Tuesday 19 July 2016

The next step in Inklings studies? The Inklings as group complementarity

Continuing from


If we consider The Inklings as a complementary group - a group of interlocking individuals - then a very different perspective emerges.

The first systematic attempt to study the Inklings (by Charles Moorman in The Precincts of Felicity of 1966 - I have not read this book yet) regarded them as Oxford Christians - in other words it looked for a single core value shared by all the significant members. The most influential study of The Inklings (1979, by Humphrey Carpenter) concluded that there was no core value - but that the group was in essence merely CS Lewis's friendship circle. Diana Pavlac Glyer (The Company they Keep, 2007) regarded the evening meetings in Jack Lewis's rooms as the core Inklings (with the lunchtime pub gatherings as a peripheral gathering) and interpreted them as essentially a writers' group.

But it is possible to regard the Inklings as a group of individuals without a single explicit core value or self-representation, but nonetheless making a group because we have retrospectively come to regard them as a group; that is, a group with a core philosophy but among whom the group philosophy is not embodied nor expressed by any single individual. By this account the Inklings did not perceive  themselves as an historical force with a vital role in the history of The West - and would indeed have regarded that as a ridiculous notion; but in fact they were exactly that.

For example, the Inklings can be placed in a lineage which runs from the Romantic revival and ST Coleridge, via Goethe, Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield - this places the Inklings activity in a line of reaction against the materialism and positivism of the scientific and industrial revolution - and the positive assertion of the value of imagination, nature and 'fantasy' elements; aimed at restoring the lost wholeness and engagement of Man with the world; and including a renewed spiritual and religious perspective and destiny for individuals, races, cultures and nations. A vast and extraordinarily ambitious agenda...

Barfield is the most obvious link is this chain, despite that he seldom attended meetings, and that his direct personal 'influence' was restricted to Lewis and Tolkien - and despite that nobody in the group (least of all Barfield himself) would have acknowledged him as the core figure. As I say, it is when the group is considered as a unit in its own right that the link role of Barfield comes-through.

This is because Barfield was the only self-conscious philosopher among them, and because his primary mode of understanding was the history of consciousness, the history of ideas or ideologies - and the history of spirituality, religion; the historical sequence of changes in the way Man relates to The World. And yet the actual nature of The Inklings is not fully and undistortedly captured in the writings of Barfield - although they contain the necessary perspective and many clues to the nature of the group's role.

For example, Barfield's inability to appreciate The Lord of the Rings meant that he failed to perceive the huge and still growing significance of this work in the history of the West; and therefore its direct relevance to Barfield's own major preoccupations.

Lewis also wrote in this vein - for example his Allegory of Love, or the introductory section to his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century or his Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge University. But nonetheless, Lewis was conflicted and perhaps confused about the nature and status of such writing - and also wrote against Historicism, and at times asserted a hostility to the idea that there had been a change in consciousness. He seems to have been dismissive of the idea that The Inklings had a special role in history.

Tolkien had a medieval Catholic view of history as a process of inevitable decline towards the second coming; a 'long defeat' for the forces of good. He seems not to have written about a specific role for The Inklings in the history of England (and the world) but as a young man explicitly expressed hopes that his earlier group the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) would transform the spiritual life of England, and after publishing The Lord of the Rings seems to have felt that he had been divinely inspired to write it - and by implication that the necessary role of Jack Lewis and the Inklings in the book must have had some such sanction as well.

Charles Williams wrote a great deal of history of ideas, notably The Descent of the Dove - but probably was all-but unaware of Barfield and uninfluenced by him; Barfield refers to Williams at times (including mentioning The Place of the Lion in his novel Eager Spring written when Barfield was in his late eighties and more than forty years after Williams's death). 

The Inklings was not, therefore, a self-consciously important group - it was a group it which different members had varying views of the nature of the group, and varying views of its importance; it was indeed a groups which was mostly self-deprecating about its own importance (Tolkien being perhaps the exception here). In the 1960s, Warnie Lewis was dismissive about Moorman's early book on the Inklings, finding it rather embarrassingly serious and focusing on its exaggerations and errors - seemingly Warnie regarded the Inklings as primarily a group of friends; and so did Havard (whose views seem to have influenced Carpenter).

Nonetheless, it is a simple fact that The Inklings is now regarded as something more than a transitory group of friends, and indeed many people feel that the group was - whether the members knew it or not, denied it or not! - of world historical importance: an importance which continues to increase.

For this to be the case, The Inklings must be more than the sum of its parts and the spirit of the group something greater-than and different-from the sum or average or shared essence of its individual members. In other words, we need to regard The Inklings as an entity, a 'person' - rather like the legal fiction of a personified corporation or the common notion of a national character.

The next step in Inklings studies may therefore include a consideration of the implicit 'spirit' of the group, and a representation of the group which synthesises aspects drawn from several of the contributors to create something different from any specific member: as group complementarity - that is an entity made from complementary elements drawn from several of its members; coming together, fusing, and coming to life.

My hunch is that such an approach may get closer to the reality and importance of The Inklings to the 21st century than any which have been pursued so far.


Ben Pratt said...


This is dead-on, I think, and it strongly reminds me of the concept of the Master-Mind as discussed in Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich.

Hill talks about a Master-Mind as a group of people working harmoniously for a common cause (e.g., building a business), but he points out that any purpose may be pursued. This seems to work just as well for evil as for good. When the individuals come together fully, the whole (and the results) exceed the sum contributed by each member.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! Not at all to blunt or deflect it, but it also gets me wanting to (ahem) group around it possibly comparable subjects for comparison - C.W. at the OUP, both before and after the move to Amen House (this, like the TCBS, immediately in the background of one Inkling - and more recently than the TCBS, too: query, why didn't Gerry Hopkins end up having more to do with the Inklings?); the Scriblerians (even a name-similarity?: before I associated Tolkien with more than misleading book-cover emus or heard of Lewis, I had started to love Pope, Swift, Gay - but still have never swotted up on the Scriblerians as group sufficiently); the Wordsworths and Coleridge (Lyrical Ballads is always appreciated as a momentous joint-effort) - and who-all else? (do those circles satirized by Peacock in various of his novels have real-life antecedents?). A field or discipline of Group Complementarity Studies?

David Llewellyn Dodds