Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Lewis-Tolkien friendship

Much has been made of the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were close friends who spent time in each other's company every week for a number of years. Yet this friendship soured somewhat during the last few years of Lewis's life (Lewis died in 1963, 10 years before Tolkien's death). They remained friends and continued to see each other frequently, yet the closeness was gone, replaced by a certain tension. Why?

There may have been several reasons why these men, both prominent Oxford dons who wrote fantasy literature, drifted apart. Here are those identified by Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings:

1. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, Lewis a member of the Church of England. Tolkien began to suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the Belfast-born Lewis retained some of the Northern Ireland prejudices that Protestants often had for Catholics.

2. Lewis loved and enthusiastically praised The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien read to the Inklings chapter by chapter as he was writing them, but Tolkien didn't think much of the Narnia books, and said so.

3. Tolkien was not nearly as enthusiastic about Charles Williams as Lewis was. "We saw less and less of one another after he came under the dominant influence of Charles Williams," Tolkien wrote in 1964.

4. As a Catholic, Tolkien did not approve when Lewis, late in life, married a divorced woman, the American writer Joy Davidman Gresham. Further, the way Lewis constantly spoke about Joy rankled Tolkien and other Inklings because Lewis had always discouraged any talk about wives or domestic matters while he was single. Later Tolkien came to appreciate Joy more when his own wife happened to be hospitalized at the same time as Joy and the two women got to know and like each other.

For all the strain that developed in their relationship, Lewis and Tolkien continued to have strong feelings for one another. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to a member of his family, "But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie, with the deep affection that it begot, remained. He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries have only scraped the surface." Had the circumstances been reversed, no doubt C.S. Lewis would have said something similar about his friend J.R.R. Tolkien.

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