A Friendship that Transforms: The Inklings

As I continue my series, New Year; New Types of Friends, I’ll move into examples of friendships in literature. From what is considered the first modern novel, the 1605 tome, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, to John Steinbeck’s 1937’s book Of Mice and Men, many of the best-loved works of fiction in history feature stories about friendships that help transform the main characters. More recent literary giants such as Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, and even cartoonist Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame (yes, even comics are considered literature!) have added great works about friendships. 

So let’s start this next subset of friendships from literature, with two authors, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who sharpened their viewpoints and deepened their friendship in a discussion group called The Inklings.

About C.S. Lewis 

Clive Staples Lewis (born November 29, 1898; died November 22, 1963) was a British writer and Anglican lay theologian. He held academic positions in English literature at both Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954–1963). He is best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven children’s books that are the classics in fantasy literature. Lewis also wrote other works of fiction, such as The Screwtape Letters and The Space Trilogy, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, including Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. His book, The Four Loves, rhetorically explains four categories of love: friendship, eros, affection, and charity which are critical to understanding all relationships.

During the outbreak of the Second World War, Lewis spoke from London on religious broadcasts by the BBC while the city was under periodic air raids. In the introduction to his first talk on January 11, 1942, Lewis explained that he was asked to speak from a layperson’s point of view to encourage civilians and servicemen. Fortunately, Lewis knew his theology and his church history. He also consulted clergy from a variety of denominations before delivering these talks. The broadcasts were later anthologized into Mere Christianity

His Early Beliefs

C.S. Lewis was raised in a religious Protestant family that attended the Church of Ireland. When his dog ‘Jacksie’ was killed by a car, the four-year-old Lewis adopted the same name that he later shortened to ‘Jack’ as he was known to friends and family.

According to Diana Glyer on the official C.S. Lewis website, Jack’s entire life was marked by sustaining friendship. He was very close to his older brother, Warren (nicknamed “Warnie’) and the two wrote and illustrated stories with maps and watercolors. Later, he became good friends with Arthur Greeves, a neighbor, with whom he shared boyhood secrets and favorite books. Each friendship transformed Lewis. 

Lewis was schooled by private tutors until age nine when his mother died in 1908 from cancer. His father then sent him to England to live and study at Wynyard School in Watford, Hertfordshire where Warnie had enrolled three years earlier. Not long after, the school closed due to a lack of pupils. Later, Jack attended the preparatory school Cherbourg House, where he abandoned the Christianity taught to him as a child to become an atheist at age 15. His early separation from Christianity began when he started to view his religion as a chore and a duty. During this time, he also developed a fascination with European mythology. He also gained an interest in the occult, as his studies expanded to include such topics. 

Later in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Jack described his young self as being “very angry with God for not existing” and “equally angry with him for creating a world”.

About J.R.R. Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (January 3, 1892 – September 2, 1973) was an English writer, poet, and academic, best known as the author of the high fantasy works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, although his family had once been Baptists. From 1925 to 1945, he was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and a Fellow of Pembroke College at the University of Oxford. He then became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and Fellow of Merton College, positions at Oxford he held from 1945 until his retirement in 1959. 

According to this article, Tolkien had always loved friendship and relationships. Having lost his father and his mother at a young age and two of his three closest friends to war, he knew how precious yet fragile friendship was in a world of sorrows. He not only held onto friendships for dear life, but he also incorporated them into every aspect of his literary mythology. Friendship was a central feature, not a quirk as some feel, in Tolkien’s stories.

After his death, Tolkien’s son Christopher published a series of works based on his father’s extensive notes and unpublished manuscripts, including The Silmarillion. Together with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, these connected bodies of tales, poems, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays described a fantasy world called Arda and, within it, Middle-earth. The great success of these books led directly to a resurgence of the genre. Today, Tolkien is popularly identified as the “father” of modern fantasy literature. 

An Inkling of Their Friendship

C.S. Lewis began his academic career as an undergraduate student at Oxford University, where he became a prolific writer. There, he met the bright young linguist, Tolkien with whom he discovered common ground in Norse mythology. They greatly enjoyed each other’s company and cultivated a habit of meeting on Monday mornings for beer and critiques of their poetry. As Jack wrote in one of his letters: “It has also become the custom for Tolkien to drop in on me of a Monday morning for a glass. This is one of the pleasantest spots in the week. Sometimes we talk English school politics: sometimes we criticize one another’s poems: other days we drift into theology or the state of the nation; rarely we fly no higher than bawdy and puns.”

Over time, these literary critiques proved to be so interesting and useful that the two invited other writers to join them. The group just kept growing. Eventually, a total of 19 men became members of an informal discussion society known as the “Inklings.” Among the most well-known members are Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, Warnie Lewis (Jack’s elder brother), Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R.’s son), and Charles Williams, among others. The group met weekly for 17 years between the early 1930s and late 1949.

Sharpening Their Thoughts 

I wrote in my early post Men “Sharpen” Men, that one of my favorite Bible verses is Proverbs 27:17 which states “As iron sharpens iron, one man shall sharpen another.” This was certainly the case for Lewis and Tolkien. 

Members of The Inklings brought rough drafts of works in progress to their meetings. They read them aloud, heard the honest critiques, and revised their work in response. Their meetings moved from Monday mornings to Thursday nights with members arriving around 9:00 or 9:30, or even later. The ritual of an Inklings meeting was unvarying. When half a dozen or so arrived, cups of tea were poured, pipes lit, and Jack would say, ‘well has nobody got anything to read us?’”

These writers had different outlooks, competing interests, contrasting backgrounds, and varied Christian traditions—but found common ground. As Lewis once explained: “Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendship springs up—painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophizing, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. Friends look in the same direction.”

A stranger becomes a friend, said Lewis, when we “fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him.” He also mused, “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?” He added, “What I owe to them all is incalculable.”

From Atheist to Christian

At age seventeen, Lewis wrote to longtime friend Arthur Greeves, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.” But things changed for Lewis well before he wrote Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings.

According to an article by Joseph Loconte, an argument between the two ranks as one of the most important conversations in literary history.

On September 19, 1931, Jack Lewis engaged his friends Dyson and Tolkien on a walk along Addison’s Walk, a wooded footpath near the River Cherwell near Magdalen College. Their discussion centered on the meaning of myth in the human experience with Tolkien insisting that the stories of Christ’s death and resurrection work in a person’s imagination the same way as other myths. However, there is one big difference: It really happened! 

Tolkien felt myths were God’s way of preparing the ground for the Christian story. Dyson showed how Christianity worked for the believer, liberating him from sin and helping him to become a better person. Lewis’ stubborn arguments for atheism were demolished.

Lewis embraced Christianity, albeit reluctantly. The faith of his friends, who seemed too pragmatic to fall for myth, piqued his interest. He read the Gospels and thought the writers were too unimaginative to have made the whole thing up. The accounts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and Resurrection were truly believable.

Eventually, the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien led to their writing of some of the most convincing stories on Christianity in history. Their books have impacted young readers for generations.

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C.S. Lewis once called himself a “most reluctant convert” to the Christian faith. He had weighed all the world-views himself and eventually found them wanting. If not for the Inklings, C.S. Lewis might not have transformed his views and returned to Christianity. He fully recognized that commitment to his faith would be a life-changing event. It was not just a casual decision about where to spend Sunday mornings. Lewis realized his friendship with Tolkien had transformed his heart, mind, and soul.

Do you have this same kind of friendship that will sharpen your viewpoints and transform you into a more godly man?

My next post continues with the friendship of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.


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