Tolkien’s Letters – 113: An Apology to C.S. Lewis


Do me the great generosity of making me a present of the pains I have caused, so that I may share in the good you have put them to. (127)


I love Tolkien’s letters almost as much as his Middle-earth works. In fact, it is probably his letters more than anything that have inspired the creation of this site, for in them I find a dragon’s hoard of wisdom and insight. This is the first post in a series on Tolkien’s letters, in which I will explore the best of the bunch, and gleam whatever insights and quotable snippets I can find.

letters-tolkien-cover
My daily devotional.

If there is anyone who has influenced and inspired me as much as Tolkien, it would be C.S. Lewis. In fact, I had been into Lewis’ works for years before I ever really discovered his buddy Tolkien. It’s a pleasure then to read correspondence between the two, and so the first of Tolkien’s letters that I’ll be exploring is a letter he wrote to C.S. Lewis in 1948. It is Letter #113 in the book.

The Reason for the Letter

  • Criticism Given: Tolkien had apparently caused offense to Lewis in a criticism of his work. It is unclear what work the criticism referred to, although the best assumption is perhaps Lewis’ contribution to the Oxford History of the English Language series (which Tolkien briefly mentions). It is also possible (to my knowledge) that the reference is to early work on the Narnia series, as this letter was written during the period we know Lewis was first working on his classic children’s tales. Of course, that is at best speculation on my part, but wouldn’t it be something?
  • Offense Taken: Whatever the matter, it seems quite clear from the letter that Lewis had taken great offense at some off-handed criticism of his work by Tolkien (whom he respected greatly). Tolkien, seeking to make amends, wrote this letter to Lewis, a letter that is both conciliatory AND brimming with wisdom.

Key Insights

  • The mystery of pain: Though he was merely speaking of hurt feelings, Tolkien nevertheless explores at some length the strange paradox that pain is both a way of evil and a way of good. I wrote elsewhere of his claim that pain is “for the sufferer, an opportunity for good, a path of ascent however hard.” Tolkien viewed pain as having a redemptive twist in Christ. As St. Paul said, “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Tolkien hopes that Lewis can view the pain he feels as an opportunity for even greater good.
  • Tolkien a Maker, not a Critic: Though Tolkien offered criticisms, especially amongst the Inklings, he did not consider himself a critic so much as a “maker.” He mentions this perhaps to downplay the weight and importance of his criticisms, but it is also interesting to note that this was written when The Lord of the Rings was still several years away from publication. “For I have something that I deeply desire to make…” Tolkien’s overwhelming desire to work out his creative vision is palpable.
  • Help from Hopkins: Tolkien quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins as saying that “The only just literary critic is Christ, who admires more than does any man the gifts He Himself has bestowed.” Tolkien even references his own “Leaf By Niggle” to say that it is entirely possible for work that a person has poured their heart and soul into not to amount to anything in this life. This is another witness to the Tolkienian idea of Creative Consolation. We make to enjoy fully when all things are renewed.

Takeaways

  • This letter is a great testament to the deep friendship the two men shared. Only in a very close friendship can two people share an exchange that is both conciliatory AND instructive. Imagine if Tolkien had said some of these things to someone he was not particularly close with: “I’m sorry, and by the way, here’s what I’ve learned, and what you might learn as well.”  When we give offense to someone who is not close, we typically can do no more than simply say “I am sorry.” When it is someone close, the starting point (the apology) has a strange way of deepening our friendship with that person. Greater understanding of the other is achieved.
  • If Tolkien’s desire was to see good come of the pain he’d caused, I’d say this letter is among those good things. The list of quotes below is from this letter alone. I love the notion of Tolkien walking into The Eagle and Child, hearing the roar of laughter from the Rabbit Room, and “plunging in” to the happy world of the Inklings.

Great Quotes

  • No Stoics Here: “Pained we cannot help being by the painful.” (125)
  • A Path of Ascent: “It is one of the mysteries of pain that it is, for the sufferer, an opportunity for good, a path of ascent however hard. But it remains an ‘evil’, and it must dismay any conscience to have caused it carelessly, or in excess, let alone willfully.” (126)
  • Harder to Swallow: “He is a savage physician who coats a not wholly unpalatable pill with a covering of gall!” (126)
  • Tolkien the Maker: “For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make. Without any vanity or exaggerated notion of the universal importance of this, it remains a fact that other things are to me less important.” (126-127)
  • A Gift Tolkien Desired: “And instead of confessing as sinful the natural and inevitable feeling of pain and its reactions (I am sure never unresisted, and immediately), do me the great generosity of making me a present of the pains I have caused, so that I may share in the good you have put them to.” (127)
  • A Strange Power: “But I suppose that it is in our power, as members of Christ, to make such gifts effectively.” (127)
  • All Is Not Lost: “A painter (like Niggle) may work for what the burning of his picture, or an accident of death to the admirer, may wholly destroy. ” (128)
  • An Inkling’s Duty: “But I warn you, if you bore me, I shall take my revenge. (It is an Inkling’s duty to be bored willingly. It is his privilege to be a borer on occasion).” – 128
  • Plunging In: “I know no more pleasant sound than arriving at the Bird and Baby and hearing a roar, and knowing that one can plunge in.” (129)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this letter. Please feel free to comment below.

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