N.B. Below is my CU CTP lecture, December 11, 2014, given in the British-Irish Studies Room.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings to Tolkien. In turn, it would be equally wrong to suggest that the relationship was not reciprocal, as Tolkien greatly influenced Lewis and the Inklings. It was with the Inklings that Tolkien read his own works and criticized those read by others. The Inklings also served as his social outlet outside of his family. “He was a man of ‘cronies’ rather than of general society,” Lewis wrote of him, “and was always best after midnight (he had a Johnsonian horror of going to bed) and in some small circle of intimates where the tone was at once Bohemian, literary, and Christian (for he was profoundly religious).”
Tolkien first met Lewis at Oxford in 1926. After a faculty tea, Lewis approached Tolkien to discuss the latter’s ideas on a revised English curriculum. After the meeting, Lewis offered a mixed reaction in his diary. “No harm in him,” Lewis recorded, he “only needs a smack or two.” Soon, though, Lewis joined Tolkien’s academic club, the Kolbitár, dedicated to reading the Icelandic Sagas in Old Norse. The two remained merely academic colleagues until the autumn of 1929, when they realized that their love for Old Norse and the sagas meant more to each of them than merely improving their academic prowess. For Tolkien and Lewis, the northern myths contained within the sagas revealed much about lost truths in the world. “One week I was up till 2.30 on Monday talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien,” Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing on the gods & giants & Asgard for three hours.” It proved a major moment for both of them, the real beginning of their long-lasting friendship. Tolkien must have especially regarded the late-night discussion as important, for he afterwards lent to Lewis parts of The Silmarillion, a work he regarded as intensely personal. In what must have been a great relief to Tolkien, Lewis responded positively to what Tolkien had lent him. After that, Tolkien read other parts of The Silmarillion to Lewis, and Lewis continued to critique these pieces favorably. Their friendship grew from 1929 to 1940, almost unabated for over a decade.
Lewis, who would become the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century, was a fascinating man. As numerous friends of Lewis have noted, he served as the heart and soul of Oxford during his years there. Like many brilliant persons, he had his eccentricities; he drank frequently and heavily and smoked up to sixty cigarettes a day, in addition to smoking a pipe regularly. One of his students, John Wain, wrote: “The thick-set body, the red face with its domed forehead, the dense clouds of smoke from a rapidly puffed cigarette or pipe, the brisk argumentative manner, and the love of debate kept the conversation going at the pace of some breathless game.” Lewis had, according to Wain and most other students who knew him, a “dramatic personality.” Anthony Curtis recorded an interesting incident with Lewis:
Another time I arrived [as a student to a class with C.S. Lewis] before the others and he was staring out of the window at the deer. ‘A deer has only two concepts,’ he told me, ‘the concept of food which they approach and the concept of danger from which they retreat. Now what interests me is how a deer would react to the idea of poison. . . . which is both food and dangerous.
Unlike with Tolkien, students either loved the rather intense Lewis, or they hated him.
Religion proved a major unifier as well as a point of contention between Lewis and Tolkien. Unlike Tolkien, he was raised as a strong Irish Protestant Ulsterman. From an early age, he heard much from his relatives about the wickedness of Roman Catholics. His maternal grandfather, a preacher, stressed frequently that Roman Catholics were the “devil’s own children.” As a young child, Lewis took his faith very seriously, and he chastised those who flirted with Catholicism. During his teenage years, however, Lewis lost his faith, replacing it with a pure rationalism.
Tolkien played a fundamental role in bringing Lewis back to Christianity. On September 19, 1931, Tolkien, Lewis, and another friend, Hugo Dyson, talked until three in the morning about the meaning of Christianity. “We began,” Lewis noted, “on metaphor and myth–interrupted by 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 all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing.” Tolkien used arguments regarding the truth of myth to discuss the story of Christ as the true myth. “Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there,” Lewis explained a month later, “while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’” In the fall of 1931, Lewis found himself to be a Christian.
In addition to both participating in the Kolbitár’s Club, Lewis and Tolkien also belonged to a professor-student literary group known as “The Inklings,” founded and named by an Oxford undergraduate. When the founding undergraduate matriculated in 1933, Tolkien and Lewis remained the only two original members. Unintentionally combining the Kolbitár’s and the Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis formed a new group, but maintained the Inklings name. As Tolkien explained, it was really “the undetermined and unelected circle of friends who gathered about C.S.L., and met in his rooms in Magdalen.” By the end of 1933, the Inklings still consisted only of the Lewis brothers and Tolkien. Humphrey Havard (a.k.a. “the Useless Quack”) and Hugo Dyson both joined in 1934. Charles Williams became a member in 1940, and Charles Wrenn, Nevill Coghill, and Owen Barfield attended irregularly beginning in the 1930s. Other irregular members and attendees included Christopher Tolkien, John Tolkien, Lord David Cecil, J.A.W. Bennett, James Dundas-Grant, Adam Fox, Colin Hardie, Gervase Mathew, R.B. McCallum, Tom Stevens, and John Wain.
