In "The Fellowship", Philip and Carol Zaleski offer the first complete rendering of the Inklings' lives and works.
During the hectic middle decades of the 20th century, from the end of the Great Depression through the Second World War and into the 1950s, a small circle of intellectuals gathered weekly in and around the University of Oxford to drink, smoke, quip, cavil, read aloud their works in progress, and endure or enjoy with as much grace as they could muster the sometimes blistering critiques that followed. This erudite club included writers and painters, philologists and physicians, historians and theologians, soldiers and actors. They called themselves, with typical self-effacing humor, the Inklings.
The novelist John Wain, a member of the group who achieved notoriety in midcentury as one of England's "angry young men," remembers the Inklings as "a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life." Yet the name Inklings, as J.R.R. Tolkien recalled it, was little more than "a pleasantly ingenious pun … suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink."
The donnish dreaminess thus hinted at tells us something important about this curious band: Its members saw themselves as no more than a loose association of rumpled intellectuals, and this modest self-image is a large part of their charm. But history would record, however modest their pretensions, that their ideas did not remain half-formed nor their inkblots mere dabblings. Their polyvalent talents — amounting to genius in some cases — won out.
By the time the last Inkling passed away, on the eve of the 21st century, the group had altered, in large or small measure, the course of imaginative literature (fantasy, allegory, mythopoeic tales), Christian theology and philosophy, comparative mythology, and the scholarly study of the Beowulf author, of Dante, Spenser, Milton, courtly love, fairy tale, and epic. Drawing as much from their scholarship as from their experience of a catastrophic century, they had fashioned a new narrative of hope amid the ruins of war, industrialization, cultural disintegration, skepticism, and anomie. They listened to the last enchantments of the Middle Ages, heard the horns of Elfland, and made designs on the culture that our own age is only beginning fully to appreciate. They were philologists and philomyths: lovers of logos (the ordering power of words) and mythos (the regenerative power of story), with a nostalgia for things medieval and archaic and a distrust of technological innovation that never decayed into the merely antiquarian. Out of the texts they studied and the tales they read, they forged new ways to convey old themes — sin and salvation, despair and hope, friendship and loss, fate and free will — in a time of war, environmental degradation, and social change.
The Inklings altered the course of imaginative literature, Christian theology, and the scholarship of courtly love.
Some among the Inklings and their circle attained a worldwide fame that continues to grow, notably the literary historian, novelist, poet, critic, satirist, and popular Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the mythographer and Old English scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), the historian of language, Anthroposophist, and solicitor (Arthur) Owen Barfield (1898-1997), and the publisher and author of "supernatural shockers," Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945). Others achieved lesser but still considerable eminence. Additional members, guests, and relatives drifted in and out of the fellowship, while friends who were not strictly Inklings, such as the mystery novelist, playwright, and Dante translator Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), nonetheless found ways to draw from and enrich the stream.
The Inklings met typically in Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College on Thursday evenings, when most of the reading and criticism unfolded; they also could be seen regularly on Tuesday mornings, gathered for food and conversation in a side nook of a smoky pub at 49 St. Giles', known to passers-by as the Eagle and Child but to habitués as the Bird and Baby.
A wit might say that the Inklings' aim was to turn the bird into a dragon and the baby into a king, for their sympathies were mythological, medieval, and monarchical, and their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to re-enchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty.
The story of the Inklings unfolds mostly in Oxford, which in the Inklings' day was not so different in look and smell from the Oxford of today. Then, as now, one felt the irony that from this tangle of traffic-clogged streets, the cloisters of learning lift up to heaven their dreaming (if not always worshiping) spires; that the black-gowned, bicycle-pedaling undergraduates maintain their scholarly idyll at the price of damaging their lungs and risking their lives. Then, as now, one was tempted to fantasize one's surroundings as a Camelot of intellectual knight-errantry or an Eden of serene contemplation. Then, as now, there was bound to be disappointment.
