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  • Hunter Howe Cates

JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and the Lost Art of Friendship.

Originally published in Grotto on September 22, 2020.



Friendship is in crisis in our culture.


According to a 2019 YouGov poll 30-percent of millennials say they felt lonely, which is more than any other generation. It gets worse. Twenty-two percent say they have zero friends, 27 percent say they have “no close friends” and 30 percent say they have “no best friends.” Twenty-five percent even say they have no acquaintances. 


Remember, this poll was from June 2019, before anyone uttered the words “Covid-19.” The pandemic is only making this worse.


Friendship is good for you, and not in an ethereal, self-help kinda way — friendship literally improves your physical and mental health.


Quality beats quantity. Having one or two close friends beats the blue checkmark on Instagram. Sure, you get that quick dopamine hit when 647 pseudo-strangers “like” your post — but how many of them would be there if you needed a ride to the hospital, someone to talk to after the death of a loved one, or you simply wanted to grab lunch?


We don’t just need more relationships — we need stronger friendships. 


Most so-called friendships disappear not only because of work and life pressures, but because our “friendships” never had a strong foundation to start. You partied in college together. You acted in a play together. You met at a specific time and place, but now that time is over, and your friendship is, too. 


Friendships built on sand cannot stand.


What makes a strong friendship? I suggest a famous friendship that produced some of the world’s best literature: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.


Tolkien and Lewis are the respective creators of the two most famous fantasy worlds (outside of George Lucas’ “galaxy far, far away”) in all of fiction: Middle Earth and Narnia. Yet their friendship took place in their world of the esteemed halls of Oxford.


The academics met in 1926 as members of the Merton College English faculty, and discovered their shared passions for myth, poetry, and storytelling. They also shared the scars of a painful childhood, the terrors of trench warfare during World War I, and the tumultuous blend of elation and disappointment of living as fledgling novelists. Their pasts hurt them. Modern life bored them. Mythology invigorated them — as did each other’s company.


Tolkien invited Lewis to join his “Kolbitars” society in the 1920s — a group that grew to become The Inklings, a fellowship of storytellers and bards who reviewed each other’s literary pursuits at a local pub every Tuesday. While Lewis’ output was prodigious, Tolkien’s was ponderous. The slow and self-critical Tolkien noted that “Lewis was for long my only audience.”


Lewis shared his encouragement with Tolkien, and Tolkien shared his faith with Lewis. Tolkien didn’t simply recite talking points from “Christianity For Dummies” — he respected Lewis too much for that. Tolkien shared his faith through fellowship, intellect, and their mutual love of myth. Tolkien started the conversation, but trusted God to do the rest. 


Lewis’ conversion to Anglicanism, and his subsequent popularity as an “everyman’s theologian” in Tolkien’s words, did bridle the devoutly Catholic Tolkien. Yet Tolkien spearheading Lewis’ conversion from staunch atheist to one of the world’s most famous Christian writers and speakers should serve as inspiration for the deep impact friendships can have on our lives.


Like Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien and Lewis went through the fire and emerged as changed men. Contrary to what we find in the “self-help” section at Barnes & Noble, personal growth is not an exclusively inward journey; it is a journey taken with friends. You may bear the burden alone, but you do not have to carry it alone. 


This is why the lost art of friendship is such a gift. Friendship may be born from common interests, but it grows from mutual respect, compassion, sacrifice, and even love. 


Strong as it was, Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship faded with time, too. There doesn’t appear to have been a formal falling out, but rather a simple parting of ways. This fact doesn’t invalidate their friendship, but paradoxically affirms it, the same way a great myth reveals a deeper truth than plain reality. 


Even if they stopped talking regularly, neither man lost his place in the other’s heart. Tolkien claimed Lewis was his dearest friend from 1927 to 1940, and wrote his daughter that Lewis’ death in 1963 “feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”


We need more friendships like Tolkien and Lewis. Friendships that nurture our bodies, minds, and souls — that inspire us to become better versions of ourselves. But we can also learn from Tolkien and Lewis on what not to do. Don’t let disagreements, differing tastes, or the busyness of life cause your friendships to drift away. For these friendships, rare as they are, are as precious as any relationship you will ever have. 


Pursue them. Cherish them. Protect them.


Because while friendships built on the sandy soil of social media, group texts, and partying will wither away, friendships rooted in the rich soil of shared values, mutual admiration, and fraternal love will withstand the passage of time.

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