The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings
Topic: Christian Education
March 11th 1936
[Dear Mr Williams,]
I never know about writing to an author. If you are older than I, I don’t want to seem impertinent: if you are younger, I don’t want to seem patronizing. But I feel I must risk it.
A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris. There are layers and layers–first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.
I mean the latter with perfect seriousness. I know Damaris very well: in fact I was in course of becoming Damaris (but you have pulled me up). That pterodactyl…I know all about him: and wanting not Peace, but (faugh!) ‘peace for my work’. Not only is your diagnosis good: but the very way in which you force one to look at the matter is itself the beginning of a cure. Honestly, I didn’t think there was anyone now alive in England who could do it.
Coghill of Exeter put me on to the book: I have put on Tolkien (the Professor of Anglo Saxon and a papist) and my brother. So there are three dons and one soldier all buzzing with excited admiration. We have a sort of informal club called the Inklings: the qualifications (as they have informally evolved) are a tendency to write, and Christianity. Can you come down some day next term (preferably not Sat. or Sunday), spend the night as my guest in College, eat with us at a chop house, and talk with us till the small hours. Meantime, a thousand thanks.
[C. S. Lewis]
The very next day–mail moved quicker back then, in the days before efficiency–Williams wrote back to Lewis from Oxford University Press. He had just finished reading Allegorical Love Poem–what becomes The Allegory of Love in printing–and wanted to send a note of admiration.
My dear Mr Lewis,
If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day.
To be exact, I finished on Saturday looking–too hastily–at proofs of your Allegorical Love Poem. I had been asked to write something about it for travellers and booksellers and people so I read it first…I admit that I fell for the Allegorical Love Poem so heavily because it is an aspect of the subject with which my mind has always been playing; indeed I once wrote a little book called An Essay in Romantic Theology, which the Bishop of Oxford (between ourselves) shook his head over. So Amen House did not publish it, and I quite agree now that it was a good thing. For it was very young and rhetorical. But I still toy with the notion of doing something on the subject, and I regard your book as practically the only one that I have ever come across, since Dante, that shows the slightest understanding of what this very peculiar identity of love and religion means. I know there is Coventry Patmore, but he rather left the identity to be deduced.
After vacillating a good deal I permit myself to believe in your letter and in the interests of the subject so far as to send you a copy of one of my early books of verse, because the Poems from page 42–page 81 may interest you….
You must be in London sometimes. Do let me know and come and have lunch or dinner…I should like very much to come to Oxford as you suggest; the only thing is that I am a little uncertain about next term because I may be at Canterbury off and on to see the rehearsals of the Play I have written for the Friends of the Cathedral to do in June…You will conceive Cranmer as coming under a similar danger to that from which Damaris was saved by the Mercy. Do forgive this too long letter, but after all to write about your Love Poem and my Lion and both our Romantic Theology in one letter takes some paragraphs…
P.S.2. And I am 49–so you can decide whether that is too old or too young.
When JRR Tolkien bet CS Lewis: the wager that gave birth to The Lord of the Rings
Elijah Wood (right) and Sean Astin as Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings CREDIT:ALLSTAR/CINETEXT/NEW LINE CINEMA
8 DECEMBER 2016 • 3:04PM
Eighty years ago JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis dared each other to write a sci-fi novel. It was a challenge that would lead to the creation of The Lord of the Rings
Once upon a time two friends made a wager. "Tollers," one said to the other, "there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves." At this time CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were "like two young bear cubs... just happily quipping with one another", in the words of an Oxford contemporary.
Their historic wager to write about space- and time-travel was a vital step on the road to their most famous fantasy works – yet it has never been pinpointed more precisely than 1936–37. Now, however, we can reveal that the germ of the idea emerged during a few days precisely eighty years ago.
The year 1936 had seen the two Oxford English dons hit their academic zenith with works that still shape medieval literary studies today: Lewis’s The Allegory of Love and Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Yet they were also wannabe authors – Lewis, 38, was an unsuccessful poet, and Tolkien, almost 45, an unpublished mythmaker.
Both had grown up reading science fiction classics such as Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and HG Wells’s The Time Machine. In the Thirties the genre was exploding, ranging from the monster-bashing gee-whizzery of US pulp magazines to serious speculation, especially in Britain.
To Tolkien and Lewis, Olaf Stapledon’s future histories of human evolution and the supernatural Christian thrillers of Charles Williams offered both a challenge and enticement. They realised genre fiction might offer a wider audience for their own ideas – ideas that centred on myth.
