In his twin biographies of JRR Tolkien (Biography of a Legend) and CS Lewis (A Biography of Friendship), Colin Duriez reveals the unexpected friendship between two of Christian literature's most creative, imaginative and well loved authors.
Colin Duriez has spent much of his life studying Tolkien. He’s appeared on The Lord of The Rings extended edition DVDs and has written biographies of both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
How did your love of CS Lewis lead you to discovering Tolkien?
I’d discovered CS Lewis because we were reading Mere Christianity in sixth form and I loved the style of combining reasoning with rich imagination and lots of wonderful illustrations and analogies.
I started reading other books by him and started with his autobiography Surprised by Joy where he mentions this friend called Tolkien.
Just after that I was in a shop in Kidderminster where there was The Hobbit on sale. I recognised the name and bought the book. That’s what got me hooked on JRR. I found out there was much more to do with hobbits and Middle Earth so went on to read The Lord of The Rings and The Silmarillion.
Some Tolkien fans learn Elvish and dress up. Are you one of them?
I don’t go around dressing up as a hobbit although people would see me as a wizard rather than a hobbit, I don’t know. But when I published by first book on Tolkien in the beginning of the 90s I decided to join the Tolkien society in this country because I thought it would give me contact with people who would want to read about him.
I was invited along to speak there. I made a lot of friends so I decided to stay on and have happily mixed with fans ever since. What is interesting about Tolkien fans is there’s a huge range from academics right through to ordinary people who mend your plumbing or fix your car. That’s a really good thing, it’s not as geeky as some fan clubs.
I’ve not learned Elvish but reading Tolkien did make me much more aware of the importance of language and the way language carries beliefs and history.
How did Lewis and Tolkien’s approaches differ in communicating their faith through story?
The difference is CS Lewis put more signposts into his writings about explicit Christian faith, although he did try to follow Tolkien’s example in telling a good story first of all with the story itself and its themes going past people’s barriers to receive Christian meanings that they wouldn’t if they were aware.
Some people get very annoyed if they grow up and discover Narnia has all of these Christian elements but the fact is they didn’t notice it when they were reading it! There is a difference theologically because Tolkien was a Roman Catholic and you could describe CS Lewis as an old fashioned Puritan a bit like John Bunyan, only more chilled out.
What spiritual themes are there in Tolkien’s work?
Even though God’s name isn’t mentioned in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, you have the evidence of God’s providence and prophesies and themes that are very biblical such as God using the humble rather than the proud.
Using what seems like foolishness to achieve his aims such as the two hobbits going to Mordor to destroy the ring instead of the powerful to do it.
Tolkien is quite rightly regarded throughout the world as a great storyteller and he touches people from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds through the power of storytelling. As a Christian I think that’s helping to prepare people for the gospel if in God’s grace they are presented with it.
Was Tolkien deliberately putting Christian themes into his work?
Roman Catholics have written whole books on Catholicism in the stories but Tolkien doesn’t hammer you with them, he’s more interested like Lewis with the central Christian doctrines and creedal elements.
A lot of what I learned about the stories was through reading Tolkien’s letters.
When the books became more well known there were lots of fans who wrote to him about the meanings of his stories and he would patiently explain what he was trying to do and how he was trying to build up an imagined cosmos, a whole world that was conversant, in his words, with Christian theology.
You could argue one of the reasons The Silmarillion material wasn’t finished was because he was struggling so much to make it true to what he understood about Christian theology and the nature of God and the world.
Would Tolkien have enjoyed the recent films by Peter Jackson?
Tolkien would have hated the films. But that doesn’t at all imply the films aren’t good, it’s just he preferred the printed words with the freedom of the reader to perform the story in their imaginations. He was a bit cool about drama and the theatre for the same reason.
Peter Jackson is doing something Tolkien wished to do but in the medium of film rather of print, and that is to retell the story for adults. Tolkien started to do this toward the end of his life and his vision was to capture an adult readership in fantasy rather than it be consigned to the world of children’s literature.
Why should people read a biography of Tolkien?
Tolkien himself wasn’t interested in the biographies of people writing stories, he felt the stories themselves should be read and understood but I think his life helps us understand what he was doing in the stories.
One of the very important factors in his life was the loss of his mother early in life, he’d already lost his father when he was an infant. His mother was one of the shaping influences in her life not least her Christian faith. He was very devoted to her memory and that was part of his devotion to the Church.
He went through all the struggles of becoming a orphan just because he was thrown into the horrors of the Battle of the Somme - one of the bloodiest battles in the First World War.
The experience of war is a huge shaping influence in his writings. He, like CS Lewis, was very much working out the question of good and evil and how there’s evil in the world that God originally created good.
It’s amazing that two of the greatest writers of that era - CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien knew each other at all. How did they meet?
One of their friends made the point it was surprising they were friends at all because they were so different in many ways.
They first met when they joined the Oxford English school of the university, they’d worked there for about a year Tolkien as a professor of Anglo Saxon and Lewis as a fellow and tutor.
At first sight things didn’t look good because Lewis found Tolkien a bit haughty and said something like 'he’s a good enough fellow but he needs a smack'.
Within a very short while they were meeting regularly and discovered their common interest in old Norse myth and Celtic tales and elves and wonder tales where the imaginative element is very high and where you have worlds being built in the stories. They found they had more and more in common. At that time CS Lewis was an atheist.
How instrumental was Tolkien in CS Lewis becoming a Christian?
Tolkien had a huge effect in undermining Lewis’s atheism. He first of all converts from Atheism to Theism and then eventually he becomes a Christian partly or strongly due to a conversation he had with Tolkien and another friend Hugo Dyson where they talked about myth and imagination and Lewis’s love of stories which had these elements in and how he had a blind spot toward Christian gospels.
Although true and they actually happened in history the Gospels also have strong imaginative elements that Lewis refused to respond to. Tolkien pointed out all of the qualities of great stories are in the narratives of the gospels.
They knocked Lewis over and within days he had become a Christian and the friendship continued.
What would have happened if Tolkein and Lewis weren’t friends?
Tolkien never would have finished writing The Lord of The Rings had it not been for CS Lewis’s encouragement.
Because of the impact of Tolkien’s faith on Lewis, without that we wouldn’t have had Lewis the popular theologian, the author of Screwtape Letters, the author of Narnia. We wouldn’t have had Aslan.
I remember giving a talk on Tolkien and I said ‘imagine a world without The Lord of The Rings’. Not everyone would respond to that but people who love the books would see the point. The friendship was that important and is very central to both of their lives.
March 8th, 2013 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes