Lewis Convenes the Inklings Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

C. S. Lewis united a group of Oxford professors and friends who came to call themselves the Inklings. The group met once a week to read from new works and discuss topics of interest. Some of the most famous works of modern fantasy, particularly The Lord of the Rings(1955), might never have emerged without these meetings.

Summary of Event

In hindsight, the formation of the Inklings seems almost predestined, for such groups were common in the Oxbridge (a synthesis of “Oxford” and “Cambridge” connoting British academic circles) life of the time, and both of the founding members, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, had belonged to similar groups. At University College, Oxford, were the Martlets, an informal literary society at which Lewis read papers, and during the 1920’s Lewis attended meetings of philosophy dons (instructors) called the Wee Teas. At King Edward’s School in Birmingham, Tolkien belonged to a small group of informal friends who called themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, and this group had a meeting that Tolkien called the Council of London. [kw]Lewis Convenes the Inklings (Fall, 1933-Oct. 20, 1949) [kw]Inklings, Lewis Convenes the (Fall, 1933-Oct. 20, 1949) Inklings (literary group) Literary groups [g]England;Fall, 1933-Oct. 20, 1949: Lewis Convenes the Inklings[08420] [c]Literature;Fall, 1933-Oct. 20, 1949: Lewis Convenes the Inklings[08420] Lewis, C. S. Tolkien, J. R. R. Williams, Charles Lewis, Warren Barfield, Owen Dyson, Hugo Tolkien, Christopher

Tolkien and Lewis first became acquainted during Tolkien’s attempts to reform the English syllabus at Oxford as a member of a group called the Cave or the Junto. Lewis eventually joined Tolkien’s cause, and the two soon got into the habit of meeting every Monday morning for an hour or so over beer. Lewis had earlier instituted what he called evenings of “Beer and Beowulf” for his pupils. This later metamorphosed into the Coalbiters, a group of dons who read old Norse sagas under the direction of Tolkien and others. So, when like-minded friends took the name “Inklings” from a group that an undergraduate, Edward Tangye Lean, had formed and began meeting in Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College on Thursday nights, they were taking another step in the evolution of such groups.

Lewis loved to hear, read, and comment on his friends’ work, and he loved to get feedback on his own work. Owen Barfield, whom Lewis met as an undergraduate, had read and commented on Lewis’s Dymer (1926), a book of poetry. In 1929, Tolkien had offered his poem about Beren and Luthien to Lewis, who responded with a mock-critical analysis, and just before the Inklings began meeting, Lewis read an early version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). Hobbit, The (Tolkien) From the beginning, then, the Inklings shared scholarly and imaginative works with sympathetic friends.

Lewis and Tolkien had similar tastes in literature, but Lewis had read far more widely in postmedieval literature. Little is known about the Inklings’ early meetings or their subsequent weekly meetings at the Oxford pub the Eagle and the Child (affectionately called the Bird and the Baby), because after Lewis’s brother Warren returned home from China, Lewis stopped corresponding with him, and Warren did not keep a diary covering those years. However, when Warren Lewis returned to the army at the beginning of World War II, C. S. Lewis began writing to him again, and these letters, along with Warren’s resumed diary, provide the best evidence about the Inklings’ meetings.

The Lewis brothers and Tolkien formed the group’s cornerstones. Owen Barfield and Hugo Dyson also became famous members, but their attendance was sporadic until Dyson was hired at Oxford in 1945. Less famous members of the group included Dr. Robert “Humphrey” Havard, physician to the Lewises and the Tolkien family; Adam Fox, dean of divinity and professor of poetry at Oxford; Lord David Cecil, critic and Oxford English don; and Neville Coghill, Oxford English don. Later additions included author John Wain, a pupil of Lewis, and Tolkien’s son Christopher joined after he returned from World War II. By far the most important addition, however, was Charles Williams, whose novel The Place of the Lion (1931) earned Lewis’s immediate admiration. Williams was a regular member of the Inklings from 1939 (when his employer, Oxford University Press, had to move to Oxford from London because of the war) until his death in 1945. Other members came and went; the chief requirement for permanent membership was C. S. Lewis’s approval.

