Anatomy of a Slow Burn: Love Lost Between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien

“I never tried to burn any bridges, though I know I let some good things go.”-Neil Young

Though friends fall out for many reasons, I believe it is a process that rarely happens all at once. Few people rush out onto friendship bridge with gasoline and an armful of old flyers thinking, “Ima gonna’ burn this puppy down.” Rather, even as the most stable structure will decay without proper care, so friendship, if not maintained, can meet with a similar fate. Over the years debris accumulates, repairs are neglected and, one day, a careless cigarette sets the whole thing ablaze. Even then, like an old anthracite mine, the bridge may continue burning for many years – but it stinks, it’s unsafe, and nobody wants to catch delicious bass from it anymore.

Over the past few years, through various documentaries, biographies, and letters, I’ve been able to delve a little deeper into the relationship between writers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Many know of the camaraderie these two men shared through the 1930s and 1940s, though fewer, perhaps, are aware of the cooling the relationship endured after this period.

Despite the fact that I possess the literary qualifications of a small house-moth, I am going to attempt to summarize what I believe to be the most likely cause of this late smoldering and offer some concluding thoughts on friendship in general.

Reason One: Different approaches to literature and writing.

It would be an understatement to say that Tolkien was possessed of an old soul – I believe he was born about 500 years too late, and would have been most at home discussing the best way to grill Grendel flank with a horde of unruly Danes. Consequently, he didn’t have time for most modern literature (modern, in his estimations, being anything after the 1400’s), with the possible exception of George MacDonald and Andrew Lang. Fluent in Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, and Latin, his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf are still used to this day.

All this to say that if there was anyone born to write an epic the likes of The Lord of the Rings, with it’s own rich history and language, it was Tolkien. He spent nearly twelve years ensuring that every . . last . . inconsistency had been ironed out to his satisfaction  (he once spent several weeks agonizing over a misplaced moon cycle.)

Lewis once remarked in a letter to a correspondent: “Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!” Whether Lewis had a specific coral insect in mind we will never know, but one can assume the steady grind of some forgotten creature in the deep ocean, intent on finishing its work, and yet unable to move faster, was to Lewis, an appropriate comparison.

Clive Staples Lewis, on the other-hand, has been viewed by many as one of the most well-read men of his generation; one only needs to read through his mammoth English Literature in the Sixteenth Century to see why. His approach to writing too, was vastly different then Tolkien’s, with him writing prolifically as well as generating nearly publishable first-drafts.

How did these two literary giants view each other’s writings? The following quote is merely a sample of Lewis’ vast respect for his friend’s work:

“The Hobbit. . .will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

Tolkien, on the other hand, had almost nothing good to say about any of Lewis’ writing. As a dedicated (some might say obsessive) philologist, he mourned what he felt was Lewis’s use of arbitrary nomenclature and bewildered by his combining of various mythological elements in works such as the Narnia Chronicles (e.g. Bacchus, Father Christmas, etc.).

Tolkien’s impressions of Lewis’ work has always puzzled me and George Sayer, in his book Jack, makes the compelling suggestion that he secretly envied Lewis’ fluency. Envy is a strange creature. It brings no joy, stifles and stagnates it’s user, and yet is our go-to outpost during those moments we feel our reputation threatened. How much good work has simply starved to death for lack of encouragement from insecure colleagues? Though we can’t know his motives for sure, it is clear that Tolkien felt his friend churned out books much too quickly and concluded, like his Ents, “that one shouldn’t say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”

Most would agree that, for a relationship to maintain its health, there must be at least some level of reciprocity and respect on behalf of both parties. I am not here advocating for vacant flattery, but I imagine it was hard on Lewis to be ‘Tollers’ (his pet name for Tolkien) chief advocate, only to have his own works written off as trifles. In this, I find myself wishing that Tolkien would have allowed himself the possibility that quality literature could exist beyond “mythopoiea.” While I don’t believe Tolkien was trying to be malicious – in his own way, he loved Lewis deeply – I do believe his thoughtless and simplistic critiques would eventually work to erode a bridge that had stood strong for nearly two decades.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this series as we look at the loss of common purpose as the second reason for the cooling of friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tokien.

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