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The relationship of Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings

When the film about The Two Towers, the second part of Tolkien′s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, triumphs around the world, a new biography also appears about the author of this amazing fantastic world. Michael White′s book, which has now published Peninsula in a luxurious edition, as part of its Watchtower collection, is the work that has spread the most about Tolkien this year, as it reveals little known aspects of his life and work

Article by José de Segovia from Madrid on Monday, January 13th 2020 ·.·★ Reading takes 12 minutes or 2412 words.

There are already several biographies about Tolkien in Spanish, including the classic Humphrey Carpenter, which has also been reissued in a collection that appears even in the kiosks. Among his growing bibliography in Spanish there are several Hispanic contributions, such as that of Daniel Grotta (which Andrés Bello has published), or that of Eduardo Segura, PhD in English philology on The Lord of the Rings, and one of the advisers of the film of Peter Jackson The official book of the film is written curiously by an evangelical, Brian Sibley, who has written several works on Tolkien′s Protestant friend, C. S. Lewis. And there are essays dedicated even to the influence of Catholicism in his work, such as those edited by Joseph Pearce in J. R. R. Tolkien. Lord of Middle-earth for the Minotauro publishing house. But what does White′s book contribute then?

For starters, White is a professional biographer, who has written about characters as diverse as Mozart, Asimov or Lennon, but especially about great men of science like Leonardo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Galileo, or Hawking. So we are not facing one of those Tolkien specialists who knows the names of all dwarf kings or elven princes by heart. But in that I think it looks like most of us. One thing is that you like Tolkien, as is undoubtedly my case and that of White, and another the fanaticism of his scholars, who are able to bore the most enthusiastic of his readers, with maps, songs, chronologies and genealogies of the Earth Half. In that sense I believe that this is an excellent introduction to Tolkien′s life. It is a book that logically does not contribute any new data to those who have known his work for a long time, but manages to approach in a clear and direct way to the reality of this man, beyond the myth that so many have built on his person.

Who was Tolkien then? Born in 1892, J. R. R. was baptized as John Ronald Reuel in the Anglican cathedral of Bloemfoentein, South Africa, where his father ran a bank. His sickly health and his mother′s constant frustration caused them to return to England, leaving his father in Africa, where he died suddenly when Tolkien had just turned four. His mother therefore becomes the main influence of his life. With her he spent his best years, living in the countryside, playing in the forest and reading fantastic stories of dragons, which were the great inspiration that gave rise to his work. Tolkien thus shares with C. S. Lewis, a constant nostalgia for childhood, which makes them feel spiritually orphaned.

His mother′s greatest inheritance is going to be his Catholic faith. When she converts to the Church of Rome, her whole family rejects her. His father was a strict Methodist, who became unitary at the end of his life, and from that moment rejected all contact with her. His brother-in-law was one of the pillars of the Anglican church in Birmingham. It was he who had supported her financially since they came to England, but now she withdrew all help, leaving her in the arms of Catholic charity. No wonder Tolkien hated Protestantism, which he always considered his enemy. All the more so when his mother′s diabetes worsened until he died at 34. Tolkien always saw her as a martyr, who gave his life for his faith.

Tolkien′s Roman Catholicism is therefore not just any Catholicism. It is about the faith of the convert. The proof is that Tolkien found his spiritual home, like so many other writers of the time, Chesterton, Greene, or Waugh, in the oratories founded by Newman, after his passage from Anglican Minister to Cardinal of Rome. Tolkien′s tutor was a priest at the Birmingham oratory, who helped his mother when they were without any support, Father Francisco Javier Morgan. Through him he was able to access higher education, learned many languages and ′ fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament ′. His faith was something so sacred, that in a way it was always beyond all his fantasies. This is one of Tolkien′s mysteries. As a Catholic as proselytizing as he was, he could resist the temptation to make his work a clearer allegory of his faith. This was undoubtedly one of his great differences with Lewis, who sacrificed in some sense his literary reputation, to devote his entire life to making an authentic apology of Christianity, in an academic environment where everyone was already ridiculed.

Tolkien and Lewis met teaching philology at Oxford. The two shared the most creative years of their life. Together they formed a literary group called the Inklings, which met in the rooms Lewis had at the University and an Oxford pub, which still has his photos and a plaque that recalls his meetings. There Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and Lewis talked about Narnia and the letters of a devil to his nephew. This is so until the Second World War, when they begin to meet less frequently, when Tolkien and Lewis begin to distance themselves. Their relationship cools in the fifties, although the Inklings continue until shortly before Lewis′s death in 1963. What happened between them?

