On 2 October 1937 , a short but enthusiastic review of a newly published novel called The Hobbit appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. The Hobbit was, the anonymous reviewer said, ‘a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery’. It was to be compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, as belonging to ‘a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own’. The ‘fortunate child’ who was given The Hobbit would have no notion of ‘the deep sources in our blood and tradition’ from which the ‘inhabitants’ of Professor Tolkien’s fiction had grown, but the reviewer recognised and approved them. ‘Prediction is dangerous,’ the TLS’s critic conceded, ‘but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.’
A few days later, another anonymous review in the Times endorsed this verdict: ‘All who love that kind of children’s book that can be read and reread by adults should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation.’ This time the complimentary comparison was with The Wind in the Willows. Children will be enchanted, but educated adult readers will appreciate the novel’s depths: ‘To the trained eye, some characters will seem almost mythopoeic.’ This reviewer spotted that behind the charm there was a satisfyingly rigorous approach to the invention of a world. It mattered that the tyro novelist was also a professor, for his book had managed something very rare, ‘a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology’.
In fact, both of the reviews had the same author, Tolkien’s close friend and fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis. Lewis was also a fellow ‘Inkling’, a member of the small club that met regularly in his Magdalen College rooms. At some of those meetings Lewis had listened to Tolkien reading aloud early drafts of parts of The Hobbit. The prevailing convention of anonymity in reviewing sometimes made the literary world jolly clubbable. Tolkien naturally knew the identity of the reviewer and wrote to his publisher, Stanley Unwin: ‘I must respect his opinion, as I believed him to be the best living critic until he turned his attention to me.’
Lewis and Tolkien loved nothing better than a club. The early years of the two men’s academic careers, before they even knew each other, featured much club-making. As soon as Tolkien moved to Leeds, aged 28, to take up his first university post, he founded the Viking Club, which was dedicated to the study of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture as well as to beer drinking and singing. When he moved from Leeds to Oxford in 1925 to take up the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon he founded the Kolbítars (coal-biters – men huddled close to a great fire against the Icelandic cold), for the discussion of Old Norse literature. Appointed to a fellowship at Magdalen College in the same year, Lewis was soon enjoying meetings of the Wee Teas, a dining club of young academics who liked talking philosophy. Next there was the Martlets, a literary society whose members read their stories to one another. Tolkien and Lewis finally met in 1926 and duly formed a club called the Cave for members of the Oxford English School who like them wanted to introduce more Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature, and more philology, to the undergraduate syllabus. (Tolkien argued that the syllabus should stop at 1400. Omission of Shakespeare would be unfortunate, but necessary to make room for Old Icelandic.)
The Inklings, though, was the best club, and superseded all others. It was founded in Oxford by Edward Lean, the younger brother of the film director David Lean, and was dedicated to the reading and discussion of creative work in progress. When Lean graduated, Lewis took it over. The group was for men only. (Dorothy L. Sayers, a keen Christian and an admirer of Lewis, was excluded.) At first, meetings were held in Lewis’s Magdalen sitting room on Thursday evenings. Members drank tea and beer, argued about the meaning of life and read their latest work to each other. Then they also began to meet on Tuesday mornings in the Eagle and Child pub, dubbed ‘the Bird and Baby’. (The Inklings were persuaded that beer was the one indubitably life-enhancing form of alcohol.) An entry in Lewis’s brother Warren’s diary captures the spirit of their gatherings: ‘To the Bird and Baby where I was joined by Humphrey, Tollers, and Chris. Tollers looking wonderfully improved by his restcure at Stonyhurst, and in great spirits (having packed his wife off to Brighton for ten days).’ It was from these meetings that Lewis’s children’s stories and Tolkien’s fantasy fiction arose.
When Waterstone’s conducted a poll to find the ‘Book of the Century’ in 1997, the winner was The Lord of the Rings (The Hobbit was 19th, just ahead of L’Etranger, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was 21st, just pipping The Trial). When the BBC’s The Big Read invited viewers to vote for their favourite novel in 2003, The Lord of the Rings won again, with Pride and Prejudice second. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was just ahead of Jane Eyre in the top ten. ‘Academic courses and mature literary criticism focused upon their work blossom around the world,’ Philip and Carol Zaleski report, but they hedge their bets when passing literary judgment on The Lord of the Rings. ‘His admirers cannot resist comparing him to Dante, Malory, or Blake, with the necessary proviso that Tolkien is incomparable.’ Are they among these admirers? It’s not clear that even Tolkien’s fellow Inklings were that keen. ‘Oh God, not another fucking elf!’ the English lecturer and long-time Inkling Hugo Dyson cried. John Wain, an attendee at meetings in the late 1940s, described his heart sinking as Tolkien appeared at Lewis’s door with a bulging jacket pocket, yet again. Tolkien looked down on Lewis’s Narnia, which he thought had been created with insufficient rigour: the cameo appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe particularly irked him. It seems that some of his own club found the earnestness of his own myth-making a little too much.
