C.S. Lewis gave us some great works of fiction—The Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces, the Narnia books…and, in an important sense, The Lord of the Rings. I realize that Lewis didn’t write The Lord of the Rings. Those books were written by Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien. But consider what Tolkien wrote in a letter to Professor Clyde Kilby:
I have never had much confidence in my own work, and even now when I am assured (still much to my grateful surprise) that it has value for other people, I feel diffident, reluctant as it were to expose my world of imagination to possibly contemptuous eyes and ears. But for the encouragement of C.S.L. I do not think that I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 366)
That was 1965.The Lord of the Rings had been out for eleven years and was a huge international bestseller. The critical reception may not have been universally rapturous, but it was rapturous enough. No less a literary light than poet W.H. Auden compared The Lord of the Rings favorably with Paradise Lost. Even so, Tolkien “never had much confidence” in his work. But Tolkien had a friend who did have confidence in his work.
Inspired by the passage above, I searched through The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien for references to Lewis. All the page numbers below refer to that book. For a more detailed accounting of the literary friendships among Lewis, Tolkien and the other Inklings, you might also check out Diana Glyer’s book Bandersnatch.
Your writer friends—including the ones in your writers’ group—don’t necessarily need your advice or your expertise. Mostly they need for you to give them a little more courage. Remembering Lewis after he had died, Tolkien wrote,
The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion (p.362).
Sometimes Lewis’s encouragement was just a matter of listening to Tolkien read new chapters and being enthusiastic at what he heard. There must be ten or twelve places in Tolkien’s letters in which he records his gratification at his friend’s reaction to new chapters. I love this one:
[I] read the last 2 chapters (Shelob’s Lair and The Choices of Master Samwise) to C.S.L. on Monday morning. He approved with unusual fervour, and was actually affected to tears by the last chapter, so it seems to be keeping up (p. 83).
At other times, Lewis applied pressure to Tolkien, a slower writer with more “real-world” commitments holding him back, to keep moving forward:
I saw the two Lewis bros. yesterday, & lunched with C.S.L.: quite an outing for me. The indefatigable man read me part of a new story! But he is putting the screw on me to finish mine. I needed some pressure, & shall probably respond (p. 68).
When the Lord of the Rings came out, Lewis was one of the first people to write a blurb for the dust jacket. In his unbridled enthusiasm, he compared Tolkien to Ariosto, the poet of the Italian Renaissance whose epic Orlando Furioso was an important influence on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. At the time, Lewis had quite a bit more name recognition than Tolkien. With his fame, however, came the hostility of some members of the academic and literary establishment. (This phenomenon, by the way, is quite common when academics achieve popular success.) When the reviews came out, Tolkien wrote to his publisher Rayner Unwin,
As for the reviews they were a great deal better than I feared, and I think might have been better still, if we had not quoted the Ariosto remark, or indeed got involved at all with the extraordinary animosity that C.S.L. seems to excite in certain quarters. He warned me long ago that his support might do me as much harm as good. I did not take it seriously, though in any case I should not have wished other than to be associated with him – since only by his support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour. All the same many commentators seem to have preferred lampooning his remarks or his review to reading the book.
I love the way friendship trumps practicality in this passage. Lewis can’t help but praise his friend’s book in terms so grandiose that they attract scorn. Tolkien considers the possibility that Lewis’s support might have done some harm in certain quarters, but decides he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
It is important (and helpful) to note that Lewis and Tolkien weren’t absolutely sympathetic on every literary matter. Tolkien famously didn’t like Narnia. Lewis apparently wasn’t as crazy about hobbits as Tolkien thought he should be. “Mr Lewis says hobbits are only amusing when in unhobbitlike situations,” he wrote (p. 38). He nursed that one for a long time. After Lewis’s death, he told an interviewer, “I cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same. I do not think them event has proved him right” (p. 376).
In fact, Tolkien claimed in the same interview that there were very few places in The Lord of the Rings in which he found Lewis’s detailed criticisms “useful and just.” I don’t know whether to take that claim at face-value or not. This was decades after the fact, and Tolkien may have grown tired of hearing how much he and his famous friend influenced one another. Also, their friendship cooled somewhat toward the end of their life. (According to Tolkien, Charles Williams came between them, as well as Lewis’s “very strange marriage” to Joy Davidman.) So maybe Tolkien was unfairly downplaying Lewis’s influence. Still, it’s worth considering the truth that writers can do one another a whole lot of good simply by being glad that the other is doing the work that is theirs to do. They don’t have to offer good advice or astute criticism.
When Lewis died, Tolkien wrote to his daughter, “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age – like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots. Very sad that we should have been so separated in the last years; but our time of close communion endured in memory for both of us” (p.341). To his son Michael he wrote, “we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains” (p.341).
“We neither of us expected much success as amateurs,” Tolkien wrote. “And after all that has happened since, the most lasting pleasure and reward for both of us has been that we provided one another with stories to hear or read that we really liked.”There’s a whole Tolkien literary-industrial complex now, and a Lewis complex that’s just as big or bigger. But it started where so many good things start: with two friends telling one another stories.
In next week’s episode, we’ll look at a letter of apology Tolkien wrote after he hurt Lewis’s feelings with some criticism that came across more harshly than he meant it.