Matthew Arnold idealized Oxford as "whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages," as summoning her votaries "to the true goal of all of us, to the ideal, to perfection, — to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side." Yet for all its whispering, Oxford could not possibly deliver the full draught of the Middle Ages — of holiness, wisdom, and beauty — for which its inhabitants longed.
To live and work in such a rarefied intellectual ambience, with chapel, scriptorium, and Faërie woodland close at hand, among gifted companions who could share a pint and spin off a limerick or clerihew at will, was a rapture that never quite realized itself. For one had also to contend with troublesome families, threadbare pockets, cantankerous colleagues, dim students, urban congestion, and — twice in the Inklings' life span — war. The unavoidable harshness of life surprised none of them, for they were Christians one and all, believing that they inhabited a fallen world, albeit one filled with God's grace. Yet it would be a mistake to label them, as did one early biographer, "the Oxford Christians," and to presume that this sufficed. This would be tantamount, as Lewis's brother Warnie complained the moment the term arose, to saying that the Inklings were no more than "an organized group for the propagation of Christianity." Nonetheless, the Inklings were unmistakably Christians in Oxford, and this plays no small part in their cultural significance.
Oxford is, as Jan Morris puts it, "as organically Christian as Bangkok is Buddhist." Before a university appeared in Oxford, the town was a jumble of hermitages, holy wells, monasteries, and churches. The colleges of medieval Catholic Oxford began as quasi monasteries designed to provide the church with learned clergy and to offer Masses for deceased patrons to speed their souls through purgatory. The colleges of post-Reformation Anglican Oxford renounced purgatory and all other "popish" devices, insisting that their members subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, thus excluding every Jew and Catholic in England as well as dissenters and atheists. The gowns of an Oxford don were patterned after religious habits, and until the 1880s the man beneath the gown was required, with few exceptions, to be celibate. Bachelorhood remained the ideal and family life a concession to prosaic mediocrity well into the early 20th century.
Whether high or low church, Evangelical, Broad Church, or Catholic, Oxford was in love with the idea of Christian perfection. It was here in 1729 that Charles and John Wesley founded their "Holy Club" and from here that George Whitefield went forth to evangelize America. It was from Oxford in the 1830s that the Tractarian movement set out to re-Catholicize the national church, and it was in Oxford that the saintly John Henry Newman made his submission to Rome. Here John Ruskin, who had a love-hate relationship with the city and with his own Evangelical roots, sought to awaken the nation's sleeping conscience to his vision of Christian socialism, medieval artisanship, and educational reform; and it was here, in the cathedral-like university museum that Ruskin helped to design, that the ornithologist and bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, took on T.H. Huxley in the celebrated 1860 debate on the validity of Darwinian evolution.
The Victorian crisis of faith took place here, but so did what the historian Timothy Larsen has called "the Victorian crisis of doubt." From Ruskin's time until the days of the Inklings, a pattern of religious rebellion and rediscovery would repeat itself; one could be a militant skeptic like Huxley relishing the escape from Victorian restraints, or a militant believer like Ronald Knox relishing the escape from modern liberalism, or an initiate in any of the manifold schools of occultism, theosophy, and spiritualism that flourished in Oxford as well. All the spiritual alternatives were on offer, all could be sampled, but there was little room for indifference — certainly not for a generation that lived through the Great War.
We must picture Oxford, during the First World War, not as the neo-medieval paradise it would like to be, but as the military compound it was obliged to become. The colleges of Oxford turned nearly overnight into hospitals and officer-training camps, strangely quiet and emptied of students, "like monasteries where all the monks have died," as Victor Gollancz remembered it. The Oxford University Roll of Service records that of 14,561 students who served in the war, 2,708 — nearly 20 percent — perished. In a society known for its masculine "clubbability," yet haunted by the memory of so many friendships severed, so many men cut down in their prime, it scarcely surprises that the surviving remnant would seek out every opportunity for male companionship. The Inklings were, to a man — and they were all men — comrades who had been touched by war, who viewed life through the lens of war, yet who looked for hope and found it, in fellowship, where so many other modern writers and intellectuals saw only broken narratives, disfigurement, and despair.
