My personal reading has taken a back seat this semester to my school work. Researching and writing two 25-page papers plus regular class reading has the tendency to push other personal pursuits to the back burner. I have read or skimmed many books related to my papers, though, including David Wells’ brilliant five-part series (of which The Courage to be Protestant is the summary). Needless to say that I’m only slowly working my way through my spring reading list, and recently finished Colin Duriez’s Tolkien & C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship.
Maybe because it took me about a month of start-and-stop reading, or maybe because both Tolkien and Lewis were very complex people, this biography seemed disjointed at times and seemed to lack a solid overall flow. Though chronological, it alternated sections between the two men within each of the chapter. Also, since I read it sporadically it is difficult for me to give a unified, flowing review of it. So bear with me as I share some thoughts and try to make them flow.
Overall, it is a good book, especially for somewhat casual fans of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (like me). I imagine it would leave more hardcore fans unfulfilled. However, there is a wealth of background information given, and learning about what inspired their work was a joy to read.
Christianity played a large role in each of these men’s work, life, and friendship. Tolkien was instrumental in the reluctant conversion of Lewis to Christianity. However, Tolkien wasn’t so successful in “fully” converting Lewis to Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism, as Lewis was an Anglican for his entire post-conversion life. Though neither man considered himself “evangelical,” it’s interesting that each has been adopted as the favored sons/poster boys of evangelicalism today. I think that could be for a number of reasons, a main one being that there is a severe dearth of talented evangelical fiction writers in the last 100 years. That is, unless you count the Left Behind series or The Shack, of course.
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during any of Lewis and Tolkien’s frequent meetings. They read their works in progress to each other and discussed fantasy, myth, ancient and modern literature, Christianity, and life. Perhaps most edifying to me from this book was the frequent discussion of the role of imagination and the intersection of myth and fact, something that both Lewis and Tolkien were passionate about, though each achieved this differently.
Lewis was more of an explicitly Christian writer and Tolkien disapproved of his friend’s status as a popular theologian/apologist – and he wasn’t afraid to let Lewis know it. Tolkien also heavily disliked Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia because they seemed too explicitly allegorical and lacking in continuity. Tolkien favored a more subtle form of story, in which Christian themes were present throughout but not explicitly allegorical. (for a great theory of how Lewis’ Chronicles are actually unified, check out Planet Narnia).
I found it interesting that Tolkien had so much more of an effect on Lewis than Lewis had on Tolkien. Whereas Tolkien helped form Lewis’ faith, literature, imagination, and apologetics, Lewis served mainly as a listener and a motivator for Tolkien, urging Tolkien to persevere in writing The Lord of the Rings. This fact is also intriguing given that Tolkien was a shy, slight of build, soft-spoken Englishman while Lewis was a commanding, robust, outspoken, red-faced Irishman.
Though the organization is a little rough, I’d recommend this book to any fan of Lewis or Tolkien. It touches on so many interesting points that I can’t do justice here. Themes of storytelling, language, teaching, art, creation, fantasy, joy, grief, true friendship, love, heartbreak, faith, and the gospel are prevalent throughout and help frame more detailed discussion of things like their scholarly careers, Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Tolkien’s life’s work (The Silmarillion), and their personal lives.