley Unwin on February 18, 1938:

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.[66]

Tolkien recounted the conversation that sparked the joint project, which must have occurred in the mid-1930’s, as follows:

L. 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.[67]

The “effort” that “ran dry” to which Tolkien refers is his unfinished story The Lost Road, in which pairs of fathers and sons with names meaning “Bliss-friend” and “Elf-friend” throughout human history (Edwin and Elwin, Eädwine and Ælfwine, Audoin and Alboin) are traced back to and ultimately explained by the original Númenorean father-son pair, Amandil and Elendil.[68] Once again, actual historical realities (i.e., the recurrence of names like Elwin, Ælfwine, and so on) are explained with reference to a mythological, but supposedly real, invention (or, re-invention) of Tolkien’s: the ancient speech of the elves and the downfall of Númenor/Atlantis. Just as we saw with “Earendel” in the Anglo-Saxon poem, a mythical past is here introduced to explain historical names. Myth merges with history.

In transitioning to the literary works after 1940 and beyond, and particularly Lord of the Rings, we come to the period after the “golden years,” when Lewis and Tolkien, though still very close, began, subtly at first, to draw away from each other. It was still to be many years before they ceased to be intimates, and there were many factors that came between them: notably, Lewis’ shift in attention to Charles Williams, his growing reputation as a popular theologian, the differences between Tolkien and Lewis in terms of religion (the former, a Roman Catholic who resented the Church of England, and the latter, an Anglican with anti-Catholic prejudices, as he himself partially recognized),[69] Lewis’ marriage to Joy Davidman, of which he never told Tolkien (perhaps justifiably, given that Tolkien would likely not have approved), and Lewis’ departure to Cambridge. I do not intend to explain the decline of their friendship as I have explained its initial development and flourishing, and so I leave these factors aside. I will only say that, though there were, as Humphrey Carpenter has called it, moments of “cooling” in their relationship in its later years, mostly on Tolkien’s part,[70] a deep affection and mutual trust remained between them to the end of their lives. Christopher Mitchell in an engaging lecture has drawn attention to how Tolkien, seeing Lewis struggling at Oxford after nearly thirty years of exhausting tutorial work, encouraged and helped him to make the transition to Cambridge,[71] where he knew Lewis would be happier—precisely at a time when their relationship had supposedly “cooled.”[72]

But during the 1940s and early to mid 1950s, to which I now turn, Lewis and Tolkien were still seeing one another regularly, and only the faintest shadow had been cast between them (“by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams,”[73] as Tolkien put it in 1963). I would like to draw your attention to two literary projects during this 15-year period that reveal much about these men, their interests, and their activity as authors: first, a proposed book on language that was to be authored by both of them jointly; and second, The Lord of the Rings. First, then, let us consider the book on language. On December 18, 1944 Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher:

This morning…I saw C.S.L. for a while. His fourth (or fifth?) novel is brewing, and seems likely to clash with mine (my dimly projected third)…We also begin to consider writing a book in collaboration on ‘Language’ (Nature, Origins, Functions). Would there were time for all these projects![74]

The implications of this envisioned book are worth dwelling on. Lewis and Tolkien were close enough to co-author a book on a subject dear to both of them, though perhaps more to Tolkien—language. Ever since their first recorded conversation in 1926 as members of the English faculty, continuing through their time studying Old Norse in the Icelandic Society, all the way up to the philological details of Out of the Silent Planet which Tolkien wished to be corrected, language had been a subject of discussion between them. In planning to write this book, they were in some way planning to write out certain ideas that had drawn and kept them together and lay at the foundation of their friendship.

Unfortunately, the book was never completed or published. The editors of Tolkien’s Letters report that “Lewis told Chad Walsh, who visited him in the summer of 1948, that his book was to be called ‘Language and Human Nature’ and was to be published the following year by the Student Christian Movement Press; but this never happened.”[75] Two years later (January 12, 1950) Lewis wrote in a letter: “My book with Professor Tolkien—any book in collaboration with that great but dilatory and unmethodical man—is dated, I fear, to appear on the Greek Kalends!”[76] For many years, it was believed that the book was never written at all. Fortunately, however, the first (and only) eight pages of the manuscript in one of Lewis’ notebooks have been identified, and, in 2010, published. It is all in Lewis’ handwriting, though he refers to “the authors” of the book in the plural. In a way that calls to mind Tolkien’s projection of the book’s contents in 1944 (“Nature, Origins, Functions”), in the first paragraph Lewis deliberately postpones speculations about the origins of language for the end of the book, which was never written, and instead spends his energies describing the nature of language and three senses of the word “meaning,” two of which factor into his definition of language.[77] Presumably any treatment of the functions of language would have come in later chapters.

But there was another, more important work which did, despite Tolkien’s “dilatory and unmethodical” manner and in conjunction with the efforts of C.S. Lewis, finally reach completion and publication. In December 1937 Tolkien wrote to his publisher, who had, given the recent success of The Hobbit, expressed an interest in Tolkien’s other writings, that he had “written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits—‘A long expected party’.”[78] It was not long before these fledgling chapters found their way to the Inklings meetings. We read in Lewis’ letter of November 8, 1939:

On Thursday we had a meeting of the Inklings—you [Warren] and Coghill both absented unfortunately. We dined at the Eastgate. …The bill of fare afterwards consisted of a section of the new Hobbit book from Tolkien, a nativity play from Williams (unusually intelligible for him, and approved by all) and a chapter out of the book on the Problem of Pain by me.[79]

A month later, on December 3, Lewis records that, in lieu of an Inklings meeting, he went to Tolkien’s house, where they “had a very pleasant evening drinking gin and limejuice…and reading our recent chapters to each other—his from the new Hobbit and mine from the ‘Problem of Pain’.”[80] For the next several years of documentary evidence, the story is similar: Lewis, his brother Warnie, or Tolkien himself record how he, or later, his son Christopher, would read the latest chapter of “the new Hobbit,” whether to Lewis alone or at the Inklings. By 1944 the book had come to be known by a more familiar title, as we learn from a letter by Tolkien to Christopher:

The Inklings meeting….was very enjoyable. Hugo was there: rather tired-looking, but reasonably noisy. The chief entertainment was provided by a chapter of Warnie Lewis’s book on the times of Louis XIV (very good I thought it); and some excerpts from C.S.L.’s ‘Who Goes Home?’—a book on Hell, which I suggested should have been called rather ‘Hugo’s Home’. I did not get back till after midnight. The rest of my time, barring chores in and out door, has been occupied by the desperate attempt to bring ‘The Ring’ to a suitable pause, the capture of Frodo by the Orcs in the passes of Mordor, before I am obliged to break off by examining. By sitting up all hours, I managed it: and read the last 2 chapters (Shelob’s Lair and The Choices of Master Samwise) to C.S.L. on Monday morning. He approved with unusual fervour, and was actually affected to tears by the last chapter, so it seems to be keeping up.[81]

However, the road to completing the sequel to The Hobbit was a long and difficult one. Work, illness, and lack of inspiration delayed Tolkien’s writing so that The Lord of the Rings was not published until 1954 and 1955. How is it, then, that this “dilatory and unmethodical man” persevered for fifteen years to complete a work of such magnitude? The excerpt from the letter just quoted hints at the answer, and Tolkien himself leaves us in no doubt. On September 9, 1954, less than two months after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring (July 24), he wrote to Rayner Unwin that the completion of the book was due to a single person: C.S. Lewis. “[O]nly by his support and friendship,” he said, “did I ever struggle to the end of the labour.”[82] Reflecting on the completion of the book long afterwards, he wrote to an inquirer:

C.S. Lewis is a very old friend and colleague of mine, and indeed I owe to his encouragement the fact that in spite of obstacles (including the 1939 war!) I persevered and eventually finished The Lord of the Rings. He heard all of it, bit by bit, read aloud, but never saw it in print till after his trilogy was published.[83]

And again, a few years later, to a different correspondent:

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.[84]

We have Tolkien (and Hugo Dyson) to thank for converting C.S. Lewis to Christianity by integrating his mind and imagination, thus giving us Lewis’ mature Christian fiction; but we also have C.S. Lewis to thank for The Lord of the Rings and, consequently, the publication of the rest of Tolkien’s mythology.

