Weblog (a.k.a. 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 Christian History, 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.
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Christian Historyprofiled Lewis for its issue on "The 10 Most Influential Christians of the Twentieth Century."
Earlier Christianity Today articles about C.S. Lewis and the Inklings include:
Walking Where Lewis Walked | My reluctant entry into the world of pilgrimage. By Virginia Stem Owens (Feb. 10, 2000)
Still Surprised by Lewis | Why this nonevangelical Oxford don has become our patron saint. By J.I. Packer (Sept. 7, 1998)
Jack Is Back | The search for the historical Lewis (Feb. 3, 1997)
Books & Culture Corner: Spring in Purgatory | Dante, Botticelli, C. S. Lewis, and a lost masterpiece (Feb. 7, 2000)
What C. S. Lewis wrote about Botticelli (Feb. 7, 2000)
C.S. Lewis on Christmas (Dec. 16, 1983)
Reflections: C.S. Lewis | Writings that explicate the Christian faith and walk (Nov. 16, 1998)
The C.S. Lewis (and the Inklings) site attempts to bring in the lesser-known Inklings whenever possible, but focuses mainly on the apologist.
The Mythopoeic Society offers A Beginner's Bibliography of the Inklings.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
How Not to Read Dante | You probably missed the point of The Divine Comedy in high school. (May 11, 2001)
If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)
Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)
Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)
A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)
Christian Education for All | The first Sunday schools provide a positive example of government partnerships with faith-based organizations.(Mar. 23, 2001)
The Sport of Saints? | Forget St. Pat's. It's time for March Madness, baby! (And yes, it's Christian.) (Mar. 16, 2001)
Digging in China | Christianity in the world's most populous country may be a lot older than anybody imagined. (Mar. 9, 2001)
Food for the Soul? | Lenten traditions range from fowl-turned-fish to pretzels. (Mar. 2, 2001)
The Radical Kirk | The Church of Scotland has a long history of intense reforms. (Feb. 23, 2001)
Marching to Zion | The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church celebrates its 200th anniversary today. (Feb. 16, 2001)
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