Inklings of Greatness: The Story of an Oxford Institution

If you’d been so fortunate as to step inside the college rooms of C. S. Lewis on a Thursday evening in the 1930s and ’40s, you’d have found yourself in august company. It was there that a group known as the Inklings assembled to discuss some of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But this wasn’t just any book club – the people discussing those works were their authors.

The club had its genesis around 1931 at University College, Oxford when a group of students and lecturers met to read aloud and discuss their unfinished works. Among them were two writers whose books would go on to sell over 400 million copies: C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The original group came to an end after a couple of years, but Lewis and Tolkien resurrected it at Lewis’s own Oxford college, Magdalen.

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Magdalen College, Oxford (By ninara (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ninara/1476168592) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the members were associated with Oxford University and all were male. Like-minded in their love of fantasy and the importance they attached to narrative in fiction, their principal purpose was literary criticism. From the outset they had plenty of material to get their teeth into: amongst the earliest works to be discussed was Tokein’s The Lord of the Rings.

Criticism and Laughter

Not formally a club – as one of the Inklings, Warren Lewis, explained, “There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections,” – the discussions had their lighter side. One of the regular pastimes was for members to read aloud the work of Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros, infamous for her flowery prose. The challenge was to see who could read for longest without bursting into laughter. An example from McKittrick’s first novel, Helen Huddleson, shows what they were up against:

“She had a swell staff of sweet-faced helpers swathed in stratagem, whose members and garments glowed with the lust of the loose, sparkled with the tears of the tortured, shone with the sunlight of bribery, dangled with the diamonds of distrust, slashed with sapphires of scandals… “

Sensitive readers considering it poor form for writers of the Inklings’ stature to mock a less gifted author should be reassured that McKittrick herself was immune to criticism. She believed that her detractors were afraid of her daring attempts to disclose the corruption of the ruling classes, and confidently imagined hordes of readers “who thirst for aught that drops from my pen”.

As for the members, anyone reading their own work at a meeting of the Inklings could expect incisive – and often uncomfortably frank – observations. One of the Inklings, the academic Hugo Dyson, was known to dislike Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and was once recorded as “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, ‘Oh God, no more elves'”. In a lesson for all writing groups on the importance of constructive criticism, the negative reception meant that Tolkien eventually gave up reading his stories there altogether.

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J. R. R. Tolkien in 1916 (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Members and Meetings

Apart from Lewis and Tolkien, regular members of the Inklings included the philosopher and author Owen Barfield, the poet, novelist and playwright Charles Williams, Adam Fox, a poet and later canon of Westminster Abbey, and physician Robert Harvard, one of whose patients was Lewis. There were also family connections: Lewis’s older brother Warren often attended, as did Tolkien’s son Christopher.

As well as the evening meetings in Lewis’s college rooms, the group often assembled at lunchtimes in nearby pubs. The most regular of these was their gathering on Tuesdays at midday at The Eagle and Child, known to locals as “The Bird and Baby” or sometimes simply “The Bird”. There they met in a private room at the back, known for reasons lost to history as the “Rabbit Room”.

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Inside the Eagle and Child pub (By Tom Murphy VII (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Although they never read their manuscripts aloud in the pub, the group had clearly become well known in the area. In his 1947 crime novel, Swan Song, Edmund Crisp has his hero, Professor Gervase Fen, sitting with others in the front parlour of the Eagle and Child. “There goes C. S. Lewis”, remarks Fen, “It must be Tuesday.”

Lewis in particular was known for his enjoyment of hearing work read aloud, as well as his astonishing memory of texts he had absorbed in this way. According to Tolkien, he was able to quote verbatim from novels or poetry he had heard decades earlier.

Bonds of Friendship

The group had an influence on each other that went well beyond pointing out clumsy prose or an over-fondness for adverbs.

C.S. Lewis had been an atheist before meeting Owen Barfield, who was instrumental in converting him to Christianity. Lewis’s Narnia books, with their strong Christian allegories, were strongly influenced by Barfield, whom he called the “wisest and best of my unofficial teachers”. The first of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was dedicated to Barfield’s adopted daughter Lucy, while he dedicated The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Barfield’s son Geoffrey.

Another of the Inklings, Adam Fox, had particular reason to be grateful for his membership of the group. He received the prestigious position of Professor at Poetry at Oxford largely as a result of the successful campaigning of Tolkien and Lewis.

For Tolkien himself, the club was inspiration for one of his novels. The Notion Club Papers, written during 1945 when he was also writing The Lord of the Rings, revolved around meetings of an arts discussion group based in Oxford. Even the name is a play on words of the original Inklings. Tolkien eventually abandoned the novel but it was published posthumously in the ninth volume of his history of Middle Earth, Sauron Defeated.

The Final Years

After almost two decades, the formal meetings of the Inklings finally came to an end in October 1949 when interest in the readings petered out. Nevertheless, the group continued to meet at the Eagle and Child for drinks and conversation, and it was at one such meeting in June 1950 that C. S. Lewis distributed the proofs for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

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The Lamb & Flag on St Giles’ Street, Oxford (By Andrew Oakley (Photo taken using 5Mpx Nokia N95 mobile phone) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, visitors to St Giles’ Street in Oxford can still step inside the pub that saw so many meetings of literary greats. Although modernised in 1962, the Rabbit Room remains and houses mementos of the group. If you’re in the area, take a moment to visit the Lamb & Flag opposite, another of the Inklings’ regular haunts. Both pubs are now owned by Oxford University’s St John’s College and profits go to fund student scholarships.

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