But while without Lewis’ encouragement The Lord of the Rings would never have been finished, it should be noted that this is the only sense in which Lewis may be said to have substantially influenced that book. Lewis, as we saw in the case of Out of the Silent Planet, corrected the details of his story based on Tolkien’s criticisms. To that extent, Tolkien influenced the content and structure of the book. With very few minor exceptions,[85] the same cannot be said of Tolkien. Lewis wrote on May 15, 1959:

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else he takes no notice at all.[86]

Again, on September 23, 1963:

…I didn’t influence him. That is, didn’t influence what he wrote. My continual encouragement, carried to the point of nagging, influenced him v. much to write at all with that gravity and at that length. In other words, I acted as a midwife not as a father.[87]

Indeed, Lewis assisted Tolkien especially in the “birth” of the book by not only writing the recommendation on the dust jacket of the first edition,[88] but also by contributing glowing reviews in Time and Tide at the time of its publication (one after the Fellowship, the next after Return of the King).

The fact that Lewis exercised almost no influence over the content of the finished product, which he thought still retained some minor flaws, did not prevent him from regarding The Lord of the Rings as a masterpiece. “I have little doubt,” Lewis concludes at the end of his two-part review, published in Time and Tide on October 22, 1955, “that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.”[89] For Lewis, an “indispensable” was a book to be read and re-read many times throughout a person’s life, on which one’s imagination could really feed. And that is just what he did with Lord of the Rings. Having first heard it in its entirety as it was written, he went through it all again in typescript before publication in 1949.[90] It is more than likely that he read it again at publication (1954-55), given his reviews in Time and Tide; and he read it yet again in 1956, given his letter of August 29:

“I am re-reading both the Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings.”[91]

And there were, likely enough, other re-readings of which we have no record, or of which I am not aware. He recommends it again and again to his correspondents: he tells one to try “Tolkien’s huge (and magnificent) 3 vol. romance”;[92] to another he declares, “The Lord is the book we have all been waiting for;”[93] and to yet another he demands, “Why is Tolkien not on those shelves that you describe?”[94] To a female correspondent he even suggests that, if she can’t keep away from the Women’s Magazines, “at least, after each debauch, give your imagination a good mouth-wash by a reading (or wd. it be a re-reading) of the Odyssey, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros,”[95] and others. As for the content of Lewis’ reaction to the book, to examine all he had to say in detail would take us too far afield. But to get some sense of the impact it made on him and his assessment of it as a work of art, permit me again to quote at length from his particularly heartfelt letter to Tolkien on October 27, 1949, after he had just read it for the first time in typescript:

I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst. Once it really gets under weigh the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it wd. indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me. In two virtues I think it excels: sheer sub-creation: Bombadil, Barrow Wights, Elves, Ents—as if from inexhaustible resources, and construction—the construction Tasso aimed at (but did not equally achieve) wh. was to combine the variety of Ariosto with the unity of Virgil. Also, in gravitas. No romance can repell the charge of ‘escapism’ with such confidence. If it errs, it errs in precisely the opposite direction: the sickness of hope deferred and the merciless piling up of odds against the heroes are near to being too painful. …It will rank, along with the Aeneid as one of what I call my ‘immediately sub-religious’ books. …I congratulate you. All the long years you have spent on it are justified. Morris and Eddison, in so far as they are comparable, are now mere ‘precursors’.[96]

I now close my account of Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship. I leave aside a collection of fascinating stories and facts: the walking tours and vacations they went on together; the extended “Victory Inklings,” as they called it, after the close of World War II; C.S. Lewis nominating Tolkien as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature; records of their theological differences; the jokes they enjoyed; and much else besides. Though they ceased to be intimates in the later years, there was always an underlying warmth and an indelible connection that remained between them. Allow me to give each the last word on the other. First, Lewis on Tolkien:

 The Hobbit is merely the adaptation to children of part of a huge private mythology of a most serious kind: the whole cosmic struggle as he sees it but mediated through an imaginary world. …Private worlds have hitherto been mainly the work of decadents or, at least, mere aesthetes. This is the private world of a Christian. He is a very great man.[97]

And Tolkien, writing after Lewis’ death, which he said felt “like an axe-blow near the roots”:[98]

…we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains. He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries only scraped the surface, in places with injustice.[99]

II. True Myth: Disambiguation and Principle of Fantasy

I would now like to consider the idea which I have claimed was not only foundational to Lewis and Tolkien as friends, but also as fantasy writers—namely, the idea of true myth. We have so far seen the notion of true myth in four major places: first, Tolkien’s invention of the myth of Eärendil based on the Anglo-Saxon word “Earendel;”[100] second, Lewis’ mention of the combination of mythical value and the strong sense of reality in The Geste of Beren and Lúthien; third, Lewis’ acceptance, due to Tolkien and Dyson, of the unity of truth and myth in Christianity; and fourth, in “the blend of vera historia with mythos” in Tolkien and Lewis’ time- and space-travel stories.

There is no question, then, that the notion of true myth was a major factor in their personal lives and friendship; its role in converting Lewis to Christianity alone would secure its place among the major ideas of their relationship. What I hope to demonstrate now is threefold: first, that this idea has two major senses; second, that the first sense is the one which is foundational for Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy writings; and finally, that the second sense of true myth has a certain metaphysical background that brings us all the way back to Classical Greek philosophy.

I proceed, then, to distinguish the two senses of “true myth,” which depend for their difference on what is meant by “true.” The first sense has to do with a myth that is true in the sense of being historically or factually true in the way that “Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC” is historically true. This is the idea we have encountered most often in Tolkien and Lewis’ lives: the story of Christ, they claimed, is a myth or story which is also historically, literally true; Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet blended vera historia with mythos; Tolkien’s myth of Eärendil was supposed to be the historically true background of Cynewulf’s 8th-9th century Anglo-Saxon poem. I shall refer to this sense of true myth as “historically true myth.” The second sense has to do with a myth that may be called true insofar as it resembles some reality (usually divine or eschatological). For example, Tolkien held that the eucatastrophe of fairy stories—“the sudden joyous ‘turn’”[101] of events, or happy ending—“may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”[102] In the same way the pagan myths of the dying and resurrecting god—Balder, Osiris, Dionysus—might be said to be true insofar as they resemble or foreshadow the resurrection of Christ. As Lewis put it in Reflections on the Psalms: “The resemblance between these myths and the Christian truth is no more accidental than the resemblance between the sun and the sun’s reflection in a pond[.]”[103] They are, at least in some attenuated sense, true likenesses or anticipations of “the Christian truth”. I shall refer to this second sense of true myth as “non-historically true myth.” This is the sense whose metaphysical background, I will suggest, is largely based on Plato. But the first sense—historically true myth—is the sense which I will now proceed to demonstrate was a ubiquitous and indeed foundational principle of Tolkien and Lewis’ fantasy writings.

Historically true myth was important to Lewis and Tolkien as friends, as we have seen; but it was foundational to them as authors of fantasy. I will consider Lewis’ fantasies first (by which I primarily mean the space trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Till We Have Faces), and then Tolkien’s. Perhaps the most direct expression of historically true myth comes in Lewis’ Perelandra. At one point the main protagonist, Ransom, seeing a dragon coiling around a tree loaded with golden fruit, thinks of the Hesperides with wonder. Then he remembered how in the very different world called Malacandra—that cold, archaic world, as it now seemed to him—he had met the original of the Cyclops, a giant in a cave and a shepherd. Were all the things which appeared as mythology on earth scattered through other worlds as realities?[104]

 In other words, were mythological beings actually real entities, and hence did the myths about them have some basis in historical or factual truth? Later, Ransom answers the question definitively in the affirmative, once again comparing his Malacandrian and Perelandrian experience:

Long since on Mars, and more strongly since he came to Perelandra, Ransom had been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and of both from fact was purely terrestrial—was part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. …In Perelandra it would have no meaning at all. Whatever happened there would be of such a nature that earth-men would call it mythological. All this he had thought before. Now he knew it.[105]

Anything that really occurred on Perelandra, Ransom concludes, would also be mythological—hence historical truth (or fact) and myth have been united. And indeed that same unification motivates the whole space trilogy. What we on earth might think of as speculative theology (at best) or mere mythology (at worst)—namely, the fall of the angels and its ramifications for the rest of the rational universe—Lewis relies upon as historical background in Out of the Silent Planet. What we on earth regard as a mythical part of human history—the story of the temptation of our first parents—Lewis shows us as vera historia in its parallel occurrence in Perelandra. What we regard as a fanciful imaginative construction of the Greeks and Romans—namely, their elaborate pantheon—we see incarnated in the vision of Mars and Venus in Perelandra, the role of Mars in Out of the Silent Planet, and in the descent of all the planetary gods upon the N.I.C.E. and St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength. In the final book of the trilogy, Arthurian mythology, too, turns out to be historically accurate with the introduction of Merlin as a main character. There are even references to Tolkien’s mythology being real and historical: we hear of the existence of “the true West” and “Numinor”—a name which Lewis misspells with an ‘i’ instead of an ‘e’ since at the time he had only heard the story read aloud to him.[106] Not only Out of the Silent Planet, then, but the whole space trilogy, was meant to “discover Myth,” as Tolkien had put it—that is, to discover that certain myths were historically true. To remove the idea of the historically true myth from the space trilogy would be to alter its fundamental nature.

