Anatomy of a Slow Burn, Part Two: Through The Fire and Flames

I am convinced most people, and men in particular, hope to find themselves one day among comrades. Camaraderie is that bond of fellowship which the dictionary describes as, “the mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together.” This pseudo-butter-spread definition, though not entirely false, falls short of the mark.

I recently perused a book entitled, “The Slippers Keeper.” It tells the story of a young boy, Joe Purdon, who became fascinated by a rare variety of North-American orchid called the Showy Lady’s Slipper, which grew on his property. Under his careful stewardship, the surrounding land would eventually provide ideal conditions for this endangered species to multiply, and eventually flourish (it’s a great book, which you can find here.)

Without the right conditions, the orchid could never have thrived the way it did. And so I believe that the trials which inevitably occur en route to a specific, worthy goal, provide the best conditions for two, disparate minds, to come together in a meaningful way. So comradeship goes far beyond mutual civility, far beyond nonthreatening conversation over green tea and low-fat pastries.

There is a kind of self-forgetfulness that washes over quest-determined minds. Aimlessness is rarely conducive to healthy relationships. Unless of course the healthy relationship is already in place, in which case idle moments might soon be swallowed up in good conversation or those mutually comfortable lulls. A good lull, where neither party feels compelled to fill the silence, is often a true indicator of the metal of a relationship.

Tolkien himself illustrates the slow growth of camaraderie over the course of the Rings trilogy, where he expertly develops the relationship between Legolas and Gimli. Pre-council, one would be hard pressed to find more opposed individuals; and yet, at the end of a long trail of butchered orcs, we find two friends quite content to die next to each other.

At a macro-level, all free-folk sitting at Elrond’s council that late autumn day could agree that the ring was evil and, undealt with, would destroy everything they knew and loved. Yet all equally knew one furry-footed hobbit could never destroy it alone. Would the same kinship have occurred if the ‘quest’ had been nothing more than a year-long meeting at Rivendale over endless baskets of lembas bread? It’s doubtful.

Why is such camaraderie so difficulty to find these days? I believe the main problem is simply that friends don’t set aside enough time to slaughter orcs together. Beyond that, another reason could be that we avoid, or tap out of, those difficulties and friendships it could have been nurtured in. As in many things, we want to the finished product – the late-night laughter over a campfire, the reproach-free wisdom – but without the inconvenience it would take to get there. So instead, we collect numerous, shallow  relationships which resemble a tower of cards; pretty to look at, but utterly bankrupt of stability when the wind starts to blow.

Tolkien and Lewis had been through much together. They shared a love of medieval history and myth and, early in their respective careers at Magdalene college at Oxford, had joined forces to stave off a ‘progressive’ English curriculum which both felt would be disastrous if instituted.

Both belonged to a small literary group which had informally dubbed themselves ‘the Inklings.’ Participants met regularly over beer and food to exchange criticism over respective writing projects and spar mentally with each other. Of these meetings, Tolkien would write in a letter to Lewis, “I know of no more pleasant sound then arriving at the Bird and Baby (the pub where the meetings took place) and hearing a roar, and knowing that one can plunge in.”

Both men agreed that nobody was writing the kind of books they were looking for and agreed to collaborate on a work of science fiction together. Both loved long walks in the country, and one of these country jaunts was an important milestone in Lewis’s road to faith.

Then things began to change. The new curriculum was overturned, much to the celebration and ale-swilling on behalf of the medievalists. The science fiction project, at least as a collaborative work, proved stillborn (Tolkien, knowing himself, should never have agreed to such a scheme in the first place.)

As for the the Inklings?

Lewis’ brother Warnie recorded simply in his journal: “One night, nobody showed up.”

Why? A variety of causes have been suggested. Some put the blame on Hugo Dyson, a certain loudmouth professor who was not impressed with Tolkien’s work and, somehow, was able to institute a one man veto against the reading of anything with “another damn elf” in it. The poet Charles Williams, an integral, if slightly icky, member of the fellowship, passed away. Eventually, Lewis himself moved to Cambridge University in 1954, effectively adding ‘proximity’ to the list of reasons for the eroding community.

To me, the most tragic part of the whole things was the unspoken-ness of it all. Lewis could write to Tolkien during the beginning of the long winter, “I miss you very much.” Upon Lewis’ passing in 1963, Tolkien would lament, “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age—like an old tree that it losing all its leaves one by one: this (Lewis’ death) feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” Their greatest trial yet – the trial of years and distance – would eventually prove too much.


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