I have said it before, and I’ll continue saying it for the rest of my life: Tolkien is my hero. My literary, creative mastermind hero. He is the reason that I love stories, and the reason that I started writing in the first place. Maybe I would have still picked up writing, but that influence would be absent.
I am reading J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography by Humprey Carpenter. Of course I’m in love with it. I find Tolkien’s “quiet life” completely amazing. I am especially enthralled by his friendship with C.S. Lewis. The two men were professors at the same college, and they were initially wary of one another. Lewis was in the “Lit” camp at Magdalen College, and Tolkien was in the “Lang” camp, as a linguist. There was a deep-seated rivalry between these two camps at the college. (Tolkien eventually worked to bridge that gap.) Lewis and Tolkien finally warmed to each other, and while Lewis professed agnosticism, Tolkien was a devout Catholic. It was through this friendship that Lewis was led to his Christian faith, which produced so many of the books that we love reading now.
It was the friendship that melted the heart of Lewis and allowed him to explore his understanding of God through a faithful man, because in Tolkien he found a man who was not just a man of blind faith, but a very intelligent and scholarly man that he could respect. He found a man who loved the same things as Lewis, the pagan myths, the stories, the creation of his own stories, language. Lewis even wrote about this friendship in one of his essays in The Four Loves.
“In Surprised by Joy Lewis wrote that friendship with Tolkien ‘marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.'” (Carpenter, 149)
My favorite passage is this, when Lewis finally comes to understand Christ, and the Crucifixion and Resurrection:
“It was a blustery night, but they strolled along Addison’s Walk discussing the purpose of myth. Lewis, though now a believer in God, could not yet understand the function of Christ in Christianity…He declared that he had to understand the purpose of these events…As the night wore on, Tolkien and Dyson showed him that he was here making a totally unnecessary demand. When he encountered the idea of sacrifice in the mythology of a pagan religion he admired it and was moved by it; indeed the idea of the dying and reviving deity had always touched his imagination since he had read the story of the Norse god Balder. But from the gospels (they said) he was requiring something more, a clear meaning beyond the myth. Could he not transfer his comparatively unquestioning appreciation of sacrifice from the myth to the true story?” (151).
Now, one thing that Christians tend to be terrible at is listening. Conversations often turn one-sided, as we assume that we (or the Bible) has all of the answers, or has to be appreciated and read only in one way, or can only be interpreted the way that our favorite pastor interprets it. That’s not to say that there are not wrong ways to interpret or to appreciate the Bible. But on some level, it is both a work of literature and the Word of God. And, in Tolkien’s words, “Literature was meant to be enjoyed.” And this is why when Tolkien attempts to explain further to Lewis, he chooses the words that he does:
“But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.
No, said Tolkien, they are not.
And, indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out on a different line of argument.
You call a tree a tree, he said, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about the truth.
We have come from God (continued Tolkien) and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.”
And these words, based on Tolkien’s intimate knowledge of his friend and his friend’s objections and misunderstandings of the Christian faith, brought about through hours and hours of conversations and walks and companionship, were what finally broke the ice. Lewis’ reply was, “You mean that the story of Christ is simply a true myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, I begin to understand.”
And, as I was reading this, I was struck by the realization of an important lesson buried within the relationship between these two men. In many Christian communities the default position is not to walk into the lives of non-Christians and live with them through their good times, bad times, stupid mistakes, good decisions, children growing up, marriages, divorces, and varying difficulties. The position that many take is the safe position. They take the position in a bunker, throwing out Bibles and tracts and giving ambiguous Bible verses as advice in hard times when non-Christians (or even other Christians) come to them in despair. They throw out things like “God’s timing is always perfect,” or “I’ll pray for you,” and maybe give a hug and then walk away. But as I talk to people, these are generally the things that turn them off of Christians and Christianity and cause them to call out hypocrisy, and in general to not want to be surrounded by those people. But it was different between these two men.
It was the friendship. It was not Bible verses, or forcing Lewis into church, or cliche advice or Tolkien’s never-ending knowledge of biblical matters that changed Lewis’ mind, that eventually led him to his faith. It was Tolkien’s knowledge of his friend, his love for his friend, that drove him to share his faith in the first place. And then it was his building of knowledge about his friend, and his love for his friend as a person rather than as a project that finally allowed him to share with Lewis the words that would change him forever more.
It was the friendship. And I think that that’s an incredibly important thing to remember.