Wednesday, December 03, 2003

A Fine Friendship

How did an obscure philologist, and the scholarly author of a couple of slim books of verse go on to become the greatest story tellers of the twentieth century? The symbiosis between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein is described in detail in today's article. Tolkein brought Lewis back to his faith, which inspired him to produce his greatest works, and Lewis encouraged and prodded Tolkein to complete the Middle Earth saga. Without this relationship, neither Middle Earth nor Narnia might have ever come to be.

There influence upon each other continued beyond religion. Tolkein recalled of Lewis, "'The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not 'influence' as it is ordinarily understood but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my 'stuff' could be more than a private hobby.' "

Tolkein's influence on Lewis did not end at encouraging his belief in Christianity, but as Steven Hart writes, "... the debt did not end there. Lewis quickly built a reputation as an explainer of Christianity, but he would hardly be remembered today if his fame rested solely on books like 'The Problem of Pain' (1940), with their bullying style and legalistic method of argument. The man who had returned to faith through myth and poetry seemed to think he could lawyer his readers through the gates of heaven. This point was not lost on Lewis' critics, particularly those within the faith. 'The problem of pain is bad enough,' one clergyman groused, 'without Mr. Lewis making it worse.' "

Their relationship had some ups and downs. In later years Tolkein criticized Lewis for mixing his mythology in the Chronicles of Narnia (Germanic Santa Claus rubs elbows with Greek deities), but when the Middle Earth trilogy was complete Lewis came to its defense. And there must have been some loving respect even when Tolkein was fashioning his tale, since as told in the Salon article, Lewis was the template for Treebeard. Haroom!

"Tolkien repaid the favor in 'The Lord of the Rings' by giving some of Lewis' mannerisms to Treebeard, the ligneous leader of the tree-like Ents -- chiefly his booming voice and constant throat-clearing. And it's not too far a stretch to find a faint dig at Lewis' nonstop literary productivity when Tolkien has Treebeard describe Entish as 'a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it unless it is worth taking a long time to say.' "

Hart concludes, "The long-overdue arrival of a proper film adaptation of 'The Lord of the Rings,' courtesy of Peter Jackson, gives this story a fitting coda. A film version of the first of the Narnia books, 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,' will soon go into production in New Zealand. The enterprise was finally able to go forward because of the huge success of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings," and will use some of the same production and design people, including the Weta special-effects shop that helped bring Middle-earth to earth.

"The repercussions of that 1931 conversation along the River Cherwell are still being felt. Even now, it seems, Tolkien and Lewis are helping each other out."

Yes, a fitting ending to the saga. As they say, read the whole thing here. (Day Pass or Subscription required)

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