The same idea motivates Narnia as well. All kinds of mythological beasts, people, objects, and situations appear, woven into the very fabric of the stories as fairy tales. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis answers Ransom’s question (“Were all the things which appeared as mythology on earth scattered through other worlds as realities?”) with a definitive “Yes.” Centaurs and fauns appear in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Bacchus and Maenads appear in Prince Caspian; giants in The Silver Chair, and so on. For, as The Magician’s Nephew discloses, there are many other worlds—ours, Narnia, and Charn, are only three among countless others. Much of what we consider to be mythological in our world (centaurs, Bacchus, giants) is completely historical and factual in Narnia (and vice versa—remember the title of a book on Mr. Tumnus’ shelf, Is Man a Myth? in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or the delight of Prince Caspian upon finding out that our world is round, unlike Narnia, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Lewis attacks the distinction between historical truth and myth, or myth and fact, not only in the space trilogy but also in Narnia.

Finally, we must briefly consider Till We Have Faces, Lewis’ last and greatest work of fantasy. I only mention two facts: first, that it is set in pre-Christian times, in which pagan polytheism, Greek or otherwise, was the dominant religious force; and second, that the book is subtitled “A Myth Retold.” Thus we have a myth—specifically, the myth of Cupid and Psyche—being presented as an historical account. Indeed, a great part of the meaning of the work depends on its being set in actual pre-Christian times. The dramatic shift in the number of addressees to whom Orual is speaking at the very end, for example, would not have the impact that it does if Orual had not come from the perspective of polytheism. Likewise, the novel’s very structure, written as Orual’s complaint against the gods, clearly depends on the framework of historical pagan polytheism.

Lewis’ fantasy, then, is founded upon the notion of the historically true myth.[107] This idea also finds remarkable expressions in some of his apologetic works[108]—but I will leave them aside to focus now on Tolkien’s fantasy. For Tolkien, too, was riveted by Ransom’s question: “Were all the things which appeared as mythology on earth scattered through other worlds as realities?” But he answered it in a different way. “No,” Tolkien would have said, “not in other worlds; but Yes, in our world.” For Middle-Earth, as Tolkien insisted, is our earth: dragons, Dwarves, Ents, and Elves existed in our past.[109] It is only distance of time that separates us from them. Their historical presence in our dimly remembered past explains the appearance in our ancient documents of mythological beings and other spiritual forces, just as Eärendil’s historical voyage beyond the walls of the world with the Silmaril shining on his brow explains why an Anglo-Saxon poet would address him as the morning star. Or again, consider the following passage from the Valaquenta describing the ruling powers of the world, the Valar: “The Great among these spirits the Elves name the Valar, the Powers of Arda, and Men have often called them gods.”[110] In other words, the reason why we hear about a sky-father both in Greek mythology (Zeus) and in Norse mythology (Odin) is, Tolkien suggests, ultimately because of Manwë, who is the king of the Valar and whose special province is the winds and airs.[111] Tolkien’s whole mythology, from the cosmogony of the Ainulindalë all the way to the fading of the Elves and the rise of Men at the close of the Third Age, was meant to be a history of our world, a window into a lost time. It may not have been arbitrary that Tolkien and Lewis decided amongst themselves in the mid-1930s that Tolkien was to write a time-travel story and Lewis a space-travel story. For Tolkien’s mythology was an attempt to recreate the long-forgotten mythological, but historical past of earth; whereas many of Lewis’ mythological figures and stories occur on other planets, such as in the first two books of the space trilogy (thus dividing us from them by space), or in other universes, entirely other Spaces altogether (such as in Narnia). But in any case, for both Lewis and Tolkien, the notion of the historically true myth was an essential principle in their respective approaches to fantasy writing.

III. The Nature and Metaphysics of Non-Historically True Myth

Having shown, if only in outline, the ubiquity and fundamental character of historically true myth, I now turn to the nature and metaphysical background of non-historically true myth. I will first explain in more detail what I have in mind by this term by reference to Lewis and Tolkien’s works, and then identify the kind of metaphysics which underlies it.

The locus classicus, so to speak, of the notion of the non-historically true myth comes in Tolkien’s 1931 poem “Mythopoeia,” written after and because of his pivotal “Addison’s Walk” conversation on September 19 with Lewis and Dyson. In the poem, Tolkien attempts to respond to Lewis’ dictum that mythmaking is “Breathing a lie through Silver.” Thus, he addressed the poem “Philomythus to Misomythus”—that is, from Tolkien (a myth-lover) to Lewis (a myth-hater, given his assessment of myths as “lies”). Now notice what Tolkien’s response to Lewis in this poem must entail. Lewis had accused myths of being lies—that is, of being falsehoods. By rejecting Lewis’ position, Tolkien was arguing that myths were not false, but true. But, it must be immediately noted, “Mythopoeia” does not argue in defense of historically true myth—a story with mythical or imaginative value that also really happened. Keep in mind too that Lewis seems to have already been convinced, or at least nearly convinced, by their “Addison’s Walk” conversation that Christianity was to be approached as an historically true myth. In “Mythopoeia,” therefore, Tolkien was maintaining that myths are also true in some non-historical way. Having gained ground with Lewis on one point, he sought to gain ground on another. How, then, can myths be true in a non-historical sense? To begin formulating our answer to this question, consider the following lines from the poem:

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.[112]

There are two important points to notice in this passage. First, the human impulse to make stories and myths, to sub-create, is raised to the dignity of an imitation of divine creation. God made us, and we make other things: “We make still by the law in which we’re made.” As Tolkien put it in “On Fairy-Stories”: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[113] Or as Aulë, the god of crafting and earth and artistry in The Silmarillion, said to God after he had made the Dwarves: “As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made.”[114] God is an artist, and an artisan; therefore, so is Aulë; therefore, so are the Dwarves; therefore, so are we. Sub-creation, including mythmaking, is an imitation of divine creation.

The second point to be made is to identify more precisely what sort of relation that our sub-creations have to the Creator. Notice the imagery with which Tolkien describes how the mythmaker imitates divine creativity, and the sort of relation it implies between human art and God: “man, Sub-creator, the refracted light/ through whom is splintered from a single White/ to many hues, and endlessly combined/ in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” The “single White,” that is the Light of God, is refracted through human mythmaking into the many colors of the “living shapes” in our minds: i.e., Elves, Goblins, Ents, Dwarves, and so on. Thus, something contained pre-eminently in God—who is the Light itself—is filtered through the human mind into the colors of human mythmaking. Myths thus convey something which is contained pre-eminently in God, just as colors and their hues are contained pre-eminently in white light. Later in the poem Tolkien extends the metaphor of light to make a substantially similar point: “In Paradise perchance the eye may stray/ from gazing upon everlasting Day/ to see the day illumined, and renew/ from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.”[115] That is to say, the blessed in heaven may look upon creation to “renew” their understanding of God by seeing His likeness in what He has made. The “everlasting Day,” or the Sun, just like the “single White,” is God; both are pre-eminent sources of light. And just as the “single White” is refracted into the many colors of human sub-creation, so the “everlasting Day” is mirrored in creation (and, we may add, in sub-creation). God is “the True” with a capital T; but the heavenly landscape of Paradise is “mirrored truth” and “the likeness of the True.” Thus creation resembles its Creator by a relation of likeness, albeit an attenuated likeness. God is the Archetype; His creatures are made in His image and likeness—therefore some glimpse of Him can be discerned by looking at His creation. But the same could be said of sub-creation, as Tolkien himself suggests. For elsewhere in “Mythopoeia” he writes of mythmakers as weaving story-threads “gilded by the far-off day”—that is, catching gleams, no doubt, of the “everlasting Day” and thus faintly resembling the Creator. Or again, they make an “image blurred of distant king,” catching the likeness of the King of creation in some capacity. We have learned already that the act of sub-creation itself is an imitation or likeness of divine creation. But now we can see that the way in which the results of sub-creation (particularly, myths) are related to the Creator is also by a relation of imitation or resemblance or likeness: something that God contains pre-eminently or archetypically is conveyed in the glimmers or gleams of “mirrored truth” in human myths. They, like objects in the created world, also qualify in some measure as being “likeness[es] of the True”—that is, of God. As Tolkien put it in “On Fairy-Stories”: “in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”[116] Or as Lewis put it in Reflections on the Psalms: “The resemblance between these myths [e.g., Balder or Adonis] and the Christian truth is no more accidental than the resemblance between the sun and the sun’s reflection in a pond[.]”[117] Blurred or faint or refracted as they may be, the hues and colors of human myths, or at least, of certain ones, are still related to God (or, as we shall see, heavenly life more generally) by a relation of imitation, likeness, or resemblance.

