These Writers Called Themselves “The Inklings”

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Other Oxford Authors Who Met to Read and Critique One Another’s Writings

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and other British writers in the Oxford community formed themselves into a writers group called the Inklings. Membership was by invitation only. Eight or so regular members met every Thursday at C.S. Lewis’ home to read aloud their draft papers and invite comments from the other members.

Members would arrive sometime after dinner, usually around 9:00 p.m. According to Warren Lewis, “There was tacit agreement that ten-thirty was as late as anyone could decently arrive.” When half a dozen members had arrived, Warren Lewis would produce a pot of very strong tea, the men would light their pipes, and C.S. Lewis would call out, “Well, has nobody got anything to read us?” Then “out would come a manuscript,” and they would “settle down to sit in judgement upon it.” Warren Lewis, C.S. Lewis’ older brother observed, “We were no mutual admiration society.”

Blincoe: Here we take a moment to explain the pair of terms, modality and sodality. The entire number of writers in Oxford, England is a modality; A few like-minded among them joined with one another to form the Inklings, a sodality. One characteristic of a sodality is that a member can be expelled if he (or she) misbehaves or does not keep his pledge to do the work.

It is interesting that the Inklings carried on as a group for about seventeen years but in the end they dissolved their group when none of them had the heart to expel one troublesome member. That member was Hugo Dyson. Dyson particularly disliked the readings that Tolkien would give of his early version of “The Lord of the Rings.” When Tolkien would pull out a draft and begin to read, Dyson would lie down on the couch, and begin shouting, “Oh God, no more elves.” Dyson’s point of view was not popular, and Warren Christopher called it “unfair.” [1] Unfortunately, the Thursday readings began to wind down on account of Dyson’s attacks. “Dyson eroded the spirit,” Diana Glyer writes. “It is one thing to criticize an author. It is another to shut him down. The Inklings never quite recovered.”[2]

The great book about the Inklings is Bandersnatch, written by Diana Glyer. Glyer, professor of literature at Azusa Pacific University, read everything the members of the Inklings wrote to each other, in order to solve a mystery: Did the Inklings actually improve their own writing skills by reading aloud to each other? While it may be “obvious” that a writer would improve his (or her) writing skills by reading it aloud and asking for comments, the actual “Yes, they did improve their own writings” was confirmed by Glyer’s research into the correspondence between the Inklings.  Glyer writes:

No one seemed to be able to tell me exactly what they talked about or what difference it made.[3] “Then, on a Thursday in July, I was reading through the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien… What motivated Tolkien to go back and start the whole thing over again? He says he has been thinking about the ‘excellent criticism’ he received from his readers. C. S. Lewis is one of those readers, and Lewis has complained that there is too much dialogue, too much silly ‘hobbit talk.’” Whoa. I had spent day after day in the library, sitting on a wooden chair, turning pages, jotting notes. Then I ran smack into this: primary evidence from Tolkien’s letters that Lewis was involved with the first draft of the very first chapters of Lord of the Rings.[4]

Glyer continues:

As I learned about the Inklings, something began to dawn on me. I wasn’t prepared for just how important this group was, how essential it had become to the work of these writers. I was starting to see that the group was, somehow, necessary. One thing was certain: much of what they accomplished was the direct result of this group.[5]

Every member suffered with discouragement. After reading the proofs of his poem Dymer, Lewis agonized, “I never liked it less. I felt that no mortal could get any notion of what the devil it was all about.”[6] For writers, especially, one of the most valuable resources in the midst of these challenges is the presence of resonators. A “resonator” describes anyone who acts as a friendly, interested, supportive audience. Resonators fill many roles: they show interest, give feedback, express praise, offer encouragement, contribute practical help, and promote the work to others. The presence of resonators is one of the most important factors that marks the difference between successful writers and unsuccessful ones.[7]

Tolkien recognized this essential gift, expressing thanks to C.S. Lewis: “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.[8] The most obvious support that resonators give is praise.[9] But there is another form of encouragement, one that is forceful, even coercive. Lewis would turn to Tolkien and say, “You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!” Tolkien writes, “I would try. I’d sit down and write the section over and over.” Lewis admits that his part in Tolkien’s writing process often “carried to the point of nagging.”[10] Tolkien needed the pressure. He required the presence of others in order to keep writing, and his work on The Hobbit is a good example. A word of praise, a publisher, and a looming deadline were the needed ingredients to bring that project to a close.[11]

Most readers will be familiar with the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, where the Inklings met and socialized. These meetings were less formal and more for enjoying one another’s company. There were also walking tours. Walking tours of England were a big part of the Inklings’ companionship. “They would rest in a pew while one of the walkers would read a chapter from the Bible at the lectern.”[12] The name “Inklings” tells us something about the nature of the group. It was not a literary society; it was more focused. This was a meeting of working writers. All in all, nineteen men are considered members of the Inklings. The Inklings met for about seventeen years.[13]

To use a phrase much loved by Lewis, the Inklings were “hungry for rational opposition.” For what good is a creative group without critique, debate, and the clashing of perspectives? As Warren Lewis says, “Praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad was often brutally frank.”[14] Sum: Lewis could not have developed as a religious apologist, novelist or literary historian if he had not trained his intellect through these many years of extended arguments with his friends.[15]

Blincoe: I invited a few writers to meet every Wednesday morning. I was inspired by C.S. Lewis when he would say, “Well, has nobody got anything to read us?” Hopefully we are improving each one’s writings by listening to one another and offering comments. I can tell you one thing: “We are no mutual admiration society.”

[1] Diana Pavlac Glyer and James A. Owen, Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2016).. 69

[2] Ibid. 70

[3] Ibid. 4

[4] Ibid. 4-5

[5] Ibid. 8

[6] Ibid. 29

[7] Ibid. 30

[8] Ibid. 30

[9] Ibid. 31

[10] Ibid. 36

[11] Ibid. 37

[12] Ibid. 110

[13] Ibid. 18-19

[14] Ibid. 53

[15] Ibid. 57

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