The legendary friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien revolved around two lifelong passions they shared: religion and literature. Without these key factors of their relationship, the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth would not be the classic works available to readers today. While Tolkien played a pivotal role in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, they differed in their denominations, which influenced their collaboration and writing.
Tolkien was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and went on to write books with discrete themes of Christian morals. He remained a devout Catholic his entire life. His mother joined the Roman Catholic Church against the will of her Baptist family. When she died, orphaned Tolkien and his brother were left in the care of Father Francis. Tolkien “was the real deal when it came to being a believer. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk” going to Mass weekly and sometimes daily. His wife, Edith, converted to Catholicism, and their son grew up to join the priesthood. Unlike Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien was not as overt with his faith in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; his fantasy novels appear to be secular as they do not mention God or the church. Instead, he uses fictional characters to reflect his view of human nature. Lewis said in a review of The Hobbit, “There’s something about moving it into this Middle-earth that helps us see (human nature) more clearly.” Tolkien wrote about human nature in a Christian world, where there were clear decisions of right and wrong. His fantasy novels lacked the Narnian element of religion, but they were rich with morals.
On the other hand, Lewis converted to Christianity later in life, joined the Church of England, and wrote books with strong Biblical bases. While Tolkien’s spirituality was rooted in family loyalty in addition to personal belief, Lewis’s faith journey was an elongated process of intellectual and theological consideration. “His influences were, as always, books and a few close friends.” The two often debated philosophy. Lewis approached theism with caution, referring to Christianity as a fictional myth. One September night in 1931, the two friends discussed the reality of myth with fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson. Tolkien explained why the resurrection of Jesus qualified as a “true myth” rather than a pagan one, as Lewis formerly conceived it to be. Three days after this conversation, Lewis chose to believe in Jesus as the son of God during a motorcycle ride with his brother Warren, who was also considering Christianity. “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did” (Surprised by Joy 237). Lewis’s works are known for their explicit Christian themes. His first publication after his conversion was a novel titled Pilgrim’s Regress. While it is fictional, he told the true story of his faith journey through an allegory. Roman Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward interpreted the novel as a journey from Protestantism to Catholicism, but Lewis intended for it to be read as going from without Christ to with Christ. His apologetic books, such as Mere Christianity, focused on issues within Christianity in which various denominations could come to a common ground. Excerpts of Mere Christianity were sent to the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations. Lewis was “adamant that it was basic or ‘mere’ Christianity that he was anxious to defend, arguing that he did not have the theological training that would allow him to discriminate between denominations.” He hoped that his apologetics would bring others to Jesus, but the church of their choice made little difference to him. He used a metaphor of Christianity as a hallway and sects within that broader category as rooms connected to the hallway.
“It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.” (Mere Christianity, 10)
It is confusing as to why Lewis, whose conversion to Christianity was heavily influenced by the Catholic Tolkien, chose to deviate from Catholicism. However, they did not allow their friendship to suffer due to differing opinions. If anything, this diversity opened up the door to further conversation. While Tolkien would have preferred Lewis to join the Catholic Church rather than the Church of England, he believed that denomination came second to commitment to Christ. Lewis never joined the Catholic Church, but he read a Catholic Missal and adopted several beliefs of Roman Catholicism, including the element of “magical,” or mysticism, in the Holy Eucharist and existence of purgatory. Some scholars consider him to be more Anglo-Catholic, a “High-Church Anglican who affirms to traditional Catholic doctrines” (The Pilgrim’s Regress: The Wade Annotated Edition 94). The Catholic elements of Lewis’s faith were credible to the influence of Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien found their personal niches within different denominational rooms. However, it was in their common hallway that they discovered the truest fellowship with one another.
The cross-denominational friendship of Tolkien and Lewis demonstrated that the Inklings were more than a literary society. They were a group of friends who encouraged one another to write and learn more about God. Despite their doctrinal differences, their tolerance of one another and their ability to share and discuss theological ideas in a respectful and intellectual fashion is the reason why their works are so prevalent in the world of literature decades after publication.