In a 1948 letter Tolkien apologizes to his friend C.S. Lewis for what he admits to have been some unduly caustic remarks he had made on a piece of Lewis’s work (Humphrey Carpenter speculates it to be his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century). More than a mere apology, however, Tolkien’s letter to Lewis contains a unique insight into the very human relationship between these two friends who would each become literary giants in their own right, into Tolkien’s views on himself as a writer and literary critic, and finally, into Tolkien’s at once peculiar and yet profound theology of grace in forgiveness.
The internal evidence of the letter suggests the following chain of events. Subsequent to the above incident, Tolkien had felt some remorse for responding to Lewis’s work in so acerbic a manner, and so sent him some verses and an initial (apparently unpreserved) letter of apology. Lewis replied to this letter, and the letter here in question is Tolkien’s response to that reply.
Tolkien begins by observing to Lewis that “you write largely on ‘offence’; though surely I amended ‘offended’ in my letter to ‘pained’? Pained we cannot help being by the painful” (Letters 125). The implied distinction here between paining someone and offending him is an interesting and I think pastorally helpful one. The difference, to Tolkien’s mind, seems to be that, whereas someone can take offence at something that is not (or need not be) offensive, someone is pained, by contrast, by something that is objectively painful. And that is what Tolkien here wants to insist his original criticism of Lewis’s work to have been–unnecessarily and unjustifiably painful–and so it was reasonable for Lewis to have been hurt accordingly by it. Tolkien continues by assuring Lewis, however, that he also “knew well enough” that the latter would not allow his pain to “grow into resentment,” but implies that he was nevertheless at fault for having provided the occasion or cause for such resentment: “Woe to him,” Tolkien writes, “by whom the temptations come.”
Tolkien goes on to explain the source of his remorse at being so harsh in his criticisms of Lewis’s piece of writing, namely the pain–inevitable and necessary, he acknowledges–he himself has had to suffer as a published author, followed by his awareness of having now perpetrated the same treatment on someone for whom he has “deep affection and sympathy.” The opening paragraph of the letter concludes with Tolkien also confessing that his remarks may have also been somewhat retaliatory, as he was bristling under a “half-patronizing half-mocking lash” Lewis himself had made previously to Tolkien’s original criticisms and which “the small things of my heart made the mere excuse for verbal butchery.” While one might be tempted to detect here a hint of blame-shifting or passive aggression in Tolkien’s mentioning here–in the context of his apology to Lewis–Lewis’s own provocation of Tolkien, yet given what we know generally about their personalities and the history of their relationship, it seems the case that Tolkien was in fact “pained” by Lewis far more often than the reverse. If so, this fact makes Tolkien’s counsel to Lewis on forgiveness in this letter, about which more anon, all the more fascinating in its irony.
(To be continued….)