J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had an influence on modern fiction, especially speculative fiction, that is still felt to this day. In their prime, at Oxford, they saw themselves as champions of myth and meaning, bringing back the “old Western” literary values, elevating myth and “fairy stories” into a place of prominence in an academic world that was increasingly valuing modernism. The two friends surrounded themselves with British writers and thinkers of the time, a group they nick-named the Inklings, and that group’s influence on the writing of the time still cannot be calculated. The Inklings capture our imaginations just as deftly as LORD OF THE RINGS or Out of the Silent Planet do. Colin Duriez’s non-fiction The Oxford Inklings introduces us to that large circle of writers, thinkers and influencers, and tries, once again, to quantify the impact the group had on the writing and thinking of Tolkien and Lewis.
Duriez has made the study of Tolkien and Lewis his life’s work, and his love and scholarship shine through every page of this book. I wouldn’t consider it an academic work. While it is clearly scholarly and Duriez cites all his sources, there is an effort to make this book accessible to a layperson, and as a layperson I really appreciate that. Duriez goes beyond Lewis and Tolkien from the beginning, introducing other Inklings, like fantasy novelist and theology writer Charles Williams. Hugo Dyson was an academic and a writer (not a novelist), and he, along with Tolkien, has historically been credited with initiating Lewis’ conversion/reconversion from atheist to Christian. Owen Barfield, who became well known in the United States in the 1960s and 70s as a Tolkien speaker and expert, wrote in later years, but his occupation as a lawyer kept him busy during the peak years of the Inklings. Lewis’s brother Warren Hamilton Lewis attended meetings when his military service allowed him to. While the core group tended to be four or five, there were as many as eighteen individuals who regularly attended the group’s meetings, and the book gives a summary of each of them in a late chapter.
Early in the book I got a little impatient with Duriez’s regular refrain of “Lewis’s circle of friends.” It read as if he were hedging his bets; “I have a brilliant literary theory… or maybe they were just a circle of Lewis’s friends.” I should have had more faith in Duriez; friendship is at the heart of this book, and it explores friendships that are intellectual and academic as well as personal and emotional. It is the influence of this circle of friends on Lewis’s work, and Tolkien’s, that is explored here — that, and the question of faith.
Lewis left Christianity in his youth, was drawn back to it by the influence of his friends, and he became in later years a strong voice for Christianity; literally a voice when, in 1941 as a radio reader on BBC, he shared a series of his own essays on faith (later gathered into the book called Mere Christianity). Tolkien, who had ardently wooed Lewis back to the Christian faith, was discomfited by Lewis’s role as a “lay theologian,” and Duriez makes the case that the cooling of this decades-long friendship lay in part in Tolkien’s increasing concern about this role. At the same time, it’s impossible to diminish the impact of Lewis’s passionate and thoughtful work on the nature of Christianity. Was Tolkien wrong? This book does not make a guess; it merely provides information, often in the words of the writers themselves.
Tolkien and Lewis, in particular, were obsessed with the ideas of myth and meaning. While Tolkien, to some extent, believed that myth was meaning, Lewis saw myth as a tool to achieve meaning — the kind of academic difference that can be debated for centuries. That said, The Oxford Inklings shows us how this difference in belief could lead, in part, to books as different as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE PERLANDIRA TRILOGY and later the NARNIA books, where Lewis is consciously using mythic and fairytale tropes to create a Christian allegory.
It’s fascinating to watch Tolkien and Dyson use an academic argument on Lewis about his own belief or lack of it. Far from discussing “faith,” Tolkien and Dyson point out an inconsistency in Lewis’s theory of mythology, as Lewis explains in a letter to another friend.
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.
The Oxford Inklings devotes one chapter to another member of the group, the eccentric novelist Charles Williams. With novels like The Place of the Lion, Williams was writing exactly the kind of book Lewis and Tolkien thought they wanted to read: Christian allegory with a mythic base. Williams was a spiritual seeker, a professed Christian who belonged for a time to an offshoot of the Rosicrucians, and later turned his weekly lecture course into something that sounds, these days, a bit like a cult. Williams is described by contemporaries as “charismatic.” Married to his first love, Florence, he nevertheless had a second relationship with another woman and encouraged an acolyte-like devotion from a third. Lewis was very taken with The Place of the Lion, which was published in 1931. Tolkien admired William’s intellect but became uncomfortable with the inclusion of occult symbols and images in Williams’s later work, like The Greater Trumps.
The story I always heard about Tolkien was that he groused at Lewis for making his work “too Christian,” and groused at Williams for making his work “not Christian enough.” I took this as an example of a pedantic don indulging his inner curmudgeon. After reading The Oxford Inklings, I wondered: was Tolkien disturbed by Williams’s deliberate use of his charismatic personality, the adulation of young women that he encouraged?
There were no women in the Inklings, but Duriez includes several women who were influences on Tolkien and Lewis: Dorothy L. Sayers, philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who debated Lewis in at the Socratic Club in 1947, and Joy Davidman, Lewis’s wife. Far from just being a “helpmeet” and soul-mate, Davidman was an intellectual sounding board and a collaborator, co-writing Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces. Women were at Oxford, doing good work, and like Sayers, changing the face of fiction, although in a different genre. Duriez acknowledges the overlap.
Duriez’s admiration for these passionate, opinionated, curious thinkers comes through in the book, adding to its readability. If, like me, your knowledge of the Inklings was sketchy, I recommend The Oxford Inklings. It belongs on the bookshelf (or in the e-reader) of everyone who loves writing, who loves Lewis and/or Tolkien, and who wonders about faith in an age of science.