Dangerous Friendships

By Scott Keith


I recently finished the C. S. Lewis biography authored by Alister McGrath entitled, C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. I highly recommend it. Over the weekend, I also attended The Great Conversation (TCG) C. S. Lewis symposium. At the symposium, Diana Pavlac Glyer, professor of English at Azusa Pacific University gave a talk on the influence of the Inklings on the thought of C. S. Lewis. I am struck by the extent to which great writers like Lewis and Tolkien seemed to use what McGrath calls, “midwives” when writing their great works. Or as Glyer put it, “We all need dangerous friends.”

Many of you may not be familiar with the Inklings. The Inklings were an informal literary circle in Oxford that began meeting in the early 1930s and continued until the late 1940s. The core of the group consisted of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The group took particular pleasure in listening to one another read their works, which were in progress, aloud. Lewis and Tolkien invited other well-known, and not so well known, authors to join them for informal, convivial meetings in Oxford pubs, later adding evening gatherings to read their works aloud, receiving both praise and candid criticism. Gradually, the schedule of Inklings’ meetings became regularized, so they generally met on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child pub (which they called the “Bird and Baby” or just the “Bird”) and at Lewis’s study rooms in the college where he was an Oxford Don, Magdalen College, on Thursday evenings. At the pub they smoked their pipes, drank, and had good food almost like hobbits. While they sat in the bar, they talked about language and literature. Others in the group included Owen Barfield, Warren Lewis, Nevill Coghill, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams.

As it is described by those in the know, the Inklings were not afraid to mix it up a bit. These men were not all alike. Lewis was brash and boisterous. Tolkien seems to have been more reserved and introspective. They did not agree on many things. Tolkien is said to have believed that Lewis’s use of allegory in his Ransom Trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia, was perhaps too obvious. In fact, they often disagreed on issues of morality. McGrath explains that Tolkien believed that Lewis’s view concerning civil marriage was against the teaching of the church. Thus, the evidence points to the fact that Tolkien disapproved of Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman.

eagle and child

Yet despite these differences, they still met. They took the time to meet because friendship, creativity, and debate are important. They acknowledged that friendship, especially male friendship, does not work when it is focused on the other friend. Friends, as Lewis says in The Four Loves walk along side each other and cast their gaze, together, at something else; something outside themselves. In our current cultural milieu, this is a dangerous idea. When we cast our gaze on something else, some other topic, some other work, or some other concept, we open ourselves to the possibility of disagreement. Conversations between real friends are dangerous in that while friends walk along side one another, their time is often spent in heated debate about the object of their conversation.

I think we need to regain some of these dangerous friendships. We need friendships like what Lewis and Tolkien shared. A friendship of this kind is defined by two people––at least two people––taking the initiative and making the time to share, care, and listen to the ideas of the other. This listening will then often turn into examination and critique of the ideas being proposed. Examination and critique will in due time result in debate over the ideas. In the debate is where the danger arises, but it is also where we experience iron sharpening iron. As the Proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”


In order to accomplish this, we need friends who are not like us, at least not totally like us. In order to be a midwife to an idea or a work for another, the idea and work cannot be what we would have produced ourselves. Recent data suggests that our brains actually grow when we are paired in creative enterprise with another person. When we converse and create together, we become better.

I think it can be argued, and I am not alone, that the Inklings were effective as a group because of their intellectual and personality differences. As Lewis explains in, An Experiment in Criticism, there is not one person among us who holds all of the great ideas. The creative process seems to demand that we develop friendships with people who are not like us; that we be hungry for rational opposition. This rational opposition forms the basis of what Glyer coined “intellectual hospitality,” which in turn builds the foundation of great friendships.

Glyer began her paper by saying, “If you want to be like Lewis, you need a little more Tolkien in your life.” Though the two men were friends, they did have a falling out of sorts in the late 1940s. To my way of thinking, this only shows that they were both sinners, not that they were not friends. The proof of their enduring mutual friendship and respect comes late. In 1961, long after the Inklings had been disbanded, Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his benchmark work, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien did not win the prize, but Lewis’s nomination of his friend shows that he never lost respect for his friend, nor his sense of intellectual hospitality.

I would like to be more like Lewis. Therefore, I think I need a little more Tolkien in my life. Any takers?

We have several books dealing with Lewis and Tolkien and there literary endeavors at 1517legacy.com. Check them out here.