Feast of St Athenogenes the Holy Martyr of Heracleopolis
Part 2 of a 3-part introduction to the 1st Annual Inkling Festival
THE NAME “Inkling,” according to J. R. R. Tolkien, is a pun that refers to those who “dabble in ink.” As the word indicates, then, writing was central to the group of twentieth-century British writers known as the Inklings. They met every Thursday evening in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. As working writers, they had a single purpose: to read aloud the writing they were working and to receive comments and criticism so they could revise their work for publication.
While Thursday evenings were convened specifically for members to gain critical feedback on their writing, this was not the only time they met. Many members were close friends. And so, as friends naturally do, they frequently saw each other at other times and places.
The most famous of their less formal gatherings took place on Tuesday mornings at an Oxford pub called The Eagle and Child (to this day, those who frequent it refer to it as the “Bird and Baby”). These meetings were simply a gathering of friends. And the meetings developed a reputation for being boisterious. James Dundas-Grant, a lesser known Inkling, describes them this way: “We sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter. Back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point.” And here’s how Lewis describes them: “The fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology.”
July 13-18, the annual amount of new monthly memberships will be matched dollar for dollar!
The standard list of Inklings includes nineteen men. But the core consisted of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Early on in their friendship, Lewis and Tolkien had fundamental disagreements about religion and education. As Lewis puts it: “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.”
The relationship changed, however, when Lewis joined a club organized by Tolkien. Called the Kolbítur (Icelandic for “The Coalbiters”), the group read Icelandic sagas and Eddas in the original language. It was through these meetings that Lewis’s and Tolkien’s common love for the linguistic and heroic dimension of Old Icelandic and Old Norse literature created the beginnings of a strong friendship. And ultimately, in conjunction with meeting many other intelligent and articulate Christians, this friendship led Lewis back to his childhood faith.
After dinner on September 19, 1931, Lewis, Tolkien and fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson went for an evening stroll. It was on this walk that Tolkien and Dyson confronted Lewis on his anti-Christian biases and challenged him to think of Christianity as a true myth. Lewis later reflects on this pivotal conversation in a letter written to his friend and fellow-lover of Norse mythology, Arthur Greeves:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.”
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same was as others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. (October 18, 1931 in Collected Letters 1, 976-77)
Thirteen years later, Lewis defended his view of myth in an essay titled “Myth Became Fact.” And in this defense of myth, Lewis also defended historic Christianity. As Lewis notes, secularists like his fictional friend Corineus insist that no modern man can really believe something so barbarous as traditional Christianity. Why would “educated and enlightened men insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn? Why do they refuse to cut the umbilical cord which binds the living and flourishing child to its moribund mother?” Here is how Lewis responds:
Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern. Corineus wants us to move with the times. Now, we know where times move. They move away. But in religion we find something that does not move away. It is what Corineus calls the myth that abides; it is what he calls the modern and living thought that moves away . . . The myth (to speak his language) has outlived the thoughts of all its defenders and of all its adversaries. It is the myth that gives life. Those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial, are the substance: what he takes for the “real modern belief” is the shadow.
Lewis had always been impressed by the mythical value of Tolkien’s writing. But now Tolkien’s view of myth led to Lewis’ wholehearted conversion to the true myth: the myth become fact in the incarnation of the Son of God.
Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.