Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Tale of Two Lieutenants: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and How World War I Helped Forge Them into World-Class Writers

My original title for what became a lecture to different classes of English literature students at a Christian Academy through the years is this: A Tale of Two Lieutenants: Jack and Ronald (better known as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) and how World War I helped forge them into two of the twentieth century's most important writers. Here is the outline:

J.R.R. Tolkien:

    Answered by Tolkien Himself
    Answered by a Wise Mother and Two Wise Fathers

    —Answered by C.S. Lewis
    Understanding True Christianity
    What Tolkien Believed and Why

    —Why Is The Lord of the Rings So Special?
    Faith’s Influence on the Pen

    —Traumatized Authors
    The Silmarillion and The Hobbit vs. LOTR
    Joy in Spite of the Trauma 
C.S. Lewis:

    —The Loss of a Mother and Childhood Faith
    The Loss of a War Buddy

    —“Chronological Snobbery”
    The Night Tolkien Led Lewis to Christ

    —The Inklings
    The Problem of Pain
    The Screwtape Letters
    Mere Christianity
    The Chronicles of Narnia

     A Grief Observed
     “The World’s Last Night”
(Teachers, look for a note just for you near the end of this lecture.)
Tolkien and Lewis were both college professors and gifted writers.  They met when teaching at Oxford in the mid 1920s.  Tolkien was a devout Catholic Christian, a term I will explain later, and Lewis an atheist, but they were able to find common ground in their mutual love of great stories and legends.  What would be a close lifetime friendship began to flourish, and all the while Tolkien was sowing seeds, hoping and praying that his friend would discover that the greatest stories, myths, and legends find their culmination in Christ and God, believing fervently that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever.  Amen!” as Romans 11 says in conclusion.  Tolkien’s patience and prayers paid off in a big way.  Five years after they met, Lewis embraced Christ as his Lord and Savior.  The world would never be the same.  God put together a wonderful team to manfully combat the unbelief and cynicism of our modern era. 

Since Tolkien came to know Christ first, I do him the honor of discussing him first, and I start with this Hobbit-like picture of him.[1]
To begin with, since I know my own perspective as an evangelical Christian, and have  some knowledge of other perspectives,  I need to deal with two questions: the Fantasy Question and the Catholic Question.
1. The Fantasy Question

The Fantasy Question is, Why fantasy? Isn’t there a better way to use one’s gifts than by writing stories that contain magic and elves and the like? Isn’t fantasy just a big waste of God’s good time? My answer comes first from Tolkien himself, from a famous university lecture he entitled simply, “On Fairy-stories.”[2]
Answered by Tolkien Himself
“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.... Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as they appear under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.... Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess.  It can be ill done.  It can be put to evil uses.  It may even delude the minds out of which it came.  But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true?...Fantasy remains a human right:  We make … because we are made…in the image and likeness of a Maker....
“The sudden joyous ‘turn’ [the unexpected happy ending or eucatastrophe, a term Tolkien invented to describe this unparalleled joy] … does not deny the existence…of sorrow and failure: The possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat.... It is the mark of a good fairy-story … that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to the child or man who hears it—when the ‘turn’ comes—a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears— as keen as that given by any form of … art.... 
Successful Fantasy [is] a sudden glimpse of [this] underlying reality: The Gospels [tell a true tale that] has entered History.... The Birth of Christ is the [joyous turn] of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the [joyous turn] of … the Incarnation.... To reject [the Gospel] leads … to sadness [and] wrath.... But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small.... Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on.  The [Gospel] has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’”
Answered by a Wise Mother and Two Wise Fathers
Thus ends Tolkien’s answer to the Why Fantasy? question—and what a bold answer!  He was speaking to fellow academics at a secular university, not to fellow Christians at a church service, but no matter:  “The righteous are as bold as a lion,” as Proverbs 28:1 says.
Here is another answer to the Why Fantasy? question, this time from a wise mother and friend of mine in an article on magic in literature for an Armenian journal: “Recent years have witnessed … a resurgence of interest in The Lord of the Rings … which has been hailed by some critics as the greatest literary work of modern times. Faced by the popularity of [this and other] books, some Christians question the appropriateness of exposing their children to magic in literature. Are there different types of literary fantasy [that] are morally acceptable and others not?...The Old Testament … [has] prohibitions against  … witchcraft … and … consulting a … sorcerer.... [Do] those verses [prohibit] reading … books with magic in them? Clearly not, because then reading the Bible itself would be prohibited: one of the more bizarre stories told about King Saul is … his [consulting] the medium at Endor.... Does fantasy in literature serve some purpose that cannot easily be accomplished by other means?  Tolkien felt that [some] truths [could be] apprehended more deeply and personally when they were conveyed indirectly:  ‘I would claim,’ said he, ‘to have as one object the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals … by … exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to “bring them home.”’”[3]
Two wise fathers wrote, “It was a strong Christian faith that inspired and informed [Tolkien’s] imagination.... Tolkien’s myth and fantasy can open the heart’s back door when the front door is locked.”[4]
2. The Catholic Question
Moving to the Catholic Question, you might be wondering if there really is such a thing as “a devout Catholic Christian.”  My answer is, “Yes, there is,” and I call C.S. Lewis to the witness stand.
Answered by C.S. Lewis
In his preface to Mere Christianity Lewis writes, “The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian ‘denominations.’  You will not learn from me whether you ought to become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic.  This omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is alphabetical).  Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best … service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times … ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born.”[5]

