Friday, 28 April 2017

How important were The Inklings to The Inklings?

Were The Inklings merely a club of Jack Lewis's friends, or were they a self-conscious and ambitious group with a cultural agenda? The answer is that there is evidence on both sides...

I have just listened to an audio recording Owen Barfield being interviewed in 1987, in which (from about 11 minutes) Barfield describes the Inklings on the lines of it being mostly a convivial conversation club - and down-playing any great significance or ambition for the group.

Among the other regular Inklings; this was also the view of 'Humphrey' Havard (a point he made in an audiotaped interview at the launch of Humphrey Carpenter's Inklings book of 1978). It was also the view of Hugo Dyson - who actively disliked the readings. Overall, I think that Warnie Lewis probably also mainly valued the social aspect. Although it was indeed Inklings stimulus and critique that made Warnie into a published historian of 17th Century France - his books were not concerned with any cultural agenda.

As for Charles Williams, it is much harder to say. Warnie Lewis's evidence suggests that he was the most regular attender (aside from the Lewis brothers) between 1939 and his death in 1945; which given the sheer busyness of Williams's life suggests that the group served an important function for him. Furthermore Diana Pavlac Glyer has documented several ways in which Williams's writings were directly affected by Inklings influence.

On the other hand, Williams tended t deny the significance of The Inklings meeting when writing to his wife or talking with his friends and colleagues associated with the Oxford University Press. The question is whether CW was being honest about this - my impression is that he was not; and was 'playing-down' the influence and importance of the Inklings meetings in particular, just as he played-down the importance of his time at Oxford in general.  

However, I think it is clear that for Tolkien and Lewis the Inklings meetings were part of a broader cultural effort - a highly ambitious attempt to change the direction of Western civilisation. That this was an aim of Tolkien goes right back to his schooldays, and has been documented by John Garth in Tolkien and the Great War; and it seems to have been sustained (in various modes) throughout most of his life.

And Lewis also had a cultural agenda, as seems obvious from his output for at least 25 years from the early 1930s (and The Pilgrim's Regress) until the Narnia Chronicles - and most obviously in those wartime and Inkling's influenced books That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man.

So a full answer to the question of the importance of The Inklings to its members would be very different for each of the members. The group was, overall, more important for the writers among the group than to non-writers (such as Havard and Dyson); and among the writers it was most important to the two most historically-important members: JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

After the Inklings evening meetings stopped in the late 1940s, and Lewis and Tolkien drifted apart through the 1950s - especially when Tolkien finished The Lord of the Rings; and Lewis wrote the Narnia books (which created a rift), took a job in Cambridge, and married - their interests and the nature of their output changed and their cultural ambitions faded 

For those who regard Tolkien and Lewis as authors of major cultural significance, therefore, The Inklings must also be regarded a group of major cultural significance - even though the group was probably merely an enjoyable 'talking shop' for many or most of its other members.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

What is Myth? Answers from Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield

Edited by me from Romantic Religion: a study of Owen Barfield, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and JRR Tolkien. by RJ Reilly (1971) - republished version of 2006 from Lindisfarne Books, Great Barrington, MA, USA; pages 214-5. My editorial interjections are in [square brackets].

Barfield sees both myth and language itself as existing in the form of unconscious meaning before the existence of any individual thinker. Both myth and language point-back towards the pre-human time when all that existed was spirit, un-individuated meaning; the original phase of the cosmic evolution.

These myths (the Paradisal myths, for example) therefore suggest truth in a quite literal sense: they allude to the original 'way things were'.

[That is, myths allude to Original Participation.]

Both Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, speak of the possibility of all myths being 'true' in some other existence than our own. Williams, too, feeling the call of myth, goes so far as to adapt the Arthurian Myth as a kind of objective correlative for his religious views.

But, quite plainly, Barfield has explained the origin and force of myth in a way that the others have not. They have used myth in various ways and with varying degrees of effectiveness, but they have not really said why. Or rather, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams have have used myth, or they have made-up new myths, as a means of avoiding conceptual argument, or as a means of speaking symbolically rather than rationally.  

There is nothing wrong with what Lewis, Tolkien and Williams do in using myths, so far as it works. But to the extent that it can be reduced to a set of rational propositions, it must strike the reader as making myth into something closer to allegory than to true myth.
True myth - in Barfield's terms, and in reality - is nearly impenetrable; because there are no 'ideas' in myth for the reader to penetrate to.

For Barfield, myth is the closest thing in Man's mental life to pure pre-logical thought; meaning which the rational intellect has not yet ordered. Myth is more of an experience than a 'thought' at all.

Barfield argues that the function of the imagination in the future will be to discover 'clear and distinct ideas', but it may discover these in the forms of William Blakean 'beings' rather than as concepts - these beings being explicable in something analogous to the way that the beings of the old allegories like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are explicable.

[Examples of such 'beings' would, presumably, include Steiner's demonic influences Lucifer and Ahriman - which Barfield also describes in detail in Unancestral Voice.]

NOTE: The above passages strike me as a highly insightful analysis of a topic of vital importance.

In particular, I am impressed by Reilly's point that neither Tolkien nor Lewis (in particular) really justify the importance and specific value of myth in their writings; but Barfield does - assuming that one can accept, at some level, Barfield's point that, in some literal sense, myths refer to the nature of our experience during a previous state of spiritual reality.

For Barfield (and Steiner), this previous state would be modern people's earlier incarnations at an earlier point in the history of earth; for Mormon Christians and some others, myth could refer to our pre-mortal, pre-incarnated life as spirits.