If Virginia Woolf was right that "on or about December 1910 human character changed" in the direction of modernism and daring social experiments, the Great War intensified that change; according to standard histories of this period, the rising generation of British writers reacted to the catastrophe by severing ties to tradition and embracing an aesthetic of dissonance, fragmentation, and estrangement.
Yet the Great War also instilled in many a longing to reclaim the goodness, beauty, and cultural continuity that had been so violently disrupted. The Inklings came together because they shared that longing; and it was the Inklings, rather than the heirs of the Bloomsbury Group — the other great, if ill-defined, English literary circle of the 20th century — who gave that longing its most enduring artistic form and substance. Far from breaking with tradition, they understood the Great War and its aftermath in the light of tradition, believing, as did their literary and spiritual ancestors, that ours is a fallen world yet not a forsaken one. It was a belief that set them at odds with many of their contemporaries but kept them in the broad currents of the English literary heritage. They shared much with Bloomsbury, including love of beauty, companionship, and conversation, but they differed from their older London counterpart in their religious ardor, their social conservatism, and their embrace of fantasy, myth, and (mostly) conventional literary techniques instead of those dazzling experiments with time, character, narrative, and language that mark the modernist aesthetic.
No doubt Bloomsbury has exerted more influence over what Anthony Burgess once called "higher literary aspirations," those giddy and often glorious assaults upon convention that have found a secure place in the 20th century's literary canon. And yet the Inklings have made serious inroads into that canon. The literary status of both Tolkien and Lewis and, to a lesser extent, Williams, Barfield, and other Inklings, is undergoing rapid ascent as academic courses and mature literary criticism focused upon their work blossom around the world, and — unlike Bloomsbury, which now seems part of history, a brilliant stream of art and thought that one admires over one's shoulder — the Inklings continue to shape significant aspects of modern religion and worldwide culture.
Tolkien and Lewis wield most of this posthumous influence. That The Lord of the Rings was voted "Book of the Century" in a massive 1997 poll conducted by Waterstones, a British bookseller, may be dismissed as a transient phenomenon; but if we consider its sales figures (estimates of worldwide sales run from 150 to 200 million), it's clear that Tolkien has a secure place in the pantheon of popular culture.
Far more important, though, The Lord of the Rings and the vast mythology that surrounds and pervades it possess an intrinsic grandeur, breadth, and profound originality — it is simply the case that nothing like this has ever been done before — that make them, we believe, landmarks in the history of English literature. To be sure, the fan fiction, derivative fantasy novels, and sword-and-sorcery illustrations inspired by Tolkien can be artless at best; but no unprejudiced critic can deny the bracing effect of Tolkien's rich mythopoeic imagination upon generations of readers and writers disillusioned with modernist themes and techniques, and longing for re-enchantment.
Lewis has made a comparable mark. Arguably the best-selling Christian writer since John Bunyan, he is also credited with the conversion or reversion to the faith of a considerable number of 21st-century intellectuals and the consolation and instruction of millions more. Yet none of this would have been possible had Lewis not shared with Tolkien the sense of mission and the narrative skill to reclaim traditional storytelling values, not only through fantasy fiction but also through scholarly recovery of the literary past. These achievements have earned Lewis — to the catcalls of some, overwhelmed by the applause of many — a permanent memorial stone in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner, close by the remains of Chaucer, Spenser, and Dryden.
For all of the leading Inklings, however, the rapture of the unknown pointed also to something more profound; it was a numinous event, an intimation of a different, higher, purer world or state of being.
Everyone knows this about the Inklings: that they expressed their longing for tradition and re-enchantment through the literature of fantasy. The Inklings' penchant for the fantastic is quintessentially English; folktale, fairy-tale, and fantasy motifs permeate English literature from Beowulf, through The Faerie Queene and The Tempest, to the poetry of Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge.
