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Authors: Philip Zaleski,Carol Zaleski

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The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings


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To L
onie Caldecott and the memory of Stratford Caldecott (1953–2014)
nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur



During the hectic middle decades of the twentieth century, from the end of the Great Depression through World War II and into the 1950s, a small circle of intellectuals gathered on a weekly basis in and around Oxford University to drink, smoke, quip, cavil, read aloud their works in progress, and endure or enjoy with as much grace as they could muster the sometimes blistering critiques that followed. This erudite club included writers and painters, philologists and physicians, historians and theologians, soldiers and actors. They called themselves, with typical self-effacing humor, the Inklings.

The novelist John Wain, a member of the group who achieved notoriety in midcentury as one of England’s “angry young men,” remembers the Inklings as “a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.” Yet the name Inklings, as J.R.R. Tolkien recalled it, was little more than “a pleasantly ingenious pun … suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” The donnish dreaminess thus hinted at tells us something important about this curious band: its members saw themselves as no more than a loose association of rumpled intellectuals, and this modest self-image is a large part of their charm. But history would record, however modest their pretensions, that their ideas did not remain half-formed nor their inkblots mere dabblings. Their polyvalent talents—amounting to genius in some cases—won out. By the time the last Inkling passed away on the eve of the twenty-first century, the group had altered, in large or small measure, the course of imaginative literature (fantasy, allegory, mythopoeic tales), Christian theology and philosophy, comparative mythology, and the scholarly study of the
author, of Dante, Spenser, Milton, courtly love, fairy tale, and epic; and drawing as much from their scholarship as from their experience of a catastrophic century, they had fashioned a new narrative of hope amid the ruins of war, industrialization, cultural disintegration, skepticism, and anomie. They listened to the last enchantments of the Middle Ages, heard the horns of Elfland, and made designs on the culture that our own age is only beginning fully to appreciate. They were philologists and philomyths: lovers of
(the ordering power of words) and
(the regenerative power of story), with a nostalgia for things medieval and archaic and a distrust of technological innovation that never decayed into the merely antiquarian. Out of the texts they studied and the tales they read, they forged new ways to convey old themes—sin and salvation, despair and hope, friendship and loss, fate and free will—in a time of war, environmental degradation, and social change.

Some among the Inklings and their circle attained a worldwide fame that continues to grow, notably the literary historian, novelist, poet, critic, satirist, and popular Christian philosopher C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), the mythographer and Old English scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973), the historian of language, Anthroposophist, and solicitor (Arthur) Owen Barfield (1898–1997), and the publisher and author of “supernatural shockers,” Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886–1945). Others, like the Chaucer scholar and theatrical producer Nevill Henry Kendal Aylmer Coghill (1899–1980), the biographer and man of letters Lord David Cecil (1902–86), the poet and Magdalen divine Adam Fox (1883–1977), the classicist Colin Hardie (1906–98), the medievalist J.A.W. Bennett (1911–81), Lewis’s older brother Warren (“Warnie,” 1895–1973), and the sharp-tongued don Henry Victor Dyson Dyson (“Hugo,” 1896–1975), achieved lesser but still considerable eminence. Tolkien’s youngest son, Christopher (1924–), who would become the chief editor and interpreter of his father’s mythological project, began attending Inklings meetings after he returned from RAF duty in World War II. Additional members, guests, and relatives drifted in and out of the fellowship, while friends who were not strictly Inklings, such as the mystery novelist, playwright, and Dante translator Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), nonetheless found ways to draw from and enrich the stream.

The Inklings met typically in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College on Thursday evenings, when most of the reading and criticism unfolded; they also could be seen regularly on Tuesday mornings, gathered for food and conversation in a side nook of a smoky pub at 49 St. Giles’, known to passersby as the Eagle and Child but to habitu
s as the Bird and Baby. A wit might say that the Inklings’ aim was to turn the bird into a dragon and the baby into a king, for their sympathies were mythological, medieval, and monarchical, and their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to reenchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty. How they realized or miscarried these great (or grandiose) hopes constitutes a large part of our tale.


The story of the Inklings unfolds mostly in Oxford, a city in the English Midlands, originally a medieval market town set down higgledy-piggledy in the wetlands where Saxons once forded the Rivers Cherwell and Thames with horses, thanes, and oxen (hence Oxenford) to dig themselves in against the invading Danes; where the Normans built bridges and circled the settlement in stone; where mendicant friars and secular masters built their schools of theology and liberal arts under the watchful eyes of God, pope, and king; where town-gown rivalry erupted into periodic brawls. Thanks to its natural watercourses, its stagecoach inns, its eighteenth-century canals and nineteenth-century rails, this city of monks and dons has also been a congenial setting for factories, from Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade to Morris Motors, humming and spewing alongside the printing presses for the city’s intellectual industries: the
Oxford English Dictionary
) and Oxford University Press (OUP).

Oxford in the Inklings’ day was not so different in look and smell from the Oxford of today. Then, as now, one felt the irony that from this tangle of traffic-clogged streets, the cloisters of learning lift up to heaven their dreaming (if not always worshipping) spires; that the black-gowned, bicycle-pedaling undergraduates maintain their scholarly idyll at the price of damaging their lungs and risking their lives. Then, as now, one was tempted to fantasize one’s surroundings as a Camelot of intellectual knight-errantry or an Eden of serene contemplation. Then, as now, there was bound to be disappointment.

