C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the Inklings: Telling Stories to Save Lives
Envy is a sin, but it can be hard not to feel a twinge just looking across the Atlantic, contemplating the great tradition of English storytelling. Even in childhood, I wondered why so many of my favorite books involved tuppence candy, seaside holidays and school children racing home for tea. My girlhood shelves were stuffed with volumes from Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, Robert Louis Stevenson, J. M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll. With my own children, I have also discovered the works of Arthur Ransome, J. K. Rowling and Hillaire Belloc. There are some fine American children’s authors too, but somehow the old country seems to have the edge.
At the center of this great pantheon, we find the Inklings. For generations now, these great Oxford storytellers have drawn the whole world to their crackling hearth. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narniahave sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels, by some estimates, have sold an astonishing 600 million copies. Both authors have been translated into more than 40 languages. They continue to provide rich content for film and television, as we see in the new Amazon series based on The Lord of the Rings.
As modern-day evangelists, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are simply unrivaled.
They led an immense number of souls to Jesus Christ. Passionate fans will sometimes insist that Tolkien’s work is “not Christian allegory,” which is true enough as far as it goes. Unlike, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it was not meant to be explicitly allegorical. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s work is deeply suffused with his deeply Catholic sensibilities, and readers do absorb those, whether or not they recognize the implications. As an adult convert to the faith, I find it remarkable how often I hear both Lewis and Tolkien mentioned by fellow converts as critical influences. Neither has been canonized (and Lewis was a member of the Church of England), but as modern-day evangelists they are simply unrivaled.
How did they do it? Who were the Inklings? The second question may help us to answer the first. The Inklings is the name of an informal literary club that met at Oxford in the mid-20th century. From roughly 1933 through 1949, they gathered each Thursday night in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen Hall to hear and critique one another’s work. Compositions were read aloud by their authors. Discussion and critique would then follow. As intimate friends, the Inklings shared many other favorite pastimes: taking long walks, giving or attending lectures, eating and drinking together at the local pub. Like hobbits and Narnians, they loved their simple pleasures. The real work got done at the Thursday night meetings, however. In those hours, their dynamic friendship flowed over into something transformative.
Beyond the most famous two members, a few others are worthy of mention. Charles Williams, an editor at Oxford University Press, had a sanguine temperament and a luminous mind. His death in 1945 was a particularly sore blow to the group. Warren Lewis, the elder brother of Clive Staples, was a dedicated member who played a particularly invaluable role by keeping careful notes on the Thursday meetings across the years. Owen Barfield, an old friend of C. S. Lewis, resided in London but dropped in on the club whenever he was able. Both Catholics and Protestants participated, but all were united in a quest to defend and revitalize Christian culture in a world that seemed to be abandoning it.
For generations now, these great Oxford storytellers have drawn the whole world to their crackling hearth.
They were not especially well-traveled or urbane. They came from ordinary middle-class families. Except perhaps for Williams, none was particularly known for personal charisma. On some level, the Inklings were just a clique of fusty old English intellectuals, possessed of none of the savvy instincts that we associate today with “influencers.” But if the club itself was not diverse, the readership certainly has been. Somehow these men transcended their own times and circumstances, translating Christian ideas into a language that everyone wanted to hear. There are lessons here for writers and creative artists, and indeed for all Christians who would place their gifts and talents in God’s hands, to be used for building the kingdom. The Inklings had a talent for friendship, but also a particular genius for making old things new. We need to relearn this art.
From the start they had a strong attraction to old things, not only within the Christian tradition but also outside of it. The friendship between Tolkien and Lewis first blossomed when, as Oxford colleagues, they discovered their shared love of the Norse language and mythology. Lewis was not yet a Christian at that time. Some of the Inklings, notably Barfield and Williams, had serious interests in non-Christian spiritualism and the occult. All of them were deeply interested in history, mythology and the intricacies of language. Undoubtedly, Christian faith was important to these writers, but worshipwas not the primary glue that held them together. They were humanists. Their love of old things was not fundamentally reactionary, though many of their contemporaries surely viewed them that way. For the Inklings, examining different myths, cultures and languages was worthwhile because each might yield unique insights into the human condition. All people, in their various ways, are searching for beauty and truth.
We love the Inklings in part because they can present evil so persuasively, without losing their enduring sense of supernatural hope.
Unfortunately, evil is still very real, and the Inklings certainly understood this. Their stories have an epic quality in part because evil is personified in such compelling ways, in the White Witch, the hosts of Mordor or the devilishly genial Uncle Screwtape. Evil is a serious thing; it crushes souls, defaces beautiful things and sometimes destroys worlds. At the same time, evil is immensely personal in these stories. This is especially clear in some of Lewis’s works, such as The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce or That Hideous Strength, all of which delve deeply into the psychology of temptation. These works are simultaneously arresting and chilling, because readers recognize themselves in the characters that are damned (or at least in evident spiritual danger). Tolkien, too, had a keen understanding of the psychology of sin. Hobbits can play a heroic role in these stories in part because they are aware of their smallness and weakness in the face of immense evil. Because they are willing to acknowledge their limitations and sometimes ask for help and forgiveness, they ultimately withstand certain forms of corruption that overwhelm the great and good.