Rarely did women attend a meetings of the Inklings. Dorothy Sayers visited once, though Tolkien, by chance, was not at the meeting. In the late 1950s, Lewis brought his wife Joy to the meetings. The latter must have grated on Tolkien, as the pre-Joy, bachelor Lewis “would on occasion chide him for having to return him” to his wife, John Lawlor remembered. Often, Tolkien grew frustrated with his bachelor friends as well. “The ever-clamant society of the Bird and Baby, no less than the sometimes tumultuous exchanges of the Inklings, were decidedly not to Tolkien’s taste.” Incapable of understanding Tolkien’s dedication and commitment to his wife, the bachelor Lewis complained to George Sayer that Tolkien was “the most married man he knew.”
Meetings of the Inklings became increasingly frequent in the late 1930s. Tolkien and Lewis met each other every Monday morning for a drink before the week began. “This is one of the pleasantest spots in the week,” Lewis wrote. “Sometimes we talk English school politics: sometimes we criticize one another’s poems: other days we drift into theology or ‘the state of the nation’: rarely we fly no higher than bawdy and ‘puns.’” The Inklings–Tolkien, Lewis, and their friends–formally met on Thursday evenings in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen, and informally met on Tuesdays for lunch and drinks at a local pub, “The Eagle and Child,” more affectionately known as “The Bird and Baby.” On Tuesdays, more persons than just the formal Inklings, including the pub owner, joined in the discussions. “We sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter,” one of Lewis’s students, James Dundas-Grant, remembered: “Back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in original to make a point. And, Tolkien, jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.”
The Thursday evening sessions were more formal and unvarying. John Wain remembered the Thursday nights:
I can see that room so clearly now, the electric fire pumping heat into the dank air, the faded screen that broke some of the keener draughts, the enamel beer-jug on the table, the well-worn sofa and armchairs, and the men drifting in (those from distant colleges would be later), leaving overcoats and hats in any corner and coming over to warm their hands before finding a chair.
C.S. Lewis described it as a group of “literary friends. [Williams] read us his manuscripts and we read him ours: we smoked, talked, argued, and drank together.” Lewis asked a Benedictine friend, “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” Visitors, too, viewed the Inklings as essentially Lewis’s group. Typically, Lewis led the group and the discussion, as he throughly enjoyed having others read to him. Warnie recorded of the meetings:
The ritual of an Inklings was unvarying. When half a dozen or so had arrived, tea would be produced, after which when pipes were alight Jack would say, ‘well has nobody got anything to read us?’ Out would come a manuscript and we would settle down to sit in judgement upon it. Real, unbiased judgement too, for about the Inklings there was nothing of a mutual admiration society; with us, praise for good work was unstinted but censure for bad, or even not so good, was often brutally frank. To read to the Inklings was a formidable ordeal.
Certainly, the Inklings could be rough with one another, and they rarely pulled punches. Though Tolkien probably dealt his share of blows, he received a number of them as well, especially from Dyson. As Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings chapter by chapter, Dyson usually commented negatively or sighed loudly. One night, he went as far as to say, “Oh f–k, not another elf.” After Tolkien achieved immense popularity with The Lord of the Rings, Dyson told a reporter, “‘Dear Ronald writing all those silly books with three introductions and 10 appendixes. His was not a true imagination, you know: He made it all up.” For one as sensitive as Tolkien, such comments must have greatly pained him. Though, as C.S. Lewis noted, Tolkien “has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.” Tolkien, himself, seemed proud that he was hard to influence. Lewis
used to insist on my reading passages aloud as I finished them, and then he made suggestions. He was furious when I didn’t accept them. Once he said, ‘It’s no use trying to influence you, you’re uninfluencable!’ But that wasn’t quite true. Whenever he said, ‘You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!’ I used to try.’
When a scholar, Charles Moorman, wrote of the Inklings as a collective entity, Warnie recorded in his diary, “I smiled at the thought of Tollers being under the influence of Moorman’s group mind.”
The Inklings did more than criticize each other’s writings, they also held incredibly high (and heated) levels of conversation and academic discourse. Unfortunately, only brief glimpses of Inkling’s discussions remain, but topics included the Nuremberg Trials, the Blessed Eucharist as a form of cannibalism, and child mortality, to name only a few. “The Inklings is now really v[ery] well provided, with Fox as chaplain, you as army, Barfield as lawyer, Havard as doctor–almost all the estates,” Lewis joked in 1940, “except, of course, anyone who could actually produce a single necessity of life, a loaf, a boot, or a hut.”