Tolkien’s myth-cycle, The Silmarillion, begun in 1916 but still in progress, recounted how deathless Elves and their mortal human allies overthrew the satanic Morgoth after agelong war. Lewis had become an avid fan – first the love story of Beren and Lúthien (to be published as a standalone book in May next year) and then The Hobbit, begun about 1930 as a bedtime story for the Tolkien children, set in some vague era long after the overthrow of Morgoth.
Myth was no mere antiquarian interest. In 1931, Tolkien had persuaded the sceptical Lewis that ancient myths contained glimpses of the "true myth", Christ’s incarnation. Lewis had since published The Pilgrim’s Regress, a heavily allegorical account of his conversion, with characters such as Wisdom, Mother Kirk, and Mr Humanist.
The science-fiction wager was a step onto common ground with Tolkien, who loathed allegory. They agreed to write adventure stories in which the fiction could be taken at face value, rather than as a code. But each adventure would lead to the discovery of the literal truth behind a well-known myth – the destruction of Atlantis and the fall of Satan.
Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet centres on a plan cooked up by a dastardly scientist, Weston, to invade and exploit a paradisal Mars. All is witnessed by Elwin Ransom, a man kidnapped and brought along to be a sacrifice to the Martians. But these turn out not to be coldly cruel Wellsian aliens. Instead, three benign intelligent species live deep in the lush canyons of the planet, which they call Malacandra.
JRR Tolkien in his study at Merton College, Oxford CREDIT: HAYWOOD MAGEE/GETTY IMAGES
In his cosmic trilogy – continuing with Venus-based Perelandra and earthbound That Hideous Strength – Lewis’s big idea was that the solar system pulses with divine life. "The very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance," thinks Ransom. "Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens." Spirits flit freely between planets that are each ruled by a guardian angel. But the "silent planet" is Earth, a prison for a satanic fallen angel – referred to only as "the Bent One" because the interplanetary lingua franca, Old Solar, has no word for evil.
One symptom of the Bent One’s malign influence is the materialist madness of the scientist Weston. He is a Lewisian parody of geneticist JBS Haldane, who in the Twenties and Thirties popularised the notion that entire galaxies lay within the grasp of a human race willing to adapt through eugenics and genetic engineering.
CS Lewis at Oxford in 1950 CREDIT: JOHN CHILLINGWORTH/GETTY
Usefully, Ransom is a philologist – a version of Tolkien, in fact – so he quickly picks up Old Solar. Lewis, probably the only friend who knew of Tolkien’s voluminous works on his invented Elvish languages, must have chuckled when he described Ransom’s first close encounter with an alien.
"In the fraction of a second which it took Ransom to decide that the creature was really talking, and while he still knew that he might be facing instant death, his imagination had leaped over every fear and hope and probability of his situation to follow the dazzling project of making a Malacandrian grammar."
Another fictionalised JRRT appears in Tolkien’s The Lost Road: Alboin Errol, whose Germanic first name (like Elwin) means "Elf-friend". Alboin and his son time-travel via dream from the present day back to lost Atlantis – called Númenor in one of Tolkien’s invented languages.
The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford where Tolkien and Lewis would meet to discuss their workCREDIT: JEREMY MOERAN/ALAMY
First, though Tolkien wrote a brief mythic account of The Fall of Númenor. That story – just a few pages long – released what Tolkien once called his "Atlantis complex", a "terrible recurrent dream… of the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields". He had suffered from it all his life, and would wake up at the point of drowning.
The Fall of Númenor opens straight after The Silmarillion and Morgoth’s defeat. Mortal men who fought him are awarded a utopian home, Númenor or "Westernesse". But they bitterly envy the immortality of their elvish allies. This is the cue for Thû, former servant of Morgoth, to corrupt the king and become an éminence grise, imposing tyranny and human sacrifice to Morgoth. The king leads an armada to seize immortality in the westward paradise where the elves live alongside the godlike angelic powers who govern the earth.
An undersea rift appears in the ocean "and into this chasm the great seas plunged, and the noise of the falling waters filled all the earth and the smoke of the cataracts rose above the tops of the everlasting mountains… But Númenor being nigh upon the East to the great rift was utterly thrown down and overwhelmed in the sea, and its glory perished". The elves’ paradise is removed to a plane apart, and the flat world of Tolkien’s old mythology is changed into the sphere we know.
