Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we tell the story of the relationship that changed 20th c. Christian theology and English literature.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 11th of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

On this the 11th of May in 1926- 96 years ago today, two new Oxford professors met for the first time.

The South African-born Roman Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien and the Irish-born atheist C.S. Lewis would become legendary friends and critics of each other. Ultimately the two shared a love of myth- and Tolkien would help convince Lewis that myth doesn’t mean “lie” but rather myths hold great truths; not only that, but in Jesus, the myth becomes human and enters human history. Within a few years of this meeting, Lewis would find himself receiving Holy Communion at Holy Trinity Church.

The story of their relationship is often told, and we have limited time here on the Almanac, so let’s break down some of the more fascinating parts of their story.

Lewis would become Protestant- an Irish Protestant, and this would forever vex Tolkien. It was likely also one of the reasons Lewis could never accept Tolkien as a friend of the first order (and yes, it’s weird that he wrote in his letters about his orders of friendship). When Lewis married Joy Davidman- the fact that she had been divorced would have been so scandalous to the Catholic Tolkien that Lewis never told him he was getting married. This would put quite a dent in the relationship, as you might imagine.

Lewis first came across Tolkien at Oxford at Tolkien’s gathering of the “Coalbitters”- that was the name of the group of men who gathered to discuss Norse Mythology- Lewis was enamored with the camaraderie and depth of conversation.

Academically, the two would also diverge. Tolkien disliked the “liberal arts” and saw the technical study as more worthy than reading literature. Lewis was less than thrilled with the field of philology (the study of words) and believed literature to have practical value.

You may have heard that Tolkien believed the Narnia series to be rubbish. If Tolkien were infamous for his slowness in publishing, Lewis would be criticized for publishing so frequently and often for children.

Lewis’ fame made him a pariah amongst the academics at Oxford. While Tolkien understood it- he also helped Lewis move to Cambridge, where Lewis would be more comfortable- even years after their relationship had cooled.

In their discussions, which would become the literary group known as the “Inklings,” they decided to divide their fantasy writing, giving Lewis space travel and Tolkien time travel.

Lewis’ part of the bargain led to his Space Trilogy- which Tolkien helped get published. Ever slow to write and publish, Tolkien never got to his time travel series.

Lewis would dedicate the Screwtape Letters to his friend “Tollers,” as he called his friend. Tolkien gave Lewis a copy of his children's story that he situated inside his elaborate Middle Earth- this was, of course, the Hobbit.

Outside of the literary encouragement and the works from these two men, and outside of the conversion of Lewis, I think I am struck this time in telling this story in the story of a friendship. It was a complicated relationship. Lewis called him a “friend of the second order” in a letter to a friend, and Tolkien would write to a friend that between 1927 and 1940, they were best friends. They were both cranky academics. And one was Protestant, and one was Catholic. After Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien would respond to correspondence asking him about their friendship- Tolkien was gracious and tended to explain that Lewis’ friendship with Charles Williams and his marriage to Joy had changed their relationship. Tolkien lived one more decade, dying in 1973.

Today we remembered their first meeting at oxford as young faculty on this the 11th of May in 1926.

The Last Word for today comes from the tail end of the daily lectionary reading from John 10:

40 Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. There he stayed, 41 and many people came to him. They said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.” 42 And in that place, many believed in Jesus.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 11th of May 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose Hobbit pinball machine doesn’t take coins- just Tolkiens… he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who once sat down at the pub where the Inklings met in Oxford. I had a book and a pint, and then… “Don’t let me get me,” a pop song by Pink, came on the speakers… Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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