Friday, April 22, 2022

The Fellowship of Ron and Jack

 Ron and Jack did not like each other when they first met.

But their stories were more alike than they realized.

Both were orphans.  Ron and his brother lost their father very young.  Ron's mother fell into poverty and sent her sons to live with relatives in South Africa while she worked herself to death back in England.  Jack lost his mother to cancer when he was a child.  This caused him and his older brother to stray away from their faith.

Both loved stories of fantasy.  Ron had a love of all things Anglo-Saxon and grieved at the lost mythology caused by the Norman invasion.  Jack was particularly fond of Norse Mythology.  He and his best friend from childhood, Arthur, became close over their shared obsession.

Both fought in World War I and lost friends.  Ron had a small group of pals that called themselves the "Tea Cup, Barovian Society."  Almost all of them died except Ron and his friend Christopher.  During basic training, Jack became friends with fellow soldier Paddy Moore.  Both made a pact that if one died and the other didn't that the survivor would take care of the other's parent.  Jack made it back.  Paddy didn't.

Both pursued a life of academics.  Ron was a genius at languages and philology.  He achieved the title of "Professor," which is one of remarkable prestige, at the relatively young age of 33.  He specialized in Anglo-Saxon.  Jack had a love of literature.  Nowadays, this is a common pursuit at university English departments, but in his day it was considered spurious.  But he eventually was able to find a place teaching at the same university as Ron.  

It was at this English Faculty Department meeting on May 11th, 1926 that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien first met "Jack" Clive Staples Lewis.

And as I said, they did not seem to like each other.

I find this tends to be the case with people who have strong personalities.  In their own ways, they were strong-willed and precocious.  Though Jack published his books under "CS Lewis," none of his friends called him Clive, a name he detested from his earliest days.  When he was four-years-old, he walked up to his mother and father and declared that he would no longer answer to the name "Clive" but would only be called Jack or variations of this.  I'm sure many of us have made defiant declarations like this at that age, but Jack stuck with it until the end of his days.

When Ron was 16, he fell in love with a 19-year-old fellow orphan named Edith.  Born illegitimately and living in the same boarding house, she attracted him and the two became very close.  But Ron's guardian forbade him to marry her until he became a legal adult at 21.  Edith moved away and eventually became engaged to another man.  But at midnight on his 21st birthday, Ron sent a letter to Edith declaring his love and his desire to marry her.  She broke off her engagement and soon married Ron.  They were together for the rest of her life.

On the night Ron and Jack first met, things did not go well.  Alan Jacobs describes the meeting in his wonderful book The Narnian and Jack himself makes mention of it in his diary and autobiography.  In Surprised by Joy. Lewis writes, "At my first coming into the world, I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist [i.e. Catholic], and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist [i.e. someone who studies the history of language]. Tolkien was both."

Ron was only six years older than Jack, but he had already achieved an incredible level of success and prominence that Jack was only hoping to attain.  Perhaps there was a bit of jealousy on Jack's part.  Ron didn't help himself in this matter.  As Jacobs points out, Ron never really learned the art of tact.  He was by some accounts a prickly personality.  He could be incredibly warm, especially to his friends, but to others he could appear standoffish.  He told Jack that the literature side of English was rubbish and shouldn't be taught at Oxford, thus dismissing Jack's entire field.  In his diary entry that night, Jack wrote of Tolkien, "He is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap... No harm in him: only needs a smack or so."

I don't think either of them knew how important this meeting would be and how it would change the imaginative and spiritual lives of millions around the world for decades to come.

When I was a child, I loved CS Lewis.  I read all of The Chronicles of Narnia multiple times in grade school.  In fact, I would make it a point of pride to find the book series in my school library, check to make sure they were arranged in the proper order on the shelves, and then make them pop out from the rest of the books.

In junior high, a teacher lent me a copy of The Hobbit.  After I read it, she proceeded to give me copies of each part of The Lord of the Rings.  The trilogy was much harder to read than Narnia or The Hobbit, but I could feel how I was being taken up into a larger world.  Narnia and Middle-Earth loomed large in my imagination.  These were worlds of epic adventure, astounding magic, and selfless heroism.  It wasn't until I was doing research for a project in high school that I first learned that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were friends.  The revelation of this blew my mind.  

It wasn't until much later that I realized how special this friendship was.

Ron was a devout Roman Catholic.  On their first meeting Jack was an atheist.  In addition to this, Jack was burdened with an anti-Catholic prejudice that he never fully overcame in his life.  Even their teaching styles were different.  Ron would write out his lectures and recite them word-for-word in class, taking no digressions.  Jack, with his booming voice, would engage in lively discussion and debate with his students.  Their differences were incredibly pronounced.  But the funny thing about friendship is that it isn't like romance.  The attraction between two friends rarely begins by an attraction to each other.  Instead, friendships often form by a mutual attraction to something else.