In the middle of the 19th century, this national love for the fantastic gave rise to the modern fantasy novel. Immediately Oxford moved into the foreground, as John Ruskin, in his neo-Grimm fable The King of the Golden River (1841, written while he was an Oxford undergraduate), and Lewis Carroll, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865, the quintessential Oxford classic), laid the groundwork for a genre brought to early perfection by the Scotsman George MacDonald, their mutual friend, in his three children's classics, At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess and the Goblin (1872), and The Princess and Curdie (1883), and his two fantasies, Phantastes (1858) and Lilith (1895). A few years later, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones (both Oxford alumni), and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood produced novels, poetry, and paintings with fantastic themes, bathed with a lovely, romantic, neo-medieval light that would deeply influence the artistic maturation of both Lewis and Tolkien.
Fantasy, then, was in Oxford's blood, and it is no wonder that the major Inklings experimented in so many fantastic subgenres (myth, science fiction, fable, epic fantasy, children's fantasy, supernatural thriller, and more). They chose to be fantasists for a variety of reasons — or, rather, fantasy seemed to choose them, each one falling in love with the genre in youth (Lewis in Ireland, Tolkien in Birmingham, Williams and Barfield in London) many years before coming to Oxford. Their passion arose, in part, from the sheer excitement of the genre, the intoxication of entering the unknown and fleeing the everyday.
For all of the leading Inklings, however, the rapture of the unknown pointed also to something more profound; it was a numinous event, an intimation of a different, higher, purer world or state of being. Fantasy literature was, for the Inklings, a pathway to this higher world and a way of describing, through myth and symbol, its felt presence. Fantasy became the voice of faith. And it made for a cracking good story.
What, then, were the Inklings? Was John Wain right to call them "a circle of instigators" intent on "redirecting … contemporary art and life"? Were they, rather, just a circle of friends, sharing talk, drink, jokes, and writings? Something in between or something other? The question vexed the Inklings themselves, their supporters, and their detractors during the group's existence and after its demise.
In 1955 the literary scholar and biographer Lord David Cecil opened an informed and reasonable window upon the matter while exploring, "one fine evening in May amid the Gothic shades of New College," in conversation with the novelist Rachel Trickett, the possible existence of an "Oxford School"; he later published a summary in dialogue form in the journal The Twentieth Century. If not exactly a school, Cecil thought, "there is something one might call an Oxford atmosphere," and it had to do with a wide range of ideas "entertained imaginatively" in a "tradition of non-specialized cultured conversation," a "relaxed, humane atmosphere" that gives writers room to breathe, in which bitter controversies are relatively rare. Within this happy climate, many different kinds of writers flourished; but Cecil could think of only one instance of a coherent, if informal, group or circle: the Inklings.
The Inklings, Cecil explained, "combined voluminous learning … with a strong liking for fantasy. But this fantasy was not indulged independently of their ideas; it was fantasy about their ideas." And it was, in the best sense of the word, "boyish fantasy; the imagination of a romantic, adventurous kind of boy." The Inklings, then, constituted "Oxford's nearest recent approximation to a 'school' … a school of ideas expressed through adventurous but learned fantasy." In addition to erudition and boyish fantasy, Cecil thought, there was a third and paramount factor that united them: their Christianity.
Cecil noted that "when I read writers in the Cambridge number of The Twentieth Century apparently showing pained surprise that distinguished intellectual persons should avow a belief in God, I cannot help reflecting that in Oxford this has never been at all unusual." Rachel Trickett agreed: In Oxford, a "savour of grave and gracious piety," as she put it, still lingered. Lewis had the impression, too, that the soldiers returning to Oxford from the Second World War were more likely to be Christian than the returning soldiers of his own generation.
"…Miss Sayers was an established author before I was heard of. Charles influenced me, not I him. And as for anyone influencing Tolkien, you might as well (to adapt the White King) try to influence a bandersnatch."
