Conflict and Convergence on Fundamental Matters in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

By Wood, Ralph C. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Conflict and Convergence on Fundamental Matters in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien


Wood, Ralph C., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


MANY enthusiasts of the Oxford Inklings assume that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, since they were scholarly friends and fellow Christians and allied writers, shared the same outlook on all fundamental matters, whether literary or religious. It is not so. They were in fact divided in important ways. As the more popular of the two writers, Lewis has come to dominate our understanding of their relationship. Indeed, many readers of Tolkien view him through the lenses of Lewis's work, as if the two fantasists shared the same method and outlook. The aim of this essay is to mark their considerable differences, not in order to denigrate one at the expense of the other, but to increase our appreciation of the oft-clashing quality of both their writing and their Christian witness. It will become evident that I regard Tolkien as the superior figure, both in the literary greatness of his Rings epic, and perhaps also in the theological depth of his vision. Yet I have reached this conclusion ever so slowly and reluctantly, for I owe an unpayable debt to C.S. Lewis--even as others owe a similar debt to Tolkien. I cannot begin to give Lewis due honor except by showing how he stands significantly opposed to Tolkien on eight counts, even if on the ninth and tenth they are united most profoundly.

Their personalities could hardly have been less alike. Tolkien was a quiet and somewhat diffident man. Only among his family and closest friends did Tolkien become animated and raffish. He once entered a contest by swimming on his back, while wearing a bowler hat and holding a pipe in his mouth. On another carnival occasion, he impersonated a polar bear; on still another, he chased a frightened neighbor with an axe while dressed as an Anglo-Saxon warrior. To hear him read Beowulf, declared W. H. Auden, was to listen to the voice of Gandalf. Another student declared that Tolkien "could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests." Yet, unlike Lewis, Tolkien was ill at ease when he had to appear in his own persona. He muttered when he lectured, fled from all publicity (especially after he became a world-renowned author), and did not relish the intellectual bravado that other members of the Inklings displayed in their beer-animated arguments at the Eagle and Child.

Lewis, by contrast, was a hale and bluff argufier. He engaged his students at Magdalen College with an intellectual fierceness that many of them found forbidding, and he delighted in confronting his debating opponents with rationalist rigor at the Oxford Socratic Club. Lewis's Oxonian enemies--and they were many; in fact, they twice kept him from receiving a much-deserved professorship at Oxford--labeled him "Heavy" Lewis, as if he were more boxer than scholar. Even if we acknowledge this allegation to be a canard, Lewis was (as Tolkien was not) a public intellectual, giving popular lectures and making radio talks, as well as carrying on a huge correspondence. Yet even Lewis finally drew the line on publicity, declining ever to visit the United States, despite repeated invitations from his many admirers there. Their radically opposed teaching styles are sharply incised in Anthony Curtis's comparison:

   At the end of the hour with Lewis I always felt [myself] a
   complete ignoramus; no doubt an accurate impression but also a
   rather painful one; and if you did venture to challenge one of his
   theories the ground was cut away from beneath your feet with
   lightning speed. It was a fool's mate in three moves with Lewis
   smiling at you from the other side of the board in unmalicious glee
   at his victory. By contrast Tolkien was the soul of affability. He
   did all the talking, but he made you feel you were his intellectual
   equal. Yet his views beneath the deep paternal charm were
   passionately held. (qtd in Birzer 4)

Tolkien never found it easy to honor Lewis's immense facility at writing. …

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