Kate Hambly ENG 3372
Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis were Oxfordian intellectuals who
pursued creative and spiritual discourse, approached complex topics with excitement, and
created works that remain influential. Individually, their philosophical writings are
noteworthy and educational. Yet their works weren’t produced in a vacuum: the use of
community, for feedback, inspiration, and even criticism is what led to their greatest success.
Dorothy L. Sayers was born in Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford in 1893, in
early summer. At the school, Sayers’ father worked a chaplain and instructor. Growing up in
a small village, Sayers was influenced by her environment, later naming characters and
storylines after a nearby graveyard and the local river. Her education culminated with her
“honors” from a university in Oxford in 1915 (rather than a degree) because women––though
given admission, scholarships, and course instruction––could not officially be awarded a
Sayers had a passion for intellectual discourse, taking pride in her classical translations
and traveling abroad to work as a teacher. Her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy
indicates her creativity and boldness in her unusual––although authentic––diction. Sayers’
experience as a teacher formed the basis of an essay on the classical school of educational
thought which led to a reformed standard American education. Her avid engagement with
intellectual matters is also evident in her religious writings which reflect her own experiences
in addition to exploring logical and doctrinal truths.1 Sayers died in December of 1957,
eventually having received her undergraduate and master’s degrees and leaving a legacy of
nearly one-hundred influential works.2
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien––more commonly known as J.R.R. Tolkien––was born in
South Africa to an English banking family in 1892. A holiday to England was extended following the sudden death of Tolkien’s father, rather forcibly repatriating the family.
Tolkien was taught by his mother at home, allowed to self-guide his education. He read extensively and explored the towns surround his grandparents’ village.
Tolkien’s mother converted to Catholicism when he was young. His view of religion was likely affected by his Baptist extended family’s outright rejection of Mabel Tolkien’s decision. She, like her late husband, ultimately died of disease. Tolkien and his brother were orphaned at a young age, and cared for by a Catholic Father, a close friend of Mabel’s. It is to this man that Tolkien attributes his early instruction in morality and kindness. The theme of religious tension was consistent throughout Tolkien’s life. He, like his mother and guardian, was a Catholic, yet he fell in love with an older, Protestant woman. Forbidden from engaging in conversation or marriage with this woman, Tolkien waited years to express his affects for
Edith Mary Bratt, though the two ultimately married. She converted to Catholicism, and experienced repercussions that mirrored Mabel Tolkien’s.
Tolkien was also influence by his introduction to constructed language––a concept that impacted his approach to creativity and world-building in his later writings. Like Sayers,
Tolkien reflected on his travels and experiences within his writing. Like Sayers, Tolkien studied at a university in Oxford; unlike Sayers, Tolkien graduated in 1915 with honors as well as a degree.
Tolkien fought in the Great War, somewhat begrudgingly, and used coded letters to communicate his location to his wife, Edith. His experiences in the war reflect a common
theme of class breakdown and appreciation for universal suffering. Tolkien died in
September of 1973 and was buried with his wife.3
Clive Staples Lewis––better known as C.S. Lewis––was born in late November in
Ireland as the second son and child of a Welsh-Irish family. Enamored by “anthropomorphic animals,” Lewis loved Beatrix Potter’s creatures and was inspired to create his own (“C.S.
Lewis” 4). This influence on his writing is obvious by the “image” Lewis had of a fawn that was the inspiration for the Chronicles of Narnia series. Fascinated by nature and mythology,
Lewis was driven to write about many of his experiences.
While Lewis was known for his fiction writing, he was also acclaimed for his spiritual writings. Originally raised in a religious home, he rejected faith but was frustrate by this result. Lewis, it seems, never entirely rejected the idea of a higher power, but was periodically frustrated by the lack of logic in the entire system. Like many young people,
Lewis is described as finding much of religiosity a dull chore rather than an expression of the soul. His eventual conversion was nothing akin to Augustine’s immediate and total faith;
Lewis very gradually accepted the concept of a higher power, and faith, and specific religion.
It is this arduous process of conversion which interests me the most about Lewis, and which likely influenced his intentionally-non-denominational apologetic writings. Lewis died in late
November 1963, overshadowed by the death of famed author Aldous Huxley and the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. 4
During his lifetime, Lewis was friends with Tolkien, the latter serving as a major influence on the former’s eventual conversion, though they worshipped under different denominations. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series was one of the first works discussed by the all-male group of writers, the “Inklings.” 5 They were a social group, but also served
as the first “ears” of one another’s work. This wasn’t the first group with a literary focus:
During their time at Oxford, Sayers infrequently attended meetings with Lewis at the Oxford
Socratic Club, a space intended for intellectual argument.6 Tolkien, too, had a history of establishing social places to discuss ideas; in his youth, Tolkien created a semi-secret group with his teenage friends.3 Yet the Inklings were a unique bunch because of their literary clout. The group met for sixteen years, first organized only a couple years after Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.7 The authors’ works often dealt with religious themes and faith, even their fictional writing.
