Oxford's Influential Inklings
By Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
During the hectic middle decades of the 20th century, from the end of the Great Depression through the Second World War and into the 1950s, a small circle of intellectuals gathered weekly in and around the University of Oxford to drink, smoke, quip, cavil, read aloud their works in progress, and endure or enjoy with as much grace as they could muster the sometimes blistering critiques that followed. This erudite club included writers and painters, philologists and physicians, historians and theologians, soldiers and actors. They called themselves, with typical self-effacing humor, the Inklings.
The novelist John Wain, a member of the group who achieved notoriety in midcentury as one of England’s "angry young men," remembers the Inklings as "a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life." Yet the name Inklings, as J.R.R. Tolkien recalled it, was little more than "a pleasantly ingenious pun … suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink."
The donnish dreaminess thus hinted at tells us something important about this curious band: Its members saw themselves as no more than a loose association of rumpled intellectuals, and this modest self-image is a large part of their charm. But history would record, however modest their pretensions, that their ideas did not remain half-formed nor their inkblots mere dabblings. Their polyvalent talents — amounting to genius in some cases — won out.
By the time the last Inkling passed away, on the eve of the 21st century, the group had altered, in large or small measure, the course of imaginative literature (fantasy, allegory, mythopoeic tales), Christian theology and philosophy, comparative mythology, and the scholarly study of theBeowulf author, of Dante, Spenser, Milton, courtly love, fairy tale, and epic. Drawing as much from their scholarship as from their experience of a catastrophic century, they had fashioned a new narrative of hope amid the ruins of war, industrialization, cultural disintegration, skepticism, and anomie. They listened to the last enchantments of the Middle Ages, heard the horns of Elfland, and made designs on the culture that our own age is only beginning fully to appreciate. They were philologists and philomyths: lovers of logos (the ordering power of words) and mythos (the regenerative power of story), with a nostalgia for things medieval and archaic and a distrust of technological innovation that never decayed into the merely antiquarian. Out of the texts they studied and the tales they read, they forged new ways to convey old themes — sin and salvation, despair and hope, friendship and loss, fate and free will — in a time of war, environmental degradation, and social change.
Some among the Inklings and their circle attained a worldwide fame that continues to grow, notably the literary historian, novelist, poet, critic, satirist, and popular Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the mythographer and Old English scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), the historian of language, Anthroposophist, and solicitor (Arthur) Owen Barfield (1898-1997), and the publisher and author of "supernatural shockers," Charles Walter Stansby Williams (1886-1945). Others achieved lesser but still considerable eminence. Additional members, guests, and relatives drifted in and out of the fellowship, while friends who were not strictly Inklings, such as the mystery novelist, playwright, and Dante translator Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), nonetheless found ways to draw from and enrich the stream.
The Inklings altered the course of imaginative literature, Christian theology, and the scholarship of courtly love.
The Inklings met typically in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College on Thursday evenings, when most of the reading and criticism unfolded; they also could be seen regularly on Tuesday mornings, gathered for food and conversation in a side nook of a smoky pub at 49 St. Giles’, known to passers-by as the Eagle and Child but to habitués as the Bird and Baby.
A wit might say that the Inklings’ aim was to turn the bird into a dragon and the baby into a king, for their sympathies were mythological, medieval, and monarchical, and their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to re-enchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty.
The story of the Inklings unfolds mostly in Oxford, which in the Inklings’ day was not so different in look and smell from the Oxford of today. Then, as now, one felt the irony that from this tangle of traffic-clogged streets, the cloisters of learning lift up to heaven their dreaming (if not always worshiping) spires; that the black-gowned, bicycle-pedaling undergraduates maintain their scholarly idyll at the price of damaging their lungs and risking their lives. Then, as now, one was tempted to fantasize one’s surroundings as a Camelot of intellectual knight-errantry or an Eden of serene contemplation. Then, as now, there was bound to be disappointment.
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