To explain the term Christian Lewis turns to the Scriptures:  In Acts 9:26 “the name Christians was first given at Antioch … to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles.”[6]  What essentially did the apostles teach?  Here’s Lewis’s summary: “That Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying [and rising from the dead] He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.”[7] Some Catholics believe that; some don’t. The same is true for people of other denominations and affiliations.
Understanding True Christianity
The only way you know if a Catholic is a Christian is the same way you know if a Baptist, Congregational, Evangelical, Fundamental, Independent Bible Church or Christian Academy member is a Christian:  by what the person believes inside, not by the group the person is affiliated with. God considers people individually, not on some group plan.  He can see perfectly, “discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart.”[8]  We cannot.  All we can do is test ourselves and others by looking for outward displays of inward reality.[9]  What do the Scriptures say to look for in discerning saving faith in Christ?  Four main things: 
1.A love for God’s Word, characterized by obedience to it, and wholehearted belief in every part of it.
2.A love for God’s people by ministering to them and being in regular fellowship with them.
3.A love for other people in telling them about God (the kindest thing you can do for them).
4.A love for God Himself in seeking communion with Him in prayer and corporate worship.
Regarding corporate worship and finding a good church, C.S. Lewis explains, “The question should never be:  ‘Do I like that kind of service [or music]?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true:  Is holiness here?  Does my conscience move me toward this?... When you have reached your own [decision], be kind to those who have chosen different [churches] and to those who are still [deciding].”[10]
What Tolkien Believed and Why
Mabel Tolkien
Let’s go back to Tolkien.  What did he believe and why?  John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had been baptized as an infant “in the Church of England and his family was religious as far as was required by society at the time, but his mother Mabel had been on a search for something deeper than an occasional Christianity.” [11]  She became a young widow when little Ronald Tolkien was only four, and Tolkien’s little brother only two.  Mabel’s search led her to the Roman Catholic Church when Ronald was eight.

