Intro to the Inklings
On Tuesday Christianity Today Weblog noted that, thanks to a major reprinting of the works of C.S. Lewis—as well as a controversial proposal for new Narnia novels—the author's books are expected to post impressive sales figures this year. Weblog also noted that the works of Lewis's fellow "Inklings" will likely enjoy a boost related to the reprints and to the upcoming film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. "Even fantasies by the lesser-known Inkling, Charles Williams, and the spiritual mentor to the Inklings, George MacDonald … are expected to sell well," the Detriot Free Press reported.
Weblog (aka the founding editor of this newsletter, Ted Olsen) and I, having attended the college (Wheaton) where Lewis's wardrobe resides, can throw around a term like "Inkling" without really thinking about it. I think I slipped it into our new Dante issue twice. But for anyone who's not familiar with the insider reference, here's the back story on one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs in history.
Without doubt, Lewis's creative and theological genius was stimulated by his weekly meetings with the Inklings, a collection of thinkers and friends who gathered regularly to critique each other's writing and to discuss current events and life in general. The name of the group was transferred from a defunct Oxford literary society of which Lewis and Tolkien had been members to a group of friends who gathered in Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College every Thursday night. Usually present were C.S. Lewis, his brother Warren Lewis, Tolkien, Dr. R.E. Havard, and Charles Williams. Other attenders included Nevill Coghill, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, and Adam Fox.
In the Inklings' heyday, C.S. Lewis held a fellowship in language and literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. He later took a professorship of medieval and Renaissance literature at the similarly named Magdalene College, Cambridge, but he kept up relations with his Oxford cronies.
Warren, or "Warnie," Lewis was Clive's older brother and "dearest and closest friend." A career military man, he is less known as a man of letters, though he did write seven books on the history of seventeenth century France. His 40-year battle with alcoholism greatly concerned his brother.
Tolkien, another Oxford don, and Lewis initially took opposite sides in a faculty dispute over English literature curriculum, but they were eventually united by an interest in myth and legend. A serious Catholic, Tolkien influenced Lewis toward his Christian conversion. He presented The Hobbit in 1937 and finished the trilogy nearly two decades later; by contrast, Lewis published his seven-volume Narnia series between 1950 and 1956.
R.E. Havard wasn't a literary figure at all, but a physician who treated Lewis and the Tolkien family. He enjoyed discussing medical and philosophical questions.
Williams came to literary pursuits through the back door, beginning his career as a proofreader in the London office of Oxford University Press. Largely self-educated, he rose to the rank of editor and went on to be a prolific writer of poetry, novels, drama, theology, and criticism. His The Figure of Beatrice, which is excerpted in the current issue of CH, is considered one of the most incisive studies of Dante's Divine Comedy.
A focus of the meetings was the reading aloud of works in progress for criticism. Inklings heard and discussed first drafts of Lord of the Rings, Lewis's The Great Divorce, and Warren Lewis's book on Louis XIV. In addition, they read and critiqued their own poetry and that of others. Lively discussions ensued on such topics as education, pain, horror, comics, and who was the most important man in various countries. Much disagreement is reported to have occurred, and members sometimes expressed intense dislike for each other's work. Tolkien's disdain for Lewis's "simplistic" Narnia stories is particularly well-known.
The Inklings began meeting in Lewis's rooms around 1933 and continued that Thursday evening tradition until 1950. Tuesday morning gatherings at the Eagle and Child pub (known as the Bird and Baby) continued until Lewis's death. When I visited the pub on a trip to England a few years ago, I could only imagine what lofty and engaging conversations must have taken place there decades before.
* The Detriot Free Press article on the impending Inkling boom is online.
Elesha can be reached at cheditor@ChristianityToday.com.
The online issue archive for Christian History goes as far back as Issue 51 (Heresy in the Early Church). Prior issues are available for purchase in the Christian History Store.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.