We have now identified the metaphysical core of non-historically true myths: that is, they have the nature of imitations, likenesses, or resemblances, being related to their divine Source as to an archetype, or as refracted light to the pure light of the Sun. But before I connect these (and other) ideas to ancient Greek metaphysics, it will be well to see examples of such myths in Lewis and Tolkien first. I would like to focus on two particularly revealing eschatological myths—for it is these that we would naturally expect to catch glimmers of heavenly life and act as likenesses of God. I will briefly examine Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle and then the end of Lewis’ The Last Battle as the two clearest expressions of non-historically true myth. By the end of my recapitulation of these two examples the particular ancient Greek metaphysician Lewis and Tolkien were drawing from will become unmistakably clear.

First, then, let us turn to Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a painter who paints trees: this is his vocation. All his life, he tries, and mostly fails, often due to unwelcome interruptions, to put onto his canvas his vision of an elaborate tree—a project which consumes all his artistic endeavors. It is his life’s work; but he is unable to complete it. Before he can finish, the time comes for him to go on a journey, which is a symbol of death. But it is only then, after he has embarked and endured a long purgatorial experience, that he discovers the real Tree, whose existence he had never suspected but which had inspired all his earthly art, the Tree whose outlines he had tried with all his might and artistry to capture, but had largely failed to reproduce:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, and as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.[118]

All Niggle’s earthly painting, therefore, had caught some glimpse, had been some imperfect likeness or resemblance or imitation, of this heavenly Tree, which surpassed all his artistic efforts in beauty and detail. Thus the results of sub-creation, despite any flaws they may have, whether due to the artist or simply due to the fact of being sub-creations, can still foreshadow something of heaven.[119]

The eschatological vision of Narnia and England at the end of Lewis’ The Last Battle, to turn to my second example of non-historically true myth, foreshadows heaven particularly well. The Pevensie children and their companions discover the real Narnia and the real England, not as they had experienced them in their lives but as they were meant to be. Like Niggle at the sight of his Tree, they felt that all that was good and beautiful in their earthly vision had been preserved, yet, even more so than Niggle, that its beauty has been realized beyond all hope. It was familiar and yet beyond their imagining. As Jewel the Unicorn put it upon seeing the real Narnia:

I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.[120]

The old Narnia, then, had only resembled the true Narnia—had only “looked a little like” it. For as Professor Kirke had said:

When Aslan said that you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.[121]

At this point the ancient Greek metaphysical background to these ideas can be put off no longer. All the pieces of the puzzle are now in place: imitation and resemblance of God as an Archetype, illumination by the divine Sun, shadows or copies of eternal and more fully real things, and sub-creation. Given these notions, students of ancient Greek philosophy will not be surprised at how this passage from The Last Battle continues immediately:

“His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath ‘It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!’ the older ones laughed.”

For the metaphysical background to the second sense of true myth is Platonic.

IV. The Platonism of Non-Historically True Myth

In this final section I will attempt to establish four links between Lewis and Tolkien’s idea of non-historically true myth and Plato’s metaphysics. By cataloguing just these four in succession—there are certainly others[122]—I hope to convince you that Platonism was a main source and inspiration for this aspect of Lewis and Tolkien’s joint theory of myth.

(1) We have seen that, according to Lewis and Tolkien, certain myths can act as imitations or resemblances of otherworldly, divine realities (whether God or heaven or both). Now this metaphysical relationship of an earthly imitation to a divine paradigm, of an empirical resemblance to a non-sensible Form or archetype, or (in more imaginative terms) of a mundane shadow to its immaterial counterpart, is of course a main feature of Plato’s metaphysics. In the Timaeus, Plato straightforwardly states that the things that come to be in time and space “are imitations of those things that always are”—namely, the eternal, immutable, paradigmatic, divine Forms—“imprinted after their likeness in a marvellous way that is hard to describe.”[123] He reiterates the same thought later on, writing of space as “the thing that is to receive repeatedly throughout its whole self the likenesses of the intelligible objects, the things which always are”.[124] In the Phaedo, Plato argues that at least certain spatiotemporal objects can serve as reminders of the Forms due to their likeness to them: “We must then possess knowledge of the Equal before that time when we first saw the equal objects and realized that all these objects strive to be like the Equal but are deficient in this.”[125] The same idea appears in the Phaedrus, where Plato contrasts “the earthly likenesses” and “images” of justice and temperance, in which “the nature [of the Form] being imitated” can be discerned, but only with difficulty, with the Form of Beauty, whose images in the sensible world are all the more powerfully inspiring because they are discerned with ease.[126] But of course the most famous illustration of the metaphysical relationship of participants to Forms comes from the seventh book of the Republic. There Plato imaginatively—one might even say, mythopoeically—describes the levels of reality from images of sensible objects all the way up to Forms, maintaining some degree of resemblance or imitation between these different levels. The shadows on the wall of the Cave resemble the statues and artifacts which cast them, lit from behind by the fire in the Cave; these subterranean statues and artifacts in turn resemble the shadows of the real creatures and natural objects above the Cave (that is, in the intelligible world); and finally, there are the real creatures, natural objects, and celestial bodies themselves, lit by the most supreme being of all, the Sun.[127] Thus the lowest level of reality—the shadows cast upon the wall of the Cave—does ultimately resemble and convey something of the nature of the real objects above the Cave, though imperfectly, having been, so to speak, filtered (or, shall we say, refracted) through many intermediary steps. Likewise, Lewis and Tolkien’s non-historically true myths imperfectly convey something of otherworldly, divine realities by way of likeness or resemblance.[128] “The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”

(2) In describing the Image of the Cave, we have raised what seems to be another Platonic metaphysical connection with Tolkien and Lewis’ notion of non-historically true myth: namely, the use of the Sun as the symbol of the ultimate spiritual source of existence and intelligibility. You will remember that Tolkien’s two metaphors of light in “Mythopoeia” both focused on a pure source of divine Light and its filtration by, or illumination of, other beings. Without the “single White” which is refracted in the colors of human imagination or the “everlasting Day” which illumines the rest of creation, there would either be no sub-creation at all (for without a source of light, there would be no refracted colors) or, even if it did exist, it would be unintelligible (for without a source of light, nothing would be illumined or visible). But these two functions of the divine Light—namely, to be the cause of existence and the cause of intelligibility—are precisely the two functions that Plato attributes to the Good, of which the Sun is a symbol in Republic 6-7. Just as the visible Sun both causes the growth and nourishment (i.e., the existence) of visible things and also illumines them (i.e., grants them visibility), so does the intelligible Sun, the Good, grant existence and intelligibility to the Forms (and, through them, to the objects of the visible world).[129] Thus, Tolkien not only used light-based images in a Platonic context, illustrating the metaphysical relationship between imitations and divine realities, but he even did so in a Platonic way: that is, his two metaphors of divine Light parallel the two functions of Plato’s Sun. The Platonic overtones of his (and Lewis’)[130] theory of the non-historically true myth are becoming impossible not to recognize.

(3) The Image of the Cave also raises yet another issue of Platonic metaphysics which Tolkien and Lewis accepted and made use of in their notion of non-historically true myth—namely, the notion of levels or hierarchical kinds of reality. We have already observed Plato’s distinction between different levels or kinds of reality in the Cave: each step upwards, from the shadows on the wall to the natural and celestial bodies which represent the Forms, brings with it an increase in being or reality. Whatever it means, philosophically, to say that one thing has “more reality” or “is more” than another, or that one thing is “more true” than another, this is the language Plato uses in Republic 7. In one passage he describes what the experience of the newly released prisoner of the Cave would be like. At first, when he is brought above ground, he would mistakenly believe that the underground things he had turned from were “more true than the ones he was now being shown”[131] in the sunlit world aboveground. But in fact, his upward journey has brought him “closer to the things that are” and turned him “towards the things that are more”.[132] For the Forms “are more,” have more reality, are “more true” than the things which merely resemble them in the Cave.

