How C.S. Lewis Helped Encourage Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'

Newsweek Special Edition

This article, and others about one of the world's most celebrated writers, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius.

In the 20th century, two British authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, dominated the world’s imagination with their original works, which have been translated into more than 39 languages, printed in more than 300 million copies and were optioned into films earning more than $6.4 billion combined at the global box office. While the individual talent of these authors is undeniable to readers today, many may have no inkling that Tolkien and Lewis enjoyed an unshakable friendship—a relationship directly responsible for the creation of The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

A year after Tolkien began teaching at Merton College at Oxford University, he met fellow professor Lewis at a faculty meeting in 1926. But it wasn’t necessarily friendship-at-first-sight. In his diary, Lewis describes Tolkien as “a smooth, pale fluent little chap—no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” But the pair soon bonded over a shared interest in Norse mythology, from which Tolkien would draw heavily for The Lord of the Rings.

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Shortly before his death, C.S. Lewis wrote to his friend J.R.R. Tolkien: “All my philosophy of history hangs upon a sentence of your own, ‘Deeds were done which were not wholly in vain,’ ” underscoring Tolkien’s influence on Lewis. CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

About four years into their friendship, Tolkien and Lewis explored their love for ancient tales of gods and heroes through a literary society at Oxford called the Inklings, which met informally in a private back room, then called the Rabbit Room, of the Eagle and Child pub on the Oxford campus’s St. Giles Street. The Inklings would meet to discuss and workshop each other’s endeavors, and it was here that Tolkien and Lewis found inspiration. The pair agreed the fantasy and science-fiction genres, while enticing in their promise, lacked entries they actually wanted to read. So they decided to write their own.

“They were convinced that they were two oddball weirdos who cared about stories that nobody else cared about, who were interested in periods of literary history that no one else was interested in,” Dr. Alan Jacobs from Baylor University told NPR. “They were very convinced of their own isolation from the mainstream of intellectual culture, but through that mutual encouragement, they produced these works that ended up changing the mainstream of intellectual culture, which I am sure they would not have believed possible.”

One day, Tolkien decided to show Lewis an early draft of what would become the cornerstone of Middle-earth, the star-crossed love story of Beren and Lúthien. Lewis encouraged him to continue mapping out his universe. All the while, Lewis was undergoing a crisis of faith. But on a fall evening in 1931, he took a walk with Tolkien and another fellow Inkling, and by dawn he had decided to return to Christianity. This rededication sparked Lewis’s imagination, and he began to weave Christian themes into his writing. In turn, Lewis pushed Tolkien to bring his fantasy world to life on the page when the author got lost in his daydreams. “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood but sheer encouragement,” Tolkien wrote in a letter to Dick Plotz, “Thain” of the Tolkien Society of America, in 1965. “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. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.”

From the pen of Tolkien himself, it’s apparent how much he appreciated the support of Lewis and his fellow Inklings, who always went the extra mile in promoting their friend’s unusual work. Lewis even wrote on behalf of Tolkien, trying to drum up publicity for The Lord of the Rings. “I would willingly do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves,” Lewis wrote in a letter on December 4, 1953, to Sir Stanley Unwin regarding The Fellowship of the Ring, which was printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. III. Without the Inklings, Tolkien’s wonderful world might have faded into the background of history after the publication of The Hobbit, it’s epic sequel remaining unrealized.

Nearly a decade after Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis passed away from a disease related to kidney failure on November 22, 1963. His longtime friend was absolutely devastated. “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age—like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: This feels like an axe-blow near the roots,” Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla four days after Lewis’s death. “Very sad that we should have been so separated in the last years; but our time of close communion endured in memory for both of us.” Even Tolkien believed their friendship would transcend time.

This article, written by Assistant Editor Alicia Kort, was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition: J.R.R. Tolkien—The Mind of a Genius. For more on the man who crafted one of fiction's most influential worlds, pick up a copy today.

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