Just when you think you’ve read just about everything possible on the Inklings, and surely no one can add any more to what we know about them, along comes a writer like Colin Duriez and a book like The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien and Their Circle, just to prove you wrong.
What a treat this book is – comprehensive, succinct, engaging, and informative.
Over a period of more than two decades, a group of teachers, professors, and occasionally students and friends came together to discuss literature, read from their works in progress, drink beer, and offer constructive criticism and encouragement. The best known of the group were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, Charles Williams, and Warren Lewis were regular attenders. Christopher Tolkien would join the group after his service in World War II.
What their discussions led to was some of the best-known, best-loved, and most influential literature of the 20th century – The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia and numerous other books by Lewis, and the strange, magical novels of Charles Williams, among others.
|The Bodelian Library, Radcliffe Camera and St. Mary's Church|
Not all of the discussions happened at the weekly meetings in the back room (aka “The Rabbit Room”) of the Eagle and Child pub; in fact, the more serious and important discussions happened in Lewis’s room in Magdalen College. It was only literature that was discussed; Tolkien and Lewis between them successfully plotted to overthrow the “tyranny of modern literature” in the Oxford English curriculum. The Inklings were well aware, for example, that the term “Renaissance” was invented in the 19th century to describe the 14th-16th centuries, and it was not a concept that the people who lived through it considered.
The picture that emerges from The Oxford Inklings, published in 2015, is a group that centered on Lewis; he was the guiding spirit. What also emerges is a strong sense of what was happening with Christianity at Oxford; the interplay of writing, lectures, and friendships; the disdain by many of Oxford’s dons (and occasionally Tolkien himself) toward Lewis as a popularizer of theology, despite his major research and literary contributions. And one also sees something of the tension between friends who shared the different faith traditions of Catholic and Anglican.
Duriez is a writer and lecturer who has written extensively about Tolkien, Lewis, and the Inklings. His works include The C.S. Lewis Handbook (1990), The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia (2000), The Inklings Handbook (2001; co-authored), Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings: A Guide to Middle Earth (2001), The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook (2002), A Field Guide to Narnia (2004), The C.S. Lewis Chronicles (2005), J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend (2012), and The Oxford Inklings (2015). He is also the author of A.D. 33: The Year That Changed the World (2007), Field Guide to Harry Potter (2007), The Poetic Bible (2001), and Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (2008).
The Oxford Inklings is a significant addition to our understanding of who the Inklings were, what they accomplished, and what their friendship meant.
Top photograph: From left, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and J.R.R. Tolkien, all members of the Oxford Inklings.