Becoming a Catholic today “usually causes one little harm. In the steadfastly Protestant England of 1900, however, matters were very different.... Mabel faced immediate consequences.  Her own family and [her late husband’s] cut off all financial support to her and condemned her actions in no uncertain terms.  This disapproval and withdrawal of support would not, however, drive her from her new faith.”[12]  Imagine how this ill treatment from Protestant relatives would affect you if you were eight years old and this was your mother?
By God’s grace, Mabel found a Christ-like community of believers who offered sympathy and support to her struggling family.  Ronald Tolkien ended up at a wonderful school for promising students, where his favorite teacher “introduced him to the medieval world and its languages.... Finally … all seemed to be going well for the Tolkiens.  But they had not counted on the strain that the last few years had put on Mabel.”[13]  She died from diabetes when she was only thirty four and Ronald only twelve.  Tolkien, for the rest of his life, thought of his beloved, saintly mother as a martyr for her faith because her life may have been spared if her cold-hearted Protestant relatives hadn’t cut her off. 
Mabel Kirke in The Magician's Nephew
C.S. Lewis was only nine when his mother died of cancer.  This same deep, early loss is something that would bind Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship later on.  In honor of that, Lewis gave the name Mabel to the dying mother in his first Narnia book, The Magician’s Nephew.  The school-aged boy of that Mabel was able to do what Tolkien and Lewis would have given anything to do:  restore Mom to health by wondrous means.  Although Ronald Tolkien became an orphan, he “was a devout boy who was to become a devout man, and his writing was to be soaked with his beliefs.”[14]
3. Tolkien’s Writings
Let’s now talk about what Tolkien wrote. One man saw another man reading The Lord of the Rings and asked, “First time, or rereading it for the movie?” The first man writes, “I admitted that I was intentionally not rereading it before seeing the movie, so the inevitable changes for the big screen wouldn’t jar me too much. This led to a discussion of the differences between movie adaptations and original novels, with the inevitable [combining] of characters and slashing of secondary plots.... In having picked up that book, he and I, and countless others throughout the world, had become part of something very special. Something that crosses gender lines, religious differences, and economic strata.  That ignores language differences, physical boundaries, and generational barriers. Amazing, isn’t it?  A fantasy writer … can connect two people by the simple act of writing a book.”[15] Does that sound like any other Book you know? Is it any wonder God gave us His Word in book form instead of as a CD, DVD, or an iPad? There is something very special about books!
Why Is The Lord of the Rings So Special?
What about The Lord of the Rings?  Why did God have circumstances fall into place as they did to bring about Tolkien’s writing it?  Consider the influence the last part of it alone, The Return of the King, has in motivating people in our cynical, modern world to think about a real Returning King—on horseback and with sword in hand!—coming into His own, and finally supplanting an Evil Usurper who desires dominion over all life.
Tolkien was disappointed that The Lord of the Rings had to be divided into three books for practical reasons: The Fellowship of the RingThe Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Tolkien didn’t care for the title The Return of the King because he felt it gave away the ending, but he trusted that God was in control.  We, far better than he, can see God’s hand in this with the perspective of time. Here is something Tolkien himself would love to have seen: The Lord of the Rings in one volume, with his actor friend Christopher Lee, who was one of Tolkien’s students, on the cover as one of the main characters.[16]
Faith’s Influence on the Pen
One biographer states, “Tolkien’s devotion to Catholicism was probably the most important thing in his life. He was almost a fanatical Christian, a fact that became clear to anyone soon after meeting him.”[17] That’s this biographer’s non-Christian bias seeping through, something you get used to and learn to deal with in any serious study of a Christian’s life. On what does the man justify using the pejorative fanatical?  He goes on to say that Tolkien “habitually referred to Christ as ‘Our Lord’”—imagine the nerve of someone daring to affirm the truth, even among those who don’t acknowledge it as such! What else was deemed fanatical? Simply that Tolkien “possessed an unshakable conviction in the power of prayer, believing … he had been ‘given’ stories after praying, and that prayers had cured members of his family when they were ill.”
No less a man than C.S. Lewis thought that The Lord of the Rings was heaven sent.  As soon as he finished reading Tolkien’s manuscript, he wrote to its author, “‘I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst. Once it really gets under weigh, the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it would indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me.  In two virtues I think it excels: [creativity and gravity].’ This was enough for Tolkien.  If Jack Lewis could be so enthusiastic, then the book was ready.”[18]
C.S. Lewis would later go on to write a breathtakingly stunning book review on The Lord of the Rings: simply the best thing ever written to explain the book's importance and appeal.

That the book ever was ready is evidence of God’s hand: “Lewis was a quick worker and seemed to have … boundless energy and a whirlpool of ideas to draw upon.... Tolkien … worked in a very different way; he was meticulous, a perfectionist who found it difficult to let anyone see his work until it had been reworked and revised many times. [I can relate strongly to that, and so can some of you.  It’s a distinct personality type and work style.] Fortunately, Tolkien…could retain a detailed mythology in his head. [His] great ability to visualize on an epic scale held the project together.”[19]
4. Tolkien and Warfare
Tolkien’s academic successor at Oxford wrote, “Tolkien not only poses questions about evil, he also provides answers and solutions—one of the things which has made him unpopular with the professionally gloomy or fashionably nihilist.”[20]
Traumatized Authors
Tolkien's Unit: The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers
What Tolkien wrote about evil has such a ring of truth to it because of what he experienced during the Battle of the Somme.  A year after graduating from Oxford, and two months after getting married, Tolkien embarked for France as a Lieutenant (a common rank for college graduates and  students at the time, similar to how an M.D. degree today confers the automatic rank of Captain to army doctors). Tolkien arrived just in time for the bloodiest battle of World War I. On a single day at the Somme River, more Englishmen lost their lives than in any other day in history. Two of the dead were Tolkien’s closest friends from school. One was killed outright. The other died from gangrene. Tolkien, however, survived the Somme, and fought his share of battles. Several months later he came down with a nearly fatal case of trench fever, and was shipped home.
Lieutenant Tolkien, 1916
The barbarity of trench warfare “informed his work with a new and most important steeliness. The war traumatized Tolkien just as it traumatized other key writers of the twentieth century, including [C.S. Lewis,] George Orwell, and William Golding. What those men saw … stayed with them for the rest of their lives.... And so, convalescing in England with visions of hell and heroism still fresh in his mind, Tolkien’s real work began.”[21]

The Silmarillion and The Hobbit  vs.  LOTR
The Silmarillion is a loose collection of writings that serve as a backdrop to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, lending them a sense of rich historical background and heritage to Tolkien’s imaginary but realistic “Middle-earth.”  The Silmarillion “is derived most obviously from Tolkien’s experiences of war....  Victory is always gained at a grievous price. Success is … partly tempered with failure, and a tinge of sadness, fragility, and impermanence underlies everything about Middle-earth.”[22] That, indeed, is the way of life in a fallen world. The Silmarillion is like the biblical book of Ecclesiastes on an epic scale. 

The Silmarillion, says one biographer, is a fine work, “but it lacks certain qualities, chief among them a humanizing sense of humor and a sense of developing personality among its characters. And The Hobbit also is very fine, but it too lacks certain qualities, among them a sense of grandeur [supplemented by the film trilogy, which borrows reverently from LOTR's appendices.] Once Tolkien …  learned to combine these elements of his imagination ... The Lord of the Rings … became possible.”[23] C.S. Lewis, however, would disagree with what that biographer said about the lack of grandeur, asserting instead in a brilliant book review of The Hobbit that "only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will [readers] begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true."
Joy in Spite of the Trauma
Tolkien was a joyful man despite the wartime and childhood traumas he endured.  He had an “exuberant personality. [Tolkien] could be introverted, even insular at times, but…was a natural communicator—whether … one-to-one … or with an audience, like those he held spellbound during lectures.... He loved dressing up in costume and more than once … took delight in terrifying his neighbors … by charging down the street dressed as an axe-wielding Viking before cycling off to a fancy dress party in college.”[24] 
The photographer who took this picture wrote, “When I went to see [Tolkien the year he died,] he was playfully using his walking stick as a fencing sword with me … and the expression on his face is one of glee. Like a child in a way, so happy.... Tolkien was totally charming and accommodating.... What a remarkable man!”[25]  I say Amen to that!
1. Most Influential Spokesman from Unlikely Beginnings