We love the Inklings in part because they can present evil so persuasively, without losing their enduring sense of supernatural hope. Tolkien’s hobbits eat lembas and invoke Elbereth through the darkest hours of night; Aslan reliably appears whenever Narnia is in great need. The Inklings knew how to juxtapose darkness and hope in part because they were deeply familiar with grief, terror and despair. As children, both Tolkien and Lewis lost their mothers to diabetes and cancer respectively. As soldiers, they experienced the horrors of the trenches at the Somme. The Inklings’ most productive period as a club was the early 1940s, when Williams was able to join them precisely because German bombing had driven him out of London. Warren Lewis was himself evacuated from Dunkirk; Tolkien, who had a son in the Royal Air Force, viewed that war in the bleakest of terms, as a sign that humanity was being utterly effaced by malevolent machines. He was particularly bleak in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he viewed as resounding confirmation of his dark diagnosis. Shortly after those events, he submitted his first manuscript for Fellowship of the Ring.
“A star shines on the hour of our meeting,” says Frodo to the elf, Gildor Inglorion, in the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The phrase readily comes to mind when one considers the meeting of Tolkien and Lewis, as fellow faculty members in an Oxford that was growing increasingly hostile to scholars with their convictions and sensibilities. Lewis, as a Christian-friendly unbeliever, was still in need of a like-minded friend to help him take the final steps to conversion. Tolkien, for his part, needed encouragement to seek larger audiences for his epic fantasy. A scholarly mentor had warned him that his colleagues would laugh him off the campus if he presented his invented languages, elves and dragons as anything more than bedtime stories for his own four children. None of that sounded implausible in an era that, much like our own, seemed increasingly skeptical of miracle and myth. Had Tolkien never met Lewis, the world might never have known The Lord of The Rings.
Friendship was the magic ingredient that enabled these men to convert a private sense of alienation into a shared sense of mission.
Friendship was the magic ingredient that enabled these men to convert a private sense of alienation into a shared sense of mission. Their work was cut out for them because inter-war Britain was thoroughly demoralized. Pews were emptying. Traditional religion was widely scorned, especially by the intellectual classes. As in our own day, religious believers of this period had a sense that they were living in the crumbling edifices of a once-great Christian culture. They fretted about the “disenchantment” of modern life and the collapse of virtue and honor. For some traditionalists, these kinds of fears can give rise to paranoia and insularity. The Inklings managed to avoid those pitfalls. They did this partly through their friendship, which gave them motivation and encouragement in their creative labors. Beyond that, their Christian faith gave them steady confidence that the forces of Hell would ultimately be vanquished. As Frodo might say, they cannot conquer forever.
This last point especially must be recovered, if today’s Christians hope to imitate the Inklings. The challenges of our own day may not seem quite so uniquely terrible when we set them next to the horror of the Blitz, or the bloody and muddy trenches of France in 1916. Even so, the world remains deeply troubled. For Christian believers, it often seems that our feeble efforts to evangelize are fruitless, or even ridiculous. No one is interested in elves anymore. No one needs our funny, old-fashioned ideas. Pope Francis has urged the Catholic faithful to go forth and convert the world, but our numbers seem so few and our talents so slender. We feel radically unequal to this task.
Jesus’ apostles presumably felt the same way. So did the Inklings. All through their books, we meet weak, flawed characters who are forced to step up in an hour of need. English schoolchildren win battles and defeat witches; humble hobbits prevail against dragons and hordes of monsters. Everyone loves an underdog, of course, but these tales feel more meaningful than a standard superhero film because their authors had their eyes on a deeper set of truths. Sin and corruption are real, but salvation is still available. They knew, as Tolkien explained to Lewis in the early years of their friendship, that the Christian story is the truest story, of which all others are echoes. When all appears to be lost, we always have recourse to the deep magic from the dawn of time.
Stories can be especially powerful for the work of evangelization because they are told byone person toanother. The teller must work to translate his ideas into something his listener will find compelling. Christ taught in parables, and at the Thursday night meetings in Magdalen Hall, authors were expected to read their work aloud to a listening audience. This was their quest: translating old ideas into new forms so that new audiences could hear them. Their efforts paid rich dividends. We could use more such laborers.
Even Americans might give it a try. Our modern media landscape places immense pressure on creative people to stay “relevant,” bending and twisting with the precise rhythms of their own moment in time. Sometimes it might pay to turn down that ambient noise for a while, listening more intently to an older tune. Many people told Tolkien that his stories would never sell; several hundred million copies later, those people owe him an apology. The audience was there, hungry for myth and meaning. It is still there. As long as this world endures, there will always be more stories to tell.