“[His] father had taught him to absorb doubt and disbelief into his beliefs.”
This statement from the book, Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter, is spoken of Charles Williams, who was a regular participant in the informal discussion group, the Inklings, formed by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien at the University of Oxford, England. The group met at various times in Lewis’s classroom and a local pub from the late 1930’s to 1949. Charles Williams was an early member of the group and continued as a regular until his death in 1945. Williams grew up “a devout churchman” but was encouraged by his father “to appreciate the force of atheistic rationalism and to admire such men as Voltaire and Tom Paine”.
Lewis, of course, was an atheist when he arrived and began teaching at Oxford. His journey from materialism to agnosticism to Christian theism is chronicled in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Tolkien was already a Christian when Lewis joined him as a professor at Oxford, and Tolkien influenced Lewis in his transition to Christianity. Williams came along later. These men were attracted to each other as much by their love of language, literature and poetry as their faith, though their views on literature and faith often diverged sharply.
These three men, and others who joined them, were powerhouses of thought and creativity. CS Lewis, of course, wrote many books from fiction to philosophy. JRR Tolkien wrote, perhaps, the greatest mythological series of the 20th century in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Charles Williams, though lesser known, was a prolific writer, literary critic, publisher and student of English literature who could recite hundreds of passages from sheer memory.
They influenced each other, despite their very distinct differences, and their collective influence has been felt by generations from their day to ours. They were Christian men, believing very authentically in the Bible as scripture, but they were also fierce academics who held their faith up to the rigors of intellectual exercise.
Are myths fiction? The stories they tell aren’t true. Are they, therefore, lies? Are they worthless? Nothing but “beautiful lies”? Nothing but fairy tales?
These are the questions posed by one man playing J.R.R. Tolkien to his counterpart playing C.S. Lewis in a fictional conversation between the two men: Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies (embedded at the end of the article).
This interplay, while fictional, is intended to capture the essence of the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien as Lewis was transitioning from the materialism he embraced as a young man to theism. At this point, he is wrestling with doubts that were rising in his mind about the truth of that materialist world view. He was becoming convinced his previous conclusions no longer made sense.
Lewis had been raised on a diet of classical Greek and Latin literature that he learned to read in the original languages. He read these classics along with Celtic, German and other literature filled with myth, allegory and symbolism. The literature captured his imagination as a child and young adult.
As he got older, he embraced materialism, but that materialism eventually clashed with a profound undercurrent of something “real” that appealed to him in that ancient literature. The reality Lewis was confronting might, perhaps, be considered nothing more than a love of art, beauty, poetry and love itself that the materialist enjoys in common with more metaphysically minded men.
But it raises some existential questions: Is matter and energy all that exists? What of the sublime reality we all intuitively “know” and sense in classic, timeless literature and art?
Tolkien’s response to Lewis’s existential angst is the subject of this article. The substance of it continues to resonate and illuminate such modern thinkers as Jordan Peterson, whose thoughts on the same subject are contained (briefly) in a short video embedded at the end.
Meanwhile, I have done a transcript of the fictional reimagining of the Tolkien and Lewis discourse to follow:
Some of the great breakthrough realizations in human history are that the earth is not flat, that the earth is round and rotating, that the Sun does not revolve around the earth, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and the earth along with other round bodies in space rotate around each other kept in correlation with each other by gravitational pull. These realities are different than the appearances.
We appear to be standing on a stationary earth that, for all we can see, is flat. The Sun appears to rise, cross the sky and set every day. It is no great leap to understand that the sun might move around the earth, though the perception of a flat earth persisted into modern times. The moon seems to move around the earth in the same way the sun seems to move around the earth, but one does move around the earth and the other doesn’t.
Although we have known the realities for centuries, we still talk in terms of the appearances. We talk about the Sun rising and setting. We describe the phenomena as sunrise and sunset. Someone unfamiliar with our colloquialisms might hear us speak and think that we are ignorant of the truth.
The appearances have a strong hold on us. So strong that they persist in our language and how we describe things on a day to day basis. Those appearances stubbornly refuse to leave our everyday speaking patterns.