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The Literary Lives of the Inklings: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams

The Literary Lives of the Inklings: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams

Meeting under a deliberately self-effacing name, the Inklings changed the course of imaginative literature in the 1930s and 1940s and included among their members JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams.

Through regular discussions in Oxford’s Eagle and Child pub, in Magdalen College or on long rambles in the countryside, they exerted a profound influence on one another’s ideas and writing – eventually leading to the creation of such classics as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Philip and Carol Zaleski’s biography, The Fellowship, explores the lives of four prominent members of the group, each of whom is profiled in this article.

JRR Tolkien (1892–1973)

Tolkien’s childhood and early introduction to fantasy, folklore and languages undoubtedly shaped his rich imagination. In addition to the native tongues he encountered during his early childhood in South Africa, he formally learned Latin, German and French after moving to England in 1895 – to an idyllic hamlet near Birmingham that provided inspiration for the Shire. His mother fostered his propensity for languages and encouraged many creative pursuits.

After he was orphaned in 1904 Tolkien turned inward, taking refuge in a world of fantastical landscapes and creatures and constructing his own languages. Despite these foundations and a career that saw him immersed in philology and linguistics, it was not until meeting the Inklings that he began meaningful development on The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien himself acknowledged that he could never have created the series in isolation, stating that ‘only by [CS Lewis’] support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end’.

CS Lewis (1898–1963)

Born in Belfast but Anglo-Irish and Protestant by birth, CS Lewis was introduced to Irish folktales and fairy lore by his Irish nursemaid, Lizzie Endicott. From there, he developed a sincere longing for mythical lands and creatures to be real – a sentiment that led to his youthful interest in the Celtic Revivalists and WB Yeats in particular.

While struggling with his faith at boarding school in England, Lewis became drawn to Norse mythology; however, he returned to Christianity as an adult, largely under the influence of Tolkien. The friendship between the two men provided the kernel for the Inklings, who encouraged a prolific writing career that saw Lewis pen several Christian apologetics and, most notably, The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis later declared of the group: ‘What I owe them all is incalculable.’

Owen Barfield (1898–1997)

Known as ‘the first and last Inkling’ Owen Barfield was devoted to music as a small child and it was only on enrolling at Highgate School when he was around eight years old that his love of words developed. These passions came together in his late teens in the form of poetry, which he was able to recite without being afflicted by his stutter, and which instilled in him a sense that language can bring new meaning into the world.

This notion led to his interest in the evolution of consciousness, the works of Rudolf Steiner, and the belief that imagination was a valid way of reaching new truths unavailable to ordinary perception. Many of Barfield’s friends brushed off his spirituality but CS Lewis, a self-declared pagan at the time, was determined to show him the error of his thinking and sparked their ‘Great War’ – almost seven years of letters, treatises and philosophical debate that shaped both their intellects and presaged the close relationships and discussions of the Inklings.

Charles Williams (1886–1945)

‘Anglican with a dash of ritual magic’, Charles Williams was a contradictory character and contemporaries described him as ‘flamboyant’ (John Wain), ‘double-sided’ (CS Lewis), a man who ‘was never still; he writhed and swayed; he jingled coins in his pocket; he sat on the edge of the table swinging his leg; in a torrent of speech he appeared to be saying whatever came into his head’ (TS Eliot). His physical and mental energy greatly invigorated the Inklings though, and CS Lewis in particular admired Williams’ brilliance and lust for life.

As a child with a rather bland homelife, poor eyesight and a tremor that affected his hands, Williams sought escapism in romance and adventure novels, as well as the music, adornments and liturgy of his church. He eventually found lifelong employment at Oxford University Press, where he served as writer and editor for over 30 years. It was Williams’ supernatural thriller The Place of the Lion that brought him to CS Lewis’ attention, earning admiration and an invitation to join the Inklings.

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