A Taste of Synaxis: Friendship, Inklings & Cultural Renewal

Feast of St Julian the Martyr

OUR LATEST issue of Synaxis is now being distributed to Eighth Day Patrons, Pillars & Olympians. If you do not receive your copy by May 31, please contact me.

If you are not an Eighth Day Patron or Pillar, please consider joining the community to support cultural renewal.

And in the meantime, enjoy a taste of the content with this excerpt from Warren Farha, proprietor of Eighth Day Books, in a piece he originally delivered at the 2011 Eighth Day Symposium titled "The Inklings: Friendship as a Source of Cultural Renewal.

I hope you are inspired to cultivate communities of friendship for our fractured age. Lord knows we desperately need them!

In Christ,
Erin John

[...] So what did the Inklings do? How did they meet, what did they talk about, what were their habits? It’s important to realize that, in a way, the Inklings were not a unique entity. Oxford University naturally and spontaneously nourished literary groups of one sort or another—in fact, the Inklings took their name from a recently-defunct literary group of the same name. And Lewis and Tolkien before this were fellow members of a group called the Coalbiters, a gathering of enthusiasts for old Icelandic language and literature. The distinctiveness of our Inklings was, as we saw, their broadly common Christian conviction and the presence of C. S. Lewis, whose love of friendship, literature, and argument (in that order) created a lasting bond of fellowship. The group began by meeting every Thursday evening in Jack Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, and then added Tuesday mornings at an Oxford pub called The Eagle and the Child, known more affectionately as The Bird and the Baby. The participants were diverse in their preferences for the conduct of their gatherings. Some desired general conversation. Others—principally C. S. Lewis—would boom, near the beginning of their meetings, “has anyone something to read?” And usually there was “something to read”: oh, the books that were read in progress at the Inklings’ meetings: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Problem of Pain, W. H. Lewis’ The Splendid Century, Charles Williams’ Arthurian cycle of poems, and more. Carpenter spends a few pages reconstructing a typical gathering in the more intimate setting of Lewis’s rooms in the following passages:

[…] It is dark, being about nine o’clock on a winter evening; and it is also cold, particularly in the big sitting-room which looks north on to Magdalen Grove. The only source of heat is the coal fire, which at the moment is burning very low in the grate, for it is a couple of hours since anyone has been in the room. A faded screen has been set up near the door which leads out onto the staircase, in the hope of muffling the draught; but it makes little difference.

Magdalen clock strikes nine, other college clocks preceding and following it in the distance. Now and then, feet run up and down the stairs outside the door; but it is not until after Great Tom at Christ Church half a mile away has sounded his hundred and one strokes at ten past nine that a more measured tread is heard on the stairs, and the door opens to reveal two men. The first takes off his hat and coat and throws them down on the nearest chair. Then he pulls down the blinds and draws the blackout curtains, after which his companion switches on the light….

When the light has been switched on, Warnie Lewis puts some coal on the fire, and grumbles to Havard about the shortage of beer in Oxford—beer is in low supply because of the war, and the Bird and the Baby frequently has a “No Beer” sign on its door. “My idea of the happy life,” says Warnie, “would be to buy a pub, put up one of those No Beer notices, lock the customers out, and drink the stuff myself.”

The two men talk about beer for a few minutes more, Warnie referring contemptuously to an inferior brew that he and Havard have just been drinking at a hotel down the road—he describes it as “varnish”, the term that he and Jack always used for bad beer.

