The Regent College BS Guild and the Inklings

It was a brief and intensely happy time of my life. My wife and I moved from rural Japan to the grand city of Vancouver. Never having lived in anything more than a small town and moving from a mountain village to a big city, we were at first daunted by the sheer size–a couple of million people squeezed in between the ocean, rainforests, and mountains. This was a big step for the Dickieson family.

Almost immediately, we discovered that Vancouver was our town. We had a tiny, lovely garden entrance suite in an older part of the town. We became friends with our landlord and their ever-growing family. We found a great, weird church just a few feet from our back door. We lived a few blocks from the Commercial Drive community: a poor, colourful, diverse, street-driven, creative, eclectic international collective thrown together by necessity and intention along a mile-long strip just to the east of Chinatown. My wife found her feet and established a career working with kids in need at the Britannia project, and I fell in love with “The Drive” with its cheap pizza and sushi, its fruit markets and record stories and beggars who insist on organic food in their handouts–all to the constant sound of drumming at Grandview Park and the ever-present hint of green in the wind.

We loved Vancouver, and love it still. There were some life-changing bad things that happened there, but in the majority of our memories, Vancouver is a special place for us. As my wife was working out her career, Vancouver was the place where I began to give voice to my vocation with others.

A lot of that was my grad school, Regent College. If the language existed then, Regent may have been called a hipster seminary. “Unseminary” was the term they used at the time. It was at Regent with its fairtrade coffee, organic soup days, eclectic chapel services, art gallery, environmental design, and Inklings section in the bookstore that I found a place for the integrated, incarnational, creational worldview that I had been trying to work out. One of our early nights out as a couple might give a sense of the community we discovered: We were invited for a dinner-and-a-movie evening with other couples and single people from around the world. After an hour commute on the bus, we enjoyed sophisticated home-cooked cuisine and local wine, watched the Danish film Babette’s Feast, and then had a discussion about theologies of grace and the luxurious goodness of God.

That just never happened in the small towns of our experience, as great as Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Alberta, and Japan were for us.

And it was in that atmosphere that for the first time in my life found there was something like an intellectual life, and that I was fit to be formed in this life.

Regent College was a great space for connecting with writers, a time when I wrote poetry, chatted about our work with others, and saw that quiet desperation to be an author that I felt inside of my chest in the chests of others. At Regent I gathered the skills and energies needed to begin a career of writing, and set my first, overwrought novel on The Drive.

But one of the most important formation spaces for me was our Biblical Studies Guild, or the appropriately named BS Guild for short. The Guild had loose borders and meetings sometimes included other classmates and partners and friends. But at the centre was a group of five guys, born in four different countries on three continents, each of us quite different in the way we approached problems and talked about ideas. I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but the catalyst for our guild was, believe it or not, the Settlers of Catan. If you don’t know the game, you won’t understand. For those that know Settlers and games like it, when the game is understood t starts to work in you like a feast. There is the game on the table, and we make choices and win and lose, but like the evening-long picking at food in a Canadian kitchen, it is really the conversation that counts.

And it was the BS Guild conversation that mattered to me. How refreshing it was for me to be able to talk about ideas with people who were better than me in many ways and yet still counted me an equal. Each guy had his own kind of intelligent: one was more philosophical, one more pastoral, one more missional, and one more artistic. I think the only thing I was the best at was learning these ancient languages that we all suffered through (which I still love teaching), but I probably contributed most in simple love of argument. The resulting conversation was to me “red beef and strong beer,” as C.S. Lewis said of his first real ideas conversation partner. The BS Guild gave me a place to play and test ideas and imagine possibilities, but one that was rooted in life and mission.

It was a relatively brief time of greatness. With graduations and further opportunities, the Guild disbanded, leaving no local legacy except our friendship, which is not nearly the thing I wish it was. Very soon after Regent College, I got into a pretty deep space of trouble, an all-consuming period of pain and loss that made the 4,000 miles from my apartment to Vancouver a space of interstellar distance. It was a painful time that meant a loss of 6 or 7 years of my vocational life.

Still, I had that space that formed me. The BS Guild is now in five countries on three continents. The guys have gone on to do important things, and I believe I am the only one who is still in limbo, trying to initiate the dreams I dreamt and the ideas that emerged at monthly Guild meetings.

