The Power of Conversation: A Lesson from CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien
Monday, January 29, 2018 - Filed in: General Interest
The following is a reprint of an article by Brett and Kate McKay that appears in the Art of Manliness web site.
It is the evening of September 19, 1931.
Three men stroll down Addison’s Walk, a picturesque footpath that runs along the River Cherwell on the grounds of Oxford’s Magdalen College. Two of the men — C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — are particularly engaged with one another, deep inside an animated discussion on the nature of metaphor and myth.
While both men are 30-something war veterans, teach and lecture at Oxford colleges, and share a love of old literature, the two friends are in many ways a study in contrasts. Lewis has a ruddy complexion and thickly set build. His clothes are loose and shabby. His voice booms as he speaks. Tolkien is slender, dresses nattily, and speaks elusively. Lewis is more brash; Tolkien more reserved.
Besides differences in personality, the men are divided by something more fundamental: Tolkien has been a faithful Catholic since childhood, while Lewis has been a committed atheist since the age of 15.
Over the last few years, however, Lewis’ position on God has slowly been softening, partly due to his friendship with Tolkien and the many conversations they’ve had since first meeting five years ago. The two academics — Tolkien a Professor of Anglo-Saxon; Lewis a Fellow and Tutor of English Literature — initially bonded over a shared love of what Lewis calls “Northerness” — an almost visceral pang of longing for the epic, heroic, grey-filtered world described in Norse mythology.
At times the men have stayed up until the early hours of the morning, “discoursing of the gods and giants and Asgard.” Lewis has often shared with Tolkien his affinity for Baldr — the Norse god of love and peace, forgiveness and justice — who is wrongly killed but comes back to life after Ragnarok (a kind of Viking apocalypse). He has told his friend that he feels “mysteriously moved” by such stories of sacrifice, death, and resurrection.
A love of mythology may have brought the friends together, but it has also served as one of Lewis’ major stumbling blocks to embracing Christianity. As a young man he had decided that the faith was simply “one mythology among many,” and was just as fabricated as all the rest: “All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention — Christ as much as Loki.”
Yet as much as Lewis wished to hold onto this position, he couldn’t shake the sense that it felt like a stiff and confining set of clothes — that he had stubbornly been keeping something at bay he wasn’t entirely sure he didn’t want to embrace. Despite his best defenses, he felt a prodding within, and believed it was God himself who was actively hunting him like a deer; “I never had the experience of looking for God,” he later said. “It was the other way round.”
If God was indeed “stalking” Lewis, this pursuit often took the form of conversations with his friends — not only Tolkien, but other bright scholars who saw no contradiction between their intellectualism and their faith. They challenged Lewis’ conviction that the head and the heart could not be combined, peppered him with searching questions he struggled to answer to his satisfaction, and ultimately set him off on a journey to see if rational underpinnings for theism could be found.
Much to Lewis’ dismay, his project was a success. Though he did not want to acknowledge the existence of God, did not want “to go back to the bondage of believing in any old (and already decaying) superstition,” and wished not to be “interfered with” by Deity or anyone else, he found that, to his mind, the evidence indeed pointed to there being some kind of higher power in the universe. And so in 1929, he knelt down, “admitted that God was God,” and became the “most reluctant convert in all of England.”
To Lewis it was a purely rational decision, and while he became a theist that night, his belief did not extend beyond an unknown, impersonal God into a faith in Christ specifically. It would take two more years, and one transformative conversation begun along Addison’s Walk, for him to make that leap.
Lewis takes that walk not only with Tolkien, but also Hugo Dyson, who teaches English at Reading University and is, like Tolkien, a committed Christian. Amidst a swirl of leaves a warm wind has dislodged from the trees, Lewis lays out his remaining obstacle to embracing his friends’ faith. He tells them that he can conceive of Christ as an ultimate exemplar in how to live a virtuous life, but that he struggles with the whole idea of his enacting an atonement that saves mankind. He couldn’t see “how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2,000 years ago could help us here and now.” Phrases like “sacrifice” and “the Blood of the Lamb,” seem to Lewis to be “either silly or shocking.”
