The event was organised by Contemporary Christianity in Belfast and was repeated at Parliament Buildings on Thursday.
The first part of Mercia’s presentation gave an overview of CS Lewis’ connection with Northern Ireland, his traumatic childhood and education, and his journey from Church of Ireland confirmation to atheism. His mother Florence Lewis was one of first female graduates from Queen’s University, Belfast with a degree in mathematics.
The talk was illustrated with photographs of Lewis-related sculptures, a door knocker with a lion’s head, Oxford colleges and Lewis’ house which has been converted into a research centre and was Mercia’s base during her studies. Lewis’ relationship with Jane Moore – the mother of a fellow cadet who was killed in action – adds to the complexity of a character normally treated with such reverence by preachers in church circles.
The second part dealt with the influence of Tolkien on Lewis.
Lewis and Tolkien were both members of The Inklings writers group that met in Lewis’ college rooms as well as in the local Oxford pub The Eagle and the Child (locally nicknamed The Bird and the Baby). Mercia explained how the pair challenged each other to write science fiction, leading to Out of the Silent Planet. Worth noting that while Lewis authored the Chronicles of Narnia series in around three years, Tolkien took 20 to complete his Middle-earth series (including its less-well known associated volumes).
Tolkien was a conservative Catholic. Lewis described Tolkien as helping him “over the last stile” in his (re)conversion to Christianity, though Tolkien was disappointed that Lewis opted for Anglicanism.
Mercia pointed out the context in which Lewis grew up – with relatives split across both sides of the Home Rule / Covenant and evangelical preachers in the family – he would have been subjected to anti-Catholic thinking. His friendship with Tolkien was a significant reconciliation with his background and identity.
Yet while the talk had “reconciliation” in the title, the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien ebbed and flowed and had many snags. Tolkien was also less than enthusiastic about Lewis’ popular theology. He disagreed with Lewis’ view on religious/civil marriage. And he wasn’t keen on Lewis’ wife Joy. Overall, their thirty year friendship seemed to sour in the latter stages.
As a Tolkien fan, I wished that Mercia had devoted more of her talk to giving more insight into the influence of Tolkien over Lewis and I hope that she does complete writing up and publishing her sabbatical research.
Keep an eye on the Contemporary Christianity website to find out about future In Conversation events and the upcoming annual Catherwood Lecture. You can also go back and read about and listen to previous Contemporary Christianity events in old AiB posts.