Yet this earnestness was the secret of his success. ‘I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it has no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands.’ If only the deprived English had something like the Finnish epic the Kalevala, Tolkien’s translation of a tale from which has only recently been published.The Kalevala was compiled by the Finnish physician Elias Lönnrot, who collected traditional verses and tales from around Finland and stitched them together into a connected narrative. Scholars still debate how much of the resultant work was recorded from the poet-singers whose performances he sought, and how much was written by him. The obvious parallel is with James Macpherson, initially the editor of Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and eventually the fabricator of Ossian’s epic poetry, which he ‘translated’ out of Gaelic into portentous English sort of verse. Tolkien was like a Macpherson who admitted that it was all made up.
He spent as much time as he could composing myths and verses and misty genealogies. Time spent on academic work was time lost from work on his ‘legendarium’, as he called it. It now fills the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Most of this is almost unreadable, but it is what made The Lord of the Rings not just possible, but powerful. Ever since, one of the tropes of fantasy narrative has been portentous allusion to older stories. But Tolkien had earned the right to create characters who were in awe of ancestors and their ancient tales. The Lord of the Rings itself, written over the course of 11 years, was completed in 1948, though revisions took Tolkien another year and publication was further delayed by his insistence that The Silmarillion be published with it (the publisher wisely refused). Eventually, The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in July 1954, The Two Towers in November and The Return of the King almost a year later, in October 1955. Lewis wrote a dust-jacket puff: ‘No imaginary world has been projected which is at once so multifarious and so true to its inner laws.’ You do not have to admire the book to think that this was true.
It is clear from this biography that the other Inklings tried not to think of themselves as bit-part players in this saga. The cover of The Fellowship flourishes the names of two of them – Owen Barfield and Charles Williams – alongside those of Tolkien and Lewis. Barfield had become friends with Lewis when they were undergraduates, and was later a frequent companion on his walking tours of rural England and his favourite antagonist in debates. Barfield’s chief passions were Morris dancing and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, who he came to believe was ‘the key figure in the evolution of consciousness’. In 1928 he published Poetic Diction, which much impressed Lewis and Tolkien. In line with Steiner’s Anthroposophical doctrine, it argued that humanity had once, centuries earlier, known a primordial intimacy with Creation. This intimacy had faded away, but could be re-created by poetry.
Sadly, Barfield was doomed to miss out on much Inkling fun. He failed in his efforts to make a living as a writer and, without a cosy university appointment, was forced to join his father’s London law firm. He became an infrequent visitor at the Inklings’ meetings and chafed at his wage enslavement. Yet after Lewis’s death he enjoyed belated academic celebrity in the US, first as Lewis’s vicar on earth, and then as a prophetic teacher. He began to write again, all his work underpinned by his unwavering (but now oddly modish) Anthroposophical faith. The 1960s were good to him: the Anthroposophy made him seem countercultural, and he was given a string of temporary appointments at American and Canadian universities. In the 1970s he was consulted by Saul Bellow, whose Humboldt’s Gift ‘teemed with Anthroposophical musings’. Bellow met Barfield and took reading suggestions from him. The relationship foundered, however, when Barfield reviewed The Dean’s December dismissively in the Anthroposophical journal Towards; Barfield was comically surprised that Bellow was annoyed.
Charles Williams, who shares Barfield’s cover billing, worked for Oxford University Press in London and lectured on literary topics at London County Council evening classes. In the evenings he wrote copiously, producing a sequence of allegorical novels that included, in 1931, The Place of the Lion. The Zaleskis delight in the ‘ingenuity’ and ‘gossamer beauty’ of this work, though their précis will tempt few any further:
The Platonic forms descend to earth in the guise of enormous animals – lion, butterfly, snake, eagle, phoenix, unicorn, horse – and begin to reabsorb their material counterparts … The Forms quicken or destroy a number of people before the central character, Anthony Durrant, who has the intellectual purity and moral power to understand what is happening and how to respond, sends the Forms back to their archetypal world through a magical invocation.
Lewis thought the novel ‘one of the major literary events of my life’ and promptly invited Williams to join the Inklings.
Lewis spotted Williams’s religiosity, of which he approved, without quite realising how peculiar it was. Williams was a tormented Anglican who seems to have been prone to any form of mysticism as long as it was only for adepts and involved some kind of dressing up. He was a devotee of the occult and a member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, named after the principal symbol of Rosicrucianism. Eventually he established his own ‘Companions of the Co-inherence’. He also had high ambitions as a poet. In 1938 he published his magnum opus, Taliessin through Logres, which had already been read aloud to his mostly baffled fellow Inklings. This sequence of ‘dense, elliptical poems on the Arthurian legend’ enthused Lewis, who called it ‘a great work, full of glory’ and dedicated nine pages to reviewing it in the journal Theology. ‘The public,’ the Zaleskis concede, ‘withheld their applause.’