Tolkien and Dyson listen to their friend’s concerns, and decide to retire to Lewis’ lodgings at the college to continue the discussion. The men settle themselves in Lewis’ room and take out their pipes. As the clock ticks past midnight, and the room fills with curls of smoke, both Dyson and Tolkien share insights from their own journey to faith. But it is Tolkien’s arguments that will ultimately hold the most sway. The professor unfolds to Lewis a different way of looking at the centrepiece of the Christian gospels — one that ironically embraces, rather than flees from, the idea of it being a myth.
Myths, Tolkien explains, are not fairy tales, intentional lies, or mere fabrications, but are instead powerful vehicles for revealing the world’s deepest truths. All myths, he argues, illuminate layers and dimensions of existence that are often missed by our narrow human vision. In this way, they can actually be more “real” than what we normally call reality. Tolkien posits that myth makers exercise a God-given power, and act as “sub-creators” who share pieces of the ultimate Truth that is hidden from plain sight. All the world’s myths then serve as prisms through which we can see fragments of divine light. Stories, Tolkien argues, are sacramental.
Lewis has gone from believing that Christianity is a myth that is false like all other myths, to feeling that he must think Christianity is a true religion, wholly different from the false world of mythology. Tolkien suggests another perspective: that all myths reflect “a splintered fragment of the true light,” and that Christianity is a “true myth” that encompasses and expands on all the rest. That is, while God had formerly used the poetic images and traditions of other cultures to express himself, Christ had come in real historical time to live out a story that actually happened.
Yet, Tolkien challenges his friend, the Christian story of atonement and resurrection should still be approached just as Lewis had the Norse tales of gods like Baldr — allowing the story to deeply and mysteriously move him. Like all myths, the true myth of Christ was not to be grasped mechanistically, as a literal description of things that had happened, but imaginatively, for its meaning. The Christian myth was true not in the sense of revealing the actual nature of God, and how exactly mankind had been redeemed, which finite minds could not possibly comprehend; it was true in the sense that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection composed the best vehicle — the best narrative — by which the human mind could be illuminated and catch a glimpse of the deeper structure underlying the eternities.
Lewis’ pilgrimage to faith had been a long one, in which intellectual barriers gradually fell away and pieces of insight slowly fell into place. But there remained one jumble still to untangle. All his life, Lewis has felt the tug of two seemingly contradictory impulses: one, a deep, unsatisfied longing for beauty and joy, and two, the desire to make sense of the world rationally. As Tolkien speaks, Lewis realizes that these two inclinations needn’t be at odds, and can in fact be reconciled. He sees that faith can be the greatest catalyst for imagination, and that imagination can conceive of a reality more real than that which can be discovered by clinical observation alone. A new possibility opens to Lewis: one in which he can bring his entire self to the Christian faith — mind and heart, intellect and intuition. It is a transformative, revelatory moment.
Lewis continued to talk with Tolkien and Dyson until three in the morning. And as he continued to turn over their conversation in the days that followed, his belief in the Passion story grew, until he could write to a friend on October 1: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ — in Christianity. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.”
Lewis has not only passed on from theism but to a wholly new path for his life. He is destined to become the most famous Christian apologist of his time, the creator of his own illuminating myths in the form of the Narnia series, and a writer whose works continue to be discovered and prized today. A single conversation begun on Addison’s Walk turned out to be something like a railroad switch — diverting Lewis from the track he was on, and sending him in a completely new direction.
Reviving the Power of Conversation: What We Can Learn from Lewis and Tolkien
I share the story of this singular conversation between Lewis and Tolkien not because I think everyone will agree with the conclusions they reached, but because it is, if you will, a “true myth” — a story that illuminates truths which transcend the concrete who/what/where details of the narrative itself and give us a glimpse of the deeper structure of things. In this case, the story reveals the potentially transformative power of face-to-face conversation, and hopefully gets us to reflect on whether the full strength and beauty of that power is endangered in our tech-filled world.