“More true” and “are more” seem to be synonymous here, allowing us to use phrases like “levels or kinds of reality” and “levels or kinds of truth” synonymously. For by “true” here Plato does not mean propositional truth as opposed to propositional falsehood, but what is real and original as opposed to what is only by imitation or resemblance or likeness. To use the famous example from book 10 of the Republic, the painting of a bed is not really a bed (or, not a “true” bed) though we may call it such. But, according to Plato, even a bed made by a carpenter (and not a mere pictorial representation by a painter) is not really a bed in comparison with the Form of Bed. For, as he says, only the Form of Bed is “the truly real bed”.[133] Only the Form of Bed is really a bed. The real Bed—the true Bed—is the Form. Thus for Plato the highest level, or primary kind, of “reality” or “truth” is the reality or truth of the Forms. The reality of the physical world, where things such as beds made by carpenters exist, insofar as it imitates or strives to be like the Forms, is secondary to them. There is primary reality and secondary reality. And the reality of artistic representation, such as the painting of the bed, insofar as it imitates or strives to be like the secondary reality of the physical world, occupies the tertiary level of reality. The closer one approaches to the primary reality of the Forms, the more real or true things become.

We find strikingly similar language and concepts in Lewis and Tolkien. In “On Fairy-Stories,” we find Tolkien contrasting “the real (primary) world,” the created world of time and space, with the mythmaker’s sub-created “Secondary World.”[134] Likewise, there is the truth of the primary world and the truth of the secondary world, to which we accord Primary and Secondary or literary Belief, respectively.[135] In Tolkien’s essay, however, these levels of reality or truth are not always arranged simply on the basis of the principle of resemblance or likeness, as in Plato. But in “Mythopoeia,” they are. Recall the line in which he writes of the blessed in heaven receiving “from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.” “Mirrored truth” is clearly subordinate to “the True” with a capital T; the former is secondary, the latter primary, just as a reflection in a mirror is subordinate to its original. But not only are there levels of truth or reality; they are related by virtue of likeness, just as a reflection in a mirror is a likeness of its original. For the blessed receive “from mirrored truth the likeness of the True,” just as Plato would say that the likeness of the Forms can be discerned even in the spatiotemporal world.

Lewis, too, relied on these aspects of Platonic metaphysics in a passage we have already discussed—namely, his letter of October 18, 1931 to Arthur Greeves. To discern the presence of such Platonic ideas in this letter, it will help to realize that Lewis here makes use of both senses of true myth as I have distinguished them.[136] For we find that he not only wrote of “the story of Christ” as “a true myth” insofar as “it really happened[137]—that is, in the sense of its being an historically true myth—but also that he treated the story of Christ, in another respect, as a non-historically true myth. How, precisely, did he do so? Just as we saw in Plato’s Image of the Cave, we find in Lewis’ letter different levels or kinds of reality, and thus of truth as well. Lewis gives us a threefold hierarchy: God, the created world and its historical events, and doctrines about those events. And just as the Forms anchored Plato’s kinds of reality theory according to how directly the lower levels echoed or resembled or imitated them, so Lewis arranges these levels of reality according to how directly they reveal God’s nature. God directly expresses Himself through the actual events of the Christian story in history (as Lewis puts it, “Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’”); and the actual events of the Christian story in history are in turn expressed in our doctrines about them, thus indirectly revealing God’s nature. These doctrines are certainly true; but they are, as Lewis says, “of course less true” than the events which they are about: “they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.” Therefore these “actual” events are more true—remember Plato’s language in Republic 7—than their doctrinal counterparts. But by the same reasoning, these actual events are themselves less true than the highest level of reality, namely the being of God Himself. As we ascend levels of reality, we also ascend levels of truth, just as we would expect in a Platonic metaphysical context.

Understanding this letter in a Platonic metaphysical context, which supplies us with its own peculiar meaning of the term “true,” also avoids a difficult problem. For Lewis’ key phrase “less true” is inexplicable if we take “true” to mean “historically true.” For historical claims are true if and only if they correspond to some actual event; if they do not correspond, they are not true. Strictly speaking, there are no comparative levels of historical truth—that is to say, historical claims, or indeed, any claims of any sort, cannot be more or less true. When they correspond to reality, they are true; when they do not, no matter how small the deviation may be, they are false. “Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC” is true; but if we substitute any other year for 49, even if it is increased or decreased by only one or two years, the claim would still be equally false. Thus, Lewis’ use of the comparative “less true” reveals that he cannot be thinking of something historically or propositionally true at that point in the letter. Therefore, when he says that “The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true,” he must mean “true myth” in a non-historical sense. Given the context of levels of reality, as I have shown, that non-historical sense takes on a decidedly Platonic, or at least idealistic, metaphysical flavor.

(4) Finally, I would like to point out that the act of sub-creation itself, or at least certain aspects of it, is based on the Platonic concept of sub-creation. We have already observed Tolkien’s idea in “Mythopoeia” that the sub-creator imitates God the Creator precisely by sub-creating, an idea with which Lewis came to agree. To demonstrate the Platonic roots of this idea, we must turn back to the Timaeus, which is, inter alia, Plato’s account of cosmology and cosmogony. It is his cosmogony which interests us here, and particularly the ways in which it parallels Tolkien’s cosmogony in the Ainulindalë. Plato describes a divine Craftsman (“Demiurge” in Greek) who (a) initially begins and also (b) helps to shape the universe after its beginning. These two functions of Plato’s Demiurge are split by Tolkien into the one uncreated God, Eru or Ilúvatar, who creates the universe and all other rational beings, on the one hand, and the created gods or Valar, who help to shape the universe after its creation, on the other. I will first point out (a) how Plato’s Demiurge parallels Tolkien’s Ilúvatar, and then (b) how the Demiurge parallels Tolkien’s Valar.

First, then, in the Timaeus, the Demiurge directly addresses the gods whom he has created about their future task of shaping the world. He begins with an assertion of his ultimate authority over their actions: “O gods, works divine whose maker and father I am, whatever has come to be by my hands cannot be undone but by my consent.”[138] Likewise in the Ainulindalë, Ilúvatar creates the gods and then speaks to them directly. In one of his speeches, he conveys to them the same notion of final authority over their actions: “no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.” Second, both Plato and Tolkien are anxious to define the relationship between the supreme rational being (the Demiurge, Ilúvatar), the gods, and lower rational creatures, especially human beings. Tolkien makes it clear that Ilúvatar alone creates other rational beings, including human beings.[139] On the other hand, the Demiurge delegates the creation of human beings to the gods. And though this is a significant difference between Plato’s supreme being and Tolkien’s (it may, in fact, have been a conscious reaction on Tolkien’s part to the Timaeus), the way in which Plato’s Demiurge entrusts this task to the gods is significant: for he does so in terms of sub-creation as imitating himself, a divine being. Speaking of human beings, the Demiurge says to the gods:

But if these creatures came to be and came to share in life by my hand, they would rival the gods. It is you, then, who must turn yourselves to the task of fashioning these living things, as your nature allows. This will assure their mortality, and this whole universe will really be a completed whole. Imitate the power I used in causing you to be (μιμούμενοι τὴν ἐμὴν δύναμιν περὶ τὴν ὑμετέραν γένεσιν). …I shall begin by sowing that seed, and then hand it over to you. The rest of the task is yours.[140]

Not only is the Demiurge assigning a task of sub-creation to lower rational beings (the gods), as Tolkien’s Ilúvatar does;[141] he explicitly points out the way in which sub-creation imitates his own divine creativity. Sub-creation imitates divine creation in both Plato and Tolkien.

So far I have drawn three major parallels between the Demiurge and Ilúvatar, or God. Now I would like to (b) draw one significant parallel between the Demiurge and Tolkien’s gods, or the Valar. The parallel is simply this: they all continue to shape the universe, using their creative, or rather, sub-creative talents to order it and bring it from chaos to greater stages of organization. Plato writes of the chaotic initial stages of the universe:

The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible, and so he took over all that was visible—not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion—and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order, because he believed that order was in every way better than disorder.[142]

Likewise, the great task Tolkien assigned to the Valar in his cosmogony was for them to bring the universe from disorder to order:

But when the Valar entered into Eä they were at first astounded and at a loss, for it was as if naught was yet made which they had seen in vision, and all was but on point to begin and yet unshaped, and it was dark. For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing; but now they had entered in at the beginning of Time, and the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Eä there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar.

Tolkien’s Valar were, in this respect, in his cosmogony what the Demiurge was in Plato’s. We should not be surprised, then, to find Tolkien describing the world-building of the Valar as “demiurgic.[143] Sub-creation, then, and its connection to divine powers was, at least for Tolkien, a thoroughly and consciously Platonic idea.