White dedicates a whole chapter to the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis. No one opened Tolkien in his life as much as Lewis, accepting many of his suggestions, being for example the first one who read The Hobbit. Tolkien′s feelings for Lewis were so intense that he couldn′t stand the intrusion of a third person in his friendship: a writer named Charles Williams, who dazzled Lewis as soon as he arrived in Oxford. He was older than them, and had already written twenty-seven books. He worked at the University publishing house since he had to leave his studies because of his father′s economic problems. Lewis not only introduced him to his meetings with Tolkien, but he struggled until he was a professor at the University, even if he had no more than an honorary degree. This aroused Tolkien′s jealousy, which was immediately displaced from Lewis′s attention, which began to have more and more commercial success with his publications, while Tolkien was still a stranger.

Lewis had grown up in the Protestant environment of Northern Ireland, but considered himself an agnostic when he met Tolkien in the 1920s. For him, Christianity was a myth like any other, so he was surprised to find someone intelligent like Tolkien, so committed to his Catholic faith. His friendship gave him another vision of God, which led him to a famous conversation in the year 31 to think about the possibility that the myth of Christ was true. His conversion led Tolkien to expect Lewis to become a Catholic like him, but what happened is that he actually returned to his Protestant roots. Moreover, he became an apologist for a faith in which Tolkien thought he had not matured enough, when he began writing about his conversion in The Pilgrim′s Return: An Allegorical Apology of Christianity (1933). Lewis, however, dedicates Tolkien his Devil Letters, although in reality he did not appreciate almost any of his books. The truth is that they seemed too hasty and superficial, since he worked very slowly all his work.

Tolkien′s stories are usually born as children′s stories, but anyone who has read his work realizes his interest in detail. Their names are long thought, although mostly they come from the Eddas of Icelandic mythology. So by constantly developing their writings, their editors ended up fed up with their continuous revisions. He was so obsessive in the insecurity of his corrections, that he had to rewrite each book over and over again. Tolkien in fact could never meet any deadline for any of his publications. To give just one example, the edition of three classic poems of English literature that begins in the thirties, does not complete until the sixties. But the preface was requested by its publishers in every possible way, even using the intercession of friends. And finally he had to do his son Cristopher, who is the one who gave birth to most of his work posthumously. Lewis, however, has been writing one book after another since the 1940s, in addition to collaborating on multiple publications, lecturing, lectures and even radio talks. Which explains not only their difference in popularity, but also in income. However, time seems to have favored Tolkien.

Unlike most of Tolkien′s biographies, White shows obvious sympathies for Lewis, however he attributes a liberal sexual behavior, which is not clearly demonstrated. It is true that Lewis being single lived in the same house with his brother and a divorced woman, Janie Moore, mother of one of his army companions, who promised to take care of his death. But the age difference between them suggests more a maternal relationship than a sexual one. What really bothered Tolkien was when Lewis met another divorced woman, Joy Gresham, an American Jew who had also been converted to Christianity. As he lived before marrying Lewis, a time at home with the two children he had had with an alcoholic author, who wrote for Hollywood and was continually unfaithful, White assumed that this relationship was also sexual. I think not, although we cannot reach the extremes of his controversial secretary Walter Hooper, who insists that they maintained a celibate relationship even after they were married, just because she was sick with cancer. Then Hooper was an episcopal minister, but then he later became Roman Catholic, and now he hopes that one day Lewis will be canonized !.

The truth is that it was his marriage to a divorced woman that made Tolkien break up with him. She was also very independent, writer and also Presbyterian. Curiously, however, she became friends with his wife, Edith, who always regretted being forced to convert to Catholicism to marry Tolkien. His marriage is in fact described by White as something cold and distant, since Lewis seemed to prefer the company of his friends and children, to that of his wife. But this may be another speculation of the author. What is clear is that after Joy′s death in 1960, immortalized in the movie Twilight Lands, Tolkien and Lewis did not meet again. And when Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien rejected any invitation to write about him, although Lewis always spoke and wrote enthusiastically about Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings.

Thus ends the story of a long friendship, around which a whole group of writers was formed who would go on to the history of literature. That Oxford club was engaged in more than just smoking a pipe and drinking beer. Their conversations inspired great works that continue to have a powerful attraction for the contemporary reader and viewer. Its themes are, after all, those that should interest every man. The power of evil that represents Mordor, the temptation of sin that shows that ring, the miracle of forgiveness and the sense of the sacrificed love of his characters, tell us about the reality of a redemption beyond all myth. His exaltation of nobility, integrity, trust and fidelity continue to speak to a desperate world. His work awakens in our degraded spirit, thirst for goodness and glory in the Lion of Judah, the Lamb who sits on the throne, who has all power over heaven and earth, but who is meek and humble in heart.

This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as La relación de Tolkien, Lewis y los Inklings

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