The Inklings: The Oxford literary circle of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien


What was C S Lewis’s and J R R Tolkien’s Oxford circle, The “Inklings,” really like? In the Tolkien issue of Christian History & Biography, my friends Jennifer Woodruff (now Jennifer Woodruff Tait) and Edwin Tait (now Edwin Woodruff Tait) contributed to a “group portrait” of the Inklings. Here, after a brief introduction from me, Jenn gives the texture of Oxford and the Inklings group, and Edwin highlights an oft-forgotten Inkling, Owen Barfield:

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Gallery – The Inklings
Tolkien relished his weekly meetings with this club of remarkable friends.

Thursday evenings in Lewis’s Magdalen College rooms and Tuesdays for lunch at the Eagle and Child public house, Tolkien joined C. S. Lewis and a revolving cast of others in a beloved ritual.

Over tea—or ale—and pipes, these Oxford thinkers and writers read aloud from their works, traded anecdotes and jibes, and engaged in what Lewis called “the cut and parry of prolonged, fierce, masculine argument.” Many passages of The Lord of the Rings found in the Inklings their first—and unfailingly appreciative—audience, much to the delight of their author.

Lewis, a fellow and tutor in English at Oxford’s Magdalen College from 1925 to 1954 (he moved on to a professorship at Cambridge), was the group’s vociferous nucleus.

Around him were usually arrayed, along with Tolkien, Lewis’s brother Warren (Warnie), the medical doctor R. E. (“Humphrey”) Havard—known affectionately by the group as “the Useless Quack”—and the eccentric author, lecturer, and Oxford University Press editor Charles Williams.

Beyond these was a larger circle of friends and sometime attenders that included the London solicitor and scholar Owen Barfield, the Oxford English professor and theatrical producer Nevill Coghill, Tolkien’s son Christopher (himself a lecturer in languages at Oxford after the war), and the Dominican priest and humanities lecturer Gervase Mathew.

Old Boys and Ivory Towers
The Inklings’ Oxford

The clock on the tower of Tom Gate at Christ Church still strikes “Oxford Time,” five minutes slower than the rest of the city—or indeed the world. The spires and towers of 39 colleges and 20 Anglican churches dominate the scenery. Students punt on the river accompanied by picnic lunches and champagne, and Blackwell’s Bookshop and the Eagle and Child pub invite leisurely afternoon visits. Despite the presence of the ubiquitous Starbucks and a scattering of midriff-baring teenagers, Oxford is still the Inklings’ Oxford.

At Magdalen College, visitors can still see the immaculately groomed lawns and attempt to cajole the deer along Addison’s Walk, where Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson had a conversation instrumental in Lewis’ conversion (see p. 36). Tolkien and his wife, Edith, lived in numerous Oxford houses—several were lodgings “in college”—and attended Catholic churches in the area. All, weather-beaten by decades if not centuries of rain, still stand unobtrusively amid showier spires.

Oxford in the mid-twentieth century was a much more masculine place than it is today: women’s colleges existed, but in a second-class way (as Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night makes clear) until they were granted full collegiate status in 1959. Now, both women’s and men’s colleges admit members of the opposite sex; then, Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, and their friends argued theology and read out passages from their works in an environment full of male camaraderie in both pub and college.

Echoes of this often come through in Tolkien’s works; the men go out into the world united in fellowship to do battle, whereas the women—worshiped in the way Tolkien adored his wife Edith—wait, watch, and work a secret magic.

The English countryside has often been identified with his green and pastoral Shire (see p. 38). But Oxford University’s ageless buildings seem also to have left their mark on Middle-earth. Few places, even in England, pack as much history into as little space as Oxford—”New” College was built in 1379.

The sense of living among the ruins of a much older civilization always haunts the Oxford visitor, and it perhaps haunted Tolkien’s creations of an even more ancient history as well. Tolkien is even known to have compared the Radcliffe Camera (a portion of the Bodleian Library complex built in an almost obnoxiously classical idiom) to Sauron’s temple to Morgoth on Nümenor in the Second Age of Middle-earth.

In Wolvercote Cemetery in north Oxford, Tolkien’s grave rests with Edith’s under the names of “Beren” and “Luthien”—the famous lovers who were ancestors of Aragorn and Arwen, and whose tale also paralleled that later wooing (see p. 13).

In the University Botanical Gardens at Magdalen stands another memorial: a strong, tall, green tree called Pinus Nigra. This is said to have been the tree-loving Tolkien’s favorite. Like Tolkien’s mythology and the crowded, colorful streets of Oxford, it grows and spreads, but never loses its source.

—Jennifer Lynn Woodruff

The Medium is the Message
Owen Barfield (1898-1997)
The gracious English bookstore clerk had not heard of Owen Barfield. His early, groundbreaking work of literary criticism, Poetic Diction, didn’t ring any bells. Nor did his 1957 masterpiece Saving the Appearances, a brilliant explanation of the meaning of idolatry in human history. I didn’t mention his children’s fantasy The Silver Trumpet (beloved by the Tolkien family) or his whimsical autobiographical novel This Ever Diverse Pair, which divides the two sides of his life into two separate individuals—the stolid lawyer Burden and the creative dreamer Burgeon. Instead: “He was a friend of C. S. Lewis,” I hazarded. Her face lit up. “Oh! Was he an Inkling?”

While Lewis and Tolkien enjoy fame as individuals, Barfield remains “an Inkling,” known mainly because of his intermittent participation in the gatherings at the Eagle and Child, and his frequent involvement in the spring “walking tours” taken by Lewis and others. He is best-known as Lewis’s “Second Friend,” “the man who disagrees with you about everything.” Mostly, the two disagreed over Barfield’s espousal (which persisted after he became an Anglican in 1948) of Rudolf Steiner’s mystical “anthroposophy.”

In 1928 Barfield published Poetic Diction, a book that profoundly influenced the attitudes of both Lewis and Tolkien toward language. Barfield argued that the separation in the modern mind between material and spiritual realities was unknown earlier in human history. To us, the abstract meaning is the real one and the concrete image is “poetic,” an imaginative aid toward the real meaning. But for premodern people the one was embedded in the other—ideas were bound up with the words that convey them.

It is easy to see why this theory would appeal to Tolkien, who believed passionately that words have intrinsic moral and spiritual meaning. Thus, in The Lord of the Rings, the “Black Speech” is evil in itself, while the depravity of the orcs is expressed in their corruption of the Common Speech. On the other hand, the Elvish languages reveal the beauty of Valinor as human language can not.

Barfield saw much less of the other Inklings after his 1931 move to London to become a lawyer. For thirty years, he wrote very little, until his gradual withdrawal from law practice in the late 1950s and 1960s freed him to pursue his literary career with books such as Saving the Appearances and its 1963 sequel, the Socratic dialogue Worlds Apart. This renewed creative output brought him belated fame and a number of visiting professorships at American universities. He lived for more than thirty years after his retirement, dying in 1997 at the age of 99.

—Edwin Tait

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