C.S. Lewis wrote, “You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher, or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him.”
As an educator at a brick-and-mortar Christian university, I have contemplated whether an education at BJU is worth the financial investment. Community colleges are cheaper. Online education is more convenient. One profound advantage that an education at BJU offers is a chance for like-minded believers to build iron-sharpening-iron relationships at a crucial time in their lives. These are friends that students can face challenges with, debate ideas with, and pray with — college friendships often last lifetimes. How valuable are these friendships established at a Christian university?
Early School Friendships of Lewis and Tolkien
The life and writing of famed authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis assess the idea of friendship. Both men fought in World War I, narrowly escaped with their lives, and had close friends who did not return from the battlefield. As a teenager at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, Tolkien and three friends founded a club called T.C.B.S. (Tea Club, Barravian Society) to discuss art and writing. Of this fellowship of four, only two eventually survived the trenches of France. Tolkien later wrote that the loss of these two companions led to “a lifelong sadness.”
Lewis lost several friends in the Great War, including Paddy Moore and Laurence Johnson. Lewis promised to take care of his mother and sister if anything was to happen Moore, a duty which Lewis fulfilled for over 30 years following the war. Lewis wrote of Johnson’s death, “Nearly all my friends in the Battalion are gone. … I had hoped to meet [Johnson] at Oxford some day, and renew the endless talks that we had out there. … I had had him so often in my thoughts, had so often hit on some new point in one of our arguments, and made a note of things in my reading to tell him when we met again, that I can hardly believe he is dead.”
The University Friendship of Lewis and Tolkien
In 1926, while they were processing the ruin and wreckage of war that stole these dear friends, Lewis and Tolkien met at an Oxford faculty meeting. Both men shared similar moral and spiritual conflict as they found themselves out of step with the philosophical culture of Oxford and bonded over a shared love for mythology. In 1931, a conversation with Tolkien on Addison’s Walk directly led to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.
These two friends were the most influential members of an informal literary circle founded to discuss mythology and Christianity called the Inklings (named for those who dabbled in ink). The Inklings met in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College and in Oxford public houses, most notable the Eagle and Child, where they read aloud their newly-penned creative works in progress. These makeshift writing workshops offered both scathing critiques and enabling encouragement. Interestingly, Tolkien hated the idea of Narnia after Lewis read the first three chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at an Inklings gathering, later stating that Lewis’ attempt at Christian allegory was “bad as bad can be.”
On the other hand, it was out of these discussions and this friendship that directly encouraged the writing of The Lord of the Rings, often considered the greatest fictional work of the 20th Century. In a letter to a friend, Tolkien wrote, “The unpayable debt that I owe to (Lewis) was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood but sheer encouragement … he was for long my only audience. … Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion.”
In Four Loves, Lewis describes the nature of the Greek word phileo, “Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’.”
Illustrations of Friendship in Writings
Lewis and Tolkien commentate on the idea of friendship throughout their fiction. In The Fellowship of Ring, Frodo unsuccessfully attempts to slip away from his three traveling companies as he embarks on the perilous journey to destroy the One Ring. Merry reprimands Frodo for facing this challenge alone, “You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours — closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”
At the end of the quest, as Frodo collapses from the exhausting burden of carrying the ring, his friend Samwise Gamgee is unwilling to leave his side. “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.” When Frodo stumbles, unable to continue, his friend carries him.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis narrates an unlikely friendship between a dragon and a mouse. The two are at odds when the whiny, insufferable Eustice Scrubb and the noble-hearted, courageous mouse, Reepicheep, first meet. After being temporarily transformed into a dragon, Eustice’s acts of sympathy and heroism endears him to the mouse. Eventually, Reepicheep leaves for Aslan’s country and bids farewell to Eustace, “What a magnificent puzzle you are, and a true hero. It was been my honour to fight beside such a brave warrior and a great friend.”
Lewis and Tolkien’s indebtedness for their friendship constantly seeped into their masterpieces, and the more I read, the more I share their views. I look back at my 18th year of life when I was scared to death and faced my own challenges, struggle, and trenches. As I entered a campus a thousand miles from home, I yearned to intimately know the Grand Designer who uniquely crafted me as I tried to make sense of who I was and the paths He designed I take. I thank Him for those friends that shared this journey with me. For Jamie, who gallivanted around the globe with me and shed tears by my side. For Chris, whose end-of-the-day choir rehearsal antics were legendary. For Joe, who devised our awkward plans for how we were going to ask girls to Artist Series from our smelly first-floor room in Johnson. For Hasmig, who had a way of talking me into doing things I didn’t have time to do for Student Leadership Council. For Josh, who battled beside me through fourth semester Greek by sheer will power. These and many others are the friends God gave me during this formidable time. These and many others are my friends to this day.
May the hallowed halls of both classroom and residence buildings still foster these bonds. From what I can see from my faculty viewpoint, these iron-sharpening-iron relationships are still being forged at today’s BJU.
Dr. Radford leads a study abroad course to the United Kingdom. The class discusses the life and writing of Lewis and Tolkien in locations significant to the course material.