Several of the Inklings fancied themselves as poets. The magnum opus of Lewis’s twenties was Dymer, an allegorical narrative poem in rhyme royal. The Zaleskis charitably argue that he was unlucky in that it was published just as ‘the modernist surge’ took hold. Williams poured out poetry. He had written a large number of lame sonnets for his wife-to-be, Florence, when he was courting her, but a few years later was composing a ‘century’ of poems for the attractive new librarian at OUP, Phyllis Jones (dubbed ‘Celia’). They wrote each other passionate letters and Williams came to believe that she was Beatrice to his Dante. They permitted themselves to embrace, but their passion was apparently never consummated. She married an oil company manager and left for Java, though she continued to receive letters from Williams celebrating ‘the anatomical articulation of your joints’ and telling her she remained ‘an exactitude of vision’.
When OUP was sent from London to Oxford during the war, Williams gave public lectures that attracted a large following. It was all pretty heady for him. ‘I begin to believe I am a genius,’ he wrote. He acquired devotees, particularly young women. The Zaleskis assure us that while he revelled in the attention, he remained chaste. Lewis declared that it did not ‘ever do a young woman anything but immense good to be attracted by Charles Williams’. His was a peculiar sort of chastity. In 1943 he read to his fellow Inklings an essay on Milton by a new spiritual follower, the 26-year-old Lois Lang-Sims. He had renamed her ‘Lalage, the slave girl’ and prescribed her various spiritual and physical tests. These included lifting her skirt so that he could strike her on the behind with a ruler. When she protested he gave her, in atonement, a copy of his wife’s book Christian Symbolism.
Other members were less peculiar. They included the English dons Nevill Coghill and Lord David Cecil, the Oxford doctor Humphrey Havard, and a Dominican priest, Gervase Mathew. Tolkien inducted his son Christopher, later a lecturer in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English at Oxford, and the editor of his father’s copious Nachlass. His enduring achievement was to draw the maps for The Lord of the Rings. Then there was the ever present ‘Warnie’ – Lewis’s nickname for his brother – who had retired from the army in his thirties on a private income and amused himself writing books on French history. Lewis was the undoubted leader. (Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, first published in 1978, was essentially a biography of Lewis, with one digressive chapter on Williams.) When Lewis died in 1963, the Inklings died with him.
It was Lewis who established the ground rules for membership of the club: ‘The qualifications (as they have informally evolved) are a tendency to write, and Christianity.’ He and Tolkien were devout Christians, though respectively Anglican and Roman Catholic. As a young professor in Oxford, Tolkien attended mass every morning before work, a habit he maintained for most of his life. Lewis’s own conversion came partly because Tolkien worked away at him in intense late-night discussions. Lewis later described how he took the initial decision to let God into his heart on a bus going up Headington Hill in 1929. In 1931, while riding in the sidecar of Warnie’s motorbike to Whipsnade Zoo, Lewis moved from theism to Christianity: ‘When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.’ Lewis being Lewis, he sat down and wrote an allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress, to describe his journey to this new faith.
Allegory was the Inkling inclination. Reading their correspondence makes one realise how lumberingly allegorical much of their literary output was. Lewis’s science fiction, for instance, was written to fit clear theological specifications. The fact that the Zaleskis are themselves both devout Christians and theological writers can be obstructive: when describing Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy they become rapturous at his attempt to ‘recover a sacramental cosmos in which moderns could live’. But their Christianity can also be an advantage. Lewis’s casuistical writings, including the scripts of his radio talks, are examined with care – but also, where appropriate, with theological impatience. Only critics who share some of Lewis’s beliefs can see where he was cheating or taking short cuts. The Zaleskis may contend that his column in the Listener had the eloquence of St Augustine, but they are disinterested enough to quote Orwell’s withering verdict on Lewis’s ‘silly-clever’ argumentation and his patronising rhetoric, with its ‘homey little asides’: ‘The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader … that one can be a Christian and a “jolly good chap” at the same time.’
Lewis’s radio talks followed on from The Screwtape Letters, first published in weekly instalments in the Guardian in 1941. They purport to be written by a senior devil called Screwtape to his apprentice, Wormwood, and describe the best ways of luring his ‘patient’, a young Englishman, towards damnation. The book sold very well to a wartime readership hungry for religious consolation, and went on selling well in the decades that followed. I recall, aged 11, being read selections by a ‘progressive’ RE teacher and rather falling for Lewis’s indoctrination in the guise of satire. Shortly after its publication, Lewis was hired by the BBC, at the height of the Blitz, to broadcast to the nation on ‘What Christians Believe’. The extracts included by the Zaleskis correspond to Orwell’s description pretty exactly, yet the talks found a huge and appreciative audience. Lewis became a more influential spokesman for Christianity than any British churchman.