I have had the gift of friendships since and relish deeply in my church and friendship groups. I enjoy some distance-digital friends that are essential to my formation now, and have made some pretty random connections of intellectual kindred spirits that are life-giving to me. But in many ways my paradigmatic space is back in Vancouver. I am fondly proud of the work of the BS Guild and grateful for the person they shaped in me. It isn’t back there any more, in Vancouver, but only in my imagination. Yet it is one of the forces in my life and one that I think resonates with other groups like it.

I wrote earlier this month about all the literary groups that formed some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and how L.M. Montgomery was alone. After attending an L.M. Montgomery international conference this past weekend, I feel Montgomery’s loss even more clearly. If she had had a group like mine, I think her intellect would have been grown as iron sharpens iron. I don’t know about how this would have affected her fiction, but I think it would have strengthened her essay writing, her poetry, and her mental health.

One of those powerful literary groups was the Inklings. This group that met in Oxford rooms and pubs for two decades made C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien into the writers that they were. Last week I shared a bit more of an insider’s look at the Inklings, introducing George Sayer’s history of the InklingsWithout the daring possibilities in Tolkien’s work, Lewis may never have turned to popular fiction. Without Lewis’ persistent support and criticism, Tolkien may never have completed that grand project of turning his mythology into the story, lyric, and epic that we have come to love so deeply.

It was at Regent College where I first discovered the name “the Inklings”–and thought it clever–but it took me years to learn the power those Oxford meetings really held. The BS Guild did for me what the Inklings did for each other. Sometimes things take time. C.S. Lewis each had projects they began during the late 30s in their Inklings context that they didn’t publish until the mid-50s. I hope it isn’t that long for me, but it will be 14 years from when the Guild disbanded and I will complete my PhD, which I first sketched out while playing Settlers of Catan.

There are myriad conversations about why the Inklings broke up. The introduction of Charles Williams to the group created distance between Tolkien and Lewis. That distance was increased with Lewis’ love affair with Joy Davidman: though Tolkien knew that Joy’s presence had changed Lewis, Lewis didn’t even tell Tolkien when he was married. Lewis had expected that the Inklings would operate as a bachelor’s club, but when Joy appeared he wanted to include her and change the dynamics. Beyond those factors, Lewis was very weary in 1948-1951, until the death of Mrs. Moore and a year-long sabbatical. At times Tolkien was thoroughly overwhelmed by his twin chores of academic work and editing his mythology. Hugo Dyson’s antipathy to Tolkien’s legendarium–“Oh no! Not another f***ing elf!” he cried as Tolkien was reading once–was a factor in Tolkien’s quiet withdrawal. But I think Tolkien’s hasty and inappropriate rejection of Narnia may have hurt Lewis. Tolkien also struggled with Lewis’ apologetic project, and Owen Barfield could never participate in the way he wanted. There were many factors that contributed to the slow death of the Inklings.

But, frankly, 15 years of twice-weekly meetings, followed by 15 years of near-weekly pub sessions is a startling long period. In the end, based on my experience of a theological version of the Inklings, sometimes things change and friendships drift without any shocking or controversial reason. The Inklings lived its life, and then it faded. I think the value of the group is clear in the history that remains–not just the books and poems they wrote, but in their private papers. Warren Lewis’ diary is salt-and-peppered with Inklings encouragement. Tolkien’s letters talk of his fondness for C.S. Lewis, and the loss that Tolkien felt upon Lewis’ death.

And Lewis never stopped resonating for Tolkien. One of the gifts of Alister McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet is his inclusion of an unpublished letter Lewis wrote to the Nobel Committee, nominating J.R.R. Tolkien for the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature (see pg. 351). This note, written after the golden days of the Inklings, is a little indication of the power of a literary guild, a momentary and decades-long meeting of minds and hearts.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to The Regent College BS Guild and the Inklings

  1. okane says:

    Thank you for your compassionate self-disclosure – by which I mean, your willingness to share your own journey not out of egotism but out of a commitment to the value of human connection and collaboration. Have you written about your ‘dark period’ elsewhere? If not, I hope you will be able to do so at some point. I am reading a moving autobiography by the novelist Andrew Klavan called “The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.” His dark periods were very dark but God held and guided him through them towards the light as He must have done for you, too. Keep up the good work with your reflections which are interesting even for a non-specialist (and, confession, non-Tolkien reader!) like myself.

