Monday, January 07, 2008
Lewis, Tolkien, and The Power of Friendship
2007 just ended, and as is my habit, I spent the Christmas and New Year's break reading about one of my mentors. Again it was C.S. Lewis, the eminent 20th medievalist, writer of accessible and popular theology, and--in this case--friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Alan Jacobs's intellectual biography, "The Narnian," provided the text. I was reminded that, as a new year begins, flourishing as human beings really depends on the quality of our relationships. We don’t even realize our own particular talents until we let others in.
Though Lewis and Tolkien's relationship hit rocks--Tolkien had serious problems with Lewis's popularizing of theology, for example--when their friendship worked, it was powerful. Check out how Lewis influence Tolkien. The latter's The Lord of the Rings remains one of the enduring classic books of our time. In fact, a 1999 Amazon.com customers poll chose it as the greatest book, not just of a mere century, but of the millennium. In case you’ve missed the hype, this fantasy trilogy concerns the small-fry hobbit (a “halfing”), Frodo, and his friend, Sam, who set out to save their age from great evil by destroying the One Ring of Power, created by the evil Lord, Sauron, to enslave all beings. Tolkien began the mythology behind all these 1200+ pages in the foxholes of France as a soldier in World War I. As a professor of English literature (old English—Beowulf, that kind of thing), Tolkien was never a full-time writer, but he gradually and on-the-side created his own legendary world of elves, dwarves, wizards, and orcs. The entire process took almost four decades until the books began being published in 1954. Then another four decades later, the filmmaker and director, Peter Jackson, himself went on an eight-year odyssey to produce his cinematic trilogy. Completed in 2003, the final installment, The Return of the King, alone won an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.
It's a fabulous story. But did you realize that the novel almost never got published in the first place? Tolkien constantly toiled over work. He frequently hit snags in creating his story. At one point, the wizard Gandalf plunges down the cavernous, dank, and dangerous Mines of Moria, and Tolkien didn’t know how to complete the narrative. He broke off writing for an entire year. During this time, he was reading his work to a small group of Oxford intellectual lights called the Inklings, which included Charles Williams (“C.W.” below) and C.S. Lewis (“C.S.L.”). Listen to the description of his struggles in a letter to his son, Christopher Tolkien, "I worked very hard at my chapter—it is very exhausting work; especially as the climax approaches and one has to keep the pitch up: no easy level will do; and there are all sorts of minor problems of plot and mechanism. I wrote and tore up and rewrote most of it a good many times; but I was rewarded this morning as both C.S.L. and C.W. thought it an admirable performance and the latest chapters the best so far."
These two Inklings, Lewis and Williams, provided constant support, and even goading, to Tolkien. His friend Lewis, however, received unique appreciation. In light of Tolkien’s frequent anxiety that anyone would actually enjoy his meandering mythology, he later described the distinctive influence of C.S. Lewis: "The unpayable debt that I owe to him 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."
That phrase, a private hobby astounds me because that “hobby” became the Book of the Millennium! And the story behind the story is the power of friendship and how it motivates and enhances our lives. Friends, at their best, help us move forward. We, of course, are probably not secretly concocting the novel for the next 1000 years. Still we have to ask, How many “private hobbies” do we have, which are currently buried, but simply need a friend’s encouragement?