Time magazine described C.S. Lewis as “one of the most influential spokesmen for Christianity in the English speaking world.”  Here he is on the cover of Time magazine.[26]
Above Lewis’s head is part of a Nazi emblem. On his shoulder is a medieval devil, an allusion to The Screwtape Letters, which Lewis subtitled Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil. That book gained Lewis international fame, and has been described as his most important book in terms of conversion power.[27] Below Lewis’s Time cover photo is this compelling caption: “His Heresy:  Christianity.”  How would you like that written under your photo for the world to see? Are you beginning to see why I describe Jack and Ronald as two of the twentieth century’s most important writers?
Flora Lewis, Mother of Jack and Warnie
Clive Staples Lewis was born 1898 in Northern Ireland the second son of an attorney and a university-educated woman with an honors degree in mathematics and logic. Although Mrs. Lewis was the daughter of a Church of England minister, the Christianity her boys were exposed to was nominal. She was, however, a good sport when little Clive from the age of four insisted upon being called “Jack” after the family dog, Jacksie. Jack and his slightly older brother, Warren, who was always “Warnie” like my John is always “Johnny,” spent their early years at home, reading from their parents’ extensive book collection and inventing imaginary tales.
The Loss of a Mother and Childhood Faith
Albert Lewis with Young Jack
Their world was upended when their mother died of cancer. Jack was nine. In a sense he and Warnie lost their father at the same time, for Mr. Lewis collapsed in grief and never really recovered. Jack Lewis now joined “a line of authors from Wordsworth to Somerset Maugham who in childhood suffered the wound of losing one or both parents.”[28] Like a ship loosed from its moorings, young Jack began to drift toward atheism. When his mother was dying of cancer, he prayed and asked God to heal her, but she died anyway. Jack “believed at that time that God either wasn’t there or if he was there, he was [powerless or] cruel.... The problem of pain and … evil came into his life at an early age.”[29]
Young Warnie and Jack
Jack and Warnie were shuffled off to boarding schools. The first one was positively Dickensian: the headmaster was so cruel, he was later certified insane and the school collapsed. For a time Jack attended a local college, but was unhappy because of the importance placed there on success in sports. (Jack was born with the defect of essentially lacking a thumb joint so he never could handle a ball or bat with proficiency.) His father decided to send him to a private tutor in preparation for gaining a scholarship at Oxford. Unknown to either of them at the time was how well that decision would prepare Jack to be a Defender of the Faith, as he appears on the Time magazine cover. For three years Jack lived with William Kirkpatrick and his wife in the countryside. Kirkpatrick was a first-rate thinker who was very logical, and made every word count.  He taught Jack to do the same, providing a highly demanding and rewarding education in logic, debate, history, languages, and literature.
The Loss of a War Buddy
Jack on the Left, Paddy on the Right
Lewis proved to be an exemplary student, and he earned that scholarship to Oxford. Because of World War I, however, he wasn’t there for long. Although Jack was under no obligation to serve in the English army since he was born in Ireland, he felt it was his duty to serve, and—like Tolkien—was commissioned as a Lieutenant. When Lewis was in the army, he became close friends with a fellow Irish cadet named Paddy Moore. Moore’s eleven-year-old sister, Maureen, watched as the two young men pledged to watch over each other’s families should one of them be killed. Not long afterward, Jack learned that Paddy was killed in action, and Jack himself was badly injured by friendly fire at the Battle of Arras in Belgium April 15, 1918. True to his word, nevertheless, Jack took care of Maureen and her mother, who became like a mother to Jack. This new responsibility led Jack back to Oxford to finish his degree. By 1925 he was teaching at Oxford. In 1926 Lewis had his first meeting with Tolkien, who also started teaching there. The stage was set for one of the greatest friendships ever.
2. Friendship Evangelism
There are few times in history when “two talents of such great stature have been united by friendship and professional camaraderie.... [Tolkien and Lewis] shared a passion for myth, fantasy, and magical worlds. Eventually, a shared faith would … play a [major] role in the work they left behind for future generations[30]—for us!
“Chronological Snobbery”
Lucy Barfield
Many of Lewis’s Oxford friends were Christians, including Tolkien and Owen Barfield. (To Lucy Barfield, Owen’s daughter, Lewis would dedicate the first Narnia book he wrote, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and he assigned the name Lucy to the key Narnia heroine.) These Christians were some of the most interesting people Lewis knew. He was beginning to see “that Christianity was not so intellectually ‘in the dark’ as he had thought,” and “was forced to question ideas he’d held onto for several years, including his own ‘chronological snobbery.’… Lewis described this as the idea that whatever is the common thought of the age is what is acceptable [or politically correct, as we say today].... Lewis began to challenge his own thinking. ‘If something is now passé, why?... Why did it go out of date and who argued against it and where? And was it a compelling argument?’… [Jack] began to realize he’d never really looked back, intellectually, at the arguments for Christianity.”[31] That is what happened to me, by God’s grace, when I was a senior at Hollywood High.  I felt stunned when I realized the only reason I discounted the Bible verses my Christian classmates shared with me was I had been programmed to by my secular home and school life, and the media I exposed myself to.
The Night Tolkien Led Lewis to Christ
Lewis’s conversion to Christianity “was not a tidy affair. Most of the time he spends talking about conversion in [his spiritual autobiography] Surprised by Joy is really to theism. He [came to believe] that God existed, but … didn’t believe … Christ was the Son of God until later.”[32]
One Saturday evening in 1931, Lewis invited Tolkien to dinner, and the two talked through most of the night. Immediately afterwards Lewis wrote to a friend, saying, “‘What Tolkien showed me was that if I admit the idea of sacrifice in a pagan story, I didn’t mind it at all.... The idea of the dying and reviving god … moved me, provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. Now the story of Christ is … a true myth, a myth working on us in the same way as the others, with this tremendous difference: that it really happened.’ A few days later, Lewis … and his brother took a picnic lunch to the … zoo … in Warnie’s motorcycle and sidecar. Lewis wrote, ‘When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did. It was like when a man, after a long sleep still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.’… Lewis now entered the busiest period of his life. As a Christian, the shackles of ambition fell away.... He now had something very important to say, and was eager to get writing.”[33]
3. A Man with Something to Say