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    • Thanks for this note! I don’t know that I have ever more than hinted at that dark period in writing, but all my friends know. There is a bit more of the story here: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2015/08/05/stumbled/.
      I read a little, great fantasy book called The Great Good Thing, but not this reference. It’s funny, I accidentally landed at a Jews for Jesus lecture in Chicago, then met a Jewish convert missionary, and then this (all in a 2 week period–we don’t have very many Jews where I live, so I don’t hear much).
      Thanks for the encouragement!

      Like

  2. djhockley123 says:

    Thanks Brenton,

    Quite enjoyed reading this and hearing your story as one I’ve had glimpses of from a distant land. D

    From: A Pilgrim in Narnia Reply-To: A Pilgrim in Narnia Date: Tuesday, June 26, 2018 at 5:30 AM To: David Hockley Subject: [New post] The Regent College BS Guild and the Inklings

    WordPress.com Brenton Dickieson posted: ” It was a brief and intensely happy time of my life. My wife and I moved from rural Japan to the grand city of Vancouver. Never having lived in anything more than a small town and moving from a mountain village to a big city, we were at first daunted b”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Vancouver (which I’ve never visited) made me think of Malcolm Lowry – are you a Lowry reader? I really enjoyed Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (as contrast and complement to Under the Volcano, which itself is interesting to compare and contrast with Williams’s fiction, e.g., in the different ways they use related esoteric lore, and study human choice). But, looking him up in Wikipedia just now, I am struck by how he seemed to lack a ‘group’ (I’m not sure what, if any ‘group’ dimension there was to living “briefly in London, existing on the fringes of the vibrant Thirties literary scene and meeting Dylan Thomas, among others” or where befriending “his literary idol Conrad Aiken”, ” who had filled an in loco parentis role”, fits in…).

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    • I suspect that many writers lack a group in the last half-century. Part of that is that the power areas–London, Paris, Oxford, New York, Toronto–are broken. Part of it that everything has blown up. Part of it that the lone, solitary genius myth has dominated (out of the myths of some of these grouped-writers, I think).
      But know, I don’t know Lowry!

      Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Oh no! Not another f***ing elf!” His widow, Margaret Dyson told me emphatically that she did not believe he would ever say such a thing. (Though Inklings could behave differently, amongst themselves, when no ‘ladies’ were present – cf. Tolkien’s various references in his letters to ‘talking bawdy’ and Karl Leyser’s reminiscences as they turn up in Wilson’s bio.) I suspect this is an example of Wilson’s manner of turning Inklings into fictional characters (to whatever extent).

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    • Maybe, yeah. Carpenter’s Inklings pictures Dyson as gregarious and a bit random. Is it only in Wilson’s bio? I think Wilson claims that Christopher Tolkien told the story–any response from him?
      To me, the widow’s story is more or less credible depending on whether she is saying, “he wouldn’t swear” or “he wouldn’t slash a friend” or “he wouldn’t reject literature of good taste.”

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I understood it as ‘he wouldn’t use that sort of language’. (I just caught up with Owen Sheers’ BBC documentary about the WWII poet, Keith Douglas, which quotes a letter from Douglas to a university friend back in England explaining that ‘b*llsh*t’ is army slang, and what it means…!)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hannah says:

    The BS Guild conversations sounded great! Would your Pilgrim in Narnia be a fruit of that? I surely enjoy your posts and the ensuing discussions; they seem the ‘second best thing’ to the BS Guild!
    I have just started reading “Word and Story in CS Lewis”, edited by Peter Schakel & Charles Huttar, and in the introduction there is already lots to discuss, ao regarding that difference between the bio’s of Sayers and Wilson in last week’s post (the ‘detached, intellectual’ versus the ‘intimate, personal’). Here some sentences from those first pages:
    “The [space] trilogy, Lewis’s attempt to revive the reader’s mythopathic capacity, conveys his concern about the decay of language through abstraction and the failure of imagination” (p.3)
    “Abstraction, though it has its place and importance, involves its loss of immediacy; Lewis’s writing appeal in part because of their immediacy, conveying the quality of living in a world, which unifies plot and theme, knowledge of God and experience of what it is to be human” (p.5).

