J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were lifelong friends and shared many experiences, according to Paul Kerry, a BYU associate professor of history, and Tim Slover, an associate professor of theatre and media arts at the University of Utah. Slover wrote a screenplay about the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis.
Kerry and Slover were speakers at a discussion sponsored by the Kennedy Center for International Studies.
According to Kerry, Lewis and Tolkien bonded over many shared experiences. Lewis was from Ireland and Tolkien from South Africa. They both had the experience of being outsiders at Oxford, where they spent much of their adult life. They were both Christian, though Tolkien was Catholic and Lewis was originally agnostic. They shared the experience of the trenches in World War I.
They were also both English faculty, though at different universities, Tolkien at Oxford and Lewis at Cambridge. At that time there was a debate between what qualified to be taught in an English department. Lewis was on the literature side of the debate and believed modern literature should be a part of the curriculum. Tolkien was a linguist and believed students should be familiar with old English and only literature before the Middle Ages should be included in the curriculum.
“[To Tolkien], anything written after the Middle Ages wasn’t worth reading,” Kerry said.
According to Slover, the first recorded meeting of Lewis and Tolkien was at an English tea on May 12, 1926. The main discussion at the tea was the English curriculum issue. Lewis and Tolkien came together on different sides of the issue.
The two were friends before either became famous and remained so until Lewis died in 1963.
“Sometimes our dearest friends are those we meet before we are in the spotlight,” Kerry said. “They are those who are digging in the trenches along with us.”
Lewis and Tolkien influenced each other professionally as well as personally, although Lewis joked about how little he was able to influence Tolkien. He was recorded as saying Tolkien would do two things with advice: He would either start the project all over again or completely ignore the advice. Slover suggested that perhaps that was why it took Tolkien 17 years to write “The Lord of the Rings.”
However, according to Slover, it was Lewis who encouraged Tolkien to finish “The Lord of the Rings.”
“The world needs your book,” Lewis said.
Tolkien recognized this fact after the publishing of “The Lord of the Rings.”
“If it weren’t for Lewis, I wouldn’t have finished the book,” Tolkien said.
Tolkien’s life shows evidence of his friendship for Lewis in two ways. According to Slover, Tolkien worked tirelessly to get Lewis a professorship at Oxford. Lewis was also the first person to read the 1,200 page manuscript of “Lord of the Rings” (which he did in four or five days).