I have only illustrated some of the connections between Plato’s metaphysics and Tolkien and Lewis’ second sense of true myth: the metaphysics of resemblance or likeness, solar imagery, levels of reality or truth, and sub-creation. Other strong links exist between Plato’s philosophy and their theory of true myth more broadly: for example, their collective concern with, and response to, the charge of escapism, which would criticize their keen interest in other worlds for being out of touch with truth and reality; the parallel between Platonic eros as the motive force for reaching the heavenly intelligible world and Tolkien’s longing for the True West and Lewis’ Joy or romantic longing as motive forces for reaching heaven; and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that Plato himself philosophized in a mythopoeic fashion, constructing various kinds of myths and images for purposes similar, or at least comparable, to those of Tolkien and Lewis. But these connections, and no doubt many others, I will have to leave for another occasion.


[1] Tolkien was an undergraduate at Exeter College from Autumn 1911-1915. He read Honour Moderations, specializing in Greek philology—see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), no.7, p.13—from 1911-1913, taking Second Class in the summer of 1913. He then switched schools from Classics to English, and obtained a First in 1915, his special subject being Old Icelandic (see the same letter). Lewis, on the other hand, was at University College from April-September 1917, then again after the War from January 1919-June 1924. He received a First in Honour Moderations in 1920, a First in Greats in 1922, and a First in English in 1923.

[2] Tolkien may have started to work at the OED at the end of 1918 (according to Letters, no.7, p.12), though other sources indicate he didn’t start work until the beginning of 1919. Tolkien says he finished work at the OED in “the spring of 1920, when my own work and the increasing labours of a tutor made it impossible to continue.” So he was able to stay on in Oxford after his OED work, making a living as a tutor till October 1920.

[3] See Letters, no.7, p.12.

[4] Tolkien’s election to the Rawlinson & Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon took effect in October 1925 (see Letters, no.8, p.13). Lewis was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College on May 20, 1925.

[5] C.S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me, 392-3.

[6] See C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955), ch.5, 77: “First, you will misunderstand everything unless you realize that, at that time, Asgard and the Valkyries seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else in my experience…”

[7] See Ibid. 125-6 for Lewis’ first meeting with Greeves.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume I: Family Letters 1905-1931, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 701-2.

[9] For example, see All My Road Before Me, Oct. 17, 1929: “…next night till 1 talking to someone else, & on Wednesday till 12 with the Icelandics.” And for the small size, see Letters I, 880, where a group of four is recorded (and seems typical).

[10] SEe C.S. Lewis, Letters I, 732 and note 84; Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life & Works (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 749, entry on “Beer and Beowulf Evenings.”

[11] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), part three, ch.3, 112; J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, no.7, p.13: “An active discussion-class has been conducted, on lines more familiar in schools of literature than of language, which has borne fruit in friendly rivalry and open debate with the corresponding literary assembly. A Viking Club has even been formed, by past and present students of Old Icelandic, which promises to carry on the same kind of activity independently of the staff.”

[12] See Letters, no.5, p.8-9.

[13] As letter no.5 itself attests; but see its introductory note on p.9: “Since leaving King Edward’s, the T.C.B.S. had kept in close touch with each other.”

[14] Letters, no.350, p.429.

[15] E.g., Tolkien: A Biography, 149.

[16] Letters I, 838.

[17] Carpenter, part one, ch.7, 81.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Annotated Hobbit, ed. Dough Anderson, 2nd ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 4.

[19] Crist I, lines 104-5: éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended… Translation from Carpenter’s Biography, part one, ch.6, 72: “Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the Middle-earth sent unto men”. Tolkien’s poem was called “The voyage of Earendel the Evening Star,” as Carpenter notes, ibid. 79.

[20] Letters, no.297, p.385.

[21] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 2nd edition, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), ch.24, 247.

[22] See Letters no.165, p.219: “…what is I think a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. …The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.”

[23] See Carpenter, part four, ch.6, 169. See also J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Ballantine, 1994), 184-5.

[24] The Lays of Beleriand,184-5.

[25] See Letters, no.19, p.26: “My chief joy comes from learning that the Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn. I have suffered a sense of fear and bereavement, quite ridiculous, since I let this private and beloved nonsense out; and I think if it had seemed to you to be nonsense I should have felt really crushed. I do not mind about the verse-form [The Geste of Beren and Lúthien], which in spite of certain virtuous passages has grave defects, for it is only for me the rough material.” Perhaps some of these grave defects had been pointed out to him by Lewis years before in 1930!

[26] Carpenter, part one, ch.7, 83.

[27] Ibid., part four, ch.6, 169.

[28] Letters, no.15, p.21: “The magic and mythology and assumed ‘history’ and most of the names…are, alas!, drawn from unpublished inventions, known only to my family, Miss Griffiths and Mr Lewis.” See Carpenter, part four, ch.6, 172. Again, later in 1948 (though the date is uncertain) Tolkien writes in the Letters, no.115, p.130: “For though I have (in the cracks of time!) laboured at these things since about 1914,1 have never found anyone but C.S.L. and my Christopher who wanted to read them; and no one will publish them.”

[29] Ibid., no.276, p.361 to Dick Plotz: “C.S. Lewis was one of the only three persons who have so far read all or a considerable part of my ‘mythology’ of the First and Second Ages…” However, the note on p.451 points out that “In fact at least three people beside C.S. Lewis had read the mythology: Christopher Tolkien, Rayner Unwin, and Lord Halsbury.”

[30] Letters I, 880.

[31] Old English: ‘garments, weapons, taken from the slain.’

[32] Lays of Beleriand, 184.

[33] Ibid., 383.

[34] Ibid., 379.

[35] Ibid., 389.

[36] Ibid., 379-80.

[37] Letters I, 969.

[38] Letters I, 974. Also from 970: “Tolkien came too [i.e., in addition to Dyson], and did not leave till 3 in the morning [but Dyson stays up talking with Lewis till 4]…It was a really memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth…

[39] C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 501.

[40] Letters I, 970; to Greeves, September 22, 1931.

[41] Ibid., 977.

[42] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in Tree and Leaf (George Allen & Unwin: London, 1974), 63.

[43] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996), 343. See also Surprised by Joy, ch.15, 222: “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion—those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them—was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.”

[44] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, ch.5, p.47.

[45] As quoted by Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories,” 49.

[46] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, ch.11, 161.

[47] Tolkien resisted this charge of devaluation not only by convincing Lewis that historical truth and myth could be combined without detriment to either while walking and talking late into the night, but also by writing his poem “Mythopoeia.” See section two on what I call the notion of the “non-historically true myth.”

[48] Quoted in Carpenter, part four, ch.4, 152.

[49] Letters II, 16.

[50] 1933 as the date of the inception of the Inklings is somewhat speculative. See W.H. Lewis, Brothers and Friends, ed. Clyde Kilby and Marjorie Mead (Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1983), note 202 on p.182. However, the undergraduate club of the same name was certainly formed in 1931—see Carpenter, part four, ch.4, 152.

[51] Cf. Letters II, Walter Hooper’s note 51 on p.16.

[52] Letters, no.247, p.349.

[53] According to Tolkien’s Letters, introductory note on no.9, p.14; see also Carpenter, part five, ch.1, 181.

[54] Letters II, 96.

[55] Brothers and Friends, 126-7. The fact that this is an entry on Monday may be significant; perhaps Lewis and Tolkien’s Monday meetings, first recorded in 1931, had continued till at least then.

[56] Carpenter, part four, ch.5, 159.

[57] See Letters II, 96 to Greeves, Feb. 4, 1933: “Whether it is really good (I think it is until the end) is of course another question: still more, whether it will succeed with modern children.”

[58] C.S. Lewis, “The Hobbit” in On Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 81-2.

[59] E.g., Letters II, March 28, 1937, 212 to Greeves; August 24, 1939, 264 to Sister Penelope; C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), March 25, 1952, 74 to Michael Irwin, a Narnia fan.

[60] Letters, no.26, p.32-3.

[61] Ibid. no.259, p.349.

[62] Ibid., no.265, p.352.

[63] Ibid., no.224, p.302.