Admirers of these authors’ literary works might wish to have attended one of these sessions, when Tolkien read from the “new Hobbit” (as they called The Lord of the Rings) Lord of the Rings, The (Tolkien) or when Lewis read from Perelandra (1943), Perelandra (Lewis, C. S.) which Tolkien admired immensely. However, friction certainly existed among group members. Williams was the first major figure to come between Tolkien and Lewis, and while Lewis was a Williams fan, Tolkien was not. Dyson disliked hobbits, and he once vetoed a proposed reading from The Lord of the Rings. (He also threatened to leave the group if any more Roman Catholics were admitted.)

The Inklings lost much of their momentum when Williams died, and by the late 1940’s the group was largely sustained by the prospect of another ham supper (one of Lewis’s fans in the United States sent food parcels to England, where strict rationing was still in effect in the postwar period). The Thursday meetings petered out in late 1949, but reading of The Lord of the Rings had ceased by 1947, and none of Lewis’s Narnia stories (published as Chronicles of Narnia from 1950 through 1956) were read to the group. The last ham supper was held on October 20, 1949.

Significance

When the works of the main Inkling authors began to grow immensely popular and reminiscences about the group became more widely known, researchers quickly undertook studies that tried to gauge the group’s influence on the works. Most of these studies were dismissed by those who knew the group best, however. Upon reading one such study by Charles Moorman in 1967, Warren Lewis wrote, “I smiled at the thought of Tollers [Tolkien] being under the influence of Moorman’s group mind.” Lewis realized that Tolkien, the most obdurate of the group, resisted most attempts to change his subject matter or style.

It was C. S. Lewis who was the most open to influence, whether it was by Tolkien’s use of language (many of Tolkien’s invented words turn up in Lewis’s works) or by Williams’s view of the penetration of the supernatural into the real world. Disagreements among group members certainly existed; Tolkien, for example, disliked Lewis’s famous book The Screwtape Letters (1942). Screwtape Letters, The (Lewis, C. S.) Lewis was quite stubborn in his own way, however, and the group’s disapprobation may not have reached him.

C. S. Lewis was a bit disingenuous when he claimed the Inklings were “only a circle of Christian friends by a good fire.” Although some of the group’s members produced works that had nothing to do with religion or quasi-allegorical subjects, including Warren Lewis’s excellent books on France at the time of Louis XIV, other examples of Inklings’ works were clearly related. It has been convincingly suggested, for example, that Tolkien’s semiautobiographical allegory “Leaf by Niggle” (1945) was influenced by Williams’s fiction. Whatever the extent of their influence on one another, the Inlings’ encouragement of one another’s work was crucial. C. S. Lewis once wondered whether The Lord of the Rings would be popular outside the warmth of the fire of their little group, but the enthusiastic reception it received from Warren Lewis and Dr. Havard, both intelligent yet unscholarly readers, convinced Lewis that their appreciation would be echoed by millions of other readers. Inklings (literary group) Literary groups

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. Volume by a biographer of Tolkien includes not only some valuable insights on the Inklings but also some of the most level-headed consideration of Lewis available in print.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duriez, Colin. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. Mahwah, N.J.: Hidden Spring, 2003. Presents often pedestrian and partisan analysis (Lewis did have a major problem with women), but benefits from the use of a great deal of new material on Tolkien and Lewis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duriez, Colin, and David Porter. The Inklings Handbook: The Lives, Thought, and Writings of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Their Friends. St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press, 2001. Handy compendium of data, although the arguments presented are sometimes rather obvious. Somewhat misleading at times; for example, Warren Lewis’s alcoholism is mentioned, but not in the essay on him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, C. S. Books, Broadcasts, and War, 1931-1949. Vol. 2 in Collected Letters, edited by Walter Hooper. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004. A valuable primary source on Inkling meetings, this edition of Lewis’s letters is by far the most comprehensive and gives much of the flavor of the man. Includes useful notes and biographical appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1947. The most tangible production of the Inklings as Inklings (with one essay by the quasi Inkling Dorothy Sayers). Includes extremely important essays by Lewis and Tolkien on writing stories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Warren. Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis. Edited by Clyde Kilby and Marjorie Mead. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982. A valuable primary source, especially about the Inkling meetings during the 1940’s. Warren Lewis is an interesting author in his own right.

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