“Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” C.S. Lewis once famously asked. Surely not, he continued. “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods,” Lewis declaimed. “Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.’” Naturally, as the Zaleskis have so powerfully and persuasively argued, Lewis was referring in these and other discussions on friendship to his own friendship with that group most associated with him and the Oxford of his day, the Inklings.
Given that Lewis had presented himself in his early poetry, in his diaries, and in his letters as a radical individualist in the Nietzschean and Wagnerian fashion, the great Christian apologist almost certainly learned the immense value of friendship while at Oxford—as a student and as a professor. As a student, he learned it from Owen Barfield and, as a professor, he learned it from his colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien had, after all, always loved friendship and relationships. Having lost his father and his mother at a young age and two of his three closest friends (in the TCBS) to war, he knew how precious friendship was and how fragile it could be in this world of sorrows. He not only held onto friendship for dear life, but he also incorporated it into every aspect of his literary mythology. As such, friendship is a central feature, not a quirk, of Tolkien’s stories.
In The Hobbit, the dwarves and Bilbo bond around the fire in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole and in the last homely house of the West, Rivendell. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf and Frodo discuss the most urgent matters imaginable nearby Frodo’s fire in his Hobbit hole. Again, the same would be true around Tom Bombadil’s fire and around Elrond’s. Bilbo even mentions that time has very little meaning in the room where tales are told.
Even in his earliest mythological writings, The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien based the narrative around the device of the fire.
Eriol saw now that they were in a short broad corridor whose walls half-way up were arrassed; and on those tapestries were many stories pictured whereof he knew not at that time the purport. Above the tapestries it seemed there were paintings, but he could not see for gloom, for the candle-bearers were behind, and before him the only light came from an open door through which poured a red glow as of a big fire. ‘That,’ said Vairë, ‘is the Tale-fire blazing in the Room of Logs; there does it burn all through the year, for ’tis a magic fire, and greatly aids the teller in his tale—but thither we now go,’ and Eriol said that that seemed better to him than aught else.
Further, Tolkien writes, as with Elrond’s fire, the effect hits all immediately:
Then all that company came laughing and talking into the room whence came the red glow. A fair room it was as might be felt even by the fire-flicker which danced upon the walls and low ceiling, while deep shadows lay in the nooks and corners. Round the great hearth was a multitude of soft rugs and yielding cushions strewn; and a little to one side was a deep chair with carven arms and feet. And so it was that Eriol felt at that time and at all others whereon he entered there at the hour of tale-telling, that whatso the number of the folk and children the room felt ever just great enough but not large, small enough but not overthronged.
In trying to understand the importance of the Inklings, many scholars have asked if the members of that august group thought alike and arrived at the same answers. Were they all Christian? Were they all middle class? Were they all reactionary? Were they all romantic?
One younger member of the group, John Wain, even thought of the Inklings as a sort of reactionary cell. They were, he claimed, “a circle of investigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.”
To be sure, though, the greater question one should ask is not at what answers did the group arrive, but, rather, what questions did they ask? It was their very questions—and the trust that comes with asking questions—that defined them. As such, they asked about the limits of heroism, the nature of beauty, the connection of the pagan to the Christian, the relationship of holiness and sanctity, the interplay of technology and magic, and the connectedness of flesh and soul. They discussed mythos (story) and logos (idea), and they shared with one another their most intimate thoughts and questions.
An American visitor, Father Chad Walsh, described the conversation of the Inklings as coherent at the moment, but somewhat bewildering in hindsight. “Only in retrospect did I realize how much intellectual ground was covered in these seemingly casual meetings,” Walsh reported. “At the time the constant bustle of Lewis racing his friends to refill empty mugs or pausing to light another cigarette (occasionally a pipe) camouflaged the steady flow of ideas. The flow, I might add, is not a one-way traffic. Lewis is as good a listener as talker.”
One might not even go too far in suggesting that, for the Inklings, friendship had a mystical element. Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis even toyed with the idea that lovers or friends might share their pain with one another, sometimes literally taking the pain away from a friend or lover.
Still, no one should ever take friendship for conformity or squishiness. On this, Warnie Lewis, Jack’s brother, should get the last word:
The ritual of an Inklings was unvarying. When half a dozen or so had arrived, tea would be produced, after which when pipes were alight Jack would say, ‘well has nobody got anything to read us?’ Out would come a manuscript and we would settle down to sit in judgement upon it. Real, unbiased judgement too, for about the Inklings there was nothing of a mutual admiration society; with us, praise for good work was unstinted but censure for bad, or even not so good, was often brutally frank. To read to the Inklings was a formidable ordeal.