During the hectic middle decades of the twentieth century, from the end of the Great Depression through World War II and into the 1950s, a small circle of intellectuals gathered on a weekly basis in and around Oxford University 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 dabbling. Their polyvalent talents—amounting to genius in some cases—won out. By the time the last Inkling passed away on the eve of the twenty-first 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 the Beowulf author, of Dante, Spenser, Milton, courtly love, fairy tale, and epic; and 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 achieved 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, like the Chaucer scholar and theatrical producer Nevill Henry Kendal Aylmer Coghill (1899–1980), the biographer and man of letters Lord David Cecil (1902–86), the poet and Magdalen divine Adam Fox (1883–1977), the classicist Colin Hardie (1906–98), the medievalist J.A.W. Bennett (1911–81), Lewis’s older brother Warren (“Warnie,” 1895–1973), and the sharp-tongued don Henry Victor Dyson Dyson (“Hugo,” 1896–1975), achieved lesser but still considerable eminence. Tolkien’s youngest son, Christopher (1924–), who would become the chief editor and interpreter of his father’s mythological project, began attending Inklings meetings after he returned from RAF duty in World war II. 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 to enrich the stream.
The Inklings typically met in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College on Thursday evenings, when most of the readings 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 passersby 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 reenchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty….
The story of the Inklings unfolds mostly in Oxford, a city in the English Midlands, originally a medieval market town set down higgledy-piggledy in the wetlands where Saxons once forded the Rivers Cherwell and Thames with horses, thanes, and oxen (hence Oxenford) to dig themselves in against the invading Danes; where the Normans build bridges and circled the settlements in stone; where mendicant friars and secular masters built their schools of theology and liberal arts under the watchful eyes of God, pope, and king; where town-gown rivalry erupted into periodic brawls. Thanks to its natural watercourses, its stagecoach inns, its eighteenth-century canals and nineteenth-century rails, this city of monks and dons has also been a congenial setting for factories, from Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade to Morris Motors, humming and spewing alongside the printing presses for the city’s intellectual industries: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Oxford University Press (OUP).
Oxford 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 worshipping) 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 supreme contemplation. Then, as now, there was bound to be disappointment….
To live and work in such a rarefied intellectual ambience, with chapel, scriptorium, and Faerie woodland close at hand, among gifted companions who could share a pint and spin off a limerick or clerihew at will, was a rapture that never quite realized itself. For one had also to contend with troublesome families, threadbare pockets, cantankerous colleagues, dim students, urban congestion, and—twice in the Inklings’ lifespan—war. The unavoidable harshness of life surprised none of them, for they were Christians one and all, believing that they inhabited a fallen world, albeit one filled with God’s grace. Yet it would be a mistake to label them, as did one early biographer, “the Oxford Christians,” and to presume that this sufficed. This would be tantamount, as Warnie Lewis complained the moment the term arose, to say that the Inklings were no more than “an organized group for the propagation of Christianity.” Nonetheless, the Inklings were unmistakably Christians at Oxford, and this plays no small part in their cultural significance.
Christianity on the Banks of the Isis
Oxford is, as Jan Morris puts it, “as organically Christian as Bangkok is Buddhist.” Before a university appeared in Oxford, the town was a jumble of hermitages, holy wells, monasteries, and churches. The colleges of medieval Catholic Oxford began as quasi monasteries designed to provide the Church with learned clergy and to offer Masses for deceased patrons to speed their souls through purgatory. The colleges of post-Reformation Anglican Oxford renounced purgatory and all other “popish” devices, insisting that its members subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, thus excluding every Jew and Catholic in England as well as dissenters and atheists. The gowns of an Oxford don were patterned after religious habits, and until the 1880s the man beneath the gown was required, with few exceptions, to be celibate. Bachelorhood remained the ideal and family life a concession to prosaic mediocrity well into the early twentieth century.
As the doctrinal center of English Christianity, Oxford historically has cherished orthodoxy; as the intellectual center of English Christianity, Oxford has often put orthodoxy to the test. Here followers of Duns Scotus and William Ockham debated the semantics of divine being and the modalities of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, Wyclif produced the first English Bible, and Bishops Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer, denying transubstantiation, were martyred in 1555 for the Protestant cause. When Protestantism won out, it was here that Edmund Campion, brilliant orator and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, shocked his admirers by changing course for the Catholic Church, thus taking the first steps that would lead him to martyrdom at London’s Tyburn Gallows.
