I wrote last week about all the literary groups that formed some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and how L.M. Montgomery was alone. One of those was the Inklings, which made C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien into the writers that they were. Without the daring possibilities in Tolkien’s work and the intelligent conversation of the Inklings, Lewis may never have turned to popular fiction and cultural criticism. Without Lewis’ persistent support and criticism and the company of other mythopoeic writers, Tolkien may never have completed that grand project of turning his mythology into popular story, lyric, and epic. I don’t think that the Inklings were more important to English literature than the Paris Expats or the Bloomsbury Set or the Detection Club, but in terms of the development of fantasy literature, the Inklings created new worlds.
Since I refer to the Inklings and their meetings so often, I thought I would be best to share a bit more of their background. To do this, I want briefly to introduce George Sayer.
Sayer was a student of C.S. Lewis’ at Magdalen College, Oxford. Until the close of the war where he worked in the Intelligence Corps. Following the war, George and Moira Sayer moved to Malvern College where would become a teacher and eventually head of English. The schoolmaster kept up his relationship with Lewis and Tolkien through letters and visits. Some of those audio recordings kicking around the internet of Tolkien reading The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were recorded at Hamewith, the Sayers’ Malvern home (though I don’t know which ones).
Lewis would visit the Sayers and hike through the Malvern Hills–this was, after all, where Lewis went to school as a boy. When he was a student at Oxford, Sayer’s spiritual interest was piqued by Lewis’ tutorials–though Sayer only realized in his third year of tutelage that Lewis was a Christian. Sayer is one of the converts to Catholicism–with Dom Bede Griffiths, Walter Hooper, and a score of others–whose spiritual journey was energized by Lewis and his work. The Sayers remained intimate with Lewis when he married Joy Davidman, the four enjoying visits together at the Kilns before Joy’s death.
Showing an unusual degree of restraint, Goerge Sayer waited until 1988 to write a biography of his mentor and friend. And this is a very good biography–really the best biography for those who simply want to get to know C.S. Lewis. There are other other biographies I would recommend for those interested in literature, spirituality, or sheer fact, but for an intimate memoir-biography, turn to Sayer’s Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times (1988; 1994; 2005). I don’t know if Sayer ever attended an official Inklings event, but his description of how the Inklings emerged and what happened there is a great introduction both to this Oxford literary circle and to Sayer’s biography.
For years no regular event delighted Jack more than the Thursday evening meetings of the little group of friends called the Inklings. His was the second group to use this name. Its predecessor was founded in about 1930 by a University College undergraduate named Tangye Lean. Members met in each other’s rooms to read aloud their poems and other work. There would be discussion, criticism, encouragement, and frivolity, all washed down with wine or beer. Lean’s group consisted mainly of students, but a few sympathetic dons were invited to join, including Tolkien and Jack, who may have been Lean’s tutor. Lean graduated in June 1933, and that autumn Jack first used the name the Inklings to describe the group that had already begun to meet in his rooms.
It was always utterly informal. There were no rules, no officers, and certainly no agenda. To become a member, one had to be invited, usually by Jack. Nearly all members were his friends.
The first was J.R.R. Tolkien, elected Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1935 [sic, 1925]. He was forty-two and full of energy. Coming from Leeds, he found the Oxford English School disappointing because it seemed to him that too much time was given to Victorian and modern literature and far too little to AngloSaxon and Middle English language and literature. He set out to remedy this with a remarkable energy and practicality. He also encouraged the study of Icelandic literature by forming another group of dons, called the Coalbiters, to read and translate the Sagas and Eddas. Most members of this group had a good knowledge of the language, but a few beginners, including Jack and Nevill Coghill, were invited to join. Tolkien presided and corrected everyone’s mistakes.
Jack’s first impressions of Tolkien were not entirely favorable, but he found the meetings of the Coalbiters exciting. He loved both the language and the literature, and the study revived his taste for “northernness” and brought back “the old authentic thrill” he had experienced as a child. Tolkien was a rather diffident and private person. He was a domestic man, deeply concerned with his home life and growing family. He was also a most gifted philologist and an inspired storyteller, combining these talents in the languages and people he invented for such books as The Silmarillion. A conservative Roman Catholic, he was rather quick to draw his sword if he thought his faith was under attack. He kept the best of himself for his own secret creative world as a storyteller, of which few indeed had any idea in the 1930s.
Although Jack studied Icelandic literature under Tolkien every few weeks, he did not realize until December 3, 1929, that they shared a taste for “northernness” and a delight in Norse mythology. Jack invited Tolkien to come back to his rooms after a Coalbiters meeting for a chat and some whiskey. He stayed for three hours, “discoursing of the gods and giants of Asgard.” The visit was longer than Jack had intended, but “who could turn him out, for the fire was bright and the talk good.” This discussion was the germ of the Inklings and the beginning of one of the most important literary friendships of the twentieth century. A few days later, Tolkien asked Jack to give his opinion on two poems, lyrical versions of some of the stories later published as The Silmarillion. Jack wrote encouragingly and suggested improvements. Although Tolkien did not care for many of these, he was delighted by Jack’s genuine interest and suggested that they might meet once a week so that he could read the rest of The Silmarillion to Jack.
The duo became a trio in 1933 by the addition of Warren [Lewis], who had been collecting books on the age of Louis XIV since World War I and was probably considering how to approach the study he hoped to write for publication. Although he did not begin his “doggerel history of the reign” until June 1934, meetings of the Inklings were for him among the high points of the week. He brought to the sessions a keen mind, an experience of army life at home and overseas, and a knowledge of a large number of unusual subjects.