Matthew Arnold idealized Oxford as “whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Ages,” as summoning her votaries “to the true goal of all of us, to the ideal, to perfection,—to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side…” Yet for all its whispering, Oxford could not possibly deliver the full draught of the Middle Ages—of holiness, wisdom, and beauty—for which its inhabitants longed. When Max Beerbohm came to Oxford as a freshman in the fall of 1890, his boyish hopes were dashed:

Did I ride, one sunset, through fens on a palfrey, watching the gold reflections on Magdalen Tower? Did I ride over Magdalen Bridge and hear the consonance of evening-bells and cries from the river below? Did I rein in to wonder at the raised gates of Queen’s, the twisted pillars of St. Mary’s, the little shops, lighted with tapers? Did bull-pups snarl at me, or dons, with bent backs, acknowledge my salute? Any one who knows the place as it is, must see that such questions are purely rhetorical. To him I need not explain the disappointment that beset me when, after being whirled in a cab from the station to a big hotel, I wandered out into the streets.
On aurait dit
a bit of Manchester through which Apollo had once passed; for here, among the hideous trams and the brand-new bricks—here, glared at by the electric-lights that hung from poles, screamed at by boys with the
and the
—here, in a riot of vulgarity, were remnants of beauty, as I discerned. There were only remnants.

The Inklings knew intimately what Beerbohm meant. To live and work in such a rarefied intellectual ambience, with chapel, scriptorium, and Fa
rie woodland close at hand, among gifted companions who could share a pint and spin off a limerick or clerihew at will, was a rapture that never quite realized itself. For one had also to contend with troublesome families, threadbare pockets, cantankerous colleagues, dim students, urban congestion, and—twice in the Inklings’ lifespan—war. The unavoidable harshness of life surprised none of them, for they were Christians one and all, believing that they inhabited a fallen world, albeit one filled with God’s grace. Yet it would be a mistake to label them, as did one early biographer, “the Oxford Christians,” and to presume that this sufficed. This would be tantamount, as Warnie Lewis complained the moment the term arose, to saying that the Inklings were no more than “an organized group for the propagation of Christianity.” Nonetheless, the Inklings were unmistakably Christians in Oxford, and this plays no small part in their cultural significance.

Christianity on the Banks of the Isis

Oxford is, as Jan Morris puts it, “as organically Christian as Bangkok is Buddhist.” Before a university appeared in Oxford, the town was a jumble of hermitages, holy wells, monasteries, and churches. The colleges of medieval Catholic Oxford began as quasi monasteries designed to provide the Church with learned clergy and to offer Masses for deceased patrons to speed their souls through purgatory. The colleges of post-Reformation Anglican Oxford renounced purgatory and all other “popish” devices, insisting that its members subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, thus excluding every Jew and Catholic in England as well as dissenters and atheists. The gowns of an Oxford don were patterned after religious habits, and until the 1880s the man beneath the gown was required, with few exceptions, to be celibate. Bachelorhood remained the ideal and family life a concession to prosaic mediocrity well into the early twentieth century.

As the doctrinal center of English Christianity, Oxford historically has cherished orthodoxy; as the intellectual center of English Christianity, Oxford has often put orthodoxy to the test. Here followers of Duns Scotus and William Ockham debated the semantics of divine being and the modalities of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, Wyclif produced the first English Bible, and Bishops Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer, denying transubstantiation, were martyred in 1555 for the Protestant cause. When Protestantism won out, it was here that Edmund Campion, brilliant orator and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, shocked his admirers by changing course for the Catholic Church, thus taking the first steps that would lead him to martyrdom at London’s Tyburn Gallows.

Whether high or low church, Evangelical, Broad Church, or Catholic, Oxford was in love with the idea of Christian perfection. It was here in 1729 that Charles and John Wesley founded their “Holy Club” and from here that George Whitefield went forth to evangelize America. It was from Oxford in the 1830s that the Tractarian movement set out to re-Catholicize the national church, and it was in Oxford that the saintly John Henry Newman made his submission to Rome. Here John Ruskin, who had a love-hate relationship with the city and with his own Evangelical roots, sought to awaken the nation’s sleeping conscience to his vision of Christian socialism, medieval artisanship, and educational reform; and it was here, in the cathedral-like University Museum that Ruskin helped to design, that the ornithologist and bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, took on T. H. Huxley in the celebrated 1860 debate on the validity of Darwinian evolution. The Victorian crisis of faith took place here, but so did what the historian Timothy Larsen has called “the Victorian crisis of doubt.” From Ruskin’s time until the days of the Inklings, a pattern of religious rebellion and rediscovery would repeat itself; one could be a militant skeptic like Huxley relishing the escape from Victorian restraints, or a militant believer like Ronald Knox relishing the escape from modern liberalism, or an initiate in any of the manifold schools of occultism, theosophy, and spiritualism that flourished in Oxford as well. All the spiritual alternatives were on offer, all could be sampled, but there was little room for indifference—certainly not for a generation that lived through the Great War.

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