God gave C.S. Lewis a lot to say, and he said it well. One of his admirers writes, “Everything his pen touches turns to gold.”[34] Partly because of his close association with a wide variety of people during his experience as World War I infantryman, Lewis learned to write in a way that can satisfy the most intellectually robust or the simplest person on the face of the earth. Both ends of that spectrum are equally precious in God’s eyes. Lewis—and Tolkien also—understood that especially well, so their writings are characterized by a deep and refreshing sense of humility. C.S. Lewis “addresses both the head and the heart. He is an apologist for reason, romanticism, and—what holds them together—Christianity.”[35]
The entire collection of Lewis’s work—“all thirty-eight books—has never been out of print.... Why?  Because Lewis … [asked and gave biblical answers to] questions at the core of every person’s existence:
  •      Is there a God?
  •      If so, is there only one God?
  •     [Why] does evil permeate our world?...
  •      How does belief in God help nurture happiness  and fulfillment?
  •     How does faith heal and help someone overcome pain?”[36]
One reason Lewis’s writings are so effective was the nature of the man who wrote them: “He was humble and kind, and such a simple man.... He was one of those fortunate people who didn’t really need much to make him happy.”[37] Here is a picture of Lewis that reflects his joyful and contented nature.[38]
The Inklings
Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” That proved true with Lewis and The Inklings, one of the most famous literary groups in history. These Oxford friends made their living using paper and ink, so the name suited them. They met weekly to read and discuss what they were writing. For example, “Lewis read the whole of The Problem of Pain [and] The Screwtape Letters to them.  And…Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings.... If they didn’t like something, they went at it.... They were a wonderful sounding board.’”[39]
The Problem of Pain
In The Problem of Pain Lewis writes, “The only purpose of [this] book is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering; for the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”[40]
“‘If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either the goodness, or power, or both.’  This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form. The possibility of answering it depends on showing that the terms ‘good’ and ‘almighty’, and perhaps also the term ‘happy’, are equivocal.... “Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to [God], but not nonsense.... The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make.... The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbour on the head.... We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected … this abuse of free-will … so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon.... But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void.”[41]
The Screwtape Letters
Not long after completing The Problem of Pain, Lewis was attending a church service when he was suddenly struck by an idea. Why not write from an entirely new perspective, using satire as a tool for instruction and insight? Why not write a series of letters of advice from a senior devil named Screwtape to his apprentice? Lewis’s brainstorm resulted in one of his best books. Here are samples of its diabolical advice:      
  • “There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy [God, that is, from the devil’s perspective]. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”[42]
  • “One of our great allies … is the church itself.... I [don’t] mean the Church as we see her spread through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.... Fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. [Get your victim to focus on] the actual faces in the next pew. [If any of those people] sing out of tune,… have boots that squeak,… double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be … ridiculous.”[43]
Lewis dedicated The Screwtape Letters “to J.R.R. Tolkien.” Tolkien was upset with him in a friendly way for doing so, saying, “Jack, you really have no business writing books like that because you’re neither ordained nor a theologian.” Tolkien had a point because Lewis’s writings do have some doctrinal errors in them so, as always, be discerning. Lewis replied, “I wish I didn’t have to [write theological books], but until the theologians and ordained clergy begin to communicate with ordinary people in … a way … they can understand, I’m going to have to do this kind of thing.”[44] Tolkien decided that was a good answer. Jack’s desire was like that of the apostle Paul, perhaps the best Defender of the Faith: that “I declare the mystery of Christ.... That I … make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3-4).  That is my desire, and I hope it is yours as well. (Click here for an illustrated letter-by-letter summary of The Screwtape Letters.)
Mere Christianity
During World War II, BBC radio contacted Lewis with a request for help. In response, Lewis went on the air with several 15-minute broadcasts on Christianity, the first of which were called Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe. This successful series of broadcasts was eventually published as Mere Christianity.[45] It is one of the best books to give either a new believer or a sincere seeker. My copy is one of my most treasured possessions because of how it nurtured me in my new faith during college. (Click here for an illustrated chapter-by-chapter summary of Mere Christianity.)
The Chronicles of Narnia
Lewis’s seven Chronicles of Narnia stories are well loved by children and adults. In them we clearly see that "humility, courage, loyalty, honesty, kindness, and unselfishness are virtues. Children who might … object to [this moral] code if they were taught it in churches and schools accept it easily and naturally when they see it practiced by … characters they love. They are learning morality in the best and perhaps only effective way”: by example.[46] In their battles, the Narnia characters “use medieval weapons and tactics. They depend … ultimately on Aslan…a figure derived partly from Christ the Lion of Judah and … [England’s King] Richard the Lion-heart.... As in medieval romance, the stories always involve a quest, which takes them to an island, a castle, a subterranean prison, and ultimately a stable.”[47] (Click here for C.S. Lewis's own 1-sentence summary of each Narnia story.)
4. Joy in Personal Form

Lewis’s fame led to a steady stream of correspondence. That is how he met his wife, Joy. Here are two pictures of her, including one with Jack.[48]
A Grief Observed
Lewis had been on a lifelong quest for spiritual joy and found it in Christ. Now God, in His kindness, sent Jack Joy in personal form. His time with her was to be brief because she died of cancer four years after they were married, but they were an incredible four years worth the pain of temporary separation.[49] Jack would join her at Jesus’ side three years later in 1963. The magnificent book he wrote as he cared for Joy at home in a hospice setting is The Four Loves.
The World’s Last Night
J.R.R. Tolkien offered these words of loving praise for the late C.S. Lewis: “We owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection it begot, remains. He was a great man.”[50] I leave you with parting words from C.S. Lewis himself, which he wrote in an essay entitled “The World’s Last Night”:
We must always be ready for [Christ to return].... The schoolboy does not know which part of his … lesson he will be made to translate: that is why he must be prepared to translate any passage. The sentry does not know at what time an enemy will attack, or an officer inspect, his post: that is why he must keep awake all the time.... For what comes is Judgment: happy are those whom it finds labouring in their vocations, whether they were merely going out to feed the pigs or laying good plans to deliver humanity a hundred years hence from some great evil. The curtain has indeed now fallen. Those pigs will never in fact be fed, the great campaign … will never in fact proceed to victory. No matter; you were at your post when the Inspection came.[51]

Teachers, you can present this lecture easily to your students by having them call it up on their own phones, laptops, or tablets. Have them take turns reading each paragraph, photo caption, and end note. Then take the next step by immersing them in Tolkien's and Lewis's writings. Here are links you can present to them to choose from to read and then either present to the class themselves or write about in not less than one full page, but not more than two or three pages:


[1] This photo of an elderly Tolkien sitting in his study’s chair and smiling is from Michael Coren’s biography J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created The Lord of the Rings (N.Y.: Scholastic Inc., 2001), p. 3; photo credit, p. 136. Tolkien wrote in a famous letter dated 25 October 1958, "I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food.... I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats [vests]" (Letter 213 from The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000], p. 288).

[2] Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories” was the Andrew Lang Lecture of 1938, given at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  It appears in Tolkien’s book Tree and Leaf  [London: Unwin, 1964], pp. 11-70, which is hard to find in print.  The Lecture is available on .  Most of the emphasis added in this paper’s citation of “On Fairy-stories” is mine, along with minimal editing for clarity.

[3] Ani Bogosian, “Embracing Magic in Literature” in Forum, the quarterly journal of the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America (June 2002; Vol. XXVI, No. 2), pp. 16-17.  The primary source of the Tolkien quote is Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 194.  Tolkien’s letter was to the manager of a Catholic bookshop.

[4]  Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware, Finding God in the Lord of the Rings (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2003), p. x.  Kurt Bruner is a vice president with Focus on the Family, where he leads in the creation of books, films, and radio drama.  Jim Ware is a Christian freelance writer.

[5]  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (N. Y.: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 6-7 (preface).

[6]  Ibid., p. 11 (preface).

[7]  Ibid., p. 58 (book II, chapter 4: The Perfect Penitent).

[8]  Hebrews 4:12.

[9]  2 Corinthians 13:5: Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves!”

[10]  Mere Christianity, p. 12 (preface).

[11]  Coren,  p. 16.

[12]  Ibid., pp. 16-18.

[13]  Ibid., p. 20.

[14]  Ibid., p. 21-22.

[15] Michael White, J.R.R. Tolkien (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002), p. vi.

[16] The image of The Lord of the Rings cover with Christopher Lee as Saruman was downloaded from .

[17] White, pp. 215-16.

[18] Coren, pp. 81, 83.

[19]  White, pp. 178-80.

[20]  Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), p. xxxi. Few people speak with more excellence about Tolkien than Shippey. Here, for example, is Shippey's very entertaining talk and transcript given in 2010 at Swarthmore College that he titled, "Tolkien Book to Jackson Script: The Medium and the Message."

[21] White, p. 9. Sometime during the closing years of World War I, Tolkien was to begin the story or lay that became the most important to him personally: that of the love between Beren, a nobleman, and Lúthien, the daughter of a great elven king and queen. His inspiration came "after Edith danced for him in the woods near one of their temporary wartime homes.... In his mind, the struggles of the couple he describes in the story mirrored the real-life battles he and Edith had fought and won" (White, pp. 99-100). Beren and Lúthien is the title of their son Christopher's latest book, made available June of 2017 in his 92nd year of life.