In 1934 Hugo Dyson and Dr. Robert E. Havard made it a group. Dyson, a lecturer at Reading University, was volatile, exuberant, and eccentric, a quick-witted comedian; Jack enjoyed his sort of humor. Dyson’s encounter with Councillor Brewer, a man of vast bulk, in an Oxford pub is typical. Hugo addressed him with an almost servile deference, “You will pardon the liberty, sir. I trust you don’t think I presume, but I shall call you Fred.” Then, gazing intently at his full pale face, broke in again, “You’ll excuse me, sir, but am I looking at your full face or your profile?” The Councillor, still smiling determinedly, turned to his friend and began to reminisce about their having rowed together in the Teddy Hall boat the year Teddy Hall was bottom of the river. But we had never heard the story. “Bottom? Bottoms?” said Hugo. “Admirable things if ample enough, but you, sir, of course, could have no difficulty about that!” He much preferred talking to listening, and he disliked The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For these reasons, people sometimes found him irritating.
Dr. Havard (always called Humphrey, a name given to him by Dyson) was Jack’s and Warren’s doctor from 1934 on. Although he was too busy to write much, he was well-read and keenly interested in the processes of literature and in theology. Havard did much to encourage Jack in the writing of the Narnia stories, the first of which was dedicated to his daughter. He was an entirely delightful man and much respected for his concern with the whole person, rather than just the physical body. I remember a reminiscence of Tolkien’s that illustrates this point.
“I told him that I was feeling depressed, so depressed that I hadn’t been to Mass for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t sleeping well either. He said I didn’t need drugs, what I needed was to go to Confession. He was at my house at 7:30 the following morning to take me to Confession and Mass. Of course I was completely cured. Now that’s the sort of doctor to have!”
Nevill Coghill, who read light verse, and Charles Wrenn, who tutored Jack’s third-year pupils in Old English, sometimes came to the group, as did Owen Barfield and other friends of Jack’s who happened to be in Oxford on Thursday evenings.
After the arrival of Charles Williams from London at the start of the war, still others joined the Inklings. Membership required the group’s general agreement. As Warren put it, “We all knew the sort of man we wanted—and did not want.” The latter included dogmatic men who relied, not on evidence, but on cliché—“The sort of fellow,” Jack would say, “who uses language not to communicate thought but instead of thought.”
The ritual never varied. When most of the expected members had arrived (and maybe only three or four would come), Warren would brew a pot of strong tea, the smokers would light their pipes, and Jack would say, “Well, has nobody got anything to read us?” If no one else produced a manuscript, Jack might read something of his own. This was not a mutual admiration society. “Praise for good work was unstinted but censure for bad, or even not so good, was often brutally frank.” To read could be a formidable ordeal. Warren has left an account of the meetings in 1946, which he describes as a vintage year:
. . . [W]e had at most meetings a chapter of what I call “the new Hobbit” from Tolkien; this being the book or books ultimately published as “The Lord of the Rings.” [O]n 30th October . . . there was a long argument on the ethics of cannibalism, and on 28th November Roy Campbell read his translation of a couple of Spanish poems and John Wain won an outstanding bet by reading a chapter of “Irene Iddesleigh” without a smile. At our next meeting David Cecil read a chapter of his forthcoming book on Gray. Sometimes, but not often, it would happen that no one had anything to read to us, and on these occasions the fun would grow riotous, with Jack at the top of his form and enjoying every minute—“No sound delights me more,” he once said, “than male laughter.” At the Inklings his talk was an outpouring of wit, nonsense, whimsy, dialectical swordplay, and pungent judgements. . . .
The same company used to meet on Tuesdays (later Mondays) for an hour or two before lunch at The Eagle and Child (a pub that was always referred to in University circles as “The Bird and Baby”). This particular inn was chosen partly because of its small back room, but mainly because of the character of its landlord, Charles Blagrove, who had
“endless stories of an Oxford which is as dead as Dr. Johnson’s . . . an Oxford in which it was not uncommon for undergrads to fight a landlord for a pint of beer: both would strip to the waist, have a mill in the backyard, and then the battered undergrad would throw down a sovereign and depart.”
Blagrove had begun life as a cab driver. He remembered undergraduates who were so fastidious that they would give him their new suits if they did not fit perfectly. He could talk about the lavish tips he had received for driving “what he used to call ‘fancy goods’ to secluded spots; of the people who used to hire his cab to be taken ‘somewhere where they could find a fight’; of rags, dinners, that general reckless extravagance and panache which prevailed when the security of the upper classes was still absolute, and England ruled the world. . . .”
Jack held meetings of the Inklings in his rooms for fifteen years, until one horrible Thursday in October 1949 when nobody turned up. What were his motives? In his brilliant book, The Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter suggests that he sought to protect himself through the formation of a circle of friends against the powerful inner circle that seemed to him to dominate Magdalen and university politics. This seems to me to be true. He felt isolated during his early years at Magdalen and under dialectical attack during the later ones. For reassurance, he needed fairly frequent meetings with his friends, men who held similar views. Though few who met him casually would have guessed it, he was beneath the surface plagued by Celtic melancholy and a streak of pessimism, qualities the Inklings held at bay. He loved his friends and liked to think that he was of service to them in their literary careers. Meetings of the Inklings made him utterly happy (George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, pp. 228-234).