Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 78 > J.R.R. Tolkien: The Gallery - The Inklings
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Gallery - The Inklings
Tolkien relished his weekly meetings with this club of remarkable friends.
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Thursday evenings in Lewis's Magdalen College rooms and Tuesdays for lunch at the Eagle and Child public house, Tolkien joined C. S. Lewis and a revolving cast of others in a beloved ritual.
Over tea—or ale—and pipes, these Oxford thinkers and writers read aloud from their works, traded anecdotes and jibes, and engaged in what Lewis called "the cut and parry of prolonged, fierce, masculine argument." Many passages of The Lord of the Rings found in the Inklings their first—and unfailingly appreciative—audience, much to the delight of their author.
Lewis, a fellow and tutor in English at Oxford's Magdalen College from 1925 to 1954 (he moved on to a professorship at Cambridge), was the group's vociferous nucleus.
Around him were usually arrayed, along with Tolkien, Lewis's brother Warren (Warnie), the medical doctor R. E. ("Humphrey") Havard—known affectionately by the group as "the Useless Quack"—and the eccentric author, lecturer, and Oxford University Press editor Charles Williams.
Beyond these was a larger circle of friends and sometime attenders that included the London solicitor and scholar Owen Barfield, the Oxford English professor and theatrical producer Nevill Coghill, Tolkien's son Christopher (himself a lecturer in languages at Oxford after the war), and the Dominican priest and humanities lecturer Gervase Mathew.
We begin this brief gallery of several Inklings with a look at the "personality" of Oxford itself. We end with two pages on Tolkien's relationship with Lewis, which strongly influenced the thought and writings of both men.
Old Boys and Ivory Towers
The Inklings' Oxford
The clock on the tower of Tom Gate at Christ Church still strikes "Oxford Time," five minutes slower than the rest of the city—or indeed the world. The spires and towers of 39 colleges and 20 Anglican churches dominate the scenery. Students punt on the river accompanied by picnic lunches and champagne, and Blackwell's Bookshop and the Eagle and Child pub invite leisurely afternoon visits. Despite the presence of the ubiquitous Starbucks and a scattering of midriff-baring teenagers, Oxford is still the Inklings' Oxford.
At Magdalen College, visitors can still see the immaculately groomed lawns and attempt to cajole the deer along Addison's Walk, where Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson had a conversation instrumental in Lewis' conversion (see p. 36). Tolkien and his wife, Edith, lived in numerous Oxford houses—several were lodgings "in college"—and attended Catholic churches in the area. All, weather-beaten by decades if not centuries of rain, still stand unobtrusively amid showier spires.
Oxford in the mid-twentieth century was a much more masculine place than it is today: women's colleges existed, but in a second-class way (as Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night makes clear) until they were granted full collegiate status in 1959. Now, both women's and men's colleges admit members of the opposite sex; then, Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, and their friends argued theology and read out passages from their works in an environment full of male camaraderie in both pub and college.
Echoes of this often come through in Tolkien's works; the men go out into the world united in fellowship to do battle, whereas the women—worshiped in the way Tolkien adored his wife Edith—wait, watch, and work a secret magic.
The English countryside has often been identified with his green and pastoral Shire (see p. 38). But Oxford University's ageless buildings seem also to have left their mark on Middle-earth. Few places, even in England, pack as much history into as little space as Oxford—"New" College was built in 1379.
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