Whether high or low church, Evangelical, Broad Church, or Catholic, Oxford was in love with the idea of Christian perfection. It was here in 1729 that Charles and John Wesley founded their “Holy Club” and from here that George Whitefield went forth to evangelize America. It was from Oxford in the 1830s that the Tractarian movement set out to re-Catholicize the national church, and it was in Oxford that the saintly John Henry Newman made his submission to Rome. Here John Ruskin, who had a love-hate relationship with the city and with his own Evangelical roots, sought to awaken the nation’s sleeping conscience to his vision of Christian socialism, medieval artisanship, and educational reform; and it was here, in the cathedral-like University Museum that Ruskin helped to design, that the ornithologist and bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, took on T.H. Huxley in the celebrated 1860 debate on the validity of Darwinian evolution. The Victorian crisis of faith took place here, but so did what the historian Timothy Larsen has called “the Victorian crisis of doubt.” From Ruskin’s time until the days of the Inklings, a pattern of religious rebellion and rediscovery would repeat itself; one could be a militant skeptic like Huxley relishing the escape from Victorian restraints, or a militant believer like Ronald Knox relishing the escape from modern liberalism, or an initiate in any of the manifold schools of occultism, theosophy, and spiritualism that flourished in Oxford as well. All the spiritual alternatives were on offer, all could be sampled, but there was little room for indifference—certainly not for a generation that lived through the Great War.
Oxford at War and After
We must picture Oxford, during World War I, not as the neomedieval paradise it would like to be, but as the military compound it was obliged to become. The colleges of Oxford turned nearly overnight into hospitals and officer training camps, strangely quiet and emptied of students, “like monasteries where all the monks have died,” as Victor Gollancz remembered it. The Oxford University Roll of Service records that of 14,561 students who served in the war, 2,708—nearly 20 percent—perished. In a society known for its masculine “clubbability,” yet haunted by the memory of so many friendships severed, so many men cut down in their prime, it scarcely surprised that the surviving remnant would seek out every opportunity for male companionship. The Inklings were, to a man—and they were all men—comrades who had been touched by war, who viewed life through the lens of war, yet who looked for hope and found it, in fellowship, where so many other modern writers and intellectuals saw only broken narratives, disfigurement, and despair.
If Virginia Woolf was right that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” in the direction of modernism and daring social experiments, the Great War intensified that change; according to standard histories of this period, the rising generation of British writers reacted to the catastrophe by severing ties to tradition and embracing an aesthetic of dissonance, fragmentation, and estrangement. Yet the Great War also instilled in many a longing to reclaim the goodness, beauty, and cultural continuity that had been so violently disrupted. The Inklings came together because they shared that longing; and it was the Inklings, rather than the heirs of the Bloomsbury Group—the other great, if ill-defined, English literary circle of the twentieth century—who gave that longing its most enduring artistic form and substance. Far from breaking with tradition, they understood the Great War and its aftermath in the light of tradition, believing as did their literary and spiritual ancestors, that ours is a fallen world but not a forsaken one. It was a belief that set them at odds with many of their contemporaries, but kept them in the broad currents of the English literary heritage. They shared much with Bloomsbury, including love of beauty, companionship, and conversation, but they differed from their older London counterpart in their religious ardor, their social conservatism, and their embrace of fantasy, myth, and (mostly) conventional literary techniques instead of those dazzling experiments with time, character, narrative, and language that mark the modernist aesthetic.
No doubt Bloomsbury has exerted more influence over what Anthony Burgess once called “higher literary aspirations,” those giddy and often glorious assaults upon convention that have found a secure place in the twentieth century’s literary canon. And yet the Inklings have made serious inroads into that canon. The literary status of both Tolkien and Lewis and, to a lesser extent, Williams, Barfield, and other Inklings, is undergoing rapid ascent as academic courses and mature literary criticism focused upon their work blossom around the world, and—unlike Bloomsbury, which now seems part of history, a brilliant stream of art and thought that one admires over one’s shoulder—the Inklings continue to shape significant aspects of modern religion and worldwide culture.