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle documents the woeful evidence that we moderns are increasingly fleeing from “conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas.” We hide behind screens, and communicate as much as possible through email and text. We justify these moves on the basis of efficiency, and the fact that in having the ability to edit our messages, we can be more “ourselves” and make sure we say things “just right.”
But much is lost in this retreat from in-the-flesh interaction. Tech-mediated communication may make conversation more efficient, but it also makes it more superficial. It shrivels our empathy and feeling of true connection — states that are predicated on our being able to hear each other’s voices, read each other’s body language, and see each other’s facial expressions. We not only lose out on insights into the lives of others, but into our own as well.
Good conversation is a precious gift we should not relinquish to our devices. To revive its transformative power, one must intentionally cultivate the following elements:
Time. Good conversation does not operate on the principle of efficiency. It needs to be open-ended — without chronological parameters or set agenda. And it doesn’t have to take a completely smooth course. Oftentimes we cut a conversation short because there’s an awkward pause, or a seeming lull, or because people are repeating themselves. Yet such things are perfectly natural; are we to suppose that Lewis, Dyson, and Tolkien talked for eight or so hours, without there being a single lull? Very doubtful! Sometimes silences become important pivot points to a new, fruitful stream of discussion. And good conversation often goes over the same things a few times, going deeper on the second pass, with a fresh realization emerging on the third.
Instead of running away when conversations hit a snag, give them a chance to unfold.
Space. You may have heard of the famous “Inklings” — an informal club and literary society to which Lewis and Tolkien, as well as several other writers, belonged. Members of the Inklings would meet on Thursday evenings at Lewis’ lodgings at Magdalen College, and the Eagle and Child pub at midday on Tuesdays, to drink, smoke their pipes, and read each other their latest works. It was a wonderful mastermind group, in which the men could encourage each other and offer feedback on their writing. And yet it was hardly the only such group that the members belonged to! Both Lewis and Tolkien attended numerous other such discussion groups throughout their lives. It was in fact in one such group, the Coalbiters (from the Icelandic kolbítar, or those who sit so close to the fire they can practically bite the coal), that Lewis and Tolkien first solidified their bond through the reading of Icelandic poetry and the discussion of Norse mythology.
Good conversation need not only be had in semi-formal clubs and groups, but it often does take some deliberation in regularly getting together with folks.
Sustained attention. As Turkle notes: “Studies show that the mere presence of a phone on the table (even a phone turned off) changes what people talk about. If we think we might be interrupted, we keep conversations light, on topics of little controversy or consequence.” Would Lewis’ conversation with Dyson and Tolkien ever have gotten off the ground if his friends kept intermittently putting their heads down to check their phones? If each kept looking up and saying, “Wait, what?”
Good conversation is a cooperative effort, in which each participant must be all-in; rather than dropping in and out of a conversation, each must offer sustained attention, actively listening to his companions so that he might make contributions that build on the insights of others. Because good conversation also requires:
Collaboration. The way we communicate through text and social media has shaped the way we now interact face-to-face: we say something, and then sit back and wait for the responses to come in. Everyone offers an isolated, disparate reply; we talk around each other, rather than with each other.
But good conversations are kinetic and collaborative — they are much like pieces of symphonic music where everyone must contribute to the harmony and rhythm and meld their notes together. Sometimes you have a latent insight you don’t even know you have, and can’t articulate, and then someone says something that unearths it and you feel a light bulb go off in your head. Sometimes you have a fragment of an idea that you can’t fully make sense of; then when you share it, someone else makes a connection you hadn’t thought of and builds on it, and the whole group gets to enjoy the newly birthed insight. When it works, conversation can be an incredibly creative endeavor.