The only survivors of Númenor are the uncorrupted "Elf-friends" who build new mainland kingdoms – and Thû. As Tolkien tinkered with the story, he gave Thû a new name, Sauron, and made him the Dark Lord of Mordor.
Tolkien’s Fall of Númenor is the key to the date of the wager; as is a piece of publicity blub that Tokien wrote for the jacket of The Hobbit, for which he signed a publication contract on December 2 1936. Many years later he told a correspondent: "In a 'blurb' I wrote for The Hobbit, I spoke of the time between the Elder Days and the Dominion of Men. Out of that came the 'missing link', the Downfall of Númenor, releasing some hidden 'complex'." Though this appears in the now-venerable Letters of JRR Tolkien, no one seems to have noticed its significance. The Hobbit publishers requested the blurb in question on December 4. Tolkien posted it just four days later.
The eureka moment was pure Tolkien – the realisation that the Elvish word-root he had invented to mean "fall" ("talat") would generate a name nearly matching Atlantis. His language notes abruptly give way to frantic narrative scrawl: "Atalantë legendary name … of Númenórë that fell into a rift made by the Gods / that fell back / that was drown—". Drafting the Hobbit blurb had set Tolkien thinking about the end of the "age of Faërie" or myth. That epochal moment would be marked by the writing of The Fall of Númenor, his own version of Plato’s fable of the island civilisation destroyed by hubris.
The writers’ wager surely came next, and quickly – Lewis completed Out of the Silent Planet by the following September. Tolkien began The Lost Road, but never finished it (it was edited posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in his multi-volume History of Middle-earth).
A timeslip thriller, The Lost Road sees Alboin and son dream themselves back to Númenor at the height of Sauron’s tyranny. We may now perform an imaginative timeslip of our own to December 1936. What rising fury inspired Tolkien’s story of tyranny, schism and cataclysm? What surging fear awoke his lifelong Great Wave ‘complex’?
On 30 November the Crystal Palace fire struck an ominous blow. For a week from 3 December, the Abdication Crisis split the nation as Edward VIII sought to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. The Catholic Tablet raged that the last king to try and alter the royal marriage rules – Henry VIII – had made England apostatise from Rome. Can it be coincidence that at this very point the staunchly Catholic Tolkien conceived his story of a king betraying both nation and divine order?
Tolkien later rightly refuted misreadings of his stories as a crude allegorical code. But he also said privately that his instinct was to "cloak … under mythical and legendary dress" his criticisms of life. Dramatising what he believed were universal and immutable rights and wrongs, like any good artist he drew from life. And 1936 had wrongness in abundance to fuel his fire.
The year was described in the Telegraph as one "desperately charged with fate… which seemed to bring catastrophe near". Fascist Italy annexed Ethiopia, and Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland – death knells to the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles. The Spanish Civil War erupted, a tragedy acutely felt by Tolkien, who had been raised from the age of 12 by an Anglo-Spanish priest.
Conservative Catholics smelt Stalin behind the Republican "Red Terror" which massacred clergy. Yet by December, it was clear that Franco’s Nationalists were backed in force by Hitler, a dictator who (among other evils) sought to strangle German Catholicism. Cruelty, moral compromise, and barbarism were on all sides.
The Númenóreans of The Lost Road bear archaic witness to peculiarly modern horrors. Númenor’s armaments, "multiplied as if for an agelong war", include self-propelled metal ships with long-range firepower. The king’s displeasure "falleth on men … and in the morning they are not" – dispatched to torture or the grave. Informers lurk "even by the heart of the house". As Christopher Tolkien comments, in the Númenórean era his father discovered "an image of what he most condemned and feared in his own".
When The Lost Road was being written, Christopher had just turned 12 and his brothers Michael and John were 16 and 19. When JRR Tolkien was 19, the Great War that killed so many of his friends had been just three years away. The Lost Road’s several father-and-son pairings hint at a paternal anxiety absent from the bachelor Lewis’s work.
The time-travel story was doomed by the success of The Hobbit. In late 1937 Tolkien offered both the unfinished The Lost Road and his older mythology The Silmarillion to his publisher, who demanded more on hobbits instead. And so reluctantly, Tolkien embarked on The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion, complete with Tolkien’s fullest account of Númenor, was only published posthumously, through Christopher’s efforts.