Being too old for active service in the Second World War, the Inklings carried on their activities with little disruption. It was the First World War that had formed their ideals and fears. Several of the main actors fought in the war. After graduating from Oxford in 1916, Tolkien married, then joined the Lancashire Fusiliers, arriving in France just in time for the Battle of the Somme. After five months in the trenches he contracted trench fever and was sent back to England. Lewis arrived in France in late 1917 and served until he was wounded by friendly fire at the Battle of Arras five months later. Warnie also served in France; Dyson was wounded at Passchendaele. Their experiences, instead of leading them to believe (as many writers did) that the old forms and traditions were dead, fostered an English pastoralism and a deep suspicion of modernity. (Tolkien’s hatred of ‘machines’ seems to have become slightly pathological.)
For Lewis , military service had another, stranger consequence. In 1917, as an undergraduate at University College, Oxford, he joined the Officers’ Training Corps and was billeted with a young man called Paddy Moore. Lewis did not much care for Moore, but took a great fancy to his 45-year-old mother, Janie, who was staying in nearby lodgings. When he was given leave before being sent to France, he spent it not with his father but with the Moores at their Bristol home. Carpenter thought that Lewis and Mrs Moore were like ‘mother and son’ (Lewis’s own mother had died when he was nine). The Zaleskis suspect there was more to it, but flinch from their suspicions: ‘When – or whether – Lewis commenced an affair with Mrs Moore remains unclear.’ Paddy Moore was killed in the last year of the war. When Lewis returned to his studies he installed Mrs Moore and her daughter, Maureen, in a flat in Oxford. After about a year he seems to have moved in with Mrs Moore, whom he now called ‘Minto’. Lewis’s father called it an ‘affair’, but the reality remains a mystery. Lewis was bound to Mrs Moore, the Zaleskis believe, by ‘a strange contract of desire and filial obligation’. Lewis helped support the two of them and hid the truth from his father and his college. All this time, Mrs Moore’s estranged husband, dubbed ‘the Beast’, was still alive. In 1930, following the death of his father and the sale of his house, Lewis bought the Kilns, a large house in Headington, and moved in with Mrs Moore and Maureen. He lived with Minto for the next twenty years. Maureen lived with them too until she married in 1940.
The other member of the household was Warnie, who has left us accounts of Lewis’s enslavement to Minto. In the early years, Lewis was always scuttling home to perform domestic tasks for her. As she grew older, Minto evidently became increasingly querulous and eventually, according to both Lewis brothers, tyrannical. Lewis was banned from using his study in the afternoons in order to economise on heating. Warnie watched in horror but was too scared to intervene. He carried on with his research and increasingly dedicated boozing, punctuating his life with periods drying out in an Oxford nursing home or an Irish convent. For both men, Inklings meetings were the best events of the week.
Minto died in 1951, whereupon Lewis admitted another woman to his life. The story is now well known, largely thanks to Richard Attenborough’s maudlin film Shadowlands. In 1952, Joy Davidman, an American writer in her mid-thirties unhappily married to a philandering and occasionally violent husband, turned up in Oxford. She was a great admirer of Lewis’s writing and had already become a pen pal of his. She met Lewis and Warnie and charmed them both; a year later she moved to England with her two sons. Soon Lewis was paying for their education. The following year they moved from London to Oxford, where Lewis paid her rent. To Warnie, ‘it was now obvious what was going to happen.’ When, in 1956, she was unable to renew her visa, Lewis married her and she moved into the Kilns with her sons.
Only a few months later, after a bad fall, Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer. Radiotherapy and a series of operations followed, as well as a Christian marriage ceremony at her hospital bedside, to supplement the civil ceremony of a few years earlier. Lewis prayed for a miraculous cure, and claimed, when he was diagnosed with osteoporosis, that God had let him take on some of his wife’s pain. After a period of remission that allowed them a belated honeymoon in Ireland and a trip to Greece, the cancer returned and Joy died in July 1960. Lewis responded to his loss characteristically: A Grief Observed, published pseudonymously, tracked the stages of his bereavement, from self-pity, through anger (God must be a ‘Cosmic Sadist’) to Christian solace and hope. Its fragmentary form is suggestive of spontaneity, but the didactic end – as always with Lewis – is never in doubt. For all their searching conversations, Lewis and Tolkien didn’t really do doubt. This can make their religiosity unattractive – even, sometimes, to the God-fearing Zaleskis – though it was their religious belief that allowed both men to produce the books that have outlived them.