Visitors and shorter-term Inklings rarely found the group as divisive as the long-time members of the group did. Lewis’s student John Wain, for example, confirmed Moorman’s thesis about a corporate mind. Coming from a modernist and leftist perspective, Wain viewed the Inklings as politically very conservative, religiously very Catholic (either Anglo or Roman), and artistically very anti-modernist. Insiders such as Havard viewed the Inklings as cohesive as well. They were, as Wain writes, “a circle of investigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.” Further, Wain argued, C.S. Lewis led the group as a pro-Christian political cell, working with fellow travelers such as Dorothy Sayers, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Roy Campbell. The only open leftist among the more permanent Inklings was Coghill. Ultimately, Wain concludes, the Inklings failed to remake the world in a traditionalist image, and “Jack didn’t kill the giant, but the bout was a good one, and worth watching.”
The rise and fall of the Inklings reflected the ups and downs of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s friendship. After the autumn of 1949, the Inklings began to meet less frequently, though they never officially broke apart until Lewis’s death in 1963. The same could be said for the friendship of the two men. A number of things strained their friendship. As will be discussed more fully in chapter three, their theological differences played the most significant role in the decline of their mutual affection. Other issues intruded as well. Tolkien resented Lewis’s strong and quick friendship with Charles Williams, beginning in 1940. Tolkien also seemed perturbed by Lewis’s significant borrowing of Tolkien’s ideas and private mythology for his novels. In the late 1950s, Tolkien regretted Lewis’s secret decision to marry a divorced woman, Joy Gresham, an act strictly forbidden in the Roman Catholic Church. Finally, Tolkien openly rejected Lewis’s children’s fiction, especially the Narnia tales. “I hear you’ve been reading Jack’s children’s story. It really won’t do, you know!” Tolkien said to Lewis’s friend and future biographer, Roger Lancelyn Green. “‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun.’ Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?”
Lewis noticed the strain as well. Sometime in the late 1950s or the early 1960s, Lewis asked Christopher Tolkien, over a drink, why his father “had allowed their friendship to lapse.” Christopher, most likely embarrassed at the highly personal question, offered no explanation. Biographer A.N. Wilson implies strongly that Lewis and Tolkien only saw each other a few times prior to Lewis’s death, and, even then, the meetings were intensely awkward.
Still, it is possible to exaggerate too much the differences between Tolkien and Lewis after 1940. Tolkien, for example, worked vehemently and successfully to secure Lewis a prestigious chair at Cambridge. Edith, Tolkien’s wife, and Lewis’s wife, Joy, became good friends in the late 1950s. Additionally, Walter Hooper argues that Tolkien visited “Lewis several times that fall before Lewis died that autumn, and he certainly didn’t abandon him in his last days.” Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son confirms Hooper, further noting that Tolkien offered to help Douglas in any way he could. Clyde Kilby, who know both men in the early 1960s, said in an interview: “C.S. Lewis had a pure love for Tolkien with never any hitch; he would criticize Tolkien straight off the cuff.” Lewis’s death hit Tolkien hard. “This feels like an axe-blow near the roots,” Tolkien wrote his daughter. “Very sad that we should have been so separated in the last years; but our time of close communion endured in memory for both of us.”
Perhaps most important, as Tolkien well understood, his writings would never have seen publication had it not been for the constant encouragement of Lewis. It was Lewis who first showed real excitement regarding The Silmarillion, it was Lewis who first encouraged the publisher to accept The Hobbit, and it was Lewis who encouraged writing and publication of The Lord of the Rings from the very long years of its beginning in late 1938 to its publication in 1954, 1955, and 1956. After its publication, Lewis reviewed it and praised it publicly as well as privately. In his own published writings, Lewis referred to Tolkien’s works as indispensable, adding even more considerable prominence to the increasing popularity of the trilogy. Indeed, it would have been impossible for Tolkien to have found a better or more enthusiastic promoter of his works. Tolkien admitted as much in 1965 in a letter to Clyde Kilby: “But for the encouragement of C.S.L. I do not think that I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien once even admitted that he “wrote The Lord of the Rings to make Lewis a story out of The Silmarillion.”
Lewis,“Professor J.R.R. Tolkien,” London Times, 3 September 1973. Samuel Johnson supposedly hated to sleep at night, preferring to work as late, or as early as the case might be, as possible.
Walter Hooper, ed., All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis, 1922-1927 (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1991), 393.
Hooper, ed., All My Road Before Me, 440.
Hooper, ed., The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 317.
Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand, 150-51.
“Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: An Interview with Walter Hooper,” 192.