Yet the Atlantis story, which owed so much to the crises of 1936, was in Tolkien’s words the "missing link" to The Lord of the Rings. It underpins the whole epic history of war between mortal men and Sauron. When at the climax the valiant, troubled Faramir recalls Númenor and his own dream of "the great dark wave climbing over the green lands … darkness unescapable", it is an exorcism of Tolkien’s nightmare.
John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War, is writing a new book, Tolkien’s Mirror: Creation in the Catastrophic 20th Century
C.S. LEWIS, J.R.R. TOLKIEN, AND THE INKLINGS—Diana Glyer April 2009
There’s a rumor going around that C. S. Lewis was an irritable introvert, isolated and lonely and scared to death of girls. Maybe it all comes from some grim stereotype of smart people or college professors or, maybe, published writers. That whole image is completely wrong. Lewis wasn’t an introvert. Or a loner. No- he was a large man with a booming voice, a hearty laugh, a robust enjoyment of everyday life. And that is why he was a man with friends.
It makes sense if you think about it. His writing is so warm. His ideas are so engaging. His approach is so inviting. The lively, personal voice that emerges from the written page reflects the heart of a man who lived his life in community. Every season of Lewis’s life was marked by strong personal connections. He was very close to his brother, Warren. As the two boys grew up together, they wrote stories and illustrated them with maps and watercolors. Later, he became good friends with Arthur Greeves, a neighbor, and they shared boyhood secrets and favorite books. In college, Lewis became a member of a small circle of serious poets, and from that literary circle, he and Owen Barfield emerged as fast friends. When he started his first teaching job, he got to know a bright young linguist named Tolkien. They discovered common ground in their love of Norse mythology.
Lewis’s entire life, early and late, was marked by this kind of sustaining friendship. But right in the middle of his life, at the very heart of it all, was a group of fellow writers called the Inklings. The group started informally—Lewis and Tolkien found that they greatly enjoyed one another’s company, and so they cultivated the habit of meeting on Monday mornings for beer and conversation. Lewis wrote about it in one of his letters: “It has also become the custom for Tolkien to drop in on me of a Monday morning for 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.”
Lewis and Tolkien continued to meet, week after week, to talk and joke and criticise one another’s poetry. Over time, these literary critiques proved to be so interesting and so useful that they invited other writers to join them. The group just kept growing. Eventually, a total of 19 men became members of the Inklings. Their meetings moved from Monday mornings to Thursday nights. Late nights. The members arrived around 9:00, or 9:30, or even later.
When half a dozen members had assembled, Warren Lewis would produce a pot of very strong tea, the men would sit down and light their pipes, and C. S. Lewis would call out, “Well, has nobody got anything to read us?” Someone always did. Out would come the rough draft of a story or a poem, and the others would settle down to listen, to encourage, to critique, to correct, to interrupt and argue and advise. They’d continue this way, reading aloud, energetically critiquing, until two or three in the morning. And meetings went on like this every week for nearly twenty years.
The range of manuscripts that the Inklings brought to meetings was rich and remarkable. Lewis read Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and others, many of them chapter by chapter as they were written. He read some of his poetry, including “Donkey’s Delight,” and, at one point, he shared a long section of his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. He also read The Screwtape Letters to the group, and the Inklings loved them. According to one of the members, The Screwtape Letters “really set us going. We were more or less rolling off our chairs.”
Tolkien brought along each new chapter of The Lord of the Rings, week after week as they were written. He also shared original poetry, excerpts from “The Notion Club Papers,” and sections from The Hobbit. Others read poetry, plays, literary studies, academic papers, biographies, histories. Charles Williams read his novel All Hallows’ Eve; David Cecil read excerpts from his biography Two Quiet Lives; Owen Barfield read a short play about Jason and Medea; Warren Lewis read The Splendid Century, a history of France.
Listening to drafts and offering energetic feedback occupied the better part of every Inklings meeting. Nothing could be more simple—a small group of tweedy British men, meeting week after week in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, sitting on the shabby grey couch, drinking tea, reading and talking. But as they met throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, extraordinary things began to happen. They generated enormous creative energy. They forged strong personal connections. And together, they helped bring to light some of the greatest literary works of this past century.
Lewis was effusive in expressing his appreciation for the Inklings. To emphasize their importance, he said, “What I owe them all is incalculable.” And to emphasize their enjoyment, he asked, “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?” Lewis was a man with friends. And a man with friends who made a difference.
Diana Glyer explores Lewis’s friendship with the Inklings in her new book The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. When she isn’t sitting by the fire and talking with the members of her own writing group, the Niños, she teaches English at Azusa Pacific University.
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