For Ron and Jack, it was Norse Mythology, just as it was with Jack and Arthur.  Ron started a club called the "Kolbitar," meaning "The Coal Biters."  This is an old Norse expression for those who would stay up all night until they would talk by the burning coals of the fire.  The purpose of the club was to explore the old Norse myths in their original language.  Since Jack had a lack of expertise in the language and Ron did, Jack jumped at the chance to join.  

And as often happens with a blooming friendship, they found that they could talk about more than just Thor, Loki, Odin, and Balder.  As Jacobs points out, Edith came to know that she should not wait up for her husband if he was off to see Jack.  The two would talk until the early morning hours.  Their mutual love for the old stories drew them ever closer.

But Jack had a problem: as an atheist, he rejected the myths as remnants of a superstitious trait of humanity.  But as a man, he could not help but love myths.  Ron tried to reach his friend in the best way he knew how: by writing a poem.

Jack had always wanted to be a poet.  Moreso than being a professor of philosophy or literature or even an author of prose, Jack wanted to be known for his poems.  Unfortunately, his poems never seemed to rise to the level of beauty or popularity that he desired.  But Ron understood how important poetry was to Jack and so he wrote for him the poem "Mythopia."

In that poem, Tolkien wrote how those that only see the things of this world as a composition of their material parts do not actually see the things as they are.  There is more to this world that physical parts of the universe.  Myth opens us up to the deeper truths that are just hidden behind the veil or matter.

But the real change occurs on a night where Ron and Jack were talking with another friend named Hugo Dyson.  It was on this night that Jack had to confront a truth in himself: he loved the myth of the dying/rising god in every mythology and religion he encountered except Christianity.  He found the myths moving, but the story of Christ is a myth that is also a fact.  He concluded that all of the non-Christian myths were God's truth expressed abstractly.  But in Christ, God's truth is expressed concretely as both myth and fact.

From that point on, Jack was pulled by the gravitational force of Christ back into the Christian faith.  To this day, he is one of the most quoted and referenced Christian apologists of the 20th century.  And I am convinced that none of this would have happened without Ron.  In friendship, we share so many things.  And yet I believe that many of us are shy about sharing our faith.  Perhaps we don't want to come off as judgmental (something that can be very poisonous in any conversion process).  But if we don't share this part of us that is so important, we could be robbing someone of that life-changing experience of friendship with Christ.  If Ron had kept quite, Jack may never have found Christ and neither would the millions who have found Christ through Jack.

Their friendship grew more and more.  They developed a strong fellowship with a group of friends that have been called the "Inklings."  Very often they would share their literary works with each other.  Ron and Jack lamented that people were not writing the stories that they wanted to read.  And so they embarked to fix that themselves.

Jack had become a bit of a celebrity during World War II.  He had given a series of radio addresses defending the Christian faith that would eventually become Mere Christianity.  He had already published a successful novel Out of the Silent Planet as well as his incredibly deep, yet easy-to-read The Problem of Pain.  Ron had also found surprising successes with his own story for children: The Hobbit.  In 1949, Jack was about to begin his most famous fictional book: The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe.  This was delayed, because he suffered a bit of a breakdown.  He was taking care of his alcoholic brother Warnie as well as Mrs. Moore, Paddy Moore's widowed mother.  The utter demands of that as well as his work as an Oxford don was a bit much for him.

However, Jack pulled through and started his wildly popular series, much of which he read to his Inkling friends.  Ron had a harder time of it writing.  His publisher wanted a sequel to The Hobbit.  It started as the adventures of Bilbo's son, Bingo Baggins, and what happens with Bilbo's magical ring.  Ron would read passages from his work to the Inklings.  He had very extreme reactions to criticism: Ron either argued with you as to why you were wrong in your critique or he would completely scrap the entire section that he wrote.  

Ron started, stopped, and started over his Hobbit sequel several times.  He often chose to give up the entire endeavor, but Jack would have none of it.  Jack knew that Ron had something really special beneath the surface and kept encouraging him to write more.

What we got because of this was The Lord of the Rings.  Jack could not have been more effusive in his praise.  He wrote that "here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.”

Friends can do this in such a special way.  They can see our potentials even better than we can.  And if they give the right kind of encouragement, they can help us achieve a greatness that may have otherwise been beyond our reach.

Now, I wish I could say that Ron and Jack stayed the closest of friends until the end of their days.

I wish I could say that.

But I cannot.

While their relationship never deteriorated in enmity, they lost the closeness that they once had.

There were several reasons for this.  As stated before, Jack had become a bit of a celebrity for defending the Christian faith.  As a pre-Vatican II Catholic, Ron found this to be highly inappropriate for the laity to be so publicly involved in apologetics.  To Ron's mind, this was something only to be done by the clergy.

The second thing was the introduction of Charles Williams to the Inklings.  Williams was a writer and a dramatic thinker.  Jack was drawn to him and the two started to spend more and more time together.  You can see the influence of Williams on Jack's writing.  If you read the first two books in his Space Trilogy, you can feel how different the final book (That Hideous Strength) is from the others.  The final book reads much more like Williams book than a Lewis book.  The closer Jack and Charles became, the more Ron felt pushed out.