Of course there were Christians at Cambridge and modernists at Oxford, and plenty of anomalies on both sides (like T.S. Eliot, both Christian and modernist, and F.W. Bateson, both Christian and Leavisite). Moreover, Lewis himself warned against making too much of Oxford's Christian revival, pointing out in a 1946 article for The Cherwell that it could not be counted on to last: "Sooner or later it must lose the public ear; in a place like Oxford such changes are extraordinarily rapid. … Whatever in our present success mere Fashion has given us, mere Fashion will presently withdraw. The real conversions will remain: but nothing else will."
Lewis was well aware, too, that a Christian atmosphere is no protection against preening egos. That the Inklings may have been on the whole more decent and less vain than many other literary coteries can only be because they made a conscious effort to follow the path of real conversion.
Lack of vanity is one reason the Inklings vigorously resisted any account of the group as a formal school or movement. In a 1956 essay in Books on Trial, the novelist Charles A. Brady named Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers as members of an "Oxford Circle." "Lor' bless you," Lewis wrote to Brady in reply, "those dear friends of mine were never 'my school.' They were all older than I. Miss Sayers was an established author before I was heard of. Charles influenced me, not I him. And as for anyone influencing Tolkien, you might as well (to adapt the White King) try to influence a bandersnatch."
Lewis repeated this view just two months before his death in a letter to an American correspondent who was looking for clarification on this point: "I don't think Tolkien influenced me, and I am certain I didn't influence him. That is, didn't influence what he wrote. My continual encouragement, carried to the point of nagging, influenced him v. much to write at all with that gravity and at that length. In other words I acted as a midwife not as a father. The similarities between his work and mine are due, I think, (a) To nature — temperament. (b) To common sources. We are both soaked in Norse mythology, Geo. MacDonald's fairy-tales, Homer, Beowulf, and medieval romance. Also, of course, we are both Christians (he, an R.C.)."
All this seems definitive, although one must bear in mind that friends shape each other in myriad ways, obvious and subtle, and not always detectable to the principals involved. Tolkien and Lewis were comrades-in-arms during the Oxford English syllabus wars and planned — before their parting of ways — to co-author a book on language and human nature intended to exorcise the influence of I.A. Richards and his colleagues at Cambridge. Out of the Silent Planet might have been stillborn without Tolkien's intervention; so, too, The Lord of the Rings, but for the persistent support and timely critiques of Lewis and others.
In any event, the dispute over the exact nature of the Inklings — cabal or club? — has faded as history has stepped in with a third alternative: that whatever the Inklings may have been during their most clubbable years, today they constitute a major literary force, a movement of sorts. As symbol, inspiration, guide, and rallying cry, the Inklings grow more influential each year. This acclamation has led to much grinding of teeth, not least because the Inklings never achieved the formal brilliance of the greatest of their contemporaries, such as Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Borges, or Eliot.
The Australian critic Germaine Greer famously declared that "it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has materialized. … The books that come in Tolkien's train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic."
And much to the chagrin of those who share Greer's viewpoint, the books and spinoffs of various kinds that come in the Inklings' train are legion. Without the Inklings there would be no Dungeons & Dragons (and the whole universe of online fantasy role-playing it produced), no Harry Potter, no Philip Pullman (in his role as the anti-Lewis). Hollywood, the voice and arbiter of popular culture, has shifted dramatically toward mythopoeic tales; this is widely recognized to be the legacy of Tolkien, whose influence was disseminated by the 60s ("Frodo Lives!") drug culture, itself a neo-Romantic movement that soon overflowed its banks.
But Tolkien's mythology was deeply Christian and therefore had an organic order to it; and Lewis's Christian awakening was deeply mythopoeic and therefore had an element of spontaneity and beauty often missing from conventional apologetics.
