Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Inklings

Almost everyone knows what The Lord of the Rings is all about, and many know that its author was J.R.R. Tolkien. Certainly in the English-speaking world, many people would also recognize the name C.S. Lewis and might even spontaneous come up with his best-known work, The Screwtape Letters, an elderly devil coaching a younger one (Wormwood), the latter charged with corrupting a single “patient,” a man in war-torn England. The book was published in 1942. Children—or parents with children—will also know of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

What only a much smaller number know, unless they grew up in literary families or belong to the Tribe That Reads From Childhood On, is that these two men belonged to an informal group at Oxford University in England, known as The Inklings, men who met in the 1930-1949 period, initially at a local pub known as The Eagle and the Child. Prominent members of this group beyond the two I’ve already mentioned were Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. While this was an all-male group, one lady I much admire, Dorothy Sayers, holds a kind of honorary membership. She was a friend of Lewis and of Williams. Barfield is least known but was a founding member of the Inklings, and his book, Poetic Diction, had a lasting influence on Tolkien; the two were close friends.

The Inklings are an interesting phenomenon, I think. They emerged into view at a later time than the famed Oxford Movement. At least one author (link) has called the later Inklings “the Other Oxford Movement.” The first one was a revivification of Christianity centered at Oxford University, began around 1832 and faded in the 1850s after two of its most prominent leaders, John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning converted to Catholicism. In a meaningful sense—thus from the view of someone like me not weighed down by the vast deposit of detail—the Inklings continued along a path already set; this was a group moved by deeper impulses than humanism, and decidedly so, although not all members were believers and the interests of the group ranged from the raucous, humorous, to the scholarly, and literary. It all began by reading books and poems aloud…

I happened onto the Inklings because I’d read a biography of the Mann brothers, Heinrich and Thomas, both novelists, the older Heinrich very popular in his own time, Thomas emerging as a towering literary figure later. Reading about Thomas Mann’s days in Munich, I realized that great literature very often arose from what are sometimes called schools—groupings, circles, interacting individuals, call them temporary whirls in the tidal waves of culture. I went in search for other such; the Inklings soon focused into a sharp image as I sat at my microscope.

Sometime after that recognition, I read all of the novels of Charles Williams, the figure I’ve said nothing about so far. He worked at the Oxford University Press, began as a proofreader, and became a prolific writer. His novels are swift-moving tales, usually labeled supernatural thrillers. There is no hint of phony piety in them—reading them is entertainment, and doubly so for someone like me who likes everything to branch, root, and weave into the transcendental in a conscious and advanced sort of way. His books are still around—and if money is a problem, the Project Gutenberg Australia offers a number of them as e-books here. Quite a lovely writer and a worthy member of the Inklings. This post was inspired because UPS brought me today The Figure of Beatrice, by Charles Williams, subtitled A Study in Dante. And I became aware of this title and its author, and muttered Aha! in Dorothy Sayers’ commentaries on The Divine Comedy which she translated. That work too, I mean the translation, has close links back to the Inklings.

I’ll wind this up with a stray thought. There is my posting entitled tongue-in-cheek as Endormement, in which I propose a cultural change in the nineteenth century, a kind of rebirth at elite levels of the reality of the Transcendental. I can’t help but think that the Oxford Movement and the Inklings were part of that change, a change gathering strength, I think, and someday the future will look back and see it. At the moment the future forest is still hidden under debris and operates in the deep shadows of the old.


  1. Reading about Thomas Mann’s days in Munich, I realized that great literature very often arose from what are sometimes called schools—groupings, circles, interacting individuals, call them temporary whirls in the tidal waves of culture.

    The sociologist Randall Collins has a very interesting (and large) book called The Sociology of Philosophies that, using philosophy as the chief example, argues precisely this: that intellectual creativity tends to arise within dense social networks of interacting intellectuals who build off and against each other. (I happen to be re-reading it at the moment, which is why it comes to mind.) If you haven't read it, I suspect you would like much of it.

  2. What interesting posts, Mr. Arsen Darnay. I came upon the blog because of the Idries Shah and Graves references. My favorite Graves poems are "To Juan at the Winter Solstice" and "It's a Queer Time", by the way. Have been reading a lot of Basil Willey lately, and somehow your blog and your interests seem much of a piece with his area of study. And I'll be thinking about Endormement. Oh...I think you'd like Borges' sonnet Everness in the great Richard Wilbur translation (and the Spanish, too, of course, if that's one of your languages). Thank you for these interesting posts and I wish you many rabbit sightings. Elwin Wirkala, Seattle.