J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had one of the great friendships of the 20th century. Tolkien played a key role in Lewis’ conversion, without which we never would have had “The Chronicles of Narnia.” In turn, Tolkien testified that, without Lewis, he would never have completed or published “The Lord of the Rings.”
A key element of friendship between the two was their mutual dissatisfaction with modern thought, especially its tendency to reduce knowledge to what is measurable and deny the value of other aspects of human flourishing (such as religion). They wanted to challenge modernity and fashion an alternative, and knew that it would require a rehabilitation of the Christian imagination.
But the best way to strengthen the imagination is to exercise it, not just talk about it. So they created worlds — Narnia for Lewis, and Middle Earth for Tolkien — in which certain Gospel truths could be perceived more clearly. They shared those worlds with us, with the conviction that the Gospel would be better grasped and more deeply lived if it penetrated our imaginations. Unlike many of today’s fantasies, however, their purpose in creating these worlds was not to help us escape ours, but to teach us how to live more deeply in it.
Friendship doesn’t require sameness, and Lewis and Tolkien were hardly the same. When they first met, Lewis was an atheist and a bachelor, and Tolkien was a devout Catholic and family man. Even after Lewis’ conversion they had different personalities and preferences. Lewis was boisterous and Tolkien quieter. Lewis favored allegory and Tolkien did not. Tolkien even disapproved of Lewis as a popular theologian. But their friendship was deep, despite these differences. For more than a decade they met twice a week, for hours at a time, listening to each other’s stories, and encouraging each other’s projects.
I draw our attention to Tolkien and Lewis with the conviction that one of the major tasks of our day is to help the Gospel shape people’s imagination. There are many ways to do that. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” does it. Michelangelo’s Pieta and Sistine Chapel do it. The musical theater of “Les Miserables” does it. The architecture of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis does it.
Painting. Music. Theater. Retreats. Architecture. Baking. Gardening. Hospitality. Family life and friendship. Each has its own way of letting God’s love penetrate the imagination, so that people can say: “Oh, I know what God’s love looks like!” Having images makes it easier to believe, and easier to persevere when times are hard.
Lewis wrote that lovers are usually imagined face to face, focused on each other, while friends are best imagined side by side, focused on a common interest. Lewis and Tolkien were friends in that sense, focused on a common project we might call “imaginative orthodoxy.” Their friendship gave birth to great stories that continue to open people’s imagination to the Gospel. May God bless us with friendships and creativity like theirs!