There is no fixed hour at which the Inklings meet on Thursdays, but by general agreement people turn up at any time between nine and half past ten. Nor is there any formal system of membership or election, and in theory it is only necessary for one Inkling to obtain the approval of the others (particularly Lewis) before introducing somebody new. But in practice this does not happen very often, and on most Thursdays the company consists solely of the Lewis brothers, Tolkien, Havard, and Williams, sometimes with the addition of Hugo Dyson, who teaches at Reading University but is often in Oxford. Nevill Coghill used to be quite a regular member of the group, but he is in great demand as a producer of plays for the University dramatic society and other local groups, and he is now rarely seen in Lewis’s rooms on Thursday nights. He is not the only Inkling to have dropped out: Adam Fox, the Magdalen chapel who (thanks to the campaign introduced ty Tolkien and Lewis) was elected Professor of Poetry in 1938) rarely comes now. Owen Barfield very occasionally turns up on his visits from London, where he still works as a solicitor; and sometimes Charles Wrenn looks in. But for the most part the Thursday party is a small group. A direct result is that usually the only people to read their work aloud are Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams. Coghill has once or twice read light verses or lampoons, and Fox (when he comes) generally reads his poetry. Up to the present time Warnie Lewis has had nothing of his own to read to the Inklings, and as for Havard, he always emphasizes that he is not a literary man, though he does occasionally contribute some small thing to the group. Readings therefore are in comparatively short supply. Hugo Dyson (when he attends) does not mind this at all, claiming that the conversation is far more enjoyable anyway. But Lewis insists that the readings—the original raison d’etre of the club—must be kept up (The Inklings, 128 ff.).

It is amazing how the conversation could range freely from the text being read, to contemporary issues such as war and pacifism and the Christian duty of forgiveness, to theories of literary criticism, and occasionally to politics. The conversation was usually boisterous and free-flowing, interspersed with beer or rum or tea, beginning at 9 or 10 pm, and lasting to the wee hours of the morning. One of Lewis’s students, John Wain (that’s W-A-I-N, not “the Duke”), who attended meetings of the Inklings near the end of its existence in the late 1940’s, was a friendly yet extremely critical observer of C. S. Lewis and the Inklings. He wrote in an affectionate vein of their meetings, “The best of them were as good as anything I shall live to see.” And of Lewis, “we both loved innocent conviviality. A tobacco-clouded room, the unhampered talk and laughter of men who trusted each other, and a jug of beer on the table—that was all that Lewis needed to make him happy, and I was the same” (Companion, pp. 737-8).

What are we to conclude about this strange group of very diverse Christians, friends, geniuses? I think we must take Lewis at his word that the Inklings were not a circle of literary revolutionaries or reactionaries, of mutual alliances or influences in the strict sense. In her excellent—not to say indispensable—study of the Inklings, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, Diana Pavlac Glyer summarizes the creative dynamic of the circle’s members:

They expressed faith and hope. They offered praise and encouragement. They applied pressure, admonishing one another to persevere. They provided accountability and established literary expectation, some spoken, some unspoken. They modeled the habits and creative techniques of productive writers, offering inspiration through their example. They provided resources and practical aid. They served as advocates for one another’s work, assisted with publishing, and helped promote the finished product to the wider public (pp. 70-71).

In this regard, it cannot be over-stressed how instrumental Lewis’s encouragement of Tolkien was to the publication of his monumental works, or how pivotal Lewis’s enthusiasm and influence were in making the works of Charles Williams known to a wider public. But the Inklings were above all a collection of friends—by Lewis’s definition those who saw the same truth, or at least cared about the same questions. The members were one—despite their many, many differences—in their sense of the priority of a transcendent reality that gave substance to beauty, most clearly seen in the face of Christ. We will let Lewis himself lend us an image which might fairly shape our closing perception of the Inklings:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, “Here comes one who will augment our loves.” For in this love “to divide is not to take away.” Of course the scarcity of kindred souls—not to mention practical considerations about the size of rooms and the audibility of voices—set limits to the enlargement of the circle; but within those limits we possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Is. 6.3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have (Four Loves, pp. 61-62).

      In declaring the subtitle of this talk “Friendship as a source of cultural renewal”, I was motivated by a conviction and a caution, both of which in turn were suggested by the very theme of this Symposium, “What’s Wrong with the World?” My conviction is consistent with this theme: […]

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