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The Nature of the Inklings ~ The Imaginative Conservative

It is critical to remember that the meeting times as well as the membership of the Inklings were always and ever fluid. The group of friends never pretended to be a formal club, and they never desired it to exist as a sort of ideological cell.

Over the years from roughly 1931 to 1949, the group known as “The Inklings” met fairly regularly: on Tuesday afternoons at the Oxford pub, The Eagle and the Child (aka, The Bird and the Baby), and on Thursday evenings in C.S. Lewis’s rooms at Oxford. The Inklings first appeared in print, though not by that name, in Chad Walsh’s 1949 biography and analysis, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. “The stretch of time from 11:00 to 1:00 on Tuesday mornings Lewis ordinarily manages to keep free so that he can join a small circle of close friends at a certain small, sedate pub,” Walsh recorded.

There, in a private parlor, he and the half a dozen others pass an hour or two conversing on everything from the nature of God to the latest University events. This particular group dates back to the war years when the Oxford University Press (whose headquarters are normally in London!) fled from the blitz to Oxford, and one of its staff, Charles Williams, became the center of a little circle which met Tuesday mornings at the pub and Thursday evenings in Lewis’s college rooms. Charles Williams died in 1945, but the Tuesday morning meetings continue. The group is a fluctuating one. It is likely to contain a couple of Lewis’s colleagues such as Professor Tolkien, one or two students, sometimes a relative of someone or a distant friend.[1]

The sheer scope and content of the meetings astounded Walsh.

Only in retrospect did I realize how much intellectual ground was covered in these seemingly casual meetings. At the time the constant bustle of Lewis racing his friends to refill empty mugs or pausing to light another cigarette (occasionally a pipe) camouflaged the steady flow of ideas. The flow, I might add, is not a one-way traffic. Lewis is as good a listener as talker.’”[2]

In 1947, C.S. Lewis described The Inklings as a group of “literary friends. . . . we smoked, talked, argued, and drank together.”[3] John Wain, a student member of the Inklings, described the group in a similar manner.[4] Wain wrote that the Inklings were “a circle of investigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.”[5] Further, Wain argued, C.S. Lewis—whom he labeled a “dramatic personality”—led the group as a pro-Christian political cell [Lewis, by the way, adamantly disagreed with this assessment].

Warnie, C.S. Lewis’s older brother, remembered the evenings well:

Properly speaking it [The Inklings] was neither a club nor a literary society, but partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agenda, or formal elections, unless one accepts as a rule the fact that we met in Jack’s rooms every Thursday evening after dinner. Proceeding neither began nor terminated at a fixed hour, though there was a tacit agreement that ten thirty was as late as one could decently arrive. From time to time we added to our original number, but without formalities. Someone would suggest that Jones be asked to come in on a Thursday, and either there would be general agreement or if the suggestion was received with a certain lack of enthusiasm the matter would be dropped. But it was rarely that a name was put forward that was not generally acceptable, for all of us, like Jack himself, knew the sort of man we wanted— and did not want. . . . The ritual of an Inklings was unvarying. When half a dozen or so had arrived, tea would be produced, after which when pipes were alight Jack would say, ‘well has nobody got anything to read us?’ Out would come a manuscript and we would settle down to sit in judgement upon it. Real, unbiased judgement too, for about the Inklings there was nothing of a mutual admiration society; with us, praise for good work was unstinted but censure for bad, or even not so good, was often brutally frank. To read to the Inklings was a formidable ordeal, and I can still remember the fear and trembling with which I offered the first chapter of my first book— and remember too my delight at its reception.[6]

To be sure, the Inklings were not a mutual admiration society. Somewhat infamously, once when Tolkien pulled out a new chapter of The Lord of the Rings, another Inkling gasped, “Oh, fudge, not another elf.” Except, he didn’t say “fudge.”

This begs the question, just how important was Lewis to the Inklings? While no one could or should rightly deny the extraordinary influence of Lewis’s personality and charisma on the Inklings, stating that “without Lewis’s influence, the Inklings would not have been” is simplistic. Two other major factors—and a whole host of smaller ones—contributed to the makeup, ideas, and purpose of the Inklings. The first, though not necessarily in importance, was the publication of Owen Barfield’s 1928 work, Poetic Diction. Written originally as a thesis to earn his B.Litt, Barfield’s book exerted a profound influence on the Inklings.[7] In it, Barfield followed Plato’s ideas of “divine madness”, arguing that not only did imagination allow one to understand his sense data, but also that men “do not invent those mysterious relations between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings, which it is the function of poetry to reveal.” Instead, Barfield continued, “These relations exist independently, not indeed of Thought, but of any individual thinker.”[8] Further, men

in the development of consciousness, have lost the power to see this one as one. Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception. Thus, the ‘before-unapprehended’ relationship of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense ‘forgotten’ relationships. For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen. And imagination can see them again.[9]

Barfield, therefore, held the poet as one of the most important offices in western civilization. Without the development of poetry and the recognition of the necessity of the poet, the western world would become lost in scientistic nominalism and pragmatism and the organic unity of the West would be lost, perhaps permanently. Brilliantly argued, Barfield’s Poetic Diction falls neatly into the work of a number of important Christian humanist thinkers of the 1920s: that of Nicholas Berdyaev, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and Paul Elmer More.

