C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
by Earl F. Palmer, M.Div., D.D., Litt. D.
Preaching Pastor in Residence, The National Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.
.S. Lewis was able to make close friendships. And those friendships influenced and shaped his own journey at most of the important turning points of his life—except for one: his love for and marriage to Joy Davidman. His older brother, Warren, was the only friend who knew about that. Lewis made that decision and the steps that led to it by himself. Joy Davidman was a beautiful gift from the Lord that both of them deeply appreciated.
Most of Lewis’s friends were baffled by Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman. But it especially baffled J.R.R. Tolkien, one of his closest friends, and caused a strain in Lewis’s and Tolkien’s relationship. Nevertheless, the richness and depth of their friendship outlasted that strain.
Tolkien and Lewis shared much in common. Both had lost their mothers to death at an early age, and Tolkien had lost his father as well. Both as young boys made close friends with fellow students at school who shared their love for stories. Both were young soldiers who fought in the First World War on the French front. Both were seriously wounded, both saw death in battle, and both lost close friends in that brutal war of the trenches.
As a lad, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his brother suffered the untimely death of their mother, Mabel. They were both adopted by Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest who had been an assistant to Cardinal John Henry Newman. Father Morgan loved these young boys, and guided and provided for the education of the brothers until their adult years. The influence in Tolkien’s life of Father Morgan cannot be overemphasized. Tolkien said, “I witnessed half comprehending the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of my mother who brought me into the Church; and I received the astonishing charity of Francis Morgan. But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning.” Tolkien would faithfully attend the mass everyday of his life, and he would name his first son, who would himself become a Roman Catholic priest, John Francis Reuel Tolkien. A kind and strong priest, Francis Morgan left a profound imprint upon J.R.R. Tolkien.
For the young C.S. Lewis, the most formative influence upon his life and mind was that of his mentor and tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick, who taught Lewis as a private, live-in student when Lewis was 16 and 17 years old. Lewis would later write this of Kirkpatrick, in a letter to his father in 1921: “I owe to him in the intellectual sphere as much as one human being can owe another…it was an atmosphere of unrelenting clearness and rigid honesty of thought that one breathed from living with him, and this I shall be the better for as long as I live.”
Tolkien’s career path developed out of his love of language. He began as a lexographer, went on to Leeds University, and then to Oxford University, where he eventually became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. One friend of both Lewis and Tolkien, Owen Barfield, described Lewis as “in love with the imagination” and Tolkien as “in love with language.” Tolkien’s Middle Earth project began as he told hobbit stories to his son John at bed time. He called this project my “stuff,” and he credits a friend who offered him the gift of “sheer encouragement.” Eventually, Tolkien agreed to the publication of his stories: first The Hobbit, and then his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The encouraging friend was another Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s fundamental and daily walk of faith in Jesus Christ was discovered first from his beloved Father Morgan and participation in the worship of the Catholic Mass, with its focus on the death of Christ and his victory over death, sin, and the power of evil on our behalf. Tolkien grew to have a certitude and confidence in the powerful grace of God that in the end overcomes the terrors of evil. Evil may itself be strong, but Tolkien built his confidence upon St. Paul’s radical affirmation in Romans 5 that “where sin increased, the grace of God increased more.” Evil has cumulative force and inner power of its own, but the goodness of ultimate reality rendered in Jesus Christ has even greater power. The adventures in Tolkien’s stories live within this certitude of their author.
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