Thursday, May 11, 2017

Today in Chance Meetings

They missed each other entirely as Oxford undergrads. The older, born in 1892, entered Exeter College in 1911 to read Classics, then changed to English Language & Literature and graduated with a first in 1915. He was promptly called up and served in France, his hoped-for academic career on hold until 1920.

Demobilized, he took a job as a clerk for the nearly-finished Oxford English Dictionary, but the only teaching gig he could find was at Leeds.

He made the most of it, becoming the youngest professor in his department, publishing a dictionary of Middle English, a definitive translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a raft of other studies, books, and articles.

His promise made real, he was summoned back to Oxford as Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Pembroke College in 1925.

The younger, born in 1898, arrived in Oxford in 1917, just in time to get drafted and sent to France. A year later, the war over, he returned to his studies, taking firsts in Greek & Latin (1920); Philosophy & Ancient History (1922); and English in 1923.

He was a tutor- a teacher of undergraduates- at University College for a year before being elected a Fellow and Tutor in English at Magdalen College, also in 1925.

They met 91 years ago today, at an English faculty meeting, by chance. One introduced himself as Jack Lewis. The older man, J.R.R. Tolkien, went by Tollers among friends.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis became friends and collaborators for the next 37 years, and two of the most celebrated writers in English ever- both for work outside their professional fields.

Their writers' club, The Inklings, remains world-famous. In 1945, Tolkien moved up a rung to the University Professorship of English Language and Literature in Merton College.

Lewis was passed over several times for chairs. He was too "popular", giving lectures on Christianity on the wireless and writing books for children; and after two decades teaching, he hadn't the pile of distinguished, if sometimes impenetrable, scholarship Tolkien amassed.

A prophet without honor in his own country, Lewis left Magdalen for the newly-created chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1954. He spent his weeks in term in "the other place", commuting home by train for weekends and holidays at home.

Tolkien retired in 1959 but remained in Oxford until the crush of fame over The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings caused him and his wife to decamp to Bournemouth. They lived happily by the sea until he died in 1973.

Lewis preceded him by a decade. His death was unnoticed by the papers for days, falling as did on the same day as the assassination of President Kennedy.

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