Fan fiction, derivative fantasy novels, and sophomoric imitations aside, it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening. Tolkien fans are often surprised to discover that they have entered a Christian cosmos as well as a world of elves and hobbits; fans of Lewis's apologetic writings, on the other hand, are often discomfited when they learn about their hero's personal life, his relationship with a divorcée more than 20 years his senior, his hearty appetite for drink and ribaldry, and his enduring affection for the pagan and planetary gods. But Tolkien's mythology was deeply Christian and therefore had an organic order to it; and Lewis's Christian awakening was deeply mythopoeic and therefore had an element of spontaneity and beauty often missing from conventional apologetics.
The Inklings' work, then, taken as a whole, has a significance that far outweighs any measure of popularity, amounting to a revitalization of Christian intellectual and imaginative life. They were 20th-century Romantics who championed imagination as the royal road to insight and the "medieval model" as an answer to modern confusion and anomie; yet they were for the most part Romantics without rebellion, fantasists who prized reason, for whom Faërie was a habitat for the virtues and literature a sanctuary for faith. Even when they were not on speaking terms, they were at work on a shared project, to reclaim for contemporary life what Lewis called the "discarded image" of a universe created, ordered, and shot through with meaning.
Lewis's work was all of a piece: As literary scholar, fantasist, and apologist, he was ever on a path of rehabilitation and recovery. Tolkien, like Lewis, claimed to be a living anachronism — "I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)" — but anyone who troubles to create new languages and surround them with new myths for the sake of re-enchanting English literature can hardly be accused of living in the past. Similarly, in his fiction, Charles Williams reclaimed numinous objects — the Holy Grail, a tarot deck, Platonic archetypes — from past epochs and relocated them in modern England to demonstrate the thinness, even today, of the barrier between natural and supernatural; and Owen Barfield excavated the past embedded within language, secreted in the plainest of words, to illuminate the present and even the future of human consciousness.
There is another point that may explain the hostility of critics like Germaine Greer: The Inklings were, one and all, guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending. A story that ends happily is, some believe, necessarily a sop to wishful thinking, a refusal to grow up. In "On Fairy-Stories" — the closest we come to a manifesto for the Inklings' aesthetic — Tolkien turns this charge on its head, arguing that our deepest wishes, revealed by fairy stories and reawakened whenever we permit ourselves to enter with "literary belief" into a secondary world, are not compensatory fantasies but glimpses of an absolute reality. When Sam Gamgee cries out, "O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!" we are not in the realm of escapism, but of the Gospel, in all its strangeness and beauty.
There is another point that may explain the hostility of critics like Germaine Greer: The Inklings were, one and all, guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending.
Yet although the Inklings were guilty of the heresy of the Happy Ending, they were not optimists; they were war writers who understood that sacrifices must be made and that not all wounds will be healed in this life. Their belief in the Happy Ending was compatible with considerable anguish and uncertainty here below. One may be as gloomy as Puddleglum or as convinced as Frodo that "All my choices have proved ill" without losing hope in a final redemption.
And it is on the strength of this hope that the Inklings' project of recovery continues to unfold. Though surpassed in poetry and prose style by the very modernists they failed to appreciate, though surpassed in technical sophistication by any number of distinguished academic philosophers and theologians, the Inklings fulfilled what many find to be a more urgent need: not simply to restore the discarded image, but to refresh it and bring it to life for the present and future.
Literary revolutions leave many in their wake; but some of those who excoriate the Inklings may come to see that Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, virtue, self-transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature, beginning with Virgil and the Beowulf poet; that they have recovered archaic literary forms not as an antiquarian curiosity but as a means of squarely addressing modern anxieties and longings. From our present vantage point, this looks like a signal and even unprecedented achievement; but what permanent place the Inklings may come to occupy in Christian renewal and, more broadly, in intellectual and artistic history, is for the future to decide.
Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. "Oxford's Influential Inklings." The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 8, 2015).
This essay is adapted from the authors' book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings.
Reprinted with permission of the Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Philip Zaleski is a writer and former editor of the Best Spiritual Writing series. Carol Zaleski is the professor of world religions at Smith College. They are co-authors of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Prayer: A History, and The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings from Ancient to Modern Times.Copyright © 2015 Farrar, Straus & Giroux
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