The Inklings were an informal group of literary enthusiasts who gathered to discuss literature from the early 1930s to 1949. Warren Lewis, the older brother of the writer and academic C.S. Lewis and fellow member of the Inklings, stated that: “the Inklings were neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections.” That being said; however, the Inklings can be considered an exclusive group in another sense: all members were white men, and almost all of them were university educated, with many of them being associated with Oxford University.
The Origins of the Inklings
As a group, the Inklings took its name from a society formed by Edward Tangye Lear in 1931 at University College, Oxford University, where Lear was an undergraduate student. Here, society members would read aloud from their works in progress. Among its members were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom were Oxford Dons at the time.
By 1933, the group fell apart, as Lear left Oxford University that year. In its stead, Lewis and Tolkien decided to set up a similar group at Magdalen College, where Lewis was employed as a Fellow and Tutor, under the same name. This new group held discussions every Thursday evening in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. They also met in the more informal setting of one of Oxford’s pubs, The Eagle and Child (known locally as The Bird and Baby) on Tuesdays at midday during term time.
During his school days, J.R.R. Tolkien and a group of school friends formed a society known as the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (or T.C.B.S., for short), which could be considered an early incarnation of what would become the Inklings. At the very least, the pre-existence of the T.C.B.S. suggests that Tolkien valued this form of interaction and helps us to appreciate why he sought it out once more during his time at Oxford.
Who Were the Inklings?
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Though, as Warren Lewis stated, the Inklings were not an exclusive club, it did have a regular membership. Among its members were Adam Fox, Hugo Dyson, Jack A.W. Bennett, Nevill Coghill, Owen Barfield, Lord David Cecil, Charles Williams, Dr. Robert Harvard, Christopher Tolkien, and, as mentioned earlier, Warren Lewis, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The majority of the Inklings were academics within Oxford University’s English department. Tolkien was primarily a philologist, C.S. Lewis specialized in the literature of the later Middle Ages, Hugo Dyson was an expert on William Shakespeare, and Lord David Cecil published literary studies and biographies of a variety of writers, including Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and Walter Pater. In 1945, Tolkien invited his youngest son, Christopher Tolkien (who was studying English at Trinity College, Oxford, at the time), to join the Inklings when he was just 21 years old.
Two notable exceptions to this rule were Warren Lewis (who was a soldier and went on to become a historian) and Dr. Robert Harvard, who worked as the physician of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and later of Lewis’ wife, Joy Davidman Gresham. Harvard was invited to join the Inklings by Lewis, however, on the basis of their shared literary interests.
In addition, Charles Williams did not attend Oxford University as a student. Though he had studied at University College London for a time, he left before he could graduate as he lacked the means necessary to pay his fees. Williams’s connection with Oxford came about when Oxford University Press (for which he worked as an editor) relocated its offices from London to Oxford during the Second World War. Thus, Williams was brought into the social orbit of the Inklings and even delivered a few lectures at Oxford University, for which he was awarded an honorary MA by the elite institution.
Moreover, as well as being a literary scholar, Adam Fox was also the Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College and would go on to become Canon of Westminster Abbey. As Adam Fox’s example suggests, there was a strong Christian contingent to the Inklings. Hugo Dyson was a committed Christian, and Tolkien and Harvard were devout Catholics. Both Dyson and Tolkien were instrumental in converting C.S. Lewis to Christianity in 1929, meaning that, by the foundation of the Inklings, Lewis had been a Christian for around four years. Warren Lewis followed his brother’s example, becoming a Christian in 1931.
What Was the Group’s Purpose?
The main purpose of the Inklings was to allow its members to read aloud from their own creative works in progress and so then receive feedback. With its pronounced literary bent – being largely made up of literary scholars, poets, and fiction writers – the group was well served to offer exegesis on members’ readings.
Many of the group’s most famous works were read aloud at meetings of the Inklings. Tolkien read excerpts of his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, to his fellow Inklings, and Lewis, in turn, read excerpts of his Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’s epistolary Christian apologetic novel of 1942, The Screwtape Letters, was dedicated to Tolkien. Furthermore, through participating in the group’s readings and discussions, Charles Williams was able to complete and refine his novel, All Hallows’ Eve, thus attesting to the importance of the Inklings to individual members’ creative endeavors.
As the Inklings were also an informal group of friends, their meetings often had a lighter side than the serious business of literary criticism and composition. For example, the members engaged in competitions among themselves as to who could read from the works of Amanda McKittrick (whose verbose writing style and purple prose have led some to deem her the worst published writer in the English language) for the longest period of time, without laughing.
How Did the Inklings Fall Apart?
As a group, the Inklings fell into decline after the end of the Second World War in 1945, and meetings had stopped altogether by 1949. The primary reason for this was that interest among the group’s members in reading aloud – or being read aloud to – waned. Moreover, Charles Williams died in 1945, and though he only began participating in the Inklings’ meetings after his move to Oxford in 1939, he had become an important member of the group.
In some cases, however, the readings had always been something of a bone of contention. Hugo Dyson, for example, did not enjoy listening to Tolkien read aloud from his The Lord of the Rings trilogy – and made his feelings known. During one reading, Dyson famously cried, “not another f***ing elf!” during one of Tolkien’s readings. After that, Tolkien did not read aloud to the Inklings ever again.
Nonetheless, even after the Inklings stopped meeting, they maintained strong friendships with each other. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis continued to read and discuss their work together. And when C.S. Lewis died of kidney failure in 1963, Tolkien was moved to write to his daughter, Priscilla: “So far I have felt like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” Likewise, speaking around a year after Lewis’ death, Owen Barfield stated that C.S. Lewis “was for me, first and foremost, the absolutely unforgettable friend, the friend with whom I was in close touch for over 40 years, the friend you might come to regard hardly as another human being, but almost as a part of the furniture of my existence.”
What Was the Impact of the Inklings?
The literary impact of the Inklings is indisputable. As millions of readers continue to enjoy the fantastical fictions of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, neither the popularity of the Inklings’ works nor Oxford’s association with the world of fantasy show any signs of abating.
As can be inferred from the statements from Tolkien and Barfield following the death of C.S. Lewis, however, the Inkling also left a personal impact on its members. While some had already been friends before the group’s formation, the Inklings’ regular meetings helped cement these friendships and led to the creation of new ones, such as when Charles Williams became a regular member in 1939.
These friendships also had a religious aspect. As the members of the Inklings were almost all committed Christians, and as Tolkien and Dyson had been instrumental in converting C.S. Lewis to Christianity, faith was another shared passion that tied the various members of the Inklings together. Moreover, this shared belief often found its way – be it explicitly in works of Christian apology or implicitly in the symbolism of their fantastical fictions – into the writing of the Inklings, which, in turn, was shared with the other members of the group. Christianity was an important aspect of the Inklings, and in this way, the various members helped solidify each other’s personal relationships with their faith.
While their literary preoccupations may seem somewhat marginal to the wider currents of experimental modernist literature during the first half of the twentieth century, the Inklings had a major impact on literary thought and the modern fantasy genre. As a group, they created some of the most beloved stories of all time and have earned themselves loyal fans from across the world – and, in doing so, lasting fame.