JRR Tolkien – CS Lewis – George RR Martin
Literature and Life
The trio of writers discussed today (yesterday and tomorrow) all greatly influenced each other. Two were friends and the latter both influenced by the first and accused of stealing his plots. Lest you become angry, let me assure you this is not a condemnation of any of these magnificent writers. I think they exemplify how writers may sit down to pen something from their imagination but often end up changing lives and opinions. George Martin once declared: “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” I wholeheartedly agree.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien came from a family of German immigrants to England during the mid-18th century although he was born in South Africa. Tolkien would joke that the translation of his surname was “foolhardy” and once gave a character said to represent himself the name Rashbold. His father was a bank manager who died in South Africa while the rest of the family was on a vacation in England. Tolkien’s mother moved the family to Birmingham and taught her children at home. Some of Tolkien’s favorite authors as a child were George McDonald and Andrew Lang. Robert Louis Stevenson was not a favorite at all and he referred to Lewis Carrol as “amusing but disturbing.”
Tolkien’s mother had converted to Catholicism and Tolkien was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. He married Edith Bratt in 1916 against the wishes of her family. “I have nothing to say against Tolkien, he is a cultured gentleman, but his prospects are poor in the extreme, and when he will be in a position to marry I cannot imagine. Had he adopted a profession it would have been different”, a family friend with whom Edith had been living wrote to her family. Like many during that time, Tolkien served in the British Army during WWI. He contracted a fever and was sent home shortly before his unit was virtually wiped out on the German front. Tolkien would later write that the experience taught him, “a deep sympathy and feeling for the Tommy; especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties”. Critics later tried to read parallels in Tolkien’s works with WWI and WWII but Tolkien rejected them. “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Tolkien is but one example of how critics attempt to seek inspiration for a writer in their own lives. Tolkien often wrote or began books during periods of great turmoil but never specifically claimed connections except for this, penned after the death of his beloved wife in 1971: “I never called Edith Luthien—but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing—and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.”
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ireland. A good friend of Tolkien, Lewis loved Beatrix Potter. When at the age of four his dog Jacksie was killed by a car, Lewis proclaimed himself to be “jack”, the name by which he was known to family and friends for the rest of his life. As a young teen Lewis abandoned his Irish Catholic upbringing and became an atheist. His interests included mythology, the occult, and the ancient literature of Scandinavia which emphasized the beauty of nature. He was awarded a scholarship to Oxford but was drafted to fight in WWI and shipped to France. This intensified his belief as an atheist.
Lewis was also interested in Irish mythology and literature. He developed a particular fondness for W. B. Yeats, in part because of Yeats’s use of Ireland’s Celtic heritage in poetry. In a letter to a friend, Lewis wrote, “I have here discovered an author exactly after my own heart, whom I am sure you would delight in, W. B. Yeats. He writes plays and poems of rare spirit and beauty about our old Irish mythology.” Lewis later converted to Christianity, in part due to his friendship with Tolkien, although Tolkien was displeased Lewis joined the Church of England. After his conversion to Christianity, his interests gravitated towards Christian theology and away from pagan Celtic mysticism.
Lewis was not immediately taken with England upon going there for the first time although he later claimed it was home. He did often seek out Irish friends and visited Northern Ireland frequently. Some believe Lewis advocated an ecumenical form of Christianity as a result of the sectarian violence in his native Belfast. In 1954, Lewis accepted the newly founded chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he finished his career. He maintained a strong attachment to the city of Oxford, keeping a home there and returning on weekends until his death in 1963. Four years before his death, Lewis began suffering from nephritis. On November 22, 1965, approximately fifty-five minutes before the assignation of US President John F Kennedy, CS Lewis died. Also on the same day the writer Aldous Huxley passed away. Lewis is commemorated in the church calendar of the Episcopal Church on November 22nd.
George Raymond Richard Martin is an American novelist and short story writer as well as a screenwriter and television producer. He is best known for his “Game of Thrones” series (film and television) based on his epic fantasy “A Song of Fire and Ice”. HE grew up in New Jersey and later went to Northwestern University in Illinois. He gained conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, serving instead as a VISTA volunteer to a local county legal assistance office. Martin taught at Clarke College but realized the brevity of life due to the death of a close friend and decided to become a full-time writer, moving to New Mexico to do so.
Martin moved to Hollywood to become a producer for a revamped version of “the Twilight Zone”. That series was cancelled but Martin found a position as a staff writer for another program. Upon its cancellation he moved on to the dramatic fantasy series “beauty and the Beast”. George Martin is very honest about writing because he needed money at various times. One year he became obsessed with an online role-playing game and did not write anything. The need for an income led him back into writing and the “lost year” as Martin calls it became the basis for his “Wild Cards” volumes.
Martin’s work has been described as having “complex story lines, fascinating characters, great dialogue, perfect pacing” by literary critic Jeff VanderMeer. Others simply call it dark and tragic, although reviewer T. M. Wagner likens Martin to Shakespeare’s fondness for the “senselessly tragic” by stating “There’s great tragedy here, but there’s also excitement, humor, heroism even in weaklings, nobility even in villains, and, now and then, a taste of justice after all. It’s a rare gift when a writer can invest his story with that much humanity.”
Martin has said that Tolkien was a great influence on him. “If you look at The Lord of the Rings, what strikes you, it certainly struck me, is that although the world is infused with this great sense of magic, there is very little onstage magic. So you have a sense of magic, but it’s kept under very tight control, and I really took that to heart when I was starting my own series.”
All three of these writers dip their pens into the realm of fantasy, some emphasizing the horror aspects while others the magical and still another, the imaginative/unknown/unexplainable. What they share is the belief that reading expands one’s world. George Martin believes “I have lived a thousand lives and I’ve loved a thousand loves. I’ve walked on distant worlds and seen the end of time because I read.” JRRR Tolkien would jot down thoughts and then keep them for the future. In 1937 as a teacher he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He had no idea what a hobbit was but the thought came to him and he kept it, later to develop it into a most successful series and film franchise.
CS Lewis believed that “I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” Perhaps Lewis sums it up best the intent of all three of these writers: “If they won’t write the kind of books we like to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.”
As we draw near to the end of this series later this week, I thank you for reading these posts. I hope you have found some new writers to read and have been as interested in what influenced them as I have been. After all, “Literature adds to reality; it does not simply describe it.” (CS Lewis).