[22]  Ibid., p. 99. In 2005 John Garth wrote what many have hailed as the best treatment of Tolkien's WW1 experiences on his writing: Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

[23]  Rendel Helmes, Tolkien and the Silmarils (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 80.

[24]  White, pp. 116-17.

[25]   Coren: Quote is on p. 122; photo of elderly Tolkien with his cane like a sword is on p. 97.

[26]  September 8, 1947; Volume I, Number 10.  A photo of the cover appears on page 85 of The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Work of C. S. Lewis by John Ryan Duncan (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001). The photo credits on page 189 state that this cover picture came from TimePix, and the photographer was Hans Oswald Wild.

[27]  Duncan, p. 85, citing Colin Manlove, who was a professor at Edinburgh University, and is now a writer and Lewis scholar (photo biography on pp. 15-16 of Duncan).

[28]  Ibid.

[29]  Duncan, p. 25, citing Wheaton College professor Lyle Dorsett, whose photo biography is on p. 14.

[30]  Duncan, pp. 50-51.

[31]  Duncan, pp. 54, 56, citing Dr. Christopher Mitchell, a professor at Wheaton College, whose photo biography is on p. 15.

[32]  Duncan, p. 65. Photo biography of Walter Hooper is on p. 13.

[33]  A VHS entitled The Life of C.S. Lewis: Through Joy and Beyond. It is hosted by Pastor Walter Hooper (Lewis’s personal secretary and posthumous editor), and features narration by Peter Ustinov as the voice of C.S. Lewis. It was produced by Lord & King Associates in 1979, and a special re-release was distributed by The Bridgestone Group in 1991.  The excerpt on Lewis’s conversion to Christianity after talking with Tolkien and Dyson begins at 37:30 and runs for 3 minutes.

[34]  Peter Kreeft, The Shadowlands of C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind the Movie (San Francisco:  Ignatius, 1994), pp. 213-14.

[35]  Gene Edwards Veith, “The Key to C.S. Lewis” in the January 2008 issue of Tabletalk magazine from Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul, which that month featured Lewis’s life and work (p. 83,

[36]  Duncan, pp. 3-4.

[37]  Ibid., p. 8.

[38]  This picture of Lewis during an interview in 1946, smiling and obviously at ease, appears in Duncan, p. 100.  The photo credits on p. 189 attribute it to TimePix.  The photographer was Hans Oswald Wild, the same man who took the Time cover photo.

[39]  Duncan, citing Hooper, pp. 48-49.

[40]  The Problem of Pain (N. Y.: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 9-10.

[41]  Ibid, pp. 26, 28-29, 33.

[42]  The Screwtape Letters (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1961), Letter 6, pp. 28-29. Check this link for a superlative audio version of this work, which features Andy Serkis as Screwtape: Screwtape Audio

[43]  Ibid, Letter 2, p. 12.

[44]  Duncan, pp. 84-85.

[45]  For fascinating details, read C.S. Lewis in a Time of War: The World War II Broadcasts That Riveted a Nation and Became the Classic Mere Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002) by Justin Phillips, a radio journalist for the BBC for over 20 years. He was an elder at his local church, and a frequent speaker about Christianity and the media.

[46]  George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 317.

[47]  Lionel Adey, C.S. Lewis: Writer, Dreamer & Mentor Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998—the centenary anniversary of Lewis’s birth, for which this biography was issued, p. 184.

[48]  The photos are on pp. 128-29, 144 of Duncan: a portrait of Joy as a young woman upon college graduation and a picture of Jack and Joy together, resting against a brick wall and attending to a big dog. The photo credits on p. 189 attribute the first to The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College and the second to the Dundee University Archives, Michael Peto Collection.

[49]   The story of Jack and Joy’s courtship is told fairly well in the movie Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Joy’s son Douglas Gresham got along especially well with Jack, is a strong Christian, and—by God’s grace—supervises many C.S. Lewis book and film projects.  Lewis writes movingly of his wife’s death in A Grief Observed (N.Y.: Bantam Books), posthumously subtitled, A Masterpiece of Rediscovered Faith by the publisher. A marble plaque, by where Joy’s ashes were scattered, reads:
Helen Joy
D. July 1960
Loved wife of C. S. Lewis
… Like cast off clothes [she] was left behind
In ashes yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

[50]  Frontice to The Grand Miracle: And Other Selected Essays on Theology and Ethics from God in the Dock (N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 1970).

[51]  This essay was originally published in 1952. It was combined with other essays and published in book form as C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (N.Y.: Harcourt, Inc., 1959, 1987), pp. 103-12.

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