The Friendship And True MythJuly 21, 2011
Tolkien had first come to Lewis’s attention on 11 May 1926 during a discussion of faculty business at an ‘English Tea’ at Merton College. ‘I had a talk with him afterwards,’ Lewis recorded in his diary. ‘He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap … No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.'” From these indifferent and inauspicious beginnings, a friendship soon developed which would become increasingly important to both men.
Shortly before Tolkien and Lewis had first met, Tolkien had formed the Coalbiters, a club among the dons dedicated to the reading of Icelandic sagas and myths. Its name derived from the Icelandic Kolbitar, a lighthearted term for those who lounge so close to the fire in winter that they bite the coal. Initially its members were confined primarily to those with a reasonable knowledge of Icelandic, but soon the club’s members were augmented by enthusiastic beginners, one of whom was C.S. Lewis. By January 1927 Lewis was attending the Kolbitar regularly and finding it invigorating. The influential friendship between Lewis and Tolkien had begun.
Like Tolkien, Lewis had been excited by Norse mythology and ‘Northernness’ since his childhood. He had always been enthralled by what Tolkien referred to mystically as ‘the nameless North’ and now, in the person of the Professor of Anglo-Saxon, he had found not only a kindred spirit but a mentor. On 3 December 1929 Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves: “I was up till 2.30 on Monday, talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien, who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing of the gods and giants of Asgard for three hours, then departing in the wind and rain — who could turn him out, for the fire was bright and the talk was good.”
A few days after this late-night conversation, Tolkien decided to show his Beren and Luthien poem to Lewis. On 7 December Lewis wrote to Tolkien, expressing his enthusiasm:
I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it – I should have enjoyed it just as well if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader”
At last, Tolkien had found an appreciative and sympathetic audience and he began to read more of The Silmarillion aloud to Lewis in the weeks and months ahead. “The unpayable debt that I owe to him,” Tolkien wrote of Lewis years later, “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.”
If Tolkien’s debt to Lewis was due to the latter’s encouragement and enthusiasm, Lewis’s debt to Tolkien was to be much more profound. Friendship with Tolkien, wrote’ Lewis in Surprised by Joy, 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. [vocab: the study of literary texts and of written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning.] Tolkien was both.”
It did not take Tolkien long to win Lewis over to philology, and it was partly due to Lewis’s support that Tolkien succeeded in getting his reformed syllabus accepted in 1931, yet Lewis’s prejudice against Catholicism was deeply ingrained, rooted in his sectarian upbringing in Ulster.
When they had first met, Lewis was beginning to perceive the inadequacy of the agnosticism into which he had lapsed, having previously discarded any remaining remnants of childhood Christianity. By the summer of 1929 he had renounced Agnosticism and professed himself a theist, believing in the existence of God but renouncing the claims of Christianity. According to Walter Hooper, Lewis’s friend and biographer, to realization of the truth in mythologies triggered Lewis’s conversion’ to Christianity:
“This came about after a long discussion in 1931 with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson which continued until four o’clock in the morning. At the end of this marathon discussion Lewis believed that myths were real and that facts took the shine off truth, emptying truth of its glory. Thereafter he became an excellent Christian apologist.”
This meeting, which was to have such a revolutionary impact on Lewis’ life, took place on 19 September 1931 after Lewis had invited Tolkien and Dyson to dine at Magdalen. Dyson, who was Lecturer in English Literature at Reading University, was a good friend of Lewis, visiting Oxford frequently, and was also known by Tolkien who had first met him at Exeter College in 1919. After dinner the three men went for a walk beside the river and discussed the nature and purpose of myth. Lewis explained that he felt the power of myths but that they were ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are ‘lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver’.
No,’ said Tolkien. ‘They are not lies.’
At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was ‘a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.’
Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.
“In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology,” wrote Humphrey Carpenter, “Tolkien had laid bare the centre of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.”
Lewis listened as Dyson reiterated in his own way what Tolkien had said.
Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien and Dyson went on to express their belief that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened. This revelation changed Lewis’s whole conception of Christianity.
In fact, such a line of reasoning struck a particular note of poignancy with Lewis because he had examined the historicity of the Gospels and had come to the almost reluctant conclusion that he was “nearly certain that it really happened.” Indeed the discussion with Tolkien and Dyson had been foreshadowed by a previous conversation five years earlier. At the time, Lewis had just read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense’, a revelation that had shaken his agnosticism to its foundations.
I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me. Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” [vocab: Old-fashioned; queer; odd; as, a rum idea; a rum fellow.] he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum Thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”
“To understand the shattering impact’ of the atheist’s admission,” Lewis wrote, “You would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). He was the cynic of cynics, the toughest of toughs.”
Now, five years later, it seemed that Tolkien was making sense of it all. He had shown that pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth. Yet, most astonishing of all, Tolkien maintained that Christianity was exactly the same except for the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history. The death and resurrection of Christ was the old ‘Dying God’ myth except that Christ was the real Dying God, with a precise and verifiable location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth had become a fact while still retaining the character of a myth.
Tolkien’s arguments had an indelible effect on Lewis. The edifice of his unbelief crumbled and the foundations of his Christianity were laid. Twelve days later Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves: ‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
The full extent of Tolkien’s influence can be gauged from Lewis’s letter to Greeves on 18 October:
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”
Now that Lewis and Tolkien had found agreement and shared the same philosophy, their friendship flourished as never before. In October 1933 Tolkien recorded the following entry in his diary:
“Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual — a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher — and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.”
Yes, a lovely story and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.