As mentioned above, the influence of Barfield’s thought and works upon the various members of the Inklings cannot be exaggerated. In many ways, Poetic Diction set the tone for the Inklings, as they saw themselves, as Wain best put it, “redirecting the whole current of contemporary life and art,” and myth, metaphor, and poetry would lead the revival. Tolkien may have been the most profoundly influenced, though he had already arrived at many of the same conclusions as Barfield. Poetic Diction allowed Tolkien to order and shape his not fully formed thoughts. In a letter to Barfield, Lewis wrote: “You might like to know that when Tolkien dined with me the other night he said a propos of something quite different that your conception of the ancient semantic unity had modified his whole outlook and that he was always just going to say something in a lecture when your conception stopped him in time.” Barfield held a strong affinity with Tolkien’s notions on myth as well.[10] And, though the atheist Lewis of the 1920s had fought vehemently against Barfield’s Platonic metaphysical ideas, as a Christian, Lewis embraced them, at least in part.[11] One can readily see the influence of Barfield on Lewis in his space trilogy, especially in the first one, Out of the Silent Planet.

The other major influence came from Tolkien’s legendarium. Tolkien first presented the manifestations of the mythology—The Hobbit, written in the early to mid 1930s, and The Lord of the Rings, written between 1938 and 1949—to the Inklings, reading them aloud, chapter by chapter. While each of these things may individually be mere temporal coincidences, the coincidences collectively are too strong to be dismissed. Tolkien met Lewis when he had completed the first major outline of The Silmarillion, served as members of the Koalbiters which evolved, for the most part, into the Inklings, and the Inklings met until 1949 when Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Tolkien’s mythology served as both a backdrop and as a centerpiece for the Inklings.

Still, there were a significant number of other members of this fluid group, and they should never be discounted: C.S. Lewis’s brother and historian, Warnie; romantic theologian, Charles Williams; biographer Lord David Cecil; Royal Naval officer Jim Dundas-Grant; ancient historian C.E. Stevens; the Dominican priest and scholar of Byzantium, Mathew Gervase; classicist Colin Hardie; literary scholar Hugo Dyson; physician Robert Havard; historian and political theorist R.B. McCallum; literary scholar Neville Coghill; Anglo-Saxonist C.L. Wrenn; and poet and theologian, Adam Fox.

Sometimes students would attend as well, though their role is unclear in the larger history of the Inklings. Regardless, each student who attended offers a fascinating take on what he saw and what it might have meant. These included Christopher Tolkien, J.A.W. Bennett, George Sayers, Roger Lancelyn-Green, and John Wain. Because Dorothy Sayers contributed to the memorial volume written for Charles Williams, some commentators have suggested she, too, was an Inkling. She never was, however. The Inklings remained strictly male during the entirety of its existence.

Again, though, it is critical to remember that the meeting times as well as the membership of the Inklings were always and ever fluid. The group of friends never pretended to be a formal club, and it never desired to exist as a sort of ideological cell. As Lewis cautioned, shortly before his death, “The whole picture of myself as one forming a cabinet, or cell, or coven [remember, John Wain’s view] is erroneous.” To claim such a thing, he noted with adamancy is to mistake “purely personal relationships for alliances.”[12] In other words, to understand the Inklings, one must think apolitically and non-ideologically. One should not see them as promoting any specific man-made ideal or political or cultural or economic or social system.

This essay is part two in a series. The first essay may be found here.

Author’s Note: This was essay was given as a talk on January 30, 2022, for Hillsdale’s Center for Constructive Alternatives. I would like to thank the students of his Christian Humanism class; Nathaniel and Dedra Birzer; Matt Bell, Doug Jeffrey, and Tim Caspar of the CCA office; and Dean Mark Kalthoff, Eric Hutchinson, Nathan Schlueter, and Jason Peters of the faculty roundtable.

This essay was first published here in February 2022.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Chad Walsh, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, 15-17.

[2] Walsh, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, 15-17.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Preface,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s, 1974), v.

[4] John Wain, Sprightly Running: Part of An Autobiography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962), 138-39.

[5] Wain, Sprightly Running, 181.

[6] WCWC, C.S. Lewis, A Biography, By W.H. Lewis(unpublished).

[7] On the “Great War,” see Lionel Adey, C.S. Lewis’s ‘Great War’ with Owen Barfield (Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1978).  On the origins of Poetic Diction, see Lyle W. Dorsett Interview with Owen Barfield, July 19 and 20, 1984 (Kent, England) in WCWC.

[8] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 72.  Unless otherwise noted, all citations to Poetic Diction will be to the first edition of 1928.

[9] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 72-73.

[10] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1983), 38.

[11] Adey, C.S. Lewis’s “Great War” with Owen Barfield, 18.

[12] C.S. Lewis, “Wain’s Oxford,” Encounter (January 1963), 81.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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