    Like

  6. Hannah says:

    The BS Guild conversations sounded great! Would your Pilgrim in Narnia be a fruit of that? I surely enjoy your posts and the ensuing discussions; they seem the ‘second best thing’ to the BS Guild!
    I have just started reading “Word and Story in CS Lewis”, edited by Peter Schakel & Charles Huttar, and in the introduction there is already lots to discuss, ao regarding that difference between the bio’s of Sayers and Wilson in last week’s post (the ‘detached, intellectual’ versus the ‘intimate, personal’). Here some sentences from those first pages:
    “The [space] trilogy, Lewis’s attempt to revive the reader’s mythopathic capacity, conveys his concern about the decay of language through abstraction and the failure of imagination” (p.3)
    “Abstraction, though it has its place and importance, involves its loss of immediacy; Lewis’s writing appeal in part because of their immediacy, conveying the quality of living in a world, which unifies plot and theme, knowledge of God and experience of what it is to be human” (p.5)

    Like

    • Hi Hannah, sorry this comment ended up in auto-spam.
      Thinking about your first question, I wonder if A Pilgrim in Narnia is a different approach to being formed like the BS Guild formed me. This blog allows me to test ideas, but it also has allowed me to shape my prose writing. Helpful in its way.
      That Schakel & Huttar volume is now at my right hand. I have used essays in it but may read it right through. I think you are right in linking abstraction with the detached intellectual. Though I think there is warrant for each at times, the modern desire to narrow experience to detachment and abstraction is a bit perverse. The Ransom books go some distance to turfing the idea.

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      • Hannah says:

        Yes, it disappeared in cyberspace, hence the double posting. I am glad it surfaced ;-))
        Would the BS Guild have been a lot more direct and personal; so, stimulating and encouraging in a different way?
        Great that you also have a S & H volume! It is about how to show that extra dimension – that water really is so much more than H2O – and not just because I imagine it to be so. The imagination seems to have become entirely subjective (much more so than experiences), and with it meaning. What do you think of this Lewis quote from ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes’: “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination the organ of meaning” (p2)?

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Going on a bit of a tangent (or not, depending on, if Lewis read the 1924 English translation, and what he thought of it, if so), but I just finished the 1972 translation of Zamyatin’s We, in which the future dystopia is very much concerned with the the rejection and destruction of the imagination – searching the 1958 reprint of the 1924 in the Internet Archive, ‘imagination’ does not turn up as often as I’d expect, so I’ll have to do some more specific comparing, to see what it has to the same effect – but much more specifically than, say, Brave New World or 1984 the Great Benefactor or Do-goeder seems concerned with eradicating imagination (though one can consider how thematic that in is Huxley and Orwell, too – and That Hideous Strength!).

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            It is part of the brilliance of R.H. Benson’s Lord of the World (1907) that he includes a successful construction of the imaginative power of religion (in contrast, e.g., to the unsuccessful ones of the French Revolution) in his dystopia. (It might be interesting to compare and contrast the attention to imaginative constructs here and in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)!)

            Like

            • Do you know if Lewis encountered these books? I think the “destruction of the imagination” to be a very important theme in Lewis.

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              • Hannah says:

                Yes! ao in the Abolition of Man!

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I’m afraid I don’t, off the top of my head – I’ll have tor try to do some checking around. I’d think he’d know the Chesterton, and I think he knew the Huxley as well as Brave New World. He knew The Dawn of All, which is Benson’s alternative future-history novel, so, again, you’d think he’d probably know Lord of the World, too – but I don’t know if we know for sure. I remember Gwen Watkins had some interesting ideas about Lewis’s (probable) familiarity with certain of Benson’s books, but don’t know if she ever published anything about it. Again, given, for example, Orwell’s attention to Zamyatin, you’d think it likely Lewis knew, but…?

                Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave Cameron says:

    Great recounting Brenton. That’s how I remember that time as well. Settlers of Catan strategy-get everyone distracted from the game by opening up some obscure theological point. Worked almost every time.

    Liked by 1 person

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