These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.
The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?
It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.
I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.
In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.
Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.
It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.
I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!
With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis
Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?
To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.
The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.
Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.
I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.
Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.
Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.
Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.
Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.
I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.
That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.
And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.