These three authors––the primary focus of our Oxford Christians course––were united not only by their geographical proximity, but by their education and pursuit of intellectual and spiritual growth. They were friends, critics, and the source of inspiration for each other:
Lewis dedicated his “Screwtape Letters” to Tolkien; Tolkien was critical of what he saw as excessively-overt Christian themes and lack of subtlety in Lewis’ Narnia series;8 and during
Lewis’ final year teaching, his review of Tolkien’s “Fellowship of the Ring” was widely published.9 The two friends had drastically different approaches to writing, as well. Lewis famously said that the first inspiration for the Narnia series was a mental picture of a fawn, while Tolkien labored over the mythology and intricate history of Middle Earth for nearly two decades. Though Tolkien was instrumental in Lewis’ reconsideration of religion, the two did not agree on a variety of topics that cropped up in each man’s writings.8 For example,
Tolkien disliked the “popularization of theology” that Lewis engaged in his apologetic writings and audio broadcasts, the former viewing it as a dangerous act for a layman to undertake.8 Yet these men were united in their general faith and in their fascination of mythology and the genre of myth or fantasy. Tolkien’s Rings series was the first major
fantasy book that saw acclaim. Both men wrote pieces targeted not only at children but also intended for the adult reader. The ability to attract such a broad audience was a remarkable feat and a major reason for their individual fame. These authors united the concepts of myth and truth, weaving stories that resonated within their readership.10
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were also friends and critics of Sayers. Like Lewis,
Sayers wrote frequently on apologetics, and corresponded with many of the Inklings.11 She took an alternative approach to her fiction writing; unlike the two men––J.R.R. Tolkien and
C.S. Lewis––Sayers was fascinated with mysteries and the methods through which they are solved. Her genre of choice was mystery, crime novels and thrillers. Yet in this approach she, too, searched for the answers to life’s great questions. As the men complimented stories and myths with universal truths, Sayers united wonderment with fulfillment.
These three authors also share a context under which they penned their successful pieces. War was being waged around the globe and people were frightened and confused.
Lewis, through his radio broadcasts, spoke to truth and reasoned with his listeners. Sayers wrote essays that contemplated the contemporary state of the Church and its role in current affairs. It’s fascinating to readers how these individuals all looked to history as an escape from––and, perhaps, a response to––the dilemmas of their modern world.11
1. “Dorothy L. Sayers,” Wikipedia. Biography> 2. “List of Works by Dorothy L. Sayers,” Wikipedia. _of_works_by_Dorothy_L._Sayers> 3. “J. R. R. Tolkien,” Wikipedia. 4. “C.S. Lewis,” Wikipedia. 5. “Inklings,” Wikipedia. 6. “Socratic Club,” Wikipedia. 7. “An Outline of the Life of C.S. Lewis,” Into the Wardrobe. 8. “Why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien Argued Over Christian Theology,” Thought Co. 9. “The Life of C.S. Lewis Timeline,” The C.S. Lewis Foundation. 10. “J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship,” Christianity Today. legendary-friendship.html> 11. “C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers,” Grateful to the Dead. Blog. dorothy-l-sayers-the-three-amigos-and-their-three-dantes/>
2. “List of Works by Dorothy L. Sayers,” Wikipedia. _of_works_by_Dorothy_L._Sayers> 3. “J. R. R. Tolkien,” Wikipedia. 4. “C.S. Lewis,” Wikipedia. 5. “Inklings,” Wikipedia. 6. “Socratic Club,” Wikipedia. 7. “An Outline of the Life of C.S. Lewis,” Into the Wardrobe. 8. “Why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien Argued Over Christian Theology,” Thought Co. 9. “The Life of C.S. Lewis Timeline,” The C.S. Lewis Foundation. 10. “J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship,” Christianity Today. legendary-friendship.html> 11. “C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers,” Grateful to the Dead. Blog. dorothy-l-sayers-the-three-amigos-and-their-three-dantes/>
3. “J. R. R. Tolkien,” Wikipedia.
4. “C.S. Lewis,” Wikipedia.
5. “Inklings,” Wikipedia.
6. “Socratic Club,” Wikipedia.
7. “An Outline of the Life of C.S. Lewis,” Into the Wardrobe.
8. “Why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien Argued Over Christian Theology,” Thought Co.
9. “The Life of C.S. Lewis Timeline,” The C.S. Lewis Foundation.
10. “J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship,” Christianity Today.
11. “C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers,” Grateful to the Dead. Blog.