I wrote the following for an English class when I was college. The assignment was to write about a first meeting between two famous individuals. I chose Lewis and Tolkien because I grew up reading Narnia and I started reading Tolkien’s works at the time. This was a challenging assignment because not much was written on their first meeting so I scoured through several books to see what I could gather. The result is below. I made a few changes but most of the original paper is intact.
Clive Staples Lewis once wrote, “a man needs a few ‘friends.’” [1. C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960), 87.] These words were true in his case for he acquired a great many friends during his lifetime. Perhaps none of his friends were as prolific as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Both persons went on to write fantasy classics – Tolkien exposing us to Middle Earth and its history while Lewis took readers on a journey to Narnia.
The circumstance that Lewis and Tolkien met and became friends is very interesting because they were different individuals. For example, Tolkien was a religious Catholic while Lewis was an atheist during much of his undergraduate studies at Oxford and didn’t have any religious commitment leading up to their meeting. However Lewis at this time was engaging in a search for God. Tolkien was older than Lewis and a family man – he already had a wife and three children. Even though they were both professors at Oxford, they engaged in different areas of study in the English language. Tolkien was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon after being elected to that position in 1925. Around the same time, Lewis was elected Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College. Lewis noted these differences by saying, “Friendship with the latter [Tolkien] marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.” [2. C.S. Lewis. Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1955), 216).]
On May 11, 1926, Lewis and Tolkien attended a meeting with the English faculty at Merton College. It was there that they met for the first time. Tolkien was thirty-four while Lewis was twenty-eight. The English faculty usually met in a confined library, cramped with books and papers on an array of subjects, mostly dealing with English studies. The library was situated in an attic of the Examinations Schools associated with Merton College. According to Lewis, this meeting started at 4 p.m. and tea was being served before it started. The meeting commenced and Tolkien noticed a new face in the crowd of faculty members, many of whom he was familiar with. This person is atypical and not bland. He is a stout sized man with baggy attire and he seems equipped with a quick sharp mind, which includes a sharp memory. He is a tutor at Magdalen College, which Lewis describes as “beautiful beyond compare.” [3. C.S. Lewis to his father, Albert Lewis, 21 October 1925, Letters of C.S. Lewis, 104.] Based on all of this, Tolkien is automatically drawn to the man that his friends refer to as ‘Jack.’
Lewis, on the other hand, also noticed Tolkien during the meeting. Lewis described Tollers (his nickname for Tolkien) as “a smooth, pale, fluent little chap.” [4. C.S. Lewis. All My Road Before Me (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1991), 393.] Aside from that he notices Tolkien’s long face with a keen eye as well as a knack for the study of Old and Middle English. Despite the fact that Tolkien was full of intellect and wit, Lewis had a less than favorable first impression of him. Tolkien was a philologist, which is a person who studies the origins of languages. Philology was considered an area of study most at odds with the literature camp at Oxford, which emphasized modern vernacular literature. Tolkien at that meeting started proposing a new syllabus that should be instituted emphasizing Anglo-Saxon and Middle English prose in the introductory courses in English. Lewis who was of the literature camp saw Tolkien as a potential opponent. This was in accordance with the prejudices that were instilled in him by the English faculty to never trust a philologist. Lewis writes, “[Tolkien] can’t read Spenser because of the forms – thinks language is the real thing in the school – thinks all literature is written for the amusement of men between thirty and forty… No harm in him: only needs a smack or so” (emphasis not mine). [5. Ibid., 393.]
Tolkien and Lewis actually talked to each other after the meeting, although what they discussed Lewis doesn’t write down. Despite the differences between both individuals and the otherwise uneventful first meeting, they became good friends. Several years later Tolkien convinced Lewis to become a Christian in a momentous conversation with each other on September 19, 1931. With them was Hugo Dyson, who knew Tolkien since 1919 and a fellow Christian. Tolkien convinced Lewis that in Christ the myth had become history. They developed many common interests, including their Christian faith and their writing. As Lewis said, “Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).” [6. C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves, 96.]