The Inklings: A Fellowship of Imagination
By Marilyn Stewart
The “Inklings,” C. S. Lewis’s circle of close friends, were, at times, his liveliest critics. They met together weekly during the years Lewis produced many of his greatest works.
A late night chat with J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was the start of what became regular Thursday evening gatherings at Lewis’s suite of rooms at Oxford University of Oxford, England.
Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship, called by some the “most important literary friendship of the twentieth century,” began over their mutual love of Norse mythology. Others joined their discussions of literature and poetry to form an intimate company of encouragement and support.
Two of the Inklings – Tolkien and Hugo Dyson – were instrumental in Lewis’s conversion from atheism to the Christian faith.
“What I owe to them all is incalculable,” Lewis once wrote. “Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”
During the Inkling years, Lewis moved from a being a little-known Oxford professor to a national celebrity through his radio broadcasts during World War II. The radio transcripts were assembled later as Mere Christianity.
The Problem of Pain, one of the many books Lewis wrote during the years the Inklings met regularly, is dedicated to them.
A Fellowship of Inspiration
The view through Lewis’s window at Magdalen College of Oxford University reveals an idyllic deer park, rolling meadow and woods. Magdalen, one of thirty-eight colleges comprising Oxford University, sits just outside the old walls of the city, on the banks of the Cherwell River.
Lewis once wrote that Magdalen’s grounds were “beautiful beyond compare.” Addison’s Walk, the path around the meadow where he walked with Tolkien and Dyson as they helped him resolve misgivings about Christianity prior to his conversion, was a favorite of Lewis’s.
Here, at Magdalen, was where the Inklings gathered to read aloud and critique the manuscripts each was writing. The sessions provided fertile ground for discussion of topics from myth and literature to philosophy and theology.
The name “Inklings” was first applied to an undergraduate student group Lewis and Tolkien attended as professors. After the student leader graduated and the group disbanded, Lewis picked up the name for his informal sessions with his friends.
Warren Lewis, C. S. Lewis’s brother, recorded evenings of warm humor in his diaries, and included this quote from his brother: “No sound delights me more than male laughter.”
Tolkien, Dyson, and Warren Lewis were regulars to the meetings. Included in the group were Lewis’s personal physician Robert “Humphrey” Havard, Owen Barfield, Nevill Coghill, Charles Williams, Lord David Cecil, Adam Fox, and others.
Lewis dedicated The Allegory of Love to Barfield, a lawyer and writer, with the inscription, the “wisest and best of my unofficial teachers.” The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is dedicated to Barfield’s daughter, Lucy.
The kinship Lewis felt with the Inklings, and Charles Williams especially, is evident in Lewis’s later writing on friendship in The Four Loves.
During the Inkling years, Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet, The Allegory of Love, The Screwtape Letters, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost,’ The Abolition of Man, and The Great Divorce. Tolkien completed his stalled Lord of the Rings manuscripts because of the Inklings’ encouragement.
Many have noted the inspiration Lewis and Tolkien provided each other. A main character in Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet is a linguistics professor, like Tolkien. The entrance to Tolkien’s Bag-End in the Hobbit is fashioned after Lewis’s home, The Kilns.
In Warren Lewis’s absence, Lewis wrote his brother of a particularly satisfying session. At the meeting, Tolkien read from his Lord of the Rings manuscript; Charles Williams read his nativity play; and Lewis read a chapter from The Problem of Pain.
Lewis said, “…the subject matter of the three readings formed almost a logical sequence, and produced a really first rate evening’s talk…” [see The Narnian, 205]
While the sessions encouraged each man in his writing, they did so through critique. Warren Lewis wrote: “We were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work – or even not-so-good work – was often brutally frank.” [see The Inklings Handbook, 19]
A Fellowship of Friends
The Inklings were, first and foremost, friends.
While the evening sessions were reserved for reading manuscripts, the Inklings met for fun at The Eagle and Child pub, known affectionately around Oxford as The Bird and Baby. The pub’s small back room, cider, and colorful pub owner drew the group in once a week before lunch.
Alan Jacobs in The Narnian says the camaraderie felt by the Inklings allowed them to grow and develop: “… the freedom of friendship dominated, and this helped to make the gatherings of the Inklings a kind of informal school – the only kind of school Jack Lewis could ever like: a thoroughly informal training in living better and thinking more wisely.” [The Narnian, 203]
The Inklings’ impact on Lewis is evident in his writings. In The Four Loves, Lewis wrote: “In a perfect Friendship … each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest… each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others.”
It was of friendship that Lewis wrote: “Life – natural life – has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?” [see The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis, 252.]
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Duriez, Colin. The Inklings Handbook. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001.
Jacobs, Alan. The Narnian: The life and imagination of C. S. Lewis. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
Lewis, C. S. The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (a compilation) New York: Inspirational Press, 1987.
Sayer, George. Jack: A life of C. S. Lewis. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994.
Marilyn Stewart is a regional reporter for The Baptist Message, the newsjournal of Louisiana Southern Baptists.
© Marilyn Stewart. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
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