C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien Challenged Each Other to Write Science Fiction

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Sometimes stories begin with a single image of a faun and a lamppost (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Sometimes stories begin with a challenge and a coin toss. C.S. LewisSpace Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) began with the latter.

In 1936, Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien had not yet published what would become their most famous works. However, they were already encouraging each others’ writing, and eventually issued each other a challenge: one of them would write a story about space-travel, and the other would write a story about time-travel. Who would write which story was determined by a coin toss. Lewis got space, and Tolkien got time.

For Lewis, the result was the first book in the Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Interestingly enough, the main character, Elwin Ransom, is a philologist like Tolkien.

Tolkien’s attempt at time travel was never finished, but there are echoes of the story in his other writings. The main basis of the plot, which was supposed to lead up to the fall of Atlantis, instead became the basis for the fall of Númenor, an important part of the history behind The Lord of the Rings. The full fragment can be found in The Lost Road and other Writings.

Lewis continued his space story a few years later. His first attempt at a sequel involved time travel, but was never completed (the unfinished manuscript was published posthumously as The Dark Tower). Instead, Lewis followed up with more space travel in Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

If you would like to know more, Tolkien mentioned the conversation that led to that challenge more than once in his letters. And Diana Glyer, a leading expert on the Inklings, wrote in Bandersnatch about how much the supportive relationship behind that challenge influenced Lewis and Tolkien to keep writing.

2 Responses

  1. the4signs(repeat) says:

    Great article! I’m so glad the coin toss went the way it did… Out of the Silent Planet is one of the most read books on my shelf (the book’s disintegrating spine is proof). A close second is The Hobbit. I’m glad these two men encouraged and spurred on each other’s writing!

  2. Col Klink says:

    “Sometimes stories begin with a single image of a faun and a lamppost (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Sometimes stories begin with a challenge and a coin toss.”

    Awesome opening sentence!

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