Friday, 28 April 2017

How important were The Inklings to The Inklings?

Were The Inklings merely a club of Jack Lewis's friends, or were they a self-conscious and ambitious group with a cultural agenda? The answer is that there is evidence on both sides...

I have just listened to an audio recording Owen Barfield being interviewed in 1987, in which (from about 11 minutes) Barfield describes the Inklings on the lines of it being mostly a convivial conversation club - and down-playing any great significance or ambition for the group.

Among the other regular Inklings; this was also the view of 'Humphrey' Havard (a point he made in an audiotaped interview at the launch of Humphrey Carpenter's Inklings book of 1978). It was also the view of Hugo Dyson - who actively disliked the readings. Overall, I think that Warnie Lewis probably also mainly valued the social aspect. Although it was indeed Inklings stimulus and critique that made Warnie into a published historian of 17th Century France - his books were not concerned with any cultural agenda.

As for Charles Williams, it is much harder to say. Warnie Lewis's evidence suggests that he was the most regular attender (aside from the Lewis brothers) between 1939 and his death in 1945; which given the sheer busyness of Williams's life suggests that the group served an important function for him. Furthermore Diana Pavlac Glyer has documented several ways in which Williams's writings were directly affected by Inklings influence.

On the other hand, Williams tended t deny the significance of The Inklings meeting when writing to his wife or talking with his friends and colleagues associated with the Oxford University Press. The question is whether CW was being honest about this - my impression is that he was not; and was 'playing-down' the influence and importance of the Inklings meetings in particular, just as he played-down the importance of his time at Oxford in general.  

However, I think it is clear that for Tolkien and Lewis the Inklings meetings were part of a broader cultural effort - a highly ambitious attempt to change the direction of Western civilisation. That this was an aim of Tolkien goes right back to his schooldays, and has been documented by John Garth in Tolkien and the Great War; and it seems to have been sustained (in various modes) throughout most of his life.

And Lewis also had a cultural agenda, as seems obvious from his output for at least 25 years from the early 1930s (and The Pilgrim's Regress) until the Narnia Chronicles - and most obviously in those wartime and Inkling's influenced books That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man.

So a full answer to the question of the importance of The Inklings to its members would be very different for each of the members. The group was, overall, more important for the writers among the group than to non-writers (such as Havard and Dyson); and among the writers it was most important to the two most historically-important members: JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

After the Inklings evening meetings stopped in the late 1940s, and Lewis and Tolkien drifted apart through the 1950s - especially when Tolkien finished The Lord of the Rings; and Lewis wrote the Narnia books (which created a rift), took a job in Cambridge, and married - their interests and the nature of their output changed and their cultural ambitions faded 

For those who regard Tolkien and Lewis as authors of major cultural significance, therefore, The Inklings must also be regarded a group of major cultural significance - even though the group was probably merely an enjoyable 'talking shop' for many or most of its other members.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a reflection so full of thought and food for thought! I suddenly wish I knew enough to make a Venn diagram of Inklings-contemporary Oxford men and groups - the OUP (and Gerry Hopkins), the Socratic Club (and Austin Farrer, among others), the Dante Society (and Colin Hardie), the Pilgrim Players, the Zernovs, the English Faculty (and so many, including Helen Gardner), various Churches and Chapels and their clergy, former students, fellow College members (for example, Schrödinger! - and Karl Leyser gave a very interesting (and, I suspect, variously idiosyncratic) talk about being at Magdalen, and his perceptions of Lewis's 'circle' more widely - much of which fed without specific attribution into A.N. Wilson's Lewis bio - and some record of which,one hopes, is in the current keeping of Michael Ward), Lady Ottoline Morrell's Garsington guests, Masefield and the Oxford Recitations and their myriad participants.

I've finally caught with C.P. Snow, beginning with the Masters: what various real Oxford equivalents of that group of Cambridge college fellows in the 1930s must there have been, including various Inklings?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...


I suspect that any 'map' would end up more misleading than helpful! - because the reality of friendship and influence is dynamic, always changing. Apparently, no two people agree on it either! - which isn't surprising given that the information is not generally available to introspection, and unknown factors are at work.

I have read The Masters several times, and the follow-up The Affair is equally good. I have read several of Snow's other novels, but these two stand-out. His non-fiction The Physicists is excellent too.