1920s Oxford: home to C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and, in Paul Kearney’s novel The Wolf in the Attic, Anna Francis, a young Greek girl looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work all around them. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea. But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is. That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know. Kearney’s is a great Oxford novel; and the wonderfully conjured period detail – Tolkien and Lewis in particular stand out – is given added resonance by the long and complex real-life friendship on which it is partly based.
When Tolkien attended a meeting of the English Faculty at Merton College, Oxford, on 11 May 1926 among the familiar faces a new arrival stood out, a heavily built young man in baggy clothes who had recently been elected Fellow and Tutor of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College. This was Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends as ‘Jack’. At first the two men circled warily around one another. Tolkien knew that Lewis, though a medievalist, was in the ‘Lit’ camp and thus a potential adversary, while Lewis wrote in his diary that Tolkien was a ‘smooth, pale, fluent little chap’, adding ‘No harm in him: only needs a smack or so’. But soon Lewis came to have a firm affection for this long-faced, keen-eyed man who liked good talk and laughter and beer, while Tolkien warmed to Lewis’s quick mind and the generous spirit that was as huge as Jack’s shapeless flannel trousers. Since early adolescence Lewis had been captivated by Norse mythology, and when he found in Tolkien another who delighted in the mysteries of the Edda and the complexities of the Volsung legend, it was clear that they would have a lot to share. They began to meet regularly in Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen, sometimes sitting far into the night while they talked of the gods and giants of Asgard or discussed the politics of the English faculty.
Lewis’s conversion to Christianity marked the beginning of a new stage in his friendship with Tolkien. From the early 1930’s onwards the two men depended less exclusively on each other’s company and more on that of other men – an enlarged circle of friends who formed the group that was known as The Inklings. The Inklings have now entered literary history, but they were no more and no less than a number of friends, all of whom were male and Christian, and most of whom were interested in literature. There was no system of membership, but Lewis was the invariable nucleus, without whom any gathering would have been inconceivable. Besides him and Tolkien, among those who attended before and during the war were Lewis’s brother, Warnie, Owen Barfield and Hugo Dyson. Although it was a casual business, there were certain common elements to each meeting. The group would meet on a week-day morning in a pub, generally on Tuesdays in the Eagle and Child (known familiarly as ‘The Bird and Baby’), and also on Thursday nights in Lewis’s big Magdalen sitting-room. On these occasions, tea would be made and pipes lit, and then Lewis would boom out: “Well, has nobody got anything to read us?” Someone would produce a manuscript and begin to read it aloud – it might be a poem, or a story, or a chapter. Then would come criticism: sometimes praise, sometimes censure, but soon the proceedings would spill over into talk of all kinds, sometimes heated debate, and would terminate at a late hour.
By the late 1930’s the Inklings were an important part of Tolkien’s life, and among his own contributions to gatherings were readings from the still-unpublished manuscript of The Hobbit. When war broke out in 1939 another man was recruited to the group of friends, Charles Williams, and his arrival marked the beginning of a third phase in Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis, a gradual but inevitable cooling on Tolkien’s part. Tolkien had a complex attitude to Williams, of whom he once said: “We liked one another and enjoyed talking (mostly in jest)” but he added “We had nothing to say to one another at deeper (or higher) levels.” He also wrote of a ‘dominant influence’ that he believed Williams came to exercise over Lewis, of which he did not approve and of which he may even have been slightly jealous. The two friends grew further apart as a result of the intrusion of a number of other things in the next two decades: the outbreak of war, Lewis’s time in Cambridge, mutual fortune and fame due to the world-wide success of The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, and more mundane matters such as family, marriage and careers.
Even after Tolkien retired from the Merton Professorship in the summer of 1959, he still saw a little of Lewis, making occasional visits to the ‘Bird and Baby’ and to the Kilns, Lewis’s house on the other side of Oxford. He and Lewis might conceivably have preserved something of their old friendship had not Tolkien been puzzled and even a little angered by his old friend Jack’s marriage to Joy Davidman, which lasted from 1957 until her death in 1960. Some of his feeling may be explained by the fact that she had been divorced from her first husband before she married Lewis, some by resentment of Lewis’s expectation that his friends should pay court to his new wife – whereas in the thirties Lewis, very much the bachelor, had liked to ignore the fact that his friends had wives to go home to. Nevertheless, a few days after Lewis died on 22 November 1963, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla: “So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age – like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” Tolkien himself passed away on 2 September 1973 and he, like his lifelong friend, was buried in Oxford, not far from the graves of their fellow Inklings, Hugo Dyson and Charles Williams, all united in death as their imaginations united, if ever so briefly, in life.