For it to work, good conversation actually requires that its participants spend time by themselves:
Solitude and self-reflection. In Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle argues that while it may seem ironic, good conversation requires solitude. In order to have anything to bring to a discussion with friends, you need to have been reflecting on things on your own. Then when you get together and share what you’ve been thinking about, they can build on your insights, in turn giving you more to chew on the next time you’re by yourself. This creates a “virtuous circle” where “alone we prepare to talk together,” and “together we learn how to engage in a more productive solitude.”
By solitude, Turkle has in mind not only being detached from others, but disconnected from our devices as well. Unfortunately, many today cannot handle this degree of aloneness, and must constantly distract themselves with their devices. This in turn transforms the virtuous circle into a vicious one:
“Afraid of being alone, we struggle to pay attention to ourselves. And what suffers is our ability to pay attention to each other. If we can’t find our own center, we lose confidence in what we have to offer others.
Or you can work the circle the other way. We struggle to pay attention to each other, and what suffers is our ability to know ourselves.”
After Lewis’ conversion to theism, he had begun attending Magdalen’s college chapel on weekdays, and an Anglican parish church on Sundays — not because he was committed to the Christian faith, but simply as a time for contemplation. He had also begun studying the gospels, particularly the book of John, in the original Greek. Thus, by the time of the stroll down Addison’s Walk, he had something he could bring to the conversation — he could articulate to his friends the thoughts he was struggling with, and their own times of solitary reflection allowed them to help him grapple with these ideas. Solitude had prepared the way for collaborative conversation.
Appreciation of differences. In her research on the nature of modern conversation, Turkle found that many people today shy away from talking with those they disagree with. They don’t like the conflict, they don’t like having their beliefs challenged, and they’d rather stick to interacting with people who merely confirm their preconceived notions.
But some of the best conversations are civil debates on important ideas and issues. During Lewis’ journey of conversion, he half-lamented, half-rejoiced that “Everything that I had labored so hard to expel from my own life seemed to have flared up and met me in my best friends.” While the conversations he had with his Christian associates frustrated him at times, he enjoyed the challenge, and the ways such discussions caused him to dig deeper into his own beliefs and reflect on whether they were sufficiently supported.
So it is with us: by engaging with those with whom we disagree, we end up growing and examining our own ideas more closely, even if we don’t ultimately change our minds.
Regularity. To say that a single conversation changed C.S. Lewis’ life is both true, and a misrepresentation. The conversation he had with Tolkien did indeed transform his whole outlook on Christianity, but it was a conversation that wouldn’t have been possible if not for all the discussions the two men had previously enjoyed over the years.
Tolkien would stop by Magdalen College to see Lewis nearly every Monday morning. Together they’d have a drink and discuss everything from literature to the gossip of faculty politics. Sometimes they’d just play with puns and trade bawdy jokes. Not every conversation was profound. But through these casual chats they built a bond where deep discussions could become possible.
These days, you often hear people say they hate small talk and find casual conversations boring. With the impatience born of the digital age, they want to skip right to the big stuff. But as Turkle puts it so well:
“You really don’t know when you are going to have an important conversation. You have to show up for many conversations that feel inefficient or boring to be there for the conversation that changes your mind.”
Conclusion: Recapture the Magic of Conversation
Some of the most memorable moments of our lives revolve around our conversations: the conversation you had with your girlfriend when you both realized you were falling in love; the conversation you had with a mentor who helped crystallize what vocation to pursue; the conversation you had with your daughter when you realized she had truly become an adult.
Face-to-face conversations can be entertaining, edifying, and all-around soul satisfying. They can be opportunities for both learning and mentorship. They can help you discover things about others, and about yourself, that would have otherwise remained hidden. They can spark transformative realizations, even revelations; they can bring you back to yourself. Lewis evocatively sums up the joys of conversation:
“Those are the golden sessions … when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give.”
Magical, even life-changing things can happen when you choose to enter into conversation — when you choose spontaneity over editing and efficiency. But it is paradoxically a spontaneity that one must intentionally seek and ready oneself for.
So prepare ye the way.