J. R. R. Tolkien & C. S. Lewis

J. R. R. Tolkien & C. S. Lewis

A writer’s friendship tale

By Luísa Gonçalves

You must certainly read or heard about ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, and ‘The Hobbit’, and, for sure, ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Either they are your literary style or not, there isn’t like denying the talent and quality of the storytelling and writing skills of these masterpieces. For sure you know the stories, but I am here to talk to you about the writers.

What if I tell you their authors, C. S. Lewis (author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”, among other stories) and J. R. R. Tolkien (writer of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”, among other books) were colleagues, confidants, and, for a couple of years, close friends?

These two British college professors meet each other at an Oxford faculty meeting in 1926 and discover their mutual love for mythical tales. Both avoided contemporary culture, ignoring the current news and politics, and living inside their creative bubble in Oxford. Like Lewis, Tolkien hated most literature after the medieval era and despised modern art. Both had a passion for Iceland, Norse and Celtic mythology, Vikings and medieval heroes, fantasy and dream worlds.

Like the Lost Generation of Americans in Paris, they looked for alternative ways to express themselves and find new creative ways to do so in a world that no longer made sense to them. But, while those group of Americans in Paris were looking forward, these group of British in Oxford were looking to the past.

Tolkien and Lewis craved the intellectual company of each other, but they had an emotional bond as well, both fought on the trenches in the First World War and had lost their parents on their childhood. The contemporary world didn’t offer any space to dream, so they retreated into their imagination, dreaming of a better world, a fantasy world, where in the end all ended well.

Tolkien describes that Lewis once said to him, “If they won’t write the kinds of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.” And so they encourage each other to write and build new worlds, to write more, to write better. They were the beta readers and critics of each other. Like Tolkien mentioned a few years later “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not influence but sheer encouragement (…) He was for long my only audience.”

It is believed that Tolkien modelled his talking trees of Treebeard after Lewis’ voice. Lewis most probably based Dr. Ransom, a philologist from Out of the Silent Planet, on Tolkien. Lewis read and gave his feedback of the first versions of the Hobbit, 5 years before being published. After publication, Tolkien’s editor wanted a sequel and Tolkien asked again for Lewis’ opinion, reading earlier chapters. Testimonies say that Tolkien took Lewis’ advice very seriously, rewriting the first three chapters like Lewis advised. Tolkien wrote about Lewis, “I owe to his encouragement the fact that … I persevered and eventually finished The Lord of the Rings.”

            They didn’t always have the same literary taste, or see eye to eye where the story was going. Still, despite their differences, the two writers and professors helped each other at crucial points in their literary careers. Tolkien recommended a publisher for Lewis’ novel Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis reviewed The Hobbit favourably in The Times, among many other collaborations.

But probably the most important collaboration between both of these writers happen on a walk on Addison’s walk, along the river Cherwell in Oxford, where Tolkien described to Lewis the Secondary belief, and it goes as follows: When someone tells you a story and you know it really happened that is Primary belief, but when someone tells you a story that you know it is fictional, you know it is fiction but it is so well told, the characters and the plot are so well developed, that even though you are a sceptic you are drawn in, you get scared or happy as the story unfolds. If the story is well told, Tolkien says, then the story commands what he calls Secondary belief, it makes you feel that in some degree that may be true, that may have happened. You get scared, even though you know it isn’t true but you are scared for that character and you care about that character and you are excited when you see the resolution.

Tolkien explains that there is a kind of story that humans have been craving, even today that we live in a scientific time where the modern literature have been telling us that life is meaningless and then we die, Tolkien believed we still grave a certain kind of story, and this are stories where supernatural worlds are real, where humans are able to escape dead, escape aging and time, stories that show us a love that is eternal, a love that overcomes death, we want stories of good overcoming evil, destroying evil, we love stories about victory when all the hope seems lost, or sacrificial heroism that brings life to certain death.

Modern literature hates those myths, those fairy tale stories, and modern people say ‘life isn’t like that’, but Tolkien points out the fact that these are deep human desires. Human beings, even today, want stories that are very well told, that evoke Secondary belief, that tell you that good triumphs over evil, that there is a supernatural world, that you aren’t stuck in time, that there is a way of escaping death.

Tolkien asked Lewis: why would people still feel this way? We all know deep down that we all have to die eventually, that evil often triumphs, that no matter how much you love somebody you will lose that person, or they will lose you. And we also know at a factual level that there isn’t a supernatural world. And yet, underneath, all humans feel that we aren’t meant to die, we aren’t meant to lose our loved ones, good should be triumphing over evil, and we shouldn’t simply be stuck in time and space and then die.

And that is the reason why the popular stories tend to be like fairy tales, because high literature describes what life truly is, but we humans think “maybe it is but it shouldn’t be”. Modern and high literature make people think. Fantasy worlds make people feel.

This story on Addison’s walk is believed to have converted atheist Lewis, but I see it has the unfolding teachings for the books of “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “The Hobbit”, and “The Lord of the Rings”. Between the Tolkien teachings of the Secondary belief and Lewis’s enthusiasm and encouragement to write it, there is no denying that the collaboration, conversations and exchanging of ideas, the criticism and the encouragement made these two authors better writers and helped create the stories still beloved and idolized by many today. If you could take a lesson from Lewis and Tolkien friendship is this: don’t you ever underestimate the power and influence of your friends and the people you surround yourself with. Surround yourself with people that have the same objectives as you, people with the same interests. Encourage them to do better. Make sure they encourage you to become better. Write a lot. Read even more. With time you will see the results.

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