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Tolkien and Lewis on Addison's Walk: Reverberating Footsteps

Image of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on Addison's Walk at Oxford, 1931
"Tolkien and Lewis: Addison's Walk, 1931" - painted by Miriam Ellis

Only J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could ever truly know the full contents of their friendship, yet the footsteps of these 20th century giants on the road they traveled together have left us with such powerful ecumenical echoes, we seem to be listening at the border of Faërie, where anything might happen. Anything. Perhaps a hobbit will come dancing through the water meadow on our right, singing to himself like Pippin Took. Perhaps Mr. Tumnus is playing his flute while he waits under a lamppost on Magdalen Bridge, just beyond. And perhaps we of the 21st century might even hope to see a healing of the Catholic/Anglican division which, so far as I know, has never brought joy to anyone.

I set out to paint this dual portrait of young Tollers and Jack on Addison's Walk in Oxford as a Lenten devotion because these two men have been so much on my mind. I was brought up on both authors, but it's only as an adult that I began to study Tolkien's Catholicism and much more recently, the story of Lewis' journey home to Christianity. I've felt deeply called to contemplation of their friendship at a time when members of both religions were culturally discouraged from mixing, and of how much the poorer the world would be had not these two men bridged the historic divide. What would we be missing?

Painting of Bilbo and Gandalf at Bag End
"Not the Wandering Wizard" - Miriam Ellis

Wind Knocked Out!

We might never have gotten Tolkien's "fundamentally Catholic" The Lord of the Rings without Lewis.

“The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not influence but sheer encouragement,” Tolkien wrote. “He was for long my only audience.”

Sketch of Alsan and Lucy by Miriam Ellis
Study of Alsan & Lucy - Miriam Ellis

We might never have been to Narnia, or have had the treasury of theological works penned by Lewis had not Tolkien's Catholicism contributed to his friend re-embracing the religion he'd abandoned in his early youth.

True fans may experience something akin to having the wind knocked out of us at the thought that of a life without a wardrobe and Aslan, without The Shire and Gandalf, without Pevensies and Bagginses...a disenchanted existence! That loss of wind, that breathlessness, that stillness which fills the vacuum when love and fellowship are stifled are alien to such as us.

Wind in the Leaves

On that autumn night in 1931, the great wind came for Jack, spilling leaves all over him on Addison's Walk as he and Tolkien and another friend called Hugo Dyson were spending an evening together deep in talk about myth and Christianity. So many leaves, Lewis thought for a moment that it was raining. Within a short time of this memorable walk, Lewis would fully embrace his faith while riding in a motorcycle sidecar on a trip to a zoo with his brother. Anything can happen!

The two men depicted on Addison's walk are young fellows still. Tolkien is in his late 30s and has yet to publish The Hobbit, though he's been working on his mythology for years and has been a "servant of the Secret Fire" since his mother's conversion to Catholicism.

For Lewis, in his early 30s, the lamppost of Narnia is still two decades away. He will have to encourage England through WWII via radio first, and write installments for The Guardian, and become an Honorary Doctor of Divinity at the University of Saint Andrews.

But both men will get there, in part, because they were willing to cross that Reformation-era bridge that had led to nothing but centuries of war, suffering and disunion. Lewis remarked,

"At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both."

Photo of J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien

As for Tolkien, he was been brought up by Cardinal Newman's personal secretary, Father Francis Morgan, as is detailed so meticulously in Holly Ordway's book, Tolkien's Faith. Ordway suggests that the Oratorians' unusual spirit of good humor and ecumenism could have helped Tolkien develop the view that Christianity of all kinds was the result of grace and could lead to more graces. Nevertheless, the England Tolkien lovingly wrote his mythology for was a hostile and bigoted place for Catholics and his mother's conversion had cost her the support of her family. This could have left Tolkien very bitter towards all Anglicans.

Despite such obstacles, the interfaith Inklings were formed to discuss writing and Tolkien and Lewis became friends for life. We know that trees mattered a great deal to both men, and there is a familiar quotation from the Gospel of Matthew which says you will know trees by the fruit they bear. The Tollers-Jack tree bore exceptional fruit in their own lifetimes, and remarkably, its seeds seem to flourish again and again for successive generations who find exactly what they've been searching for in Middle-earth and Narnia.

Winds of Change?

It may be no more than the effect of my only recently learning a great deal more about the life of C.S. Lewis, but I am beginning to think the Tollers-Jack tree may have yet to yield up its best fruit. Some very strange things are afoot in our age. Consider:

Boundary-crossings like just these few examples would have been most unusual in the 1930s and some still have the power to surprise nearly a century later. They might even fall under the category of "signs and wonders", when you consider just how frozen and bloody the situation was in Ireland only decades ago and how truly awful the violence in the name of religion was in England from Henry VIII to the Regency, under both Catholic and Protestant rule.

Just suppose an echo from the footsteps on Addison's Walk is sounding loud enough to drown out the Catholic/Anglican division for the irreligious thing it is. My father, Stephen Ellis, is a retired Catholic deacon, and he has often preached that the central message of Christianity is found in Christ's teaching when his followers ask him what the most important Commandments are. We'll look at The Jerusalem Bible (which Tolkien contributed to) for this quote from Matthew:

"You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it. You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets also."

You can't love God and hate the people He created, nor can you make war or discriminate against your neighbor while loving them. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have struggled terribly and continue to struggle mightily with this most central teaching of our founder, but perhaps, if we crossed the bridge like Lewis and Tolkien managed to do, our embrace of one another would soon embrace the whole world and every single one of God's own creatures. Who knows what the world has missed and may miss because we are apart? I don't know how a reunion would work. I expect it would require more graces.

I think of that wind that blew the leaves down on the two dear young geniuses and I hear the rustle of the Holy Spirit. I think of all the films I have been watching over Lent, like an old favorite of Tolkien's "The Song of Bernadette" and the new masterpiece about Lewis, "The Most Reluctant Convert" and all the homemade videos of Christians of all "labels" eagerly talking about the works of both men; the rustling of the wind grows louder and warmer in my heart. It is a good feeling, a fruit of a good tree, a sign of hope. Who ever expected Aslan to rise up from the Stone Table or the Eagles to rescue the hobbits from Mount Doom?Anything can happen.

I'd like to close with this contemplative video which I hope will give a quiet minute to all Tolkien and Lewis fans to reflect on how much these two men mean to us, and perhaps, how we might carry on their work in our own times and places.


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