Ron even wrote Jack a long, rambling letter trying to express himself.  For a man who was a master of words, the letter lacks clarity and cohesion.  It is simply a cry from the heart.  And it ends with this simple sentence: "I miss you very much"

Jack did not feel the same.  When Williams died suddenly, Jack wrote "Now that Charles is dead... I have less of Ronald.  Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves."  Jack thought that Charles, even in how he brought out a different side of Ron, helped bring them closer together as friends instead of further away.  Obviously, Ron did not think so.

And while this cooling of the friendship was bad, it became a heavy break when Jack married Joy Gresham.  Ron was already horrified by Jack's theology of marriage, but this was too much for him.  Jack had met Joy, an American poet, years earlier.  She was seventeen years younger and unlike most of the women he had met.  She divorced her husband and immigrated to England with her two sons.  In order to stay in the country, she asked Jack to marry her in a civil ceremony.  Jacobs argues that Jack was already deeply in love with her at this point, but the two lived separate lives and kept their marriage a secret.

But tragedy struck when Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Not wanting to lose out on what time they had left, Jack married her in a Christian service.  Ron was not told.  He had to hear it second-hand from one of their mutual friends.  As Ron believed in the indissolubility of marriage, he thought that it was immoral to for Jack to marry a divorced woman.  Jack, for his part, believed that Joy's first marriage was invalid because her husband was previously married and divorced.

This point in the story always makes me incredibly sad.  When I was in high school, I wrote an article in the yearbook about how my biggest fear was losing my friends after graduation.  By God's grace, this has been the case for the most part.  However, sometimes people do drift away and leave your life.  Whenever this happens, it always feels like a piece of myself dies.  And in a sense that is true.  Our friends help shape who we are.  When they leave us, that part of us that comes alive by their presence also goes with them.

Jack and Ron did not speak much after this point.  Jack spent his time taking care of Joy and her sons.  So late in his life, he did not think he would ever find true romantic love.  But he and Joy "feasted on love" so completely that it was better than either of them could have imagined.  He wrote "I never expected to have in my sixties, the happiness that passed me by in my twenties."

Before this, Jack had run into professional problems.  He had passed over for a professorship at Oxford, which would have given him more money and less work.  When this happened, Cambridge decided to offer him a Chair position and make him a full professor.  He turned down the offer because he thought he was too old and he thought his responsibilities at home were too much.

But Ron found out and broke his silence to Jack.  He encouraged Jack about the job the way that Jack had encouraged him about The Lord of the Rings.  Ron personally wrote to and lobbied the members of the committee until they relented and hired Jack.  And Jack spent the rest of his professional days as a Cambridge professor.

What I love about this part of their story is that even though friendships cool, real friendships never really have to end.  This happened to me a few years ago.  I was going through some financial difficulties and was experiencing more stress and anxiety than I had ever felt before.  But then out of the blue, a friend who I had not spoken to in years called me up.  He gave me great advice about selling some of my collectibles.  He was also incredibly kind and encouraging.  Our conversation was free and easy, as if no time had passed.  

I think with true friends, no matter the space or barriers between us, those invisible strings of fellowship never keep us forever apart.  It reminds me to not despair when friends leave our lives.  If the doors remain open, they may one day walk through again.

These happy days were not to last for Jack.  When Joy eventually died from her cancer, he was devastated.  He struggled with the grief that threatened to twist his faith and crush his spirit.  Thankfully, he would not have to wait long to be reunited with her.

Three years later, Jack himself took ill from a heart condition.  In his last days, he stayed at home with his brother Warnie.  On his deathbed, Ron came to visit with his son John.  They talked about King Arthur and trees.  It reminds me of how most of my conversations with my friends are not so much about the things of our friendship but on the things we love in common.  Jack found that in his friendship with his old "coal biter" friend all those many years ago and they closed out their friendship sharing the things they loved.

When I was in the hospital after I broke my back, several of my friends came to visit.  Rarely did we speak about our friendship.  Instead we talked about movies, pop culture, and the many adventures that we had.  These things are the bridge we build together where friends can share the life they have.

And that his what Ron and Jack shared in their last moments together.  Jack died on Friday, November 22nd 1963.  Few people took note because it was also the same day that John F. Kennedy was killed.  

Ron would experience Jack's pain when his own beloved wife Edith died in 1971.  Ron would have to wait less time than Jack did to be reunited with his spouse.  Ron left this world in 1973.

I like to imagine not only Edith waiting for Ron in heaven, but also Ron's good friend Jack.  I like to imagine that all of the strain and hurt and distance would all completely evaporate and that all that remain between them is the love that they shared on earth.

I hope this for me as well.  For all the friends that I have loved, and especially to those who have drifted apart, when we enter the Kingdom we will be filled with only the love that grew between us.  I hope for this because this is the hope of all friendship.  Fellowship can form permanent bonds that will not break no matter how strained and battered and attacked.  And if those bonds stay strong, then when we all see each other again, as I hope for the fellowship of Ron and Jack, then it can be truly said of our earthy friendships:

They lived happily ever after.

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