[64] In what way did Out of the Silent Planet unify myth and historical truth? One possibility is as follows: given that “the underlying myth” of Out of the Silent Planet is the fall of the angels and the fall of man—events which Lewis and Tolkien regarded as real, historical facts—it is more than likely that they both would have considered the “philosophical and mythical implications” of Lewis’ story as, in some sense, factually or historically true. Not, of course, that they believed in the actual existence of hrossa or sorns on Mars, or the existence of the angelic eldila just as Lewis describes them; but that Lewis’ story reveals something about how the doctrines of Christianity might operate in a cosmic, and not simply tellurian, setting; that contrasting the hrossa or sorns or pfifltriggi with humans reveals what it means to be a fallen (or “bent” as Lewis puts it) creature; and that the ruling eldil of Mars might reveal something of the angelic nature and its relation to the physical universe. Myths, as Tolkien and Lewis used them, were in some way windows into religious and historical realities.

[65] Carpenter, part four, ch.6, 173n1.

[66] Letters, no.24, p.29.

[67] Ibid., no.294, p.378, February 8, 1967 to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer. Compare no.159, p.209, March 3, 1955 to Dora Marshall: “As C.S. Lewis said to me long ago, more or less—(I do not suppose my memory of his dicta is any more precisely accurate than his of mine: I often find strange things attributed to me in his works)—‘if they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves; but it is very laborious’. Being a man of immense power and industry, his ‘trilogy’ was finished much sooner amidst much other work; but at last my slower and more meticulous (as well as more indolent and less organized) machine has produced its effort. The labour!” And again, no.252, p.342 to Michael Tolkien (draft): “The ‘space-travel’ trilogy…was planned years before, when we decided to divide: he was to do space-travel and I time-travel.” And no.257, p.347 to Christopher Bretherton: “What I might call my Atlantis-haunting. This legend or myth or dim memory of some ancient history has always troubled me. …When C.S. Lewis and I tossed up, and he was to write on space-travel and I on time-travel, I began an abortive book of time-travel of which the end was to be the presence of my hero in the drowning of Atlantis.”

[68] See Letters, no.257, p.347. See also Carpenter, part four, ch.6, 174: “The father…invents languages, or rather he finds that words are transmitted to him, words that seem to be fragments of ancient and forgotten languages.”

[69] See Surprised by Joy, ch.14, 204-5: “When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile. They were H.V.V. Dyson (then of Reading) and J.R.R. Tolkien. Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.” For Tolkien on Lewis’ anti-Catholicism, see (for example) Letters no.83, p.96: “But hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C of E—so deep laid that it remains even when all the superstructure seems removed (C.S.L. for instance reveres the Blessed Sacrament, and admires nuns!). Yet if a Lutheran is put in jail he is up in arms; but if Catholic priests are slaughtered—he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it).”

[70] See Carpenter, part four, ch.4, 154 (“a faint cooling” after Charles Williams arrives and for various other reasons); part five, ch.2, 204 (a “gradual cooling” for unclear reasons).

[71] For a bit on Tolkien’s perspective, see Letters no.261, p.350-1, and a series of letters in Lewis’ Letters III, 469-76.

[72] See Christopher Mitchell’s lecture “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Scholars and Friends,” delivered at Seattle Pacific University on March 11, 2003.

[73] Letters, no.252, p.341.

[74] Ibid., no.92, p.105. According to the notes on p.440, “Lewis’ next published novel after That Hideous Strength and The Great Divorce was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Tolkien is, however, almost certainly referring to some other book of Lewis’s that was never completed. Tolkien’s ‘dimly projected third’ may have been ‘The Notion Club Papers’”.

[75] Letters, p.440. See Lewis, Letters III, note 24 on p.6.

[76] Letters III, 5-6.

[77] See C.S. Lewis, “Language and Human Nature (Manuscript Fragment),” VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review 27 (2010), 25-28.

[78] Letters, no.20, p.27. This is a letter to C.A. Furth of Allen & Unwin; but Tolkien had discussed with Unwin himself earlier what other stories he had in manuscript (see p.25).

[79] Letters II, 288-9.

[80] Ibid., 302. Compare 336, to Warnie, Jan 28, 1940: “The usual party assembled on Thursday night, heard a chapter of the new Hobbit, drank rum and hot water, and talked.”

[81] Letters, no.72, p.83. See no.91, p.103, November 29, 1944 to Christopher: “Lewis was moved almost to tears by the last chapter [of the Fourth Book].”

[82] Letters, no.149, p.184.

[83] Ibid., no.227, p.303 to Mrs. E.C. Ossen Drijver, January 5, 1961.

[84] Ibid., no.276, p.362 to Dick Plotz, September 12, 1965. See also Walter Hooper’s anecdote in the Preface to On Stories, xx: “Professor Tolkien told me that he had been reading various genealogies and appendices to Lewis long before there was any written story. His interests, he told me, were primarily in those aspects of ‘Middle Earth’ and that it was his friend C.S., or ‘Jack’, Lewis who encouraged him to write a story to go with them. ‘You know Jack’, he said to me. ‘He had to have a story! And that story—The Lord of the Rings—was written to keep him quiet!’”

[85] Letters, no.294, p.376 to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, February 8, 1967: “I mentioned the passage [Gandalf’s confrontation with Saruman] because it is in fact one of the very few places where in the event I found L’s detailed criticisms useful and just. I cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same. I do not think the event has proved him right.”

[86] Letters III, 1049. See 824, January 5, 1957: And as for anyone influencing Tolkien, you might as well (to adapt the White King) try to influence a bandersnatch.” See also Letters II, 631, October 29, 1944: “…but he’s one of those people who is never satisfied with a MS. The mere suggestion of publication provokes the reply ‘Yes, I’ll just look through it and give it a few finishing touches’—wh. means that he really begins the whole thing over again.”

[87] Letters III, 1458. He continues: “The similarities between his works and mine are due, I think (a) To nature—temperament. (b) To common sources. We are both soaked in Norse mythology, Geo. MacDonald’s fairy-tales, Homer, Beowulf, and medieval romance. Also, of course, we are both Christians (he, an R.C.).”

[88] The text of which is as follows: “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 the 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.” It can also be found (with minor changes and an omitted first sentence) in Letters III, 383, December 4, 1953 to Stanley Unwin. Lewis says in the letter to which it is attached: “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.”

[89] C.S. Lewis, “Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings” in On Stories, 90.

[90] See Letters II, 990-1.

[91] Letters III, 784-5.

[92] Ibid., 1125.

[93] Ibid., 774.

[94] Ibid., 1030.

[95] Ibid., 881.

[96] Letters II, 990-91, to J.R.R. Tolkien, October 27, 1949.

[97] Letters II, 631, to Charles Brady, October 29, 1944.

[98] Letters, no.251, p.341, to Priscilla, November 26, 1963: “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: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

[99] Ibid., no.252, p.341, to Michael Tolkien (draft).

[100] Though of course this appearance of true myth does not appear to be directly relevant to their friendship.

[101] “On Fairy-Stories,” 60.

[102] Ibid. 62.

[103] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, 1958), ch.10, 107.

[104] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003), ch.4, p.40.

[105] Ibid. ch.11, 122.

[106] See Letters, no.276, p.361. Furthermore, in the same letter: “Lewis was, I think, impressed by ‘the Silmarillion and all that’, and certainly retained some vague memories of it and of its names in mind. For instance, since he had heard it, before he composed or thought of Out of the Silent Planet, I imagine that Eldil is an echo of the Eldar; in Perelandra ‘Tor and Tinidril’ are certainly an echo, since Tuor and Idril, parents of Eärendil, are major characters in ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, the earliest written of the legends of the First Age.”

[107] His other fictional works (The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and his short fiction) should not, I think, be classified with the fantasies discussed above, though they do, as Lewis himself says, treat certain themes (most often, theological and ethical) in a broadly mythopoeic way. See Lewis, Letters III, 517, where he explains how the imaginative element in him “after my conversion led me to embody my religious belief in symbolical or mythopoeic forms, ranging from Screwtape to a kind of theologised science-fiction.” Thus, while the likes of Screwtape and The Great Divorce may be thought of as “true myths” in some way (if one grants the truth of Lewis’ religious belief), they would seem to be “true myths” in some other sense than that defined above (historically true myth).

[108] For example, see Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins 2004), ch.9, 139: “If it offends less, you may say that the ‘life-force’ is corrupted where I say that living creatures were corrupted by an evil angelic being. We mean the same thing: but I find it easier to believe in a myth of gods and demons than in one of hypostatised abstract nouns. And after all, our mythology may be much nearer to literal truth than we suppose. Let us not forget that Our Lord, on one occasion, attributes human disease not to God’s wrath, but quite explicitly to Satan.” See also “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 43: “For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.”

