Hoping to prove successful in combining a love of things old with mythology and with a desire to uphold the dignity of the human person in a world rent asunder by warring ideologies, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis challenged each other to create deep works of the imagination. After a “toss up,” the two men agreed that Lewis’ stories would deal with space travel while Tolkien’s would deal with time travel.

“Tollers,” C.S. Lewis declared, using one of the many names—nicked as well as given—of his good friend, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. “There is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.” [1]

Though Tolkien did not record the exact date of this conversation, it almost certainly happened sometime in the mid-1930s, and, as Christopher Tolkien has argued, probably in 1936. Tolkien had already written but had not published The Hobbit, and he would soon write, if he had not already, his most famous academic essays on Beowulf and on faerie stories. He also held one of the most prestigious chairs in all of the University of Oxford, the Merton Chair at Merton College. Lewis, however, held the much less prestigious position of “Fellow” at Magdalen College, Oxford, but his writing career was at nearly the same stage as Tolkien’s. By the mid 1930s, he had written his first significant piece of scholarship, “A Note on Comus,” as well as Allegory of Love, but after his conversation on Christianity in September and October of 1931, he had also begun to write Christian apologetics in a variety of forms. The first significant such book was his Pilgrim’s Regress, after which, “he never looked back, but appeared to my dazzled eyes to go on for the rest of his life writing more and more successful books at shorter and shorter intervals.”[2] He also, importantly, began to challenge prominent, well-established intellectuals and debate with scholars well beyond his circle of friends and intimates, such as classicist and rising star, E.M.W. Tillyard.[3]

Would it be possible, Tolkien and Lewis wondered, to write fiction that might combine all these things: a love of history; a desire to debate the defenders of the modern world and point out the many foibles of modern living; and a way to promote one’s philosophical and religious beliefs without being too obnoxious and too blatant? That is, could a modern writer create art while avoiding the pitfalls of propaganda?

Hoping to prove successful in combining a love of things old with mythology and with a desire to uphold the dignity of the human person in a world rent asunder by warring ideologies, Tolkien and Lewis challenged each other to create deep works of the imagination. After a “toss up,” the two men agreed that Lewis’ stories would deal with space travel while Tolkien’s would deal with time travel.[4] It should be remembered that the term “science fiction” did not exist in the 1930s and would not become an accepted term for that genre until the very early 1950s. While other writers, such as Thomas More, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley, had already employed what would be one day called and labeled science fiction, Tolkien and Lewis’ decision to write of such things was quite out of the ordinary. What they were really hoping to create, and succeeded in so doing, was myth and faerie. Lewis’ books that came from this friendly competition and alliance—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—became immediately successful and propelled C.S. Lewis into the public eye in the U.K. and in North America and helped legitimize science fiction. Tolkien’s attempt at a time-travel story failed in the short term, and it would take two more decades for The Lord of the Rings to appear and another two decades after that for The Silmarillion to be published. In the four decades since The Silmarillion first appeared, at least fifteen more volumes of Tolkien’s imaginary world of Middle-earth and Beleriand have been edited and published by his son, Christopher.

Additionally, it seems, the two decided to allow the other free reign to create what and as he would. Inspired by the fear that space travel would allow men to ignore sin and believe that technology could triumph over the universe, Lewis decided to write his story about imperialism while also including rather traditional Christian theology and incorporating and baptizing pagan mythology.[5] By the third of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, however, Lewis had borrowed significantly from Tolkien’s Atlantean world of Númenor. Númenor, corrupted as “Numinor,” appears nine times in That Hideous Strength as well as in one of Lewis’ poems, “The End of the Wine” and, very likely, as the background to Atlantis in the Narnia tale, The Magician’s Nephew.[6] Not surprisingly, especially given Tolkien’s rather eccentric as well as individualistic character, he took nothing from Lewis except for inspiration to work hard. Completely unrelated to anything Lewis wrote or created, Tolkien’s own time-travel story became intimately a part of his larger mythology, incorporated as the touchstone of the Second Age of the World.

In almost every way, this one challenge and agreement and its fulfillment—or lack immediately thereof—fits the friendship of Lewis and Tolkien rather perfectly. Tolkien plodded and niggled, a perfectionist seeking nothing less than the true, the good, and the beautiful. Lewis, a bolt of lightning and a force of nature, never stopped, as though his mind and soul were incapable of true leisure, rest, or relaxation. Neither had a mind capable of turning off, but the manifestation of their art and their subcreation appeared so different. Whereas That Hideous Strength is one of the finest, if not the finest, dystopias of the twentieth century, it merely captures flawlessly the fears and the delusions of the progressivism of the 1940s. While The Lord of the Rings, published a decade later, captures the essence of human existence, from the beginning of time to its end. If That Hideous Strength, probably Lewis’ greatest work, was the Christian 1984 of its time, The Lord of the Rings is the great tale of modernity, comparable to Virgil’s The Aeneid, the great tale of the ancient world, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, the great tale of the medieval world.

And, yet, whatever their own differences in personality, in religious outlook, and in artistic achievement, Tolkien cannot be separated from Lewis and Lewis cannot be separated from Tolkien. The two belong together as readily as Lewis and Clark, Holmes and Watson, Chesterton and Belloc, and Batman and Robin. Their friendship, quite real, was nothing less than one of the greatest friendships of its century.

Friendship led to myth, and myth has led to legend. And, we are each the better for it.

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[1] Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 342, 347, 378. Christopher Tolkien recounts this conversation by citing the same letter at the beginning of Volume Five of the History of Middle-earth. See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lost Road and Other Writings ed. By Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 7.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “A Note on Comus,” Review of English Studies 8 (April 1932): 170-176, and C.S. Lewis, Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1936; and C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress (London: Sheed and Ward, 1933). Lewis finished the manuscript for Allegory of Love on December 7, 1935. See Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis vol. 2, pg. 169. “Never looked back” comes from Owen Barfield, “Introduction,” to Jocelyn Gibb, ed., Light on C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1965), xiii

[3] On Tillyard, see C.S. Lewis, “The Personal Heresy in Criticism,” Essays and Studies 19 (1934): 7-28. Lewis became famous—and sometimes infamous, depending on one’s point of view—for being one of Britain’s finest debaters, in writing and in speech.

[4] Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 347.

[5] On Lewis’s fear of space travel as a way to ignore and even “overcome” sin, see The Collected Letters of C.S.L., vol. 2, pg. 262.

[6] C.S. Lewis, “The End of the Wine,” Punch 213 (December 3, 1947): 538. Tolkien had mixed feelings about Lewis’s use of “Numinor” and borrowing other words and ideas from his own mythology. See, for example, Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 33, 151, 224, 303, 361.

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