Tolkien and Lewis wield most of this posthumous influence. That The Lord of the Rings was voted “Book of the Century” in a massive 1997 poll conducted by Waterstones, a British bookseller, may be dismissed as a transient phenomenon; but if we consider its sales figures (estimates of worldwide sales run from one hundred and fifty to two hundred million), it’s clear that Tolkien has a secure place in the pantheon of popular culture. Far more important, though, The Lord of the Rings and the vast mythology that surrounds and pervades it possess an intrinsic grandeur, breadth, and profound originality—it is simply the case that nothing like this has ever been done before—that make them, we believe, landmarks in the history of English literature. To be sure, fan fiction, derivative fantasy novels, and sword-and-sorcery illustrations inspired by Tolkien can be artless at best; but no unprejudiced critic can deny the bracing effect of Tolkien’s rich mythopoeic imagination upon generations of readers and writers disillusioned with modernist themes and techniques, and longing for reenchantment.
Lewis has made a comparable mark. Arguably the bestselling Christian writer since John Bunyan, he is also credited with the conversion or reversion to the faith of a considerable number of twenty-first-century intellectuals and the consolation and instruction of millions more. Yet none of this would have been possible had Lewis not shared with Tolkien the sense of mission and the narrative skill to reclaim traditional storytelling values, not only through fantasy fiction but also through scholarly recovery of the literary past. These achievements have earned Lewis—to the catcalls of some, overwhelmed by the applause of many—a permanent memorial stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, close by the remains of Chaucer, Spenser, Addison, and Dryden.
An Oxford Fantasia
Everyone knows this about the Inklings: that they expressed their longing for tradition and reenchantment through the literature of fantasy. The Inklings’ penchant for the fantastic is quintessentially English; folktale, fairy-tale, and fantasy motifs permeate English literature from Beowulf through The Faerie Queen and The Tempest, to the poetry of Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge. In the middle of the nineteenth century, this national love for the fantastic gave rise to the modern fantasy novel. Immediately Oxford moved into the foreground, as John Ruskin, in his neo-Grimm fable The King of the Golden River (1841, written at Leamington Spa while he was an Oxford undergraduate), and Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1864, the quintessential Oxford classic), laid the groundwork for a genre brought to early perfection by the Scotsman George MacDonald, their mutual friend, in his three children’s classics (At the Back of the North Wind , The Princess and the Goblin , and The Princess and Curdie  and his two fantasies (Phantastes  and Lilith ). MacDonald suffused almost all his works—which also include sermons, poems, literary criticism, translations, and more than two dozen verbose and sentimental novels—with a gentle Christian sensibility that would lead Lewis to call him “my master.” A few years later, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones (both Oxford alumni), and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood produced novels, poetry, and paintings with fantastic themes, bathed with a lovely, romantic, nonmedieval light that would deeply influence the artistic maturation of both Lewis and Tolkien.
Fantasy, then, was in Oxford’s blood, and it is no wonder that the major Inklings experimented in so many fantastic subgenres (myth, science fiction, fable, epic fantasy, children’s fantasy, supernatural thriller, and more). They chose to be fantasists for a variety of reasons—or, rather, fantasy seemed to choose them, each one falling in love with the genre in youth (Lewis in Ireland, Tolkien in Birmingham, Williams and Barfield in London) many years before coming to Oxford. Their passion arose, in part, from the sheer excitement of the genre, the intoxication of entering the unknown and feeling the everyday. For all of the leading Inklings, however, the rapture of the unknown pointed also to something more profound; it was a numinous event, an intimation of a different, higher, purer world or state of being. Fantasy literature was, for the Inklings, a pathway to this higher world and a way of describing, through myth and symbol, its felt presence. Fantasy became the voice of faith. And it made for a crackling good story.
Excerpted from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, published June 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2015 by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. All rights reserved.
Carol Zaleski is a professor of world religions at Smith College and is the author (and coauthor with her husband, Philip Zaleski, profiled below) of several books including Otherworld Journeys and Prayer: A History.
Philip Zaleski is editor of the Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing book series, and is the author (and coauthor with his wife, Carol Zaleski, profiled above) of several books including The Recollected Heart and The Book of Heaven.