Perspectives on the Inklings
Although there were many influences and many friends and associates, some of who came and went, the group called the Inklings (sometimes called the Oxford Christians) came down to three men; C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. And these three are not just among those who most regularly met together for reading and conversation, but they are the ones who produced the extraordinary and diverse body of writings that we identify with this group.
The world that this group lived in was that of the academic life at Oxford University. Responsibilities which Lewis and Tolkien would have as tutors would be to meet on a one-to-one basis with students, sometimes in very small groups, and to offer public lectures during the school year. The tutorials with students consisted of assigned readings for a week, during which time the student would prepare an essay. The essay would be read and critiqued by the professor the following week and more reading would be assigned. So the students actually “read” their chosen course of study, rather than attend classes.
Then and now Oxford University consists of a number of individual colleges. The tutorials would take place in the professor’s rooms at the college to which they belonged. The rooms usually consisted of an office study area along with a living room usually containing a bed. It would not be unusual for a professor to spend most of the week at his college rooms and return to his home only on the weekend. The public lectures would not be mandatory but presented for the students to gain additional insights into the topics they were studying.
The atmosphere at Oxford University is certainly one which is intellectually rarified, but it can also be one of egotistical posturing and departmental politics. To obtain a position, and to keep that position, meant that you had to be on top of your game so to speak.
If we look for a center of the Inklings it has to be C. S. Lewis. The most important meeting time was on Thursday evenings in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College, starting around 9 and sometimes going very late. There was also a regular gathering on Tuesday mornings at the Oxford pub called The Eagle and Child (also called The Bird & the Baby), but these included a more diverse crowd and were not so essential to the identity of the group. Although Lewis was the center of the group he was also the one who was the most influenced by others; especially by Tolkien and later by Williams.
The Lewis that people knew at Oxford did not exactly fit with the one who wrote children’s fantasy, science fiction and Christian apologetics. He kept those things separate from the academic responsibilities of his professional life. Most people know about Lewis’ late in life marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham, but only through the poor portrayal of it in the play Shadowlands (twice made into a movie). But many people do not know of his thirty year relationship with Mrs. Moore, or the peculiar, unresolved controversy over his literary estate centering on the role of Walter Hooper.
Lewis is many times made over into the image of whoever is looking into him. He is so multifaceted in his writings that people come to him from very divergent backgrounds, but yet each is able to find something of value in what he says. If there ever was a person who would be canonized by the Protestant Evangelical community it would be Lewis, but those people would be hard pressed to take in Lewis as a whole.
Tolkien, on the other hand, had a much more traditional kind of life. He was married throughout his adult life, and amazingly enough seems to have found time to spend with his wife and children. His obsession was the creation of Middle-earth, something which astounded most of his colleagues at Oxford for it was not anything they had known about. With the material that his son Christopher edited after his father’s death one can see that there has been no mythological fantasy written that is as fully realized as that of Tolkien, and it is unlikely that there ever will be any to match the greatness of his achievement. The Lord of the Rings is one of the great literary works of the twentieth century but it is doubtful that it will ever be recognized as such because of the medieval nature of its models, and because it is a work of fantasy.
Charles Williams is the dark horse of the trio. Although he never finished college, he was immersed in literary England through his work at the Oxford University Press. He wrote much literary criticism, with his most famous work in this area being on Dante (The Figure of Beatrice). His series of contemporary novels always showed the natural and the supernatural co-existing side by side. His theology was informed by his activity for over a decade in British occultism. This aspect of his interests is usually passed over as being nothing more than an unusual hobby. But far from this, Williams’ involvement in the occult informed his Christian theology in a way that makes it rather odd for a more conventional Christian to read. His greatest influence in this regard was A. E. Waite. Williams’ crowning literary achievement is his set of Arthurian poems which for all its obscurity and hermeticism stands as one of the great re-workings of the Matter of Britain in modern times.
Lewis and Tolkien had started teaching at Oxford in the mid 1920’s. Tolkien was one of the ones most instrumental in Lewis becoming a Christian, but was disappointed that he didn’t join the Catholic Church. The closeness of Tolkien and Lewis was shaken when Williams left London to live in Oxford with the University Press offices in 1939.
The time of the Inklings lasted from the early 1930’s until 1949. Warren Lewis acted as unofficial secretary. Other people who could be considered as part of the group include: Owen Barfield, J. A. W. Bennett, David Cecil, Nevil Coghill, Jim Dundas-Grant, Hugo Dyson, Adam Fox, Colin Hardie, R. E. Havard, Gervase Mathew, R. B. McCallum, C. E. Stevens, Christopher Tolkien, John Wain and Charles Wrenn. There were many others that were associates or acquaintances of one or more of the regular participants. Of these there was some mutual admiration, and sometimes even influence. Most prominent among this third category were W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers.