Mercia Malcolm on A Journey in Reconciliation: An Exploration of the Friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – “Friendship is a Catalyst that Changes Us”

mercia malcolmAs part of last week’s Community Relations Week, the Centre for Contemporary Christianity hosted a talk by Rev Mercia Malcolm on, ‘A Journey in Reconciliation: An Exploration of the Friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.’ Malcolm repeated her presentation for a selection of MLAs at Stormont later in the week.

Malcolm is the Church of Ireland minister in Carnmoney and a graduate of the Master’s in Reconciliation Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, where I teach.

Malcolm’s talk was based on research conducted during a sabbatical, which included an extended stay at the C.S. Lewis Study Centre at the Kilns, Oxford, where Lewis lived for much of his adult life.

Alan in Belfast has already ably reviewed much of Malcolm’s talk and posted audio in two parts: the first focusing on Lewis’ early life in Northern Ireland and the second on the influence of Tolkien on Lewis.

Malcolm’s talk was well-attended, with the room so full of people of a range of ages that latecomers were forced to squeeze in. I think that says something about the enduring appeal of both Lewis and Tolkien, which Malcolm managed to capture through her words and the images from her powerpoint presentation.

(Those interested in Lewis’ connection to Belfast can visit many of the local sites Malcolm featured in weekly C.S. Lewis Tours.)

Alan in Belfast was right to remark that Malcolm didn’t spend quite as much time as might be expected on the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, focusing more on Lewis.

Of course, this was probably to do with her building a case that Lewis – like most who spent at least part of their early years in Northern Ireland – grew up with an inbuilt sectarianism.

Indeed, Lewis’ grandfather, Rev Thomas Hamilton, the vicar at St Mark’s Church of Ireland in Dundela, East Belfast, was a noted anti-Catholic preacher. His father was against home rule.

Malcolm remarked that Tolkien had noticed the influence of Ulster on Lewis and had once wryly commented on ‘The Ulster-ior motive’ in Lewis’ writings.

That being said, Malcolm described how Tolkien, a traditionalist Catholic, was instrumental in Lewis’ return to Christianity, spending many hours of conversation with him in the pub and on long walks around Oxford.

She speculated how Tolkien’s influence might have shocked Lewis’ fiery-preaching grandfather. She also argued that Lewis’ friendship with Tolkien may have influenced his popular Christian writings, which had a generic Christian character and appealed to Christians from a range of denominations. Indeed, she described how a Polish Catholic family visiting the Kilns during her stay as a scholar-in-residence refused to believe that Lewis himself was not Catholic!

Malcolm also explored the complexities of Lewis and Tolkien’s relationship, which cooled in their later years. She noted that Tolkien was disappointed Lewis did not become Catholic and did not approve of his marriage to American Joy Davidman, who he saw as manipulative. Tolkien also disliked Lewis’ Narnia books and felt that by writing works for a ‘popular’ Christian audience, he was roaming too far out of his area of academic expertise.

Even so, Malcolm argued that the example of Lewis and Tolkien demonstrates that ‘Friendship is a catalyst that changes us.’

For her the lesson is that being open to friendship with those who have different perspectives than we do can be fruitful and enriching. In the case of Lewis, it helped lead to a writing career that would influence countless people, even in this the 50th anniversary of his death.

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