Jack and Tollers

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.]

4 thoughts on “Jack and Tollers

  1. Thanks, Johnny, for sharing your writing assignment and paper. As a teacher, I’m wondering about the motivation for the professor to have given this assignment, and can see the tremendous follow-up potential here.

    Here are a few things I’m wondering about: (1) What were your expectations for what you’d find about this first meeting before you started your research? (2) How did your discovery compare with your expectations? (3) What are your reflections on the origins of friendship? (4) Were your views expressed in (3) changed on account of what you discovered through this assignment?

    What I find especially interesting about the first meeting you write about here are the presuppositions about areas of study that Lewis’s department tried to instill in him and their respective first impressions. On the first point, I find rather shocking that such silly in-fighting can exist (“Watch out for those philologists!”) even among extremely intelligent people. That sort of thing does exist in the academy, but I’m always shocked by it when I hear it going on. I’m one of those interdisciplinary Renaissance-type people who enjoys all areas of study, so that feature of their first encounter really stood out to me–as did the fact that the friendship that developed between Lewis and Tolkien was able to break down that wall. 🙂

  2. I recently discovered more about that friendship through reading an article by Canadian scholar Kristin Johnson. (“Tolkien’s Mythopoesis”, in Trevor Hart, & Ivan Khovacs eds., Tree of Tales: Tolkien, Literature and Theology). She tells of how early in their relationship Tolkien and Lewis disagreed about myth and fairystory. For Tolkien they had the power to carry truth and open up fresh understanding of our world, while for a young Lewis they could not be anything more than “beautiful lies.” Lewis understood well the value and role of myth in a culture but was not very sympathetic to Christianity at the time. A long late-night conversation between Lewis, Tolkien and fellow Inkling – Hugh Dyson resulted it a significant discovery for Lewis. Soon after Lewis said to a friend; “Now they have convinced me that the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.


    Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.

  3. I, too, Red Rocker. That “a-ha!” moment for Lewis must have been quite beautiful.

    Thanks, Johnny for sharing your paper. I now know a bit more about Tolkein and Lewis, and was interested to learn how they sized each other up via first impressions. And academic snobbery still thrives, doesn’t it.

  4. Tolkien had some things to say about Oxford’s Lang vs. Lit turf wars in his valedictory address, e.g.

    There was knifework, axe-work, out there between the barbed wire of Lang and Lit in days not so far back. When I was a young and enthusiastic examiner, to relieve the burden of my literary colleagues (at which they loudly groaned), I offered to set the Chaucer paper, or to help in reading the scripts. I was astonished at the heat and hostility with which I was refused. My fingers were dirty: I was Lang.


    I first joined the School in 1912 – by the generosity of Exeter College to one who had been up to then an unprofitable exhibitioner; if he learned anything at all, he learned it at the wrong time: I did most of my undergraduate work on the Germanic languages before Honour Moderations; when English and its kindred became my job, I turned to other tongues, even to Latin and Greek; and I took a liking to Lit as soon as I had joined the side of Lang. Certainly I joined the side of Lang, and I found the party-breach already wide; and unless my recollections are mistaken, it went on widening for some time. When I came back from Leeds in 1925, WE no longer meant students of English, it meant adherents of Lang or of Lit. THEY meant all those on the other side: people of infinite guile, who needed constant watching, lest THEY should down US. And, the rascals, so they did!

    For if you have Sides with labels, you will have Partisans. Faction fights, of course, are often fun, especially to the bellicose; but it is not clear that they do any good, any more good in Oxford than in Verona. Things may to some have seemed duller in the long period during which the hostility was damped; and to such they may seem livelier if the smoulder breaks out again. I hope not. It would have been better if it had never been kindled.

    He makes it sound like the Battle of the Hornburg, doesn’t he?

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