Tolkien and His Friends

By Martina Juričková

Word Count: 1394

Rating: G

Summary: An essay about Professor Tolkien and his friendships.

Image Credit: Donato Giancola

Even though Tolkien disliked a literary work being analyzed in reference to its author’s life, he admitted that “[a]n author cannot…remain wholly unaffected by his experience” (Tolkien, 2011, p. xxii). And since in his life he was known for his “great capacity for making friends” (Carpenter, 2002, p. 50), it is useful to mention some of his friendly relationships in order to give us a better understanding of their significance and how they were reflected in his writings.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his parents moved because of his father (Arthur’s) job. However, when he was three years old his mother, Mabel, took both her sons back to England because of Ronald’s poor health. Unfortunately, while they were staying with Mabel’s family, Arthur got ill and died, so the three of them remained in Birmingham. They lived in Sarehole, a small village at the outskirts of the city.

Ronald’s first friend was his younger brother Hilary, who often accompanied him on his adventures in the neighbourhood that later shaped his image of the Shire and Hobbiton. But as the boys got older, they grew apart in their interests. Hilary did not get on at school as well as his brother. and in his adult years he became a farmer.

In 1905, nearly a year after his mother’s death, at King Edward’s School Ronald met Christopher Wiseman, a boy one year younger. They became friends when they realized that they both shared a love of languages. And in spite of their many differences in religion and family background, their friendship was so strong that they called themselves “the Great Twin Brethren” (Garth, 2003, p. 5). Tolkien even later named his first son after Christopher.

During Tolkien’s last year at King Edward’s, the two set up a literary club named the Tea Club and Barrowian Society, or TCBS. Its other two core members were Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith, similarly bound with them by “friendship to the nth power” (Carpenter, 2006a, p. 10). They felt to be special and their goal was equally great. Through their art they wanted to “re-establish sanity, cleanliness, and the love of real and true beauty in everyone’s breast” and so “leave the world better than they had found it” (Garth, 2003, p. 105).

But their plans were ruined by the outbreak of the World War I, when all of them were sent to the trenches. Luckily for Tolkien, only after few months on the battlefields at Somme, he got trench fever and was removed to a hospital in England. During this time he started writing poetry and pieces of stories that later became The Silmarillion. Some of his poems he sent to his friends who greatly supported him in his writing. They all kept a copy of his poem “Kortirion among the Trees” to delight them in their most desperate times. Smith was especially fond of his writing and urged him to publish. (Garth, 2003) However, by the end of the war Smith and Gilson were dead. This loss was so grievous for Tolkien that he wrote: “I don’t feel a member of a little complete body now” (Carpenter, 2006a, p. 10). And since Wiseman became a teacher after the war, Tolkien remained the only one to carry on and fulfill the dream of the TCBS. (Garth, 2003)

In 1925 Tolkien was elected an Oxford professor, and moved into the university town where he later met Clive Staples Lewis. Although Lewis’s first impression of him was not very good (Tolkien represented everything he had been warned of – a Roman Catholic and a philologist), they later became immensely important to each other. When Tolkien found out that Lewis shared his taste for northern heroic stories, he invited him to his reading club, The Kolbítar, which was devoted to the reading of Old Norse and Icelandic sagas. He even allowed him to read his private epic The Gest of Beren and Lúthien, which Lewis praised. (Carpenter, 2006b)

After the Kolbítar had finished all the major works of Nordic literature, the club disbanded and Tolkien and Lewis joined another one named the Inklings. It was originally founded by an undergraduate student, but when he left, it centered on Lewis and his friends. As Tolkien noted, the name was a jest with a twofold meaning. First, it implied a group of people who enjoyed the same kind of literature; and second, those who used ink for writing. (ibid.) However, a third meaning can be recognized: a bunch of friends drawn to each other.

The regular members of the Inklings were Tolkien, Lewis, Lewis’s brother Warren, and later Charles Williams, but it was often attended also by Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, Nevill Coghill, and some others. They used to meet twice a week—on Tuesdays at the Eagle and Child’s pub and on Thursdays at Lewis’s college rooms in Magdalen. They usually read parts of their current writing, and the others commented on it. The Inklings were actually the first to hear almost the whole The Lord of the Rings before its publication. When it was finally published, Tolkien dedicated the first edition “To the Inklings” (Duriez, 2003, p. 140).

By this time, Lewis had become a very close friend of Tolkien and a primary source of his encouragement. He helped him to promote his new curriculum for teaching English language and literature at Oxford. On the other hand, Tolkien played a major part in Lewis’ return to Christianity and even persuaded him to take a professorship at Cambridge. It can be said that without Tolkien, Lewis would never have become known as a story writer and Christian defender; and without Lewis, Tolkien would probably never have finished his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, which Lewis appreciatively reviewed several times. In turn, he dedicated his The Screwtape Letters to Tolkien (Duriez, 2003, p. 194).

But in the late 1940s, their friendship started to cool down. This was caused partially by the appearance of Charles Williams at Oxford, of whom Lewis was very fond. Tolkien was slightly jealous of their relationship. Actually, Lewis never regarded Tolkien as close a friend as Tolkien regarded Lewis. Lewis only considered him to be a friend “of the second class” (Carpenter, 2006b, p. 33). Another reason for their separation was Lewis’s marriage with an American divorcee, to which neither of Lewis’s friends was invited. Tolkien was told about it only some time afterward. (White, 2001)

Nevertheless, Tolkien still valued him and appreciated his friendship. When Lewis suddenly died in 1963, it was as grievous a loss for him as that of his former friends in the trenches. To his daughter he wrote: “this feels like an axe-blow near the roots” of an old tree already losing its leaves (Carpenter, 2006a, p. 341). And even after four years he still found it difficult to realize that Lewis was dead (Duriez, 2003, p. 170).

After the death of his wife, Tolkien spent his last years in Oxford trying to finish The Silmarillion. He still had many friends that often met with him, and in spite of his growing health problems, he was still a faithful pen friend to many more, as the collection of the writer’s letters declares. He traveled to Evesham to see his brother, Hilary. In their old age they became close again, enjoying the countryside. Tolkien also revisited his old friend Christopher Wiseman. Remembering their youth, they might have recalled even Christopher’s almost visionary words as he once wrote to Tolkien: “I am convinced that if you do come out in print you will startle our generation as no one has yet … I am afraid that they [Tolkien’s writings] will kill the dear old XIXth Century altogether” (Garth, 2003, p. 208). Tolkien died in September 1973, aged eighty-one, after a visit and a celebration of his friend (and doctor)’s birthday. (Carpenter, 2002, p. 340)



Carpenter, H., J.R.R Tolkien: A Biography, 2002

Carpenter, H. (ed.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 2006a

Carpenter, H., The Inklings, 2006b

Duriez, C., Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, 2003

Garth, J., Tolkien and the Great War, 2003

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings, 2011

White, M., Tolkien: A Biography, 2001

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