“It was a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with
vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien
The Oxford Inklings have long held a fascination for me—a group of great literary authors meeting weekly to share their poetry and fiction, and discuss their ideas and beliefs. A meeting of the minds who, at different points in their careers, produced The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Poetic Diction, The Place of the Lion, and multiple other works across a great range of genres and topics. How did these writers come to know each other? How much did they influence one another’s work? Such questions as these are addressed by Humphrey Carpenter in his biographical work The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends.
In many ways, Carpenter’s The Inklings is primarily a biography of C.S. Lewis, with the lives of Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and others woven in when their narrative threads cross paths with Lewis’s. Yet this is perhaps an entirely appropriate approach considering the group that called themselves the Inklings ultimately orbited around Lewis—the meetings took place in his Magdalen rooms, and his friendship was what the members of the group held in common. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s weaving together of these many, and often disparate, biographical threads produces a compelling tapestry that displays a historical picture both complex and deep, inviting one into the nuanced differences of multiple intellectual and creative lives.
Certain aspects of this interwoven narrative particularly shone forth for me, such as the descriptions of the shared feeling between Lewis and Tolkien when reading certain myths and stories of familiarity with the unfolding tale, a sense of longing and nostalgia as though one has somehow participated in this story before. It is a feeling with which I also am familiar, becoming apparent to me the first time I heard The Hobbit read aloud. Names such as Rivendell, Middle-Earth, and Dale, the songs and laughter of the Elves, all felt deeply familiar from the first time I heard them. Tolkien was able to imbue his own stories with that same essence that he and Lewis felt and found so richly compelling in the myths of Northern Europe.
Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship could really be seen as the core of the Inklings, as it was they who were the most consistent members throughout the duration of the informal literary group. Another moment I found particularly touching and unique to their characters was when Lewis first critiqued a poem of Tolkien’s, but instead of simply writing a commentary in his own voice he rather chose to execute his narrative creativity by annotating the poem “as if it were a celebrated piece of ancient literature, already heavily studied by scholars with such names as ‘Pumpernickel,’ ‘Peabody,’ ‘Bentley,’ and ‘Schick;’ he alleged that any weaknesses in Tolkien’s verses were the result of scribal errors or corruptions in the manuscript.” Their creativity is coming through even in these most simple of interactions, giving the reader a greater sense of the imaginations able to access the worlds of Narnia and Middle-Earth.
Perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole of the book was the one entitled “Mythopoeia.” It centers around Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, first through his recognition of a divine presence when he, in his words, “admitted that God was God,” and ending with his belief in the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The key to his conversion was a recognition of the truth of myth, as articulated both by Barfield and by Tolkien. Barfield’s book Poetic Diction had a major impact on both Lewis and Tolkien, in which he describes the way in which language has evolved to show a correlated evolution of consciousness, from mythical perception to rational intellect. In Carpenter’s narrative: “In the dawn of language, said Barfield, speakers did not make a distinction between the ‘literal’ and the ‘metaphorical,’ but used words in what might be called a ‘mythological’ manner.” One of the examples Barfield uses to illustrate this is when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English it can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence. This is also the perspective from which Tolkien argued when he and Lewis entered into debate about the truth of myths. To quote Carpenter’s narrative at some length:
[Lewis] still did not believe in the myths that delighted him. Beautiful and moving though such stories might be, they were (he said) ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
No, said Tolkien. They are not lies.
Just then (Lewis afterwards recalled) there was a “rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”
Tolkien goes on to illustrate his point with what surrounded them in that moment, the trees and night sky overhead. I find it significant that in this pivotal moment it is as though the world itself is speaking, to offer its subtle yet powerful evidence to the words Tolkien says. No, myths are not lies. They are all around us. The rush of wind, spiritus, makes its presence known. The men hold their breath, spiritus. Spirit is present.
To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music.
I would even alter Carpenter’s language further in keeping with what both Tolkien and Barfield understood. The stars were not “as living silver” they were living silver. Not only did the first humans to speak of trees and stars “see” them differently, they were different because they were in participatory relationship to these ancient people.
Lewis’s conversion to Christianity came about later that night when Tolkien explained first that “not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth,” and then later not only is “the death and resurrection of Christ . . . the old ‘dying god’ story all over again,” but that “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact.” Tolkien’s recourse to myth, first by showing the truth of it, and then by showing how myth entered history in the story of Christ, is what led to Lewis’s conversion, and hence to his many works of Christian apologetics and allegorical fantasy.
The Inkling with whom I was the least familiar, but whose life and personality I felt completely charmed by and engaged with, was Charles Williams. The portrait Carpenter draws of him feels so alive, I was amazed I had somehow gone so long without an introduction to Williams and his work. In Carpenter’s words:
He would treat someone’s personal worry with the same vitality that he showed in [his] lecture, the same grave courtesy and fiery vision; so that it was easy to go home feeling that this was what it would have been like to meet Dante himself, or Blake, or even Shakespeare.