[109] Letters, no.183, p.239: “I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd > middle-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumene, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”

[110] J.R.R. Tolkien, Valaquenta, 25 in The Silmarillion. Also from the Valaquenta, 25: “These were their names in the Elvish tongue as it was spoken in Valinor, though they have other names in the speech of the Elves in Middle-earth, and their names among Men are manifold.”

[111] Ibid., 26: “He was appointed to be, in the fullness of time, the first of all Kings: lord of the realm of Arda and ruler of all that dwell therein. In Arda his delight is in the winds and the clouds, and in all the regions of the air, from the heights to the depths, from the utmost borders of the Veil of Arda to the breezes that blow in the grass. Súlimo he is surnamed, Lord of the Breath of Arda.”

[112] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia.”

[113] “On Fairy-Stories,” 50.

[114] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ch.2, 43.

[115] Tolkien, “Mythopoeia.”

[116] “On Fairy-Stories,” 62.

[117] Reflections on the Psalms, ch.10, 107.

[118] “Leaf by Niggle” in Tree and Leaf, 85-6.

[119] These points apply to Tolkien’s mythology insofar as Niggle’s painting could be interpreted allegorically as Tolkien’s mythmaking. For Tolkien felt, like Niggle, that his life’s work of elaborating his mythology and languages, which were (like a tree) constantly sprouting new growths and ramifying new branches and connections in his imagination, were interrupted all too often and would be left unfinished at his death—as indeed they were. Nevertheless, certain themes and story elements awaken one’s desire for heaven—especially, for instance, the passages on the sea-longing of the Elves (and Men) and our desire for the True West.

[120] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Collier, 1970), ch.15, 171.

[121] Ibid., 169-70.

[122] The number of Platonic connections would increase even further if we were to include other aspects of Plato’s philosophy besides metaphysics and other aspects of Lewis and Tolkien’s use, approach to, and theory of myth besides non-historically true myth.

[123] Timaeus 50c, emphasis mine, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John Cooper and trans. Donald Zeyl (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997).

[124] Ibid. 51a, emphasis mine; see also 52a.

[125] Phaedo 74e-75a in Plato: Complete Works, trans. G.M.A. Grube, emphasis mine. See 75b: “Our sense perceptions must surely make us realize that all that we perceive through them is striving to reach that which is Equal but falls short of it…” However, Plato does also grant that one can be reminded of something (including a Form) by unlikeness as well.

[126] Phaedrus 250b, d-e in Plato: Complete Works, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff.

[127] Republic 514a-516b in Plato: Complete Works, trans. G.M.A. Grube.

[128] There are, however, two major differences between Plato and Lewis and Tolkien. First, Lewis and Tolkien seem to think that their (non-historically true) myths directly imitate divine realities, whereas for Plato they would first be imitations of the sensible world, and then (thus, indirectly) imitations of the intelligible, divine world. Second, it should also be noted that, based on another passage of the Republic, there would seem to be a significant difference between Lewis and Tolkien on the one hand and Plato on the other concerning the epistemological (and perhaps also ethical) value of sub-creations or imitations. In book ten (597d-602b), Plato criticizes artistic objects, paintings and poetry among them, which he describes as being imitations of imitations (that is, imitations of earthly things, which are themselves imitations of the Forms), for, inter alia, being so metaphysically inferior to what they indirectly imitate (the Forms) that they cannot allow us to adequately grasp or know the truth about the Forms. Indeed, Plato seems to think, though perhaps he is speaking hyperbolically, that sub-creations/art objects allow no grasp of the truth of the Forms (600e-601b). Consequently, he concludes that imitative poetry is not a serious endeavor (599a, 602b). Tolkien and Lewis would strongly disagree.

[129] Republic 509b.

[130] Based on the following (not comprehensive) evidence, I would also argue that Lewis came to accept Tolkien’s use of solar imagery to describe the metaphysics of mythopoeia. The definitive evidence comes from Reflections on the Psalms, ch.10, 107: “The resemblance between these myths and the Christian truth is no more accidental than the resemblance between the sun and the sun’s reflection in a pond…” Thus, Lewis grants that the resemblance of non-historically true myths to the Christian truth is precisely one of resemblance. Here, Christianity itself is the sun; but for Lewis, God was of course also aptly imaged by the sun: see, for example, The Problem of Pain, ch.10, 156-7: “A blessed spirit is a mould ever more and more patient of the bright metal poured into it, a body ever more completely uncovered to the blaze of the spiritual sun.” Or Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), ch.5, 63, where God as the Sun confers goodness (like light) upon us, just as Plato’s Good makes its participants good: “He [the Christian] does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.” Or again, Letters to Malcolm (New York: Harcourt, 1964, 1963), no.17, 90: “Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” Finally, there is the Platonic fable in “Transposition,” whose connections with Plato’s Image of the Cave deserve a paper in their own right. One also thinks of the solar imagery in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York: Collier, 1970), especially in chs.14-15, as the sailors approach the end of the world, a symbol for heaven, the sun becoming larger and larger; or again, in The Silver Chair (New York: Collier, 1970), ch.12, we have a sort of backwards Image of the Cave, where the witch attempts to convince Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum, who are all underground, that they have never seen a real sun, but only extrapolated its existence from lamps (157: “You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun.”).

[131] Plato, Republic 515d.

[132] Ibid. See other places where Plato emphasizes the superior kind of reality of the Forms: e.g., the image of the Line at the end of book 6, the degree of intelligibility in an object is proportional to its degree of reality—and of course the Forms occupy the largest subsection; Phaedrus 247c on the Forms, οὐσία ὄντως οὖσα; Philebus 59d on the Forms as the true objects of knowledge, τὸ ὂν ὄντως; Sophist 240b on the difference between an image and its original, which latter is ὄντως ὄν compared with the former; and Republic 597d on the Form of Bed, ὄντως οὔσης. Non-Forms are not really (ὄντως), implying that Forms are in a superior way.

[133] Republic 597d.

[134] “On Fairy-Stories,” 36.

[135] Ibid., 36-7.

[136] Though in the letter Lewis himself does not draw the distinction between the two senses of true myth.

[137] Letters I, 977.

[138] Timaeus 41b.

[139] Ainulindalë, 18: “For the Children of Ilúvatar were conceived by him alone; and they came with the third theme, and were not in the theme which Ilúvatar propounded at the beginning, and none of the Ainur had part in their making.”

[140] Timaeus 41c-d.

[141] Ainulindalë, 15, Ilúvatar to the Ainur: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will.” This makes a third parallel between Plato’s Demiurge and Tolkien’s Ilúvatar.

[142] Timaeus 30a. See also 53a-b for a specific example of this ordering: “Indeed, it is a fact that before this took place [the separation of the four elements] the four kinds all lacked proportion and measure, and at the time the ordering of the universe was undertaken, fire, water, earth and air initially possessed certain traces of what they are now. They were indeed in the condition one would expect thoroughly god-forsaken things to be in. So, finding them in this natural condition, the first thing the god then did was to give them their distinctive shapes, using forms and numbers.”

[143] See J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company), 330 for one of Tolkien’s uses. There he describes the Valar as having “been for nameless ages engaged in a demiurgic labour completing to the design of Eru the structure of the Universe…” See http://dimitrafimi.com/2019/05/05/demiurgic-beings-a-platonic-word-in-tolkien/ for other instances in Tolkien, including some surviving voice recordings.

Justin Keena received his Master of Studies in Ancient Philosophy from Oxford University in 2012. He has since taught Classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville and rhetoric and writing at the Catholic University of America, where he also earned an MA in English. He currently resides in New Hampshire, where he teaches Ancient Greek philosophy at Nashua Community College. Justin also makes websites about C.S. Lewis.


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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23 Responses to “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism,” a Paper by Justin Keena

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Before embarking on “this paper, published in print here for the first time” (and richly illustrated), I want to thank you both for it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. robstroud says:

    Thank you very much, Justin, for this outstanding article which will afford me much to mentally digest. Your scholarship is superb.

    And, thank you Brenton, for making this fine presentation available to all of us. You are the true archetype of the “scholar and gentleman.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lolalwilcox says:

    I read this expansive and interesting paper one section at a time. Section Three was of particular interest and useful to me as a mythologist and writer raised by C.S.Lewis, Tolkein, and … another approach ,,, Star Trek. I also liked the author’s friendly narrative style. Thanks to Justin Keena for all the thoughtful, loving work he put into this solid piece.


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  8. Joe Christopher says:

    A very good essay, particularly valuable for pinning down the several Platonic sources. The earlier parts had been pointed out earlier, but perhaps not (so far as I remember) quite as thoroughly.

    Liked by 1 person

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