Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Inklings—C.S. Lewis’ Literary Discussion Group

When I was growing up in Denver, my mother and grandmother belonged to the Jane Herrick Literary Club. It was started by a group of Mormon women who wanted to continue their education but, because of raising families, were unable to attend college. They were passionate about searching “diligently out of the best books.” The club was named after the wife of an early mission president in the area, who was herself a staunch advocate of women being lifelong learners.

It was a rather formal group, with bylaws, officers, and membership requirements. As the Church grew in the Denver area, the literary club also grew, eventually to form three chapters. Every year, each chapter would decide on a course of study and members would sign up to research a topic or review a book. Refreshments and visiting were also key elements in the monthly or bimonthly meetings. I recall the joy my mother experienced through her membership, and the time and effort she put into her annual presentations.

When I moved to Seattle, a group of women in my ward decided to form a book club. Most of the books we read were newer fiction with an occasional biography thrown in. The thing I enjoyed most about the informal group was hearing the viewpoints and insights of the other women—things I had not considered in my reading of the books.

Coming from this background, I was excited when I read in C.S. Lewis’ biography about The Inklings, a literary discussion group he co-founded while at Oxford. The Inklings met weekly for nearly two decades between the early 1930s and late 1949. Regular members (many of them University Dons) included C.S. “Jack” Lewis, Warren “Warnie” Lewis (Lewis’ elder brother), J.R.R. “Tollers” Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R.’s son), Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, Charles Williams, and Lord David Cecil.

The Inklings were literary enthusiasts who praised the value of narrative in fiction, and encouraged the writing of fantasy. Although Christian values were reflected in several members' work, there were also atheists among the members of the discussion group.

"Properly speaking," wrote Warren Lewis, "the Inklings was neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections."

As was typical for university literary groups in their time and place, the Inklings were all male.

Readings and discussions of the members' unfinished works were the principal purposes of meetings. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, and Williams's All Hallows' Eve were among the novels first read to the Inklings. Tolkien's fictional Notion Club was based on the Inklings.

Member comments were not always favorable: Tolkien complained that Lewis’ Narnian books were hastily written without enough thought and connectivity; Lewis complained about the excessive length and detail of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—so much so in fact that Tolkien only shared that one Ring manuscript with the group. The following video is from the movie Shadowlands. Lewis (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) is explaining his first Narnian book to The Inklings at the Eagle and Child pub (filmed in the actual pub).

Discussions were not all serious. In addition to drinking and socializing, the Inklings often amused themselves by having competitions to see who could read the famously bad prose of Amanda McKittrick Ros the longest without laughing.

The discussion group usually met on Thursday evenings in C.S. Lewis' college rooms at Magdalen College. The Inklings and their friends were also known to gather informally on Tuesdays at midday at a local pub, The Eagle and Child, familiarly and alliteratively known in the Oxford community as The Bird and Baby, or simply The Bird. Later pub meetings were held at The Lamb and Flag across the street, and in earlier years the Inklings also met irregularly in yet other pubs, but The Eagle and Child remains the most famous.

Over the years, great friendships developed among Inkling members. Discussions with Tolkien, Barfield and Dyson eventually lead Lewis to abandon his atheistic views to become first a theist and then a Christian. Lewis also referred to the influence of several of his Inkling friends in his books, and paid homage to them through the names of characters in his fictional works.

Participating in literary clubs or book clubs is an excellent way to pursue lifelong learning and develop rewarding relationships. If you are interested in starting a book club, there are several online resources. I found Oprah Winfrey's step-by-step process well organized; it even includes a list of publishers (page 5) who prepare book club discussion questions for many of their books.


You might also enjoy watching the movie “The Jane Austen Book Club.” It’s the story of women who form a book club to help one of their friends who is going through a difficult time. The all-female club decides to read Jane Austen books, and because they need a sixth member, they invite a man to join them. The movie demonstrates the power of friendship and sharing ideas and experiences. Plot details can be found at:


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