Down the pub with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (II)

[The New Building, Magdalen College, Oxford]
It's called the New Building because it was built in 1733, about 250 years after most of the main part of the college. Lewis' rooms were in this building.

… the influence of the Inklings

Tolkien and Lewis formed the spine of the Inklings, regularly convening to read and discuss one another’s work in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. There were nineteen members in all, and Glyer excels at depicting their world, with its petty rivalries, joshing honesty (“he is ugly as a chimpanzee”, wrote Lewis of fellow Inkling Charles Williams), its wit and learning and championship of scholarship for its own sake. The Inklings were often supportive and sympathetic (“the inexhaustible fertility of the man’s imagination amazes me”, wrote Lewis in 1949 on receipt of another instalment of The Lord of the Rings), but were capable of ferocious criticism if it was felt that a member had done anything less than his best (“You can do better than that. Better Tolkien, please !”). Tempers must surely have become frayed at times – as Tolkien became unyieldingly critical of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (“about as bad as can be”) or as the English don Hugo Dyson met the latest bulletin from Middle Earth by (according to Tolkien’s son Christopher) “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, ‘Oh God, no more Elves’”.

Not that all of them were ever present at the Magdalen reading meetings: often no more than six or seven would turn up, while the rest preferred to save themselves for the more raucous social gatherings in the Oxford pub The Eagle and Child. Inkling James Dundas-Grant recalls a typical scene:

“we sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter... back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point ... Tolkien jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.”

Endearingly eccentric though this might sound, the group have been accused of cliquey provincialism, of being hermetically sealed in their nook at “The Bird and Baby” from those evolutions which were occurring in the wider world of literature. John Wain, a former pupil of Lewis’s and an occasional Inkling himself, wrote a hostile account of the group in 1962, stating that they were “politically conservative, not to say reactionary; in religion... in art, frankly hostile to any manifestation of the ‘modern’ spirit”. The surviving Inklings were outraged, but some of Wain’s criticisms seem difficult to repudiate. Here, for example, is Lewis lampooning T. S. Eliot:

For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening – any evening – would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

Yet this mistrust of modernity was part of the group’s essential spirit. Most of the Inklings were veterans of the Trenches and had little cause to applaud a world descending once again into conflict. The image that Glyer’s expert account will sometimes conjure up, of ageing scholars swapping tales with a pint of ale in hand, seems tellingly familiar – reminiscent of a convocation of hobbits back from the war and living out their days in comfort in the Shire. Small wonder that Tolkien, who declared himself to be “a Hobbit in all but size”, was so attached to that sentimental ending, with its cosy domesticity and its bedtime stories by the fire.

Jon Barnes – ‘The Atlantic’ – September 2007
The Company They Keep --
‘C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as writers in community’
By Diana Pavlac Glyer

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