Williams seemed to be an immensely complex and nuanced figure, always holding in balance perspectives of light and shadow: “Behind every bad thing he could see something good, and also behind every good thing he could see darkness.” Furthermore, “He was able to embrace everything—belief and doubt, hope and disillusion, love and hatred—within the secure irony that he had developed.” Meeting Williams through biography first, rather than through his fiction, has left me simply with the wish that I might have met him.
Carpenter’s biographical style flows best when he is able to paint a narrative picture, as though one were really present, for example, at a particular meeting of the Inklings. He does this in a chapter entitled “Thursday evenings,” in which he combines quotations from works and letters with multiple reports of what the evenings were like to give a fictional portrait of an Inklings gathering (he does this also in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography in which he narrates a sample day of Tolkien’s life in Oxford). The effect is absolutely enticing, making the reader feel almost as if they were there, and wish that to do so were really a possibility.
Perhaps my most pervasive feeling as I read The Inklings was a continual desire to have been able to participate in this group, wondering what it may have been like to listen to the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings when it was still titled “The New Hobbit,” or to hear Barfield and Tolkien discuss language, or Lewis and Williams on poetry and theology. And this longing actually brought forward an unexpectedly painful realization as I continued to read about this group of writers, at least one of whom has fundamentally shaped who I am and how I think, feel, imagine, and engage creatively with the world. All of the Inklings were men, and a woman was never permitted to be present at a Thursday gathering, or invited to join in the conversation at the Bird and Baby pub on Tuesday mornings. I realized that at the table of my intellectual forebears I, as a woman, would not have been welcome.
It was Lewis who held the most, to be frank, misogynist views, but I was pained to find the ways in which Barfield and Tolkien also agreed with him. Lewis has said that
“the husband is the head of the wife just so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church” adding: “If there must be a head, why the man? Well, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” And elsewhere: “Do you really want a matriarchal world? Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?”
I had hoped such views might have been confined to Lewis, but Tolkien has also written:
“How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp the teacher’s ideas, see his point—and how (with some exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him. It is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.”
I do recognize that such sexist views are, in large part, a product of the time in which these men lived. Yet I also cannot help but feel their words with pain, and recognize the countless women whose voices have been silenced, again and again, by such mistaken and degrading beliefs. It is an injustice to recognize at once how much Tolkien and so many other male writers have shaped who I am through their words and imaginal creations, and then to know that they regarded “the female mind as inferior to the male.” If somehow I were able to go back through time and arrive at Lewis’s Magdalen door on a Thursday evening I would not have been permitted to cross the threshold because of my gender.
There is some comfort to know that perhaps Williams might have made an argument for my entry if such a situation were to occur (and it would be far more likely to occur in the supernatural fluidity of space and time in Williams’ novels than elsewhere). Williams once said that it would be likely that “any principle of the relations of the sexes will be wrong, since there are, after all, no such things; there are an infinite number of women and an infinite number of men.” Williams, it seems, would have at least based his admission on individual merit rather than blind gender exclusion.
Perhaps because of these statements from Lewis and Tolkien I was particularly delighted to meet on the page the woman who became Lewis’s wife later in his life, Joy Davidman.
Lewis was astonished by her. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he wrote of her. “Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure of being exposed and laughed at.”
That such a woman came into his life and made the powerful impact she did felt long overdue as I was reaching the later pages of Carpenter’s book. But the role Joy Davidman played in Lewis’s life was indeed significant, and one that seemed to make a lasting imprint.
Both Lewis and Tolkien were resistant to having their personal lives explored in the context of their literary works, likely because they did not want the work to be psychoanalyzed and picked apart in search of biographical details and hidden personal truths. My sense is that this desire in part comes from their belief—shared at least after Lewis’s conversion—that myths ultimately are true. Because the source of myth is beyond simple human invention, but is rather the divine imagination creating through the human artist, the personal lives of the creators should not be looked to for the source of the stories. A human being is simply the container for them, the vessel into which the divine inspiration pours. And while such myths may be “partially spoiled in each writer by the admixture of his own mere individual ‘invention,’” the hope is that we as readers, as fellow explorers of imagination, can see past those personal faults, and truly “glimpse” the reality of “Other-worlds.”
Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006), 67.
 Carpenter, The Inklings, 30,
 C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 40.
 Carpenter, The Inklings, 41.
 Carpenter, The Inklings, 43.
 Carpenter, The Inklings, 44.
 Ibid, 74.
 Ibid, 80.
 Ibid, 90.
 C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 169.
 Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.
 Carpenter, The Inklings, 171.
 C.S. Lewis qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 237.
 Carpenter, The Inklings, 138.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 64.