Myths communicate fundamental truths. The Oxford literary group known as the Inklings liked to discuss this when they met for drinks in the 1930s and 1940s. They discovered how stories with mythological dimensions delve deep into divine Truth.
The two most famous members of the Inklings were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. With The Lord of the Rings and The Narnia Chronicles, they rank among the very best storytellers of the 20th century, winning deep respect for the epic scale of the fantasy worlds they created.
Ron Reed’s magnificent production of Tolkien, now playing at Pacific Theatre, insightfully dramatizes the history of the profound friendship between the two men. One interesting point of tension between them was Tolkien’s worry that popularity and fame was a bad turn of events for Lewis.
To read great literature is to receive solace and tutelage. If truly great, a story will embody the wisdom of the ages, at least if the author is humble enough to efface self and allow mythical truth to emerge. That hard literary task is a far cry from any populist cult of celebrity.
The first recorded meeting between Tolkien and Lewis was in 1926. What did they have in common? Lewis was born in 1898, in Belfast, on Nov. 29. Tolkien was born on Jan. 3, 1892, in South Africa.
But Lewis didn’t become a convinced theist until 1929. He finally returned to specifically Christian faith in 1931. The Catholic Tolkien, however, took his first Communion on Christmas 1903.
Yet their literary sensibilities drew them together, along with others. Most notably, in 1936, Lewis sent a letter to Charles Williams appreciating his novel The Place of the Lion.
The fellowship of the Inklings fueled their literary productivity
The fellowship of these Inklings fuelled their literary productivity. Although Tolkien and Lewis could be critical of each other, their deep friendship was central to their writing endeavours.
It is unsurprising that two gifted artists would disagree about how best to write a story. What else could drive them to write, if not personal conviction forged through friendly debate?
Tolkien began to write The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and Lewis read an incomplete draft in 1932. It was published in September 1937, and Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings that December. The project came to a completion in 1955, with the final volume.
In 1940, Lewis’ The Problem of Pain was published with a dedication to the Inklings. The Screwtape Letters, published in 1942, was dedicated to Tolkien. As they both realized, without each other, their literary work would not have been as good as it was.
Ron Reed portrays this truth beautifully in his impressive play Tolkien
Writer, director, and actor Ron Reed portrays this truth beautifully in his impressive play Tolkien, which he spent six years researching and writing. In June 1963, Lewis had a heart attack. He died at home in November, one week before would have been 65. He and Tolkien had been friends for almost four decades.
Tolkien died later, in 1973, but The Silmarillion was published posthumously in 1977. Tolkien’s son Christopher has continued to publish more, especially in recent years. Recognition of Tolkien’s literary merit has grown widespread, thanks to the dissemination of his myths through cinema.
The appeal of Tolkien and Lewis derives, I think, from their imaginative critique of the modern world’s domination by machine technology. In effect, the two re-humanize and re-enchant the world with their sanctifying fictions.
For Tolkien in particular, the possession of magic best symbolizes the abilities of technology in the modern age, which is intoxicated by the magic of “the machine.” Tolkien’s intricate tales capture the deep truth of our destructive fascination with this power.
He also shows how we might overcome “the machine”
But he also shows how we might overcome “the machine,” through the formation of real friendships. Think of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.
Lewis’ imaginative worlds may be more accessible for the very reason Tolkien criticized them: they are more didactic, as they provide vividly imaginative justifications for the truth of Christianity.
Perhaps because Lewis felt he had wasted too much of his life on atheism and materialism, he saw the need to debunk such poppycock in the most directly effective ways possible.
Lewis was a convincing apologist, but his theology is arguably best articulated in his stories, especially in his science-fiction trilogy and The Narnia Chronicles.
His strongest philosophical argument against the Age of the Machine, against which both he and Tolkien were compelled to write great literature, is found in The Abolition of Man. Still relevant today, that book is my recommended starting point for anyone seeking to understand the noble purpose animating both Lewis and Tolkien.