Friendships Change History

July 1 issue column.

(photo: Wikipedia)

Friendships can be deeply transformative experiences. A deep and true friendship with another person or a circle of persons can completely revolutionize a person’s life — and the lives of many other people.

Take the friendship of the group known to literary history as “The Inklings.” This was a group of scholars and their various acquaintances in Cambridge and Oxford in the mid-20th century who shared a passionate love for literature (particularly fantastic literature) as well as a common love of the Christian faith. The most famous of them today is probably J.R.R. Tolkien, with C.S. Lewis running a close second, and others, such as Charles Williams and Owen Barfield (as well as several more), comprising the rest of the band.

They were a group who knew their tastes to be deeply out of step with the times, but as friends do, they bonded in their common love for their passion — educated opinion be damned — and encouraged one another in their work as they drank ale in the local pub, had rowdy readings of their own works, conducted arguments, and created literature such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia that has blessed the world for over half a century.

This illustrates an important point: namely, that though eros is what people normally think of as the “fruitful” love (“be fruitful and multiply”), nonetheless, friendship, in its own way, can be abundantly fruitful precisely because friends love what we love and help to encourage us when the world tells us we are fools for caring about our passions. The friendship of the Inklings bore fruit in some of the greatest books of the 20th century and in the birth of an entire genre of fiction that looks back to Tolkien and Lewis as “fathers.”

Another example of a deeply fruitful friendship was the friendship of Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury. Out of their friendship came some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy books and films of the 20th century. And a whole group of imitators — fired by the desire to imitate Bradbury’s stories and Harryhausen’s wonderful animated monsters in films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad — started making sci-fi movies in the back yard with Dad’s 8mm camera and went on to create films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg), Star Wars (George Lucas) and The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson).

Ancient friendships also had the power to change history. David and Jonathan, for instance, had a strong bond of friendship that literally saved David’s life when Jonathan’s father, Saul, sought to kill David as a rival to his throne. After Jonathan’s death, David’s kingdom was established in place of Saul’s, and David never forgot the way Jonathan had graciously loved the good of Israel more than his own desire for rule. So he welcomed Jonathan’s heirs to his table as a way of honoring him, and the story of their friendship was preserved in what we call 1 and 2 Samuel.

Socrates was another man who surrounded himself with a group of friends — a group who proved to have an immensely fruitful impact on his people and on the world. His great disciple, Plato, recorded the conversations the great philosopher had with his circle of friends in a series of dialogues, and, as one historian put it, all of Western philosophy since has been more or less a series of footnotes to Plato.

Friendship has been at the core of some of the greatest human achievements of all time. Perhaps nowhere is its power more potently seen than in the founding of the Church: It was a band of friends Our Lord sent into the world to announce the Good News. Of which, more next time.

Mark Shea blogs at