Full of Glory

John Mullan

  • The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
    Farrar, Straus, 644 pp, £11.20, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 374 15409 7

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.

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[*] The Story of Kullervo (HarperCollins, 192 pp., £16.99, August, 978 0 00 813136 4).