Ninety years and four days ago, Clive Lewis and John Tolkien met at an English faculty meeting. In his diary, Lewis wrote of Tolkien, “No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” Five years later, Lewis called himself a Christian. Thirty-two years after that conversion, Tolkien and Lewis had long been estranged, but the Catholic visited the Anglican on his deathbed, bringing his son (a Catholic priest) along with him. Rather than showing any inclination to convert, Lewis and Fr. John Tolkien, according to Joseph Pearce, “spent the time discussing the Morte d’Arthur” (C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, 149) rather than spiritual matters.
The close friendship and eventual estrangement of Tolkien and Lewis is one of the most painful literary stories of the twentieth century. Their coming together on the common ground of poetry and pagan myth was not strong enough to prevent their sundering on the grounds of religious and moral differences. Tolkien was long frustrated that Lewis would not accept reception into the True Faith, instead of clinging to its doppelgänger Anglicanism. Lewis was influenced by Charles Williams to tend towards other spiritual-philosophical directions, and his irregular marriage to Joy Gresham solidified their divide.
Tolkien wrote a brief letter on the occasion of his old friend’s death, which is poignant more in what it does not say than what it does:
I am sorry that I have not answered your letters sooner; but Jack Lewis’s death on the 22nd has preoccupied me. It is also involving me in some correspondence, as many people still regard me as one of his intimates. Alas! that ceased to be so some ten years ago. We were separated first by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams, and then by his marriage. Of which he never even told me; I learned of it long after the event. But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains. He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries only scraped the surface, in places with injustice. How little truth there may be in literary appraisals one may learn from them – since they were written while he was still alive. Lewis only met Williams in 1939, and W. died early in 1945. The ‘space-travel’ trilogy ascribed to the influence of Williams was basically foreign to Williams’ kind of imagination. It was planned years before, when we decided to divide: he was to do space-travel and I time-travel. My book was never finished, but some of it (the Númenórean-Atlantis theme) got into my trilogy eventually.
Publication dates are not a good guide. Perelandra is dated 1943, but does not belong to that period. Williams’ influence actually only appeared with his death: That Hideous Strength, the end of the trilogy, which (good though it is in itself) I think spoiled it. Also I was wryly amused to be told (D. Telegraph) that ‘Lewis himself was never very fond of The Screwtape Letters’ – his best-seller (250,000). He dedicated it to me. I wondered why. Now I know – says they.
Perhaps the Tolkien-Lewis schism exists to remind us that the things which divide us are often stronger than those that bring us together. Perhaps the point is to make us shake our heads at the silliness of it all. Perhaps if Tolkien had not disliked Edmund Spenser’s poetry–a sticking point for Lewis upon their first meeting–things would have gone differently.
Who can say? But perhaps it is a worthwhile Pentecost reflection to wonder that the descent of the Paraclete, prophesied so poetically in the Gospel of John, should yet have left these two men on opposite ends of a great divide, for which men the words “That they all may be one” were so lacking in ultimate realization. Their friendship ended slowly and painfully in “a long defeat,” as Tolkien once wrote in another context.
Is there a felix culpa somewhere in this falling out? A glimpse into the mysterium iniquitatis? It is as if the hag Discord from Book IV of The Faerie Queene had risen out of Screwtape’s lair to rend them apart.
“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”