How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Revived Modern Myth-Telling
In this nearly magical room, amid fire-crackle and clink of glass, you can hear them talking. Pipe smoke is in the air, and a certain boisterous chauvinism, and the wet-dog smell of recently rained-on tweed. You can hear the donnish mumbles of J. R. R. Tolkien as the slow coils of The Silmarillion glint and shift in his back-brain. Now he’s reading aloud from an interminable marmalade-stained manuscript, and his fellow academic Hugo Dyson, prone on the couch, is heckling him: “Oh God, not another fucking elf!” You can hear the challenging train-conductor baritone of C. S. Lewis, familiar to millions from his wartime radio broadcasts; hear the unstoppable spiel of the writer/hierophant Charles Williams, with his twitchy limbs and angel-monkey face; hear the silver stream of ideas and argumentation that is the philosopher Owen Barfield. They are intellectually bent upon one another, these men, but flesh-and-blood is the thing: conviviality is, for them, a kind of passion. The chairs are deep; the fire glows gold and extra fiery in the grate. Lewis’s brother, Warnie, rosy with booze and fellow feeling, serves the drinks. And the walls drop away, and the scene extends itself backwards and forward in time …
Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a mental map, a religious journey, and the biography of a brotherhood. Plenty of distinguished Inklings came and went over the years, padding across the carpets with a Warnie-provided drink in hand, but the Zaleskis zoom in on (and out from) the primary axis of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and Barfield, the four among whom the invisible correspondences of thought and affection were strongest. Christians all, these men formed what the Zaleskis call “a perfect compass rose of faith”: Barfield the proto–New Ager, Tolkien the rather prim orthodox Catholic, Lewis the noisy and dogmatically ordinary layman and popular theologian, Williams the ritualistic Anglican with a taste for sorcery.
“The qualifications … are a tendency to write, and Christianity.” Thus explained Lewis in a letter to Williams in March 1936, inviting him to a session of the “informal club” that had begun convening every Thursday night in his rooms at Oxford’s Magdalen College (and then again, still less formally, at the Eagle & Child pub on Tuesday mornings). The letter was a fan letter; the two men didn’t know each other, but Lewis had found himself compelled to inform Williams that reading his fantasy novel The Place of the Lion—in which comfy England is burst upon by unruly celestial essences—had been “one of the major literary events of my life.” Lewis was an Oxford fellow and tutor in English literature, and a relatively fresh-baked believer: after an arduous wrangle of a conversion, he had arrived at the knowledge of a personal God while sitting in Warnie’s sidecar on a motorcycle ride to Whipsnade Zoo. Williams worked in publishing, wrote feverishly, smoked like a chimney, delivered whirling literary-metaphysical lectures, and indulged in the overheated cultivation of female disciples. (One such pupil, we learn from the Zaleskis, was struck smartly on the bottom with a ruler.) Devoutly churchgoing, he was also of high rank in at least one esoteric mystical order and would make sacred signs while traveling on the London Underground. W. H. Auden thought him nearly a saint. To Lewis’s letter, Williams replied immediately that he had been on the verge of writing to Lewis, in praise of his The Allegory of Love. “It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me.” (Not a bad example of the loopy Williams prose style, that.) The serendipity, the crossbeams of appreciation, the ardent encounter at the aesthetic, soon to be spiritual, level—a very Inklings moment.
And so it began, and so it went on, with additions and diminutions, until the late ’40s. Reading aloud and commenting upon unfinished work was the group’s primary activity. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve, and—most resonantly for us—Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings all made their debut in this context. Tolkien, like Lewis, was part of the fabric of Oxford University, a philologist and a professor of Anglo-Saxon, teaching Beowulf by day while tinkering at night, at home, with his own made-up languages. Tinkering is of course quite the wrong word: Tolkien was plunging, spelunking, delving, excavating, as pickax-happy as a dwarf in the Mines of Moria, because in the roots of language—the glowing word-cores, the namings—he had found the roots of story. “For perfect construction of an art-language,” he explained in a talk delivered in 1931, “it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology.” And there it is: the DNA of The Lord of the Rings. It was at this level of thinking that Tolkien met the way-ahead-of-the-curve Barfield, for whom language contained “the inner, living history of man’s soul.” Barfield’s brilliant 1926 book, History in English Words, is a work of philosophical archaeology, tracking and illuminating, via the changing meanings of words, the development of Western mental reality. And for Barfield, all reality was mental reality. “When we study long-term changes in consciousness,” he stated unequivocally, “we are studying changes in the world itself … Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.” (In Barfield’s old age, his theories would gain him a notable acolyte in Saul Bellow.)
We think of the Inklings as traditionalists, red faces scowling upon modernity. Lewis, in particular, polemicized fruitily against materialism, atheism, 20th-century-man-ism. On the other hand, what more modernist project could there be than Tolkien’s “construction of an art-language,” with the obsessive completeness of its declensions and long-dead kings? Blown sky-high—just like the modernists—by the psychic rupture of the Great War, the Inklings responded not with fragmentation and pessimism but with a redoubled commitment to the world behind the world, freshly visible through this new rip in the fabric. The “intersection of the timeless / With time,” T. S. Eliot called it, and one feels it in the music of the dwarfs that sweeps Bilbo Baggins “away into dark lands under strange moons”; in the “potentialities beyond all knowledge” that bulge and scurry in Williams’s novels; in Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, that extraordinarily modern primer in everyday spiritual warfare, wherein the devil gets just as personal as God; in what Barfield saw in the shape of the cross, “this intersection of time and eternity, the horizontal and the vertical.”
Who can compare with these writers? In the intensity of their communion, their accelerating effect upon one another, and their impact on posterity, their only real 20th-century rivals are the Beats. And the Inklings would have detested the Beats. Nonetheless, the two core groups can be mapped onto each other with weird precision: Tolkien would be Kerouac, sensitive maker of legends; Lewis, the broad-shouldered preacher-communicator, would be Allen Ginsberg; Charles Williams, kinky magus, would have to be William Burroughs; and the sagacious and durable Owen Barfield, Gary Snyder. (The Inklings had no Neal Cassady, no rogue inspirational sex idol—they were all too grown-up for that.)
But the Beats, bless them, consumed the greater portion of their own energies, with the result that their influence went mainly into rock and roll and advertising, and stayed there. The Inklings, on the other hand, are still gathering steam. Tolkien revived in us an appetite for myth, for the earth-tremor of Deep Story. (See: Game of Thrones, and the pancultural howls of pain at the death of Jon Snow.) Lewis invented Narnia—though the exacting Tolkien regarded it as an incoherent mythology—and he may be, write the Zaleskis, “the bestselling Christian writer since John Bunyan.” As for Williams and Barfield, they hang in the tingling future: for the former I prophesy an H. P. Lovecraft–style cult (with creepy folk music), and for the latter, cosmic vindication. And Warnie serves another round of drinks, and the Inklings, huffing and puffing and hurtling through time and space in their armchairs, have their victory.