See, for example, Warnie Lewis, Brothers and Friends, 127.
Lawlor, C.S. Lewis, 29.
John Wain, Sprightly Running: Part of An Autobiography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962), 138-39.
Curtis, “Remembering Tolkien and Lewis,” Pg. 429.
John Wain, Sprightly Running: Part of An Autobiography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962), 138-39.
Quoted in Bayley, “A Passionate Pilgrim.”
Hooper, ed., The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 421.
Hooper, ed., The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 421.
Hooper, ed., The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 425. See also, J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf, Including the Poem Mythopoeia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 97-101; and C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955), 209.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford, to William Luther White, 11 September 1967, in William Luther White, The Image of Man in C.S. Lewis (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1969), 221-22; and George Sayer, Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 149.
Sayer, Jack, 150-51.
For a comprehensive list and mini-bio of each member, see Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 255-59. On Hardie, see “Colin Hardie,” The London Times (20 October 1998).
Warnie Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis, 481.
Douglass Gresham, Lenten Lands, 43, 51.
Lawlor, C.S. Lewis, 38.
Sayer, “Recollections,” 14.
W.H. Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis, 292.
Sayer, Jack, 151-52; and Shirley Sugerman, ed., “A Conversation with Owen Barfield,” in Evolution of Consciousness: Studies in Polarity (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1975), 9.
James Dundas-Grant, “From an ‘Outsider,’” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 231.
Wain, Sprightly Running, 184.
C.S. Lewis, “Preface,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s, 1974), v.
W.H. Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis, 363.
Nathan C. Starr, “Good Cheer and Sustenance,” chapter in James T. Como, ed., C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences, 122-23; Robert E. Havard, “Philia: Jack at Ease,” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 217; and James Dundas-Grant, “From an ‘Outsider,’” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 231.
Tolkien to White, 11 September 1967, in White, The Image of Man in C.S. Lewis, 222.
Dyson, quoted in A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), 217; and Warnie Lewis, Brothers and Friends, 200.
Dyson quoted in Guy Davenport, “Hobbits in Kentucky,” New York Times (23 February 1979), A27. See also, Robert E. Havard, “Philia: Jack at Ease,” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 217.
C.S. Lewis to Charles Moorman, 15 May 1959, quoted in Lin Carter, Tolkien: A Look Behind “The Lord of the Rings” (New York: Ballantine, 1969), p.18; Sayer, “Recollections,” 10; CSL to Father Gardiner, 5 October 1962, in W.H. Lewis, CS Lewis: A Biography (unpublished), pg. 460, in WCWC; Warnie Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis, 376; Clyde Kilby, unpublished parts of chapter, “Woodland Prisoner,” pg. 11, in WCWC, Kilby Files, 3-8, “Tolkien the Man” from TOLKIEN AND THE SILMARILLION; and Edmund Fuller, Wall Street Journal, September 19, 1977.
Plimmer interview, Daily Telegraph Magazine, 32.
Warnie Lewis, Brothers and Friends, 268.
See, for example, Warnie Lewis, Brothers and Friends, 189, 212, 218. In what can only be regarded as brilliant writing, Humphrey Carpenter recreated what he thought a typical Inklings meeting must have been like. See Carpenter, The Inklings, 127-152. Tolkien recreated an Inklings discussion as well. See, Tolkien, “The Notion Club Papers, parts 1 and 2,” in Sauron Defeated, 145-327.
W.H. Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis, 337.
Wain, Sprightly Running, 181. See also, Robert E. Havard, “Philia: Jack at Ease,” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 226.
Robert E. Havard, “Philia: Jack at Ease,” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 217.
Wain, Sprightly Running, 181.
C.S. Lewis, The Kilns, to Warnie Lewis, 17 March 1940, WCWC, CSL Letters to Warnie Lewis, Letter Index 172.
Wain, Sprightly Running, 181-85.
Letters, 33, 113, 151, 224, 303, 361, 378.
Tolkien quoted in Green and Hooper, C.S. Lewis, 241. See also, Sayer, “Recollections,” 14.
Wilson, C.S. Lewis, 273.
Wilson, C.S. Lewis, 294.
Brian Barbour, “Lewis and Cambridge,” Modern Philology 96 (May 1999): 439-84.
Carpenter, Tolkien, 237.
“Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: An Interview with Walter Hooper,” 190.
Gresham, Lenten Lands, 152.
Michael A. Foster, “Dr. Clyde S. Kilby Recalls the Inklings,” interview, 6 October 1980, p. 4, JRRT Series 5, Box 1, Folder 23, Tolkien Papers, Marquette University Archives.
“Tolkien [obit],” New York